New Role for Ed Koch: Holocaust Witness

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Ed Koch has been many things in his life, from congressman to mayor of New York City to one of the Big Apple’s most popular restaurant reviewers.  Now, at 80, Koch is taking on a brand new role: he is about to become one of the most prominent commentators in America on Holocaust issues.

Koch has just been appointed by President Bush to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, the prestigious group that oversees the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Holocaust issues are not exactly new territory for Koch.  In the past, he has often spoken his mind on such matters, whether in his capacity as a government official or in his syndicated newspaper column.  But as a member of the U.S. Holocaust council, Koch now becomes perhaps the most visible and best known spokesman on Holocaust issues outside academia, after Elie Wiesel.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to speak with Koch at length about these issues, when I worked with journalists from Israel Television and Italian National Television, who interviewed the ex-mayor. Knowing of Koch’s reputation for outspokenness, they assumed the feisty ex-mayor would have something interesting to say about the forthcoming sixtieth anniversary of the Allies’ liberation of Auschwitz.  They were right.

Reflecting on the planned ceremony at the Auschwitz site, where numerous international leaders were due to gather at the end of January, Koch warned that those leaders’ readiness to mark the occasion should not be allowed to obscure the international community’s own culpability in the Holocaust.

“It would be a small atonement, but the world leaders who attend the Auschwitz ceremony should get down  on their knees and ask God to forgive them for how their countries acted during the Holocaust,” said an emotional Koch, his eyes welling up with tears.  “The deaths of millions of Jews has to weigh on the consciences of the many nations that could have made a difference by giving refuge to Jews.”

The gathering at the Auschwitz site would be an appropriate time to recall the Allies’ refusal to bomb the death camp, Koch asserted.  “There is no question that many lives would have been saved if the Allies had bombed the railways leading to Auschwitz, or the gas chambers,” he said.  The former mayor dismissed the claim by some defenders of President Franklin Roosevelt that bombing Auschwitz would have required the diversion of planes that were needed elsewhere in Europe.  “The real reason,” he said,  “was the lack of interest, by every country, including the U.S., in saving the Jews.”

Indeed, in late 1944,  Allied warplanes repeatedly bombed German oil factories adjacent to Auschwitz, some of them less than five miles from the gas chambers, but were never given the order to attack the mass-murder facilities.

Koch recalled his own response when he read a newspaper report, in 2003, about Israeli planes conducting a fly-over above Auschwitz.  “I applauded, even though I was alone in the room,” he remembered.  “It said to me that never again, so long as there is a State of Israel, will the Jews be abandoned as they were during the Holocaust.”

In our interviews, Koch did not mince words with regard to President Roosevelt.  “I am sure he is in purgatory, for his sin of abandoning the Jews,” he said.  “Yes, there was alot of antisemitism in America in those years, but that is no excuse for Roosevelt’s inaction, which was vile.  A leader has to lead.  He has to try to change minds.  He led the Free World to victory in the war, and that should not be minimized, but he lied to the world when he claimed, at the Evian and Bermuda refugee conferences, that arrangements would be made to shelter the Jews.  America failed in its moral responsibility.”

According to Koch, FDR himself “undoubtedly shared in the social antisemitism of that era–yes, Jews can live, but not on his block; yes, Jews can send their kids to school, but not to his children’s school.”  Roosevelt “probably did not object to the quotas that limited the entry of Jews into prestigious universities,” Koch said.

Koch was also critical of the American Jewish leadership’s response to the Holocaust.  “Jewish leaders did not do enough,” he said.  “Did they get arrested?  Maybe they would have, if some other group was being persecuted.  They should have stormed the gates of the White House to demand action.  But they were afraid of antisemitism–afraid they would ‘make things worse’.  Only a few people, like Ben Hecht, spoke out.”

Hecht, the most prominent screenwriter in Hollywood, was involved with the Bergson group, a maverick political action committee that lobbied for rescue.  He authored numerous full-page newspaper advertisements urging the Allies to intervene against the Nazi genocide.

Koch also emphasizes the need for our own generation to learn the lessons of the world’s abandonment of the Jews.  One is the need to speak out forcefully against contemporary antisemitism.  Koch headed the U.S. delegation to the 2004 Berlin conference on antisemitism.  The U.S. took its strongest stand ever against antisemitism, for the first time asserting that comparisons of Israel to the Nazis constitutes antisemitism.

Another crucial lesson from the Holocaust, in Koch’s view, is the need for the international community to act quickly and forcefully against contemporary instances of genocide.  “I have contempt for the United Nations” for its slow response to the massacres in Sudan, he said in our interviews.  “We have an obligation to act whenever we have the ability to make a difference.”

One who did act was Koch’s predecessor, New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.  Later this year, Koch will chair a scholarly seminar on “LaGuardia and the Holocaust,” sponsored by The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. LaGuardia’s little-known efforts to promote rescue of refugees from Hitler will be in the spotlight, and Koch, LaGuardia’s most famous successor, will no doubt have plenty to say.

During Koch’s years in public office, he earned a reputation for saying out loud what many people thought in private.  That is likely to continue in his new role with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.  Some may find Koch too brash, but for many others, his refusal to mince words will seem like a breath of fresh air amidst the stale cliches that pass for commentary among too many of today’s pundits.

(Published in the Jewish Community Chronicle of Long Beach, CA, May 2005)

June 2005