by Dr. Rafael Medoff
Every year, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, American political leaders, candidates for office, and other VIPs send the Jewish community their wishes for a happy new year. Under ordinary circumstances, such greetings are welcomed in the spirit of friendliness in which they are offered.
But not on Rosh Hashanah in 1944.
That year, while Jews around the country dipped their apples in honey to symbolize their hopes for a sweet new year, the American public received a vivid reminder that for the Jewish people, it was, in fact, a bitter holiday. Readers of the New York Times, the Philadelphia Record, and other major dailies opened their morning newspaper to find a large advertisement headlined “What’s happy about this New Year?”
In the center of the ad was a riveting illustration of a ragged European Jewish refugee child, drawn by the renowned artist Arthur Szyk.
“As the Jewish New Year approached, greetings and messages of good will” were issued by the various Allied leaders, the ad began. The ad continued:
“What’s happy about a Jewish New Year which mourns millions of our people, brutally murdered, burned alive, asphyxiated in gas chambers, thrown, still living, into burial trenches, while the governments of our friendly nations dilly-dallied and split hairs about matters of rescue?
“What’s happy about this New Year for us if one of the foremost democratic allies [Britain] … still blockades the sole practical route of escape [from Hitler’s Europe]-through the Balkans into Palestine?
“With three to four million of our brethren already dead, it is fair to say that good wishes are not enough. It is fair to say that what has happened to us will go down in history as democracy’s greatest disgrace…
“You have the last chance to do something for a people who will not know happiness this New Year, nor next New Year, nor for generations… Let your government and your Congress know that vague promises and polite good wishes are not enough. Let them know that we can accept New Year’s greetings only in the form of rescue-in the form of a haven-open the gates of Palestine-so that we can live and the world can have peace.”
The ad was sponsored by the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, a group led by Peter Bergson (real name: Hillel Kook), a young Jewish activist from Jerusalem. During 1943-44, Bergson’s group sponsored more than 200 full-page newspaper ads, lobbied Congress, and organized rallies, including a march by 400 rabbis to the White House to plead for U.S. rescue of Jewish refugees.
The Bergson Group also assembled an impressive coalition of supporters from across the spectrum. The 1944 New Year’s ad, for example, featured a long list of signatories, including singer Eddie Cantor; Harvard criminologist Sheldon Glueck; poet and Academy Award winning screenwriter (for A Star is Born) Dorothy Parker; Unitarian Church official Rev. Albert Dieffenbach; one of the most prominent Orthodox rabbis in America, Eliezer Silver; Nobel Literature Prize laureate Sigrid Undset; actress Stella Adler; and the governors of Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Rhode Island.
The public and Congressional pressure that the Bergson Group mobilized helped bring about (in early 1944) the creation of the War Refugee Board, a U.S. government agency to rescue refugees from Hitler. The board played a crucial role in saving more than 200,000 Jews. Among other things, it financed the work of rescue hero Raoul Wallenberg in Nazi-occupied Budapest.
Many more could have been saved if the Roosevelt administration had taken an interest. For example, U.S. bombers repeatedly struck German oil factories adjacent to Auschwitz-but no order was ever given to bomb the mass-murder machinery.
On September 13, 1944– just one week before the “What’s So Happy About This New Year?” ad was published–a fleet of 96 American bombers struck German oil plants less than five miles from the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Stray bombs even accidentally hit an SS barracks and the railway line leading into the death camp. Jews serving in the slave labor battalions there, including 16-year-old Elie Wiesel, watched the U.S. planes dropping bombs nearby and prayed that the gas chambers were on their list of targets.
Years later, in his best-selling memoir Night, Wiesel recalled: “We were not afraid. And yet, if a bomb had fallen on [the prisoners’ barracks], it alone would have claimed hundreds of victims on the spot. But we were no longer afraid of death; at any rate, not of that death. Every bomb that exploded filled us with joy and gave us new confidence in life. The raid lasted over an hour. If it could only have lasted ten times ten hours!”
It was not to be. The planes did not aim at Auschwitz. It was indeed a very bitter Rosh Hashanah.