by Rafael Medoff
Seventy-five years ago this month, 5-year-old Rudy Boschwitz, tightly gripping his mother’s hand, gingerly stepped down the gangplank of the S.S. Majestic and onto the dock at New York City. It was the third night of Hanukkah. After two years of wandering from country to country, the future United States senator and his family had finally found a place they could call home.
“We were the lucky ones,” Boschwitz told the Forward in a recent interview. Now retired from public service after 12 years in the Senate and a stint as a U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, he recalled, “We got out of Nazi Germany early enough that it was still possible to find someplace to go.”
On January 30, 1933, the day Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Eli Boschwitz, a judicial arbiter, came home and told his wife, “We are leaving Germany forever.” He had read Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and knew that Jews had no future under the Nazis. Sure enough, within weeks, he and all other Jewish employees of the German court system were summarily dismissed from their jobs.
A maximum of 25,957 German citizens could have immigrated to the U.S. in 1933, according to America’s quota system. But the Boschwitzes were not eligible for the German quota. Eli, although a resident of Berlin for nearly four decades, had been born in Filehne, a small border town that became part of Poland after World War I. American consular officials insisted that he apply for a visa to the United States through the Polish quota, which was just 6,524 annually. The waiting list was frighteningly long.
In England, Boschwitz’s father managed to persuade an American consular official that the family should be permitted to apply under the German quota. Finally, in late 1935, after more than two years of wandering, the Boschwitzes’ number came up and they were granted visas to the United States.Even though they lacked a final destination, Eli and Lucy Boschwitz and their four children — Rudy was the youngest — left Germany in July 1933. They spent the first few months in Czechoslovakia. After that, it was six months in Switzerland and then six months in Amsterdam, followed by a year in England. “Because I was so young, I was oblivious to the hardships my family endured,” Boschwitz said. “For me it was a big adventure, but for my parents and older siblings, the homelessness and uncertainty must have been agonizing.”
During the late 1930s and throughout World War II, news about Boschwitz relatives in Europe trickled out to the family in America. Those who reached Palestine before the war, such as Boschwitz’s Uncle Isaac, survived. So did relatives who managed to acquire visas to Uruguay, Australia, Kenya and Shanghai. Their family was scattered to the four corners of the globe. “But of the many relatives who stayed behind in Europe, all except one were murdered by the Nazis,” he noted.
The family of his future wife, Ellen Loewenstein, suffered a similar fate. Her family, German Jews who had Swiss passports, secured visas to Brazil in 1940. On the voyage across the Atlantic, a Nazi submarine intercepted the ship and removed Jewish passengers who bore German passports. Some of Ellen Loewenstein’s relatives made it to South Africa; those who could not get out of Europe perished in the Holocaust.
Keenly aware of how close he and his family came to suffering the fate of the rest of Europe’s Jews, Boschwitz entered the U.S. Senate in 1978 with a strong sense of the importance of learning the lessons of history. “My father often spoke, with appropriate bitterness, about the failure of the Western democracies to rearm and face down Hitler,” he recalled. As a result, one of the first things he did on Capitol Hill was join a bipartisan group headed by Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a Democrat from Washington state. The Jackson-led caucus fought to increase defense spending according to whatever the rate of inflation was, plus 5%. The Carter administration, by contrast, sought a decline in spending on defense. The caucus prevailed. “A strong national defense was the only way to deter Soviet aggression and prepare for threats from other totalitarian regimes,” Boschwitz emphasized. “It was the exact opposite of how the world responded to Hitler.”
Considering his background, it is no surprise that Boschwitz served on the President’s Commission on the Holocaust and helped arrange for the allocation of land in Washington for the establishment of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
But it was a mission he undertook after he left office that presented Boschwitz with the most vivid opportunity to bring the lessons of the Holocaust into the contemporary arena. In 1991, as the first President Bush’s emissary to Ethiopia, he headed an America diplomatic team that sought to arrange for the rescue of Ethiopia’s Jews. “It was a major league mitzvah,” Boschwitz said.
“What a difference 50 years made,” Boschwitz noted. “There I was, in 1991, 50 years after the onset of the Holocaust, as the emissary of the president of the world’s only superpower, negotiating — indeed, demanding — the release of the small black Jewish community of Ethiopia. It wasn’t the great Jewish community of Europe of the 1940s, upon which the world had turned its back. Rather, it was the poorest of the poor — thousands of black Jews in great danger as a revolution was erupting in Ethiopia. They were likely to be the first victims.”
Boschwitz sat across from Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Ethiopian dictator responsible for the deaths of an estimated 6 million of his own countrymen, mostly through starvation. “I couldn’t get that number out of my mind,” Boschwitz said. “Mengistu’s government was on the verge of being overthrown. His desperation allowed us to convince him to flee Ethiopia, and his successors promptly allowed Israeli planes to land on Ethiopian soil.”
Throughout the weekend of May 24-25, 1991, 34 El Al planes — given special dispensation to operate on the Sabbath because of the danger to life — transported more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. “Operation Solomon succeeded because we learned the lessons from the moral failures of the Free World’s leaders — including America’s — in the 1930s and 1940s,” Boschwitz noted.
Against all odds, history had come full circle: The child driven from his home and (just barely) rescued from genocide grew up to help rescue other homeless Jews from another disaster. And the path to that miracle began 75 years ago on a Manhattan pier.
(As published in The Forward – December 12, 2010)