Rescuing Monuments, Not Jews

by Rafael Medoff 

George Clooney’s movie “The Monuments Men,” which will be released in early February, will tell the story of a handful of U.S. military personnel who were sent to rescue famous paintings, monuments, and other European cultural artifacts from the Nazis in the waning days of World War II. Audiences no doubt will be thrilled by the action-packed real-life adventure, and the monuments-rescuers themselves will be elevated to the status of heroes. Texas Congresswoman Kay Granger has already introduced legislation to give the surviving Monuments Men a Congressional Gold Medal.

What is not widely remembered, however, is that President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1943 decision to rescue the monuments was the subject of some controversy at the time, as refugee advocates criticized the administration for rescuing paintings from the Nazis while rejecting pleas to rescue Jews from the Nazis.

Jewish groups that approached the White House to help rescue Jewish refugees constantly received the same cold reply: military resources could not be diverted for non-military purposes.

Yet the Roosevelt administration repeatedly diverted resources and altered military plans because of non-military considerations. A U.S. Air Force plan to bomb the Japanese city of Kyoto was blocked by Secretary of War Henry Stimson because of the city’s artistic treasures. Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy –who adamantly opposed using U.S. bombers to strike Auschwitz– intervened to divert bombers from striking the German city of Rothenburg, because he feared for the safety of its famous medieval architecture.  

Meeting with a U.S. senator in 1943, Rabbi Meyer Berlin (namesake of the future Bar-Ilan University) remarked: “If horses were being slaughtered as are the Jews of Poland, there would by now be a loud demand for organized action against such cruelty to animals. Somehow, when it concerns Jews, everybody remains silent, including the intellectuals and humanitarians of free and enlightened America.” Two years later, in a sad fulfillment of Rabbi Berlin’s dire prediction, U.S. General George Patton would divert U.S. troops to rescue 150 prized Lippizzaner dancing horses, which were caught between Allied and Axis forces along the German-Czech border.

An editorial in the New York Times in May 1943, headlined “Europe’s Imperiled Art,” pleaded for government action to rescue “cultural treasures” from the battle zones. Sadly, the Times showed considerably less interest in the need for U.S. government action to aid imperiled Jews in Europe.

Six weeks later, the Roosevelt administration established a U.S. government commission “for the protection and salvage of artistic and historic monuments in Europe.” Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts agreed to chair the new group. Ironically, Roberts had refused to chair the U.S. delegation to the Anglo-American refugee conference in Bermuda that spring; he said he was too busy for that.

In the autumn of 1943, the refugee advocates known as the Bergson Group convinced members of Congress to introduce a resolution urging the president to create a commission to rescue Jews. The administration fought the resolution tooth and nail.

Testifying at a congressional hearing on the rescue resolution, New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia pointed to the creation of the monuments commission: “This very important problem…is not like the destruction of buildings or monuments, as terrible as that may be, because, after all, they may be rebuilt or even reproduced; but when a life is snuffed out, it is gone; it is gone forever.”

In full-page advertisements in the New York Times and elsewhere, the Bergson Group said the establishment of the monuments group was “commendable…It shows the deep concern of the [Allies] toward the problems of culture and civilization. But should [they] not at least show equal concern for an old and ancient people who gave to the world the fundamentals of its Christian civilization, the Magna Carta of Justice–the Bible–and to every generation some of its most outstanding thinkers, writers, scholars and artists? A governmental agency with the task of…saving the Jewish people of Europe is the least the [Allies] can do.”

The administration fought back, sending Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long to Capitol Hill to testify against the rescue resolution. But Long presented wildly inflated statistics about U.S. aid to refugees, which were soon exposed and sparked a backlash that ended up advancing the resolution. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee then unanimously approved the measure, and a vote before the full Senate was scheduled in January 1944.

This congressional pressure, combined with the Bergson Group’s publicity campaign and behind the scenes lobbying by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and his staff, compelled President Roosevelt to give in. Seventy years ago this week, FDR announced the creation of the War Refugee Board, a U.S. government agency to rescue Jews from the Nazis.

Even after the Board was created, the president did little to assist its work. He refused to give it more than token funding; 90% of its budget came from private Jewish organizations. And the State Department and War Department repeatedly refused to cooperate with the Board’s rescue initiatives. But thanks to the courage and unorthodox methods of the Board’s staff –including its sponsorship of Raoul Wallenberg’s rescue mission in Budapest– some 200,000 refugees ultimately were saved.

“The story of the Monuments Men is one that has to be told,” Congresswoman Granger said in announcing her proposal to give them a Gold Medal. And thanks to George Clooney, it is indeed being told. Will there ever be similar interest in telling the story of those who rescued people, not paintings?

January 2014