It’s a question that has long intrigued historians. Despite a flood of Jewish refugees to the United States, evidence of Adolf Hitler’s instability and political plans, and even evidence of concentration camps and murder in Europe, the Allies passed by several opportunities to end Hitler’s Final Solution. Denial, administrative failures and anti-Semitism collided to create an environment in which the Nazis’ unspeakable acts went unchallenged. As more and more evidence of people's awareness of Hitler's plans before and during the Holocaust comes to light, the image of an unknowing American public becomes harder and harder to uphold.
The result of the world's failure to act was tragic. Here are a few examples of people who sounded the alarm long before World War II came to an end.
1- 1935: Herman Neugass’s Refusal to Sprint at the Olympics in Germany
An article from the Times-Picayune tells the tale of Herman Neugass, a Tulane University sprinter who refused to participate in the 1936 “Nazi” Olympics in Berlin because of Hitler’s political stance toward Jews. Neugass, who was Jewish, boycotted the Olympics despite U.S. participation in the games.
2- 1935: The Washington Post Criticism of Hitler’s Race Laws
An article in the Washington Post from September 1935 criticized Hitler’s infamous Nuremberg Laws that had just been passed. These laws essentially forbade German Jews from participating in public life. The editorial called the laws evidence of “the menace to civilization implicit in dictatorships…Der Fuehrer ordered the approval of edicts depriving Jews of German citizenship and otherwise restoring the practices of medieval Europe.”
3- 1939: John Knott Skewers Congress’ Unwillingness to Pass the Child Refugee Bill
Political cartoonist John Knott had little sympathy for the U.S. Congress’ indecision when it came to the Wagner-Rogers Child Refugee Bill, a piece of 1939 legislation that would have opened slots for 20,000 German refugee children to enter the U.S. The bill was opposed by anti-immigrant organizations and never became a law. Tens of thousands of German Jewish children went on to die in concentration camps.
4-1941: British Intelligence Agents’ Knowledge of the Systematic Mass Murders of Jews
By summer 1941, British intelligence agents were listening in on classified German radio transmissions that described systematic mass murders in Lithuania, Latvia, and later Ukraine. News also came from the Soviets. On August 14, 1941, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill summarized the news in a broadcast to the public:
As [Hitler’s] armies advance, whole districts are being exterminated. Scores of thousands, literally scores of thousands of executions in cold blood, are being perpetrated by the German police troops upon the Russian patriots who defend their native soil. . . . And this is just the beginning. Famine and pestilence have yet to follow in the bloody ruts of Hitler's tanks. We are in the presence of a crime without a name.
5- Spring 1942: Confirmation Articles by American journalists
A group of American journalists stranded in Germany when the U.S. entered the war were exchanged for Axis nationals stranded in the U.S.. Historian Deborah Lipstadt describes the articles these journalists wrote after they returned home:
Glen Stadler, UP [United Press] correspondent in Germany, described what had happened to Jews in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania as an “open hunt.” Some of the reporters estimated that more than 400,000 had already been killed by Hitler’s “new order,” including “upward of 100,000 [Jews who] met death in the Baltic states alone, and more than that . . . have been executed in Western Russia.”
Joseph Grigg, also of the UP, reported: “One of the biggest slaughters occurred in Latvia in the summer of 1941 when, responsible Nazi sources admitted, 56,000 men, women and children were killed by S.S. troops and Latvian irregulars.”
6-1942: The Man Who Warned the West About the Holocaust
In 1942, as hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews were being deported to Nazi extermination camps, Jewish members of the underground asked Jan Karski, a polish underground member, to carry the news to the West, where the Nazis' anti-Jewish atrocities had received little attention. Karski traveled west with a plea to prevent the Jewish slaughter. He urged both British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to consider military strikes against rail lines used for the Nazi deportations. It was a strategy the Allies would ultimately adopt later in the war. But neither official was prepared to take such measures in time to prevent the deaths of 3 million Polish Jews. Karski, one of a handful of people to warn Western leaders of the Holocaust, was largely ignored.
7- June 1942: News Filtered Out of Occupied Europe through Government Channels
Following Poland’s defeat by Germany, Polish leaders had established a temporary “government in exile” in Britain. In June 1942, they received a secret report from occupied Poland confirming that the Germans were murdering Jews throughout the country. Newspapers around the world carried the story.
The London Times reported: MASSACRE OF JEWS—OVER 1,000,000 DEAD SINCE THE WAR BEGAN
The Montreal Daily Star stated: “NAZI SLAUGHTERHOUSE”—GERMANS MASSACRE MILLION JEWS IN EXTERMINATION DRIVE
The Los Angeles Times wrote: NAZIS KILL MILLION JEWS, SAYS SURVEY
The New York Journal American declared: JEWS LIST THEIR DEAD AT A MILLION
8-December 13, 1942: CBS Radio network’s Blunt Report of Extermination Camps
Recalling atrocity stories during World War I that later proved to be false, American journalists tended to be cautious about claims of mass murder. So even though they reported the news, their editors rarely featured those stories on the front page and were careful not to emphasize claims of atrocities. Nevertheless, on December 13, 1942, Edward R. Murrow of the CBS radio network bluntly reported, “What is happening is this. Millions of human beings, most of them Jews, are being gathered up with ruthless efficiency and murdered. The phrase ‘concentration camps’ is obsolete, as out of date as economic sanctions or non-recognition. It is now possible only to speak of extermination camps.”
9-1944: Anne O’Hare McCormick’s Warning of a Jewish “Extermination:”
By the mid '40s, as the end of the war drew nearer, some reporters and pundits put two and two together and begged the U.S. to do more to protect Europe’s Jews. One such call came from New York Times reporter Anne O’Hare McCormick, who warned of a “twilight of the Nazi gods.” In the editorial, McCormick insisted that “hopeless or not...the world has to cry out against the awful fate that threatens the Jews in Hungary…these people are exposed to the same ruthless policy of deportation and extermination that was carried out in Poland.”
These facts show that the Allies were aware about the Holocust and they believed that the best way to help the Jews was to win the war. Their only action was to warn Nazi leaders that they would be held responsible for their crimes once Germany was defeated. Sadly, this weak and slow action on the Allies' part culminated with a genocide. Six million Jews were murdered. What could they have done differently?
Critical Thinking Questions
--- Mirta Glasman