An Apologist for the Allies
The thesis of William Rubinstein’s book, The Myth of Rescue, is most clearly stated on page 84: “Not one plan or proposal, made anywhere in the democracies by either Jews or non-Jewish champions of the Jews once the mass murder of the Jews of Europe had begun, could have rescued one single Jew who perished in the Nazi Holocaust” (emphasis in the original). This may be one of the most astounding statements ever written by any non-revisionist about the Holocaust.
Rubinstein set out to refute the arguments made by scholars documenting the failure of the Allies to prevent the Holocaust. He particularly takes aim at David Wyman, whose The Abandonment of the Jews is the seminal work on the subject. Rubinstein makes his case primarily by ignoring the historical record and insisting that others have used hindsight to inaccurately assess the knowledge and motives of officials in the 1940s.
For example, Rubinstein argues the impediment to Jews emigrating was the Nazi refusal to let them go. He says the fate of the Jews was “unknown and unknowable to anyone before June 1941.” Actually, the State Department anticipated American citizens might be in danger as early as 1939 and established a special division for handling matters related to the welfare of Americans abroad. At the beginning of 1941, the United States learned U.S. citizens were subject to anti-Jewish laws in France. About the same time, the U.S. minister in Rumania reported that Jews were being slaughtered and warned Americans were in jeopardy.
Rubinstein seeks to disprove the conventional wisdom that anti-Semitism played a role in American decision-making. He cites polls that indicated overwhelming numbers of Americans opposed the Nazis and extrapolates from the results the “astonishing degree of American sensitivity to anti-Semitism and hostility to Nazi oppression.” The questions, however, did not measure attitudes toward Jews. Moreover, one poll showing that more than two-thirds of Americans wanted to keep out political refugees contradicted his argument that Hitler was the only one preventing the Jews’ escape.
The State Department’s policies toward Jews can be discerned from documents that Rubinstein ignored. The general sentiment of the U.S. government was that the Nazi discrimination of Jews should not be highlighted, nor should Jews be given special consideration. One official wrote in 1942 for example, “if we once open our doors to one class of refugee, we must expect on the basis of our experience in extending relief in occupied territories that all other sufferers from Nazi (including Japanese) oppression...will likewise wish to avail themselves of our hospitality.”
Rescue plans existed, but Rubinstein doesn’t know about them and, hence, doesn’t realize they were not pursued for political reasons rather than practical ones. In 1943, Cavendish Cannon, of the State Department’s Division of European Affairs, objected to a proposal to move 300,000 Jews out of Rumania to Syria or Palestine because “such a plan [was] likely to bring about new pressure for an asylum in the western hemisphere” and that, because atrocities were also underway in Hungary, “a migration of Rumanian Jews would therefore open the question of similar treatment for Jews in Hungary and, by extension, all countries where there has been intense persecution.” The view that rescuing Jews somehow posed a danger to the Allies or would “take the burden or the curse off Hitler” was held by several State Department officials and was the prevailing view in the British Foreign Office.
Never mind saving millions of European Jews, the U.S. could have taken a number of steps to save the few thousand American citizens in danger. One official suggested checking passport lists to identify Americans in Europe who might be entitled to repatriation. The idea was rejected. In June 1942, Breckinridge Long, the State Department official who set many of the policies that doomed the Jews, said only those American citizens “we want” should be allowed to return. If this was the attitude toward Americans, how can anyone question his reluctance to help European Jews?
While logistical excuses, such as that given throughout Rubinstein’s book, were also used to explain the failure to help Americans trapped in Hungary, American Jews threatened with deportation in Slovakia were abandoned for the political reason that the State Department believed the authorities were using the Jews to pressure the United States to recognize Slovakia. The Department then consciously covered up its actions.
Rubinstein insists not one Jew could have been rescued and yet Raoul Wallenberg saved thousands. Rubinstein minimizes Wallenberg’s actions, but the truth is he and other “Righteous Persons” like Japanese Consul-General Chiune Sugihara did save lives and U.S. officials could have done the same, or encouraged others to do so. Instead, U.S. policy was frequently the exact opposite, as was the case in placing the burden on Americans to prove their citizenship before giving them any assistance.
The decision to create a “free port” at Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York, is also dismissed by Rubinstein as irrelevant because Jews under Nazi control could not be taken to Oswego. But this was an example of how executive action was possible if officials had the will. A better example is FDR’s decision in January 1940 to grant 200 emergency visas.
An entire chapter is devoted to debunking the idea the Allies could have bombed Auschwitz. Rubinstein offers no original research, simply a regurgitation of others’ arguments that it could not be done, wasn’t considered until too late in the war and would have made no difference. In fact, a number of requests to bomb the gas chambers were made, but were all turned down without investigating the feasibility. Meanwhile, hundreds of bombers were attacking targets within 45 miles of Auschwitz. For more detailed documentation of the issue, readers should look at the new study by Stuart Erdheim in the fall 1997 issue of Holocaust and Genocide Studies that further strengthens the case that Auschwitz could have been bombed.
The focus on Auschwitz is misplaced anyway, since that was just one of hundreds of concentration camps (albeit one of the worst). Many Jews could have been saved by bombing other camps, an idea Rubinstein ignores entirely. The Allies did bomb Buchenwald, for example, but not for the purpose of saving Jews.
Rubinstein’s last chapter takes Wyman’s suggestions for what could have been done and seeks to refute them point by point. For example, Wyman says the War Refugee Board could have been established in 1942. Rubinstein’s response is that no one advocated this, but that is precisely the point, officials weren’t interested in rescue.
Wyman also said the Allies could have pressured neutral countries near the Axis to take Jews. He specifically mentions Switzerland, which Rubinstein acknowledges returned fleeing Jews to Nazi territory. Rubinstein then offers the familiar Swiss excuse—that it was afraid of a Nazi invasion—for its failure to allow Jews to escape. As we know today, the Swiss not only did little to help Jews, they actively helped the Nazis through their gold transactions.
Rubinstein repeatedly suggest the Allies didn’t fail because no one offered any plans to rescue the Jews, or if they did, they were too late or impractical. This begs the key question: Why didn’t the Allies give more thought to saving the Jews? If you look at the complete historical record, rather than Rubinstein’s limited selections, is that they didn’t care enough to do more.