- "Hitler's Bitterest Foe":Samuel Untermyer and the Boycott of Nazi Germany, 1933-1938*
In the early summer of 1933, photographer Berenice Abbott attempted to raise $15,000 from one hundred prominent New Yorkers to fund a documentary interpretation of New York City in photographs. Given this was in the depth of the Great Depression, it is not surprising that the response was a stack of rejection letters.1 One of the most noteworthy responses was that of an elderly corporate attorney in his 70s, Samuel Untermyer. He wrote,
I regret to say that I would not be willing to contribute to any such purpose as is indicated by you. With a large part of this City almost starving, and with the growing needs for relief, I feel that projects of that kind can await more auspicious times.2
Untermyer, however, had another reason for declining to make a donation, he had only recently become the leader of a major campaign to defend the Jews of Nazi Germany. He devoted most of the remainder of his life to this campaign until he was forced to give up in 1938 because of failing health. This article seeks to reconstruct that role and the controversies that it created.
Samuel Untermyer (1858–1940) had come to prominence during the Gilded Age as the most successful member of his family's New York City law firm, Guggenheimer & Untermyer.3 By the end of the nineteenth century, Untermyer had become a millionaire and purchased Greystone, a country estate in Yonkers just outside New York City. He was noted for his identification with the American Jewish community. However, [End Page 21] during the early 1920s, the Zionists behind the Keren Hayesod (Palestine Foundation Fund) were looking for a prominent person to represent their cause in the public arena. By the early 1920s, Untermyer had mastered the art of self publicity and had become one of the most visible American Jews. Untermyer was offered and accepted the position of president of the Palestine Foundation Fund, which had been created to raise money for Jewish settlement in Palestine. Contrary to the expectations of the Zionists, he proved to be very generous with his time rather than his money.4 However, he proved to be a very effective fund raiser and became very popular with the Jewish masses. The problem for the Zionists was that Untermyer had unorthodox views on the Zionist project,5 warning for example about the dangers of alienating the Arab inhabitants of Palestine.6 In November 1925, Untermyer was furious to learn a decision had been made behind his back to effectively replace him with Rabbi Stephen S. Wise.7
The appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, provided Untermyer with another opportunity to serve the Jewish people. Untermyer had no doubt as to Hitler's true intentions toward German Jewry. He made this abundantly clear on April 13 at a luncheon given in his honor by the American Friends of the Hebrew University. Untermyer had provided the funds for the auditorium on the university campus in memory of his late wife. In his speech Untermyer reflected that,
Nothing could better illustrate the long-sustained suffering and ultimate despair and the blighting, brutalizing after-effects of a disastrous war upon a once prosperous, enlightened nation than the ascendancy to power of a bigoted brute of the Hitler type and the tame submission to his yoke of a proud, self-respecting people. Deep is our pity for the persecution, akin to that of the Dark Ages, of our unfortunate brethren, it should be still greater for the remaining ninety-nine per cent of the German people who are thereby relegated to semi-barbarism.
It is now definitely established that there is deep-seated, continuing official propaganda to minimize and mislead the Jews and the rest of the civilized world as to the extent of the persecution with the deliberate purpose of withdrawing interest and support. . . . [End Page 22]
But we are not without means of defense. The first step of world Jewry must be to find ways to care for our disfranchised men, women and children, and...