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Modern Judaism 20.3 (2000) 299-314

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"A Foolish Encroachment Upon the Allied High Command"? American Jewish Perspectives on Requesting U.S. Military Intervention Against the Holocaust

Rafael Medoff

According to recently received authentic information, the German authorities have evacuated the last Ghetto in Warsaw, bestially murdering about one hundred thousand Jews. Mass murders continue. . . . The deportees from other occupied countries will meet the same fate. It must be supposed that only energetic reprisals on the part of America could halt these persecutions. Do whatever you can to cause an American reaction to halt these persecutions. Do whatever you can to produce such a reaction, stirring up statesmen, the press, and the community. 1

This shocking telegram, sent by Swiss Jewish rescue activists Recha and Yitzhak Sternbuch, reached American Jewish leaders via the Polish Consulate in New York in September 1942. The Sternbuchs' telegram was one of the earliest messages from Europe to reach the United States with explicit information about the Nazi genocide. It was also the first time European Jews directly urged American Jews to request special U.S. military action on behalf of Hitler's victims. The Jewish leaders who received the cable faced an agonizing dilemma. Should American Jews call for U.S. military action to aid Europe's Jews, thereby risking accusations that they cared more about Jewish interests than the war effort? Or should they, in the name of patriotism, refrain from such demands, even if it meant closing off a possible way to save Hitler's victims?

A division of opinion emerged in the autumn of 1942, not over the wisdom of Allied military action itself but over the wisdom of requesting such action. The leading proponent of asking for Allied intervention was A. Leon Kubowitzki, chairman of the Rescue Committee of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), the New York-based [End Page 299] international Jewish rights group. He favored requesting that the Allies threaten a "ra[z]ing and destruction of German towns and villages" in retaliation for atrocities against Jews. On the other side of the debate was Kubowitzki's superior, Dr. Stephen Wise, president of the WJC. Worried about the danger of "rising anti-Semitism" in the U.S., Wise declared at a WJC executive committee meeting that "Americans have not yet completely thrown themselves into this war. . . . how then could we ask the American people to take a special warlike action on behalf of the Jews[?]." 2

In the years that followed, a host of other American Jewish leaders, community activists, and journalists would line up on opposite sides of this controversial question. Interestingly, the opposing viewpoints typically were mirrored by opposing sociological characteristics. Either culturally, religiously, or politically, the members of the two camps tended to be worlds apart. The significant common denominator among those who advocated U.S. military intervention was that they stood apart from American culture and society. They were Orthodox, or Yiddish-speaking, or recent immigrants, or maximalist Zionists. They felt less American than many other American Jews and consequently felt less hesitant to risk being called un-American. By contrast, those who were the most Americanized seem to have been the most concerned at the thought of their loyalty being questioned and, therefore, were more hesitant to ask for special military action to aid Jews in Europe. They considered themselves fully acclimated Americans and were not inclined to risk that status.

Note the personal backgrounds of the protagonists in the September 1942 debate over the Sternbuch telegram. Kubowitzki was a recent immigrant to the United States. Born in Lithuania, he edited Belgian Zionist journals in French and Yiddish until 1940. By contrast, Wise, a Reform rabbi, may have been an outspoken Zionist and the leader of many Jewish anti-Hitler rallies, but he drew the line at any protests that might be seen as diverging significantly from the position of the American government. Wise went out of his way to publicly proclaim that he was, as he put it, an "American, first, last...


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