The American Jewish Leaders Meeting with President Roosevelt Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This document is an account of a meeting of several representatives of major American Jewish organizations with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in December 1942. Adolph Held, head of the Jewish Labor Committee, recorded this remembrance of the meeting. The Jewish leaders presented the president with a document detailing some of the facts about the Nazi's extermination of European Jews. According to Held, Roosevelt told the Jewish leaders that the US government was aware of the Nazi atrocities and agreed to issue a statement warning that Nazi leaders would be held accountable for war crimes. While many American Jews, both during and after the war, doubted that the US government did all it could to aid European Jews during the conflict, the tone of this meeting seemed to be one of mutual respect and cordiality.

Summary Overview

This document is an account of a meeting of several representatives of major American Jewish organizations with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in December 1942. Adolph Held, head of the Jewish Labor Committee, recorded this remembrance of the meeting. The Jewish leaders presented the president with a document detailing some of the facts about the Nazi's extermination of European Jews. According to Held, Roosevelt told the Jewish leaders that the US government was aware of the Nazi atrocities and agreed to issue a statement warning that Nazi leaders would be held accountable for war crimes. While many American Jews, both during and after the war, doubted that the US government did all it could to aid European Jews during the conflict, the tone of this meeting seemed to be one of mutual respect and cordiality.

Defining Moment

From the time Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, American Jews joined other Jewish people worldwide in raising alarm about the racial policies of the Nazis. Early on, major emphasis was placed on helping Jews to emigrate from Germany or the areas that Germany occupied after Hitler began his expansionary moves. In April 1938, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt established the President's Advisory Committee on Political Refugees, which was intended to seek ways to help any displaced people in Nazi-dominated Europe to emigrate. That July, an international conference on the European refugee situation was held in Évian, France. These efforts accomplished little, however. While hundreds of thousands of Jews were able to leave Nazi-controlled areas in the late 1930s, large-scale emigration was hampered by restrictive immigration policies and quotas in the United States and many Western Europeans nations. In the United States, Congress was wary about easing immigration restrictions for two reasons: the nation was still in the grips of the Great Depression and American voters might resent immigrants whom they would perceive as competing for their jobs. After the fall of France in June 1940, the tactical difficulty of doing anything to save European Jews from the Nazis by using military force was greatly heightened. After the United States entered the war in December 1941, many American military and political leaders began to argue that the only effective way to save European Jews from the death camps was a rapid overall Allied victory in the European theater.

Rabbi Stephen Wise, one of the Jewish leaders whose meeting with Roosevelt is described in this document, was a fervent supporter of Roosevelt. While Wise was frustrated that the US government was not doing enough to aid European Jews, he was reluctant to openly criticize Roosevelt because he agreed with him on many other issues. Roosevelt himself sometimes expressed frustration at the bureaucratic inertia and congressional opposition that seemed to limit his ability to respond to the crisis. While Roosevelt and this delegation of Jewish leaders seemed to hold mutual respect, in the end, the president promised little more than to issue a statement condemning the Nazi atrocities and warning German military and political leaders that they would be held accountable for crimes against humanity.

Author Biography

Adolph Held was born in Borislav, Poland, in 1885, and came to the United States when he was about seven years old. He had a long career in journalism, banking, and labor activism. For the Yiddish newspaper Jewish Daily Forward, he was the city editor (1907–12), business manager (1912–17), and general manager (1962–67). In 1925, he became president of the Amalgamated Bank, a financial institution that primarily served businesses in the garment trade. After World War I, he served for a time as the European director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which helped dislocated Jewish refugees come to the United States. In 1938, he became the national chair of the Jewish Labor Committee, a post he held for nearly thirty years. After World War II, Held also served as director of health and welfare benefit programs for the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. He died in New York City in 1969.

Historical Document

The committee consisted of Rabbi Stephen B. Wise, of the Jewish Congress; Mr. Monsky, of Bnai Brith; Rabbi Rosenberg, of the Agudath, and Adolph Held, of the Jewish Labor Committee.

The meeting with the President was arranged for Tuesday, December 8, 1942, at 12 o'clock. We were originally notified that the President would give us 15 minutes, but the conference lasted 29 minutes. The purpose of the conference was to present a prepared memorandum on the German atrocities in Poland consisting of an appeal to the President for immediate action against the German extermination of Jews, and also a 12 page memorandum citing the facts that have been gathered on this subject.

We were taken into the President's office in the White House by General Watson, the President's personal military aide, exactly at 12 o'clock. The President was seated at his desk; in front of the desk were lined up five chairs for the delegation.

The President sat behind the desk smoking a cigarette in a long cigarette-holder. The desk was full of all sorts of trinkets--ash trays, brass and porcelain figures, etc. There was not an empty spot on his desk. The figures were of all shapes and sizes.

As we filed in, the President greeted Rabbi Wise: “How have you been, Stephen? You are looking well. Glad to see you looking well.” Rabbi Wise then introduced each of us separately. The President shook hands with each of us, repeated the name, and then asked: “How do you do, Mr. Monsky?,” etc., following which he asked us to sit down.

When we were seated, the President opened the conversation by saying: “I am a sadist, a man of extreme sadistic tendencies. When I appointed Governor Lehman as head of the new Office of Relief and Rehabilitation, I had some very sadistic thoughts in my head. I know that Governor Lehman is a great administrator, and I wanted a great administrator for this post. I had another thought in my mind, however. I had hopes that, when God spares my life and the war is over, to be able to go to Germany, stand behind a curtain and have the sadistic satisfaction of seeing some “Junkers” on their knees, asking Lehman for bread. And, by God, I'll urge him to give it to them.”

Rabbi Wise then said: “Mr. President, we have an orthodox Rabbi in our midst. It is customary for an orthodox rabbi to deliver a benediction upon the head of his country, when he comes in his presence. Will you, therefore, permit Rabbi Rosenberg to say the prayer of benediction?”

“Certainly” the President answered.

Rabbi Rosenberg rose and put on his scull-cap. We all rose. The President remained seated, and, as Rabbi Rosenberg commenced to recite the prayer in Hebrew, the President bowed his head.

“O, God Lord of Kings, blessed be Thy name that Thou bestowest a share of Thy glory upon the son of men.”

“Thank you very much”-- the President said.

The President seemed to be moved, and so were we all.

Rabbi Wise then read the declaration by the committee.

Rabbi Wise did not read the details but simply said: “Mr. President, we also beg to submit details and proofs of the horrible facts. We appeal to you, as head of our government, to do all in your power to bring this to the attention of the world and to do all in your power to make an effort to stop it.”

The President replied: “The government of the United States is very well acquainted with most of the facts you are now bringing to our attention. Unfortunately we have received confirmation from many sources. Representatives of the United States government in Switzerland and other neutral countries have given up proof that confirm the horrors discussed by you. We cannot treat these matters in normal ways. We are dealing with an insane man-- Hitler, and the group that surrounds him represent an example of a national psychopathic case. We cannot act toward them by normal means. That is why the problem is very difficult. At the same time it is not in the best interest of the Allied cause to make it appear that the entire German people are murderers or are in agreement with what Hitler is doing. There must be in Germany elements, now thoroughly subdued, but who at the proper time will, I am sure, rise, and protest against the atrocities, against the whole Hitler system. It is too early to make pronouncements such as President Wilson made, may they even be very useful. As to your proposal, I shall certainly be glad to issue another statement, such as you request.”

The President turned toward the delegation for suggestions. All, except Rabbi Rosenberg, put in suggestions. Mine was about the possibility of getting some of the neutral representatives in Germany to intercede in behalf of the Jews. The President took notice of that but made no direct replies to the suggestions. The entire conversation on the part of the delegation lasted only a minute or two. As a matter of fact, of the 29 minutes spent with the President, he addressed the delegation for 23 minutes.

The President then plunged into a discussion of other matters. “We had a Jewish problem in North Africa” -- he said. “As you know, we issued orders to free all the Jews from concentration camps, and we have also advised our representatives in North Africa to abolish all the special laws against the Jews and to restore the Jews to their rights. On this occasion I would like to mention that it has been called to our attention that prior to the war, Jews and Frenchmen enjoyed greater rights than Moslems in some of the North African states. There are 17 million Moslems in North Africa, and there is no reason why anyone should enjoy greater rights than they. It is not our purpose to fight for greater rights for anyone at the expense of another group. We are for the freedom for all and equal rights for all. We consider the attack on the Jews in Germany, in Poland, as an attack upon our ideas of freedom and justice, and that is why we oppose it so vehemently.” “Now you are interested in the Darlan matter. I can only illustrate this by a proverb, I recently heard from a Yugoslav priest--”When a river you reach and the devil you meet, with the devil do not quarrel until the bridge you cross.”

Apparently, at the end of this quotation the President must have pushed some secret button, and his adjutant appeared in the room. His eyes and broad shoulders showed determination. We rose from our seats, and, as we stood up, the President said: “Gentlemen, you can prepare the statement. I am sure that you will put the words into it that express my thoughts. I leave it entirely to you. You may quote from my statement to the Mass-Meeting in Madison Square Garden some months ago, but please quote it exactly. We shall do all in our power to be of service to your people in this tragic moment.”

The President then shook hands with each of us, and we filed out of the room.

Glossary

adjutant: a staff officer who assists the commanding officer

“Junker”: a young German noble; a member of a class of aristocratic landholders, devoted to militarism, from whom the German military recruited many officers

sadist: a person who enjoys being cruel

scull-cap: a small, brimless close-fitting cap, often made of silk or velvet, worn on the head; used in religious functions

Document Analysis

This document records a meeting of representatives from several American Jewish organizations with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to discuss Nazi atrocities against Jews in Europe. The author of this document, Adolph Held, attended this meeting as a representative of the Jewish Labor Committee. Also in attendance was Rabbi Stephen Wise, who was well-acquainted with President Roosevelt. Wise was head of the World Jewish Congress and was perhaps the best-known Jewish religious leader in the United States. Also present was Rabbi Israel Rosenberg, a leader of Agudah Ha-Rabbonim, an organization representing Orthodox Jews. Henry Monsky attended, representing B'nai B'rith, an immigrant aid organization combating anti-Semitism in the United States. Although unmentioned by Held, American Jewish Committee president Maurice Wertheim was also present.

After Wise introduces the other members of the delegation, Roosevelt begins with an attempt at humor—suggesting that after the war, Nazi leaders might have to beg bread from the former governor of New York, Herbert Lehman, who was Jewish. Roosevelt had recently appointed Lehman to chair an agency directing European recovery after the war.

After a request from Wise, Roosevelt allowed Rabbi Rosenberg to pronounce a blessing upon the president. Held notes that both the president and the members of the delegation seemed to be moved by this ritual.

The document states that Wise then read a brief letter and mentioned a longer document they were presenting that detailed evidence of Nazi atrocities in Poland. The letter requested that Roosevelt warn German leaders that they would be held accountable for war crimes.

In response, Held notes, Roosevelt admitted that the US government was aware of the facts presented, having “received confirmation from many sources.” He then described some of the problems involved in trying to address the situation—these things could not be treated “in normal ways,” partly because Hitler was “an insane man” surrounded by people who made up “an example of a national psychopathic case.” Roosevelt also wanted to avoid any appearance that the United States was blaming all the German people for the actions of the Nazis leaders and expressed confidence that some Germans would stand up to the Nazi system. While Roosevelt believed little direct action was possible, he did agree to issue a statement about the Nazi war crimes.

According to Held, Roosevelt then mentioned the situation in North Africa, where Allied troops had recently begun operations against German and Italian forces. He stressed that both the Jewish and Islamic peoples of North Africa would be treated well. Held says that the meeting ended cordially with Roosevelt telling the delegation to write a statement and he would issue it, finally promising, “We shall do all in our power to be of service to your people in this tragic moment.”

Essential Themes

In this document, the Jewish leaders meeting with President Roosevelt wanted to ensure that he had the facts about Hitler's policies regarding the mass extermination of European Jews and to urge him to do all he could as the leader of a powerful nation to make these things more widely known and to bring the killings to an end. Historians still debate the US response to the Holocaust. On one hand, some scholars take the position that the harsh realities of the circumstances in war-torn Europe meant that little could actually have been done to save European Jews. They usually accept the argument that the only way to effectively address the crimes of the Holocaust was to win a rapid victory over Hitler. Other scholars see in the US response to the Holocaust a pattern of tepid responses and, in the early days of the crisis, attempts to ignore the fact that there really was a crisis.

By the time of the meeting described in this document, the evidence of Hitler's efforts to systematically annihilate the Jews of Europe could no longer be denied. While the Jewish leaders who met with Roosevelt were respectful and appeared to appreciate the opportunity to make their case directly to him, they were forceful in urging him to take further action. Although sympathetic to their requests, Roosevelt was frank in describing to them the difficulties attached to any attempt to deal with the sufferings of the European Jews. In the end he promised the delegation little more than moral support and an agreement to make a public statement about German atrocities.

One can also see in this document evidence of Roosevelt's powerful personality and charisma. The author of this document, Adolph Held, seemed to be quite impressed by Roosevelt, and at the end of the meeting Held noted that Roosevelt's “eyes and broad shoulders showed determination.” The meeting was originally planned to last only fifteen minutes but went on for twenty-nine minutes; Held estimated that Roosevelt spoke for approximately twenty-three minutes, clearly dominating the meeting.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Feingold, Henry L. Bearing Witness: How American and Its Jews Responded to the Holocaust. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1995. Print.
  • Hamerow, Theodore S. Why We Watched: Europe, America, and the Holocaust. New York: Norton, 2008. Print.
  • Rosen, Robert N. Saving the Jews: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust. New York: Thunder's Mountain, 2006. Print.
  • Wyman, David S. The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941–1945. New York: Pantheon, 1984. Print.
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