When I was a young boy, my father used to tell me about events that happened during the First World War.
"The war dragged on year after year, and every day life became sadder, more and more families mourned one of their beloved; hunger and cold were permanent in every household. All this was hard to bear, but we were slowly getting used to the deterioration of life. At the end of the year 1915, one day our congregation received a letter from Turkey via Rumania. It was secretly sent out of that country by a Jewish merchant of Constantinople and addressed `to his Jewish brethren abroad.' "
My father told me so often about that letter that its contents have remained vivid in my memory. The anonymous sender described the horrors of the massacre of Armenians in Constantinople and in other cities. Night after night the Turkish police, headed by the army, descended on the Armenian quarter and systematically murdered the people there. They went from house to house, killing everyone, men, women and children, infants and old. The quarter was surrounded so that the intended victims were unable to flee.
"This massacre," the letter continued, "is still going on and will continue unless the outside world intervenes. The Armenians who live among the Turks, Jews or Greeks must hide their identities; none of them can get any bread rations nor buy any food, let alone can they find employment. We Jews," the letter added, "cannot remain indifferent to this wholesale killing of innocent people. Our religious tradition is based on the respect of human lives. In God's name we beseech our brethren to inform the world of this genocide, the horror of which defies imagination:'
Similar reports were received by other congregations and were forwarded to influential newspapers in several countries. By the beginning of the year 1916 the report on the Turkish atrocities was published, and on February 17, 1916, the United States sent a formal note of protest to Turkey. I do not know whether the note remained without answer; it certainly remained without effect. Through channels that were established, our part of Europe remained in contact with Jews and Armenians in Turkey. We learned that the massacres continued, that privations and famine imposed upon the Armenians added to the death list.
"That news shook me," my father said, "more than anything that happened around us during the war. I mourned not only for the victims, but also for the killing of the spirit, for the offense made to God, that this racial massacre represented in my eyes. God had departed from among the murderers, and my heart was heavy."
I have given a great deal of thought to the story of this first genocide in Europe as related by my father. According to the various reports close to eight hundred thousand Armenians perished as a result of the persecution perpetrated by the Turks. Today, after I myself witnessed the systematic murdering and degradation of my own race, I fully understand and admire the humanity of my father, his presentiment that the Turkish example would spread to Europe, a mortal danger to Judeo-Christian religious teachings, a deadly menace to our civilization. The world then, aside from the protest by the United States, chose to ignore this monstrous crime; the world paid very dearly for its indifference. In less than a generation another global war, even more atrocious and more horrible, visited mankind. It was a new test of human solidarity and it failed.
On December 16, 1941, the Struma, a one-hundred-eighty ton Rumanian vessel, which normally carried a hundred passengers on coastal runs, had picked up seven hundred sixty-nine refugees from the Rumanian port of Constanza, and though none of the passengers possessed permits to disembark from the British, which had the power over Palestine, the ship began its slaw voyage toward the port of Haifa. Greatly overloaded and additionally endangered by a leaking hull and defective engines, it remained at sea seventy-four days because the British did not allow the passengers to disembark, and one country after another refused to admit the unfortunate victims of Nazi persecution. Off Istanbul the ship brake down, and water poured in. The captain notified the port authorities that his ship was not seaworthy; nevertheless the Turks refused the landing permits because these were conditioned upon British certificates for Palestine which the British refused.
On February 24, 1942, the Turks towed the Struma to sea, well aware of the inevitable fate that awaited it. Before the vessel faded from view the people ashore read the large banner made by the passengers which said, "SAVE US!"
Six miles from the shore the Struma sank. Seventy children, two hundred sixty-nine women and four hundred twenty-eight men drowned. Immediately after the Struma's departure, local British officials received authorization from their superiors to issue Palestine certificates to the seventy children aboard.
The world was shocked, but the British government remained unmoved. Lord Cranborne, secretary of state for the colonies, taking note of the emotional reaction of some Englishmen to the tragedy, issued the following statement, a real gem in the collection of revolting utterances reflecting indifference to human suffering: "Under the present unhappy situation in the world it is to a certain extent inevitable that we should be hardened to horrors."
There was anger among good people in the rest of the world, but no official reaction to this awful tragedy was forthcoming from the responsible leaders of the free world.
Recently they built a bridge in Istanbul to connect Europe to Asia. They have not built a bridge linking human hearts to human hearts. One can imagine, as it is described in old ballads, the souls of the eight hundred thousand Armenians, of the close to eight hundred Jews, hovering over the waters of the Bosporus, lamenting their lives cut short because of the heartlessness of men. The traveler standing on that bridge, thinking of those unfortunates, must shudder with fear and sadness realizing the emptiness and senselessness of the life of humans who throw away man's most precious possession, the ability to identify one's self with others, the divine spirit in us.
I have related the story of the Hungarian Jews whose lives were offered by Eichmann to the Western Allies in exchange for war materials. Let us compare their fate with that of other Hungarian refugees, those who fled Communist tyranny after the Hungarian revolution in 1956. They were accepted everywhere, regardless of quotas and immigration laws. They were given food, medical attention, clothes, blankets, all that was necessary. They were taken to the homes of hospitable citizens; churches organized collections in their behalf; they were installed in apartments completely furnished, including television sets; they were trained for employment and the skilled workers among them were immediately offered jobs. Universities prepared special language courses for them to facilitate their adjustment to their host countries. For once, the civilized world set aside rules and regulations to listen to the voices of human decency and solidarity. One certainly approves of such reception, but one cannot help asking, "Why was the same not extended to six million Jews, precious human beings who would certainly have made a good contribution to the economy and culture of the countries that offered a refuge to them? Why were they allowed to die under the most degrading circumstances?"
As for the United States, not only did the government exercise great caution in dealing with Hitler, but it refused to enlarge the quota for Polish nationals in 1939 when Germany overran Poland. Keeping the status quo, insofar as the immigration law was concerned, meant that the doors of America remained locked and that appreciable numbers of either Polish Jews or Gentiles could find no refuge in this country. When the Quakers campaigned in Congress ( in 1939) to bring twenty thousand children (Jewish and non-Jewish) to the United States, the Administration's inaction was largely responsible for its failure. But when, after the fall of France, England was threatened with possible invasion by the Nazis, the U. S, government quickly issued visas for ten thousand English children. When Jewish leaders negotiated with Rumania and Hungary about the emigration of their Jewish subjects with the view to bringing a considerable number of them to the United States, the American government refused to change its policy. As late as August 1, 19-12, at a time when about one and a half million European Jews were already dead, the State Department insisted on verifying the reports submitted by Rabbi Stephen Wise, then president of the American Jewish Congress, to the effect that the Nazis were murdering Jews in Russia and in Poland. Checking the reports took more than three months. In the meantime more Jews perished. Finally, in November, 1942, when the reports were confirmed, the U. S, government joined the other Allied nations in a declaration entitled, "German Policy of Extermination of the Jewish Race," issued on December 17, 1942, which stated that the responsible perpetrators should not escape retribution. Although the framers of this declaration were earnest and sincere, and no doubt eager to alleviate Jewish misery, the Nazis were hardly impressed with it. This manifestation of good will came too late. By the end of 1942, many more Jews had been liquidated by the Nazis. There was a conference on refugees in Bermuda on April 19, 1942, yet neither Great Britain nor the U.S.A. was ready to admit the victims of Nazism. It was on June 12, 1944, almost five years after the launching of the extermination program, that the U. S. President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, announced in a message to Congress "that America would bring to its shores one thousand refugees, mostly women and children, who had escaped to southern Italy." Once again Rabbi Stephen Wise worked out a secret plan (in 1944) for smuggling out Jews in exchange for bribes to be deposited in Switzerland. Seventy thousand lives could have been saved. Roosevelt gave the plan his full support and Morgenthau backed it immediately, but the State Department then held up matters for months. The British Ministry of Economic Warfare was informed and wrote back saying that "the British Foreign Office is concerned with the difficulty of disposing of any considerable number of Jews should they be released from enemy territory!"
Ultimately, according to Rabbi Stephen Wise, nothing was done owing to the shocking delay and indifference for five full months after the license had been approved by the president of the United States, the secretary of State, and the secretary of the Treasury.
The following story illustrates the attitude of the free world towards the annihilation of six million innocent victims by godless Nazi criminals.
"At a very important trial, the jury was out for deliberations to decide its verdict. After a long absence; the jurors finally returned to the courtroom. The judge asked, `Gentlemen of the jury, have you reached your verdict?' And the foreman rose to declare, `Yes, your Honor, we have decided not to get involved.'"
The last four words sounded like the death sentence of the victims; these four words gave a free hand to their executioners. This stand of no involvement raises a number of questions. Why had the two great powers, Britain and the United States, done so little to halt the process of extermination? The answers varied. Some assumed that the Western powers did not want to threaten the Germans with retaliation lest they be suspected of waging a "Jewish" war. One may then ask, what was World War II about? Was it not a fight against the dehumanizing forces, the greatest threat against civilization since the beginnings of human history? By letting the Nazis commit crimes, we did involve ourselves, but in a negative way; our fight in the cause of human freedom lost much of its authenticity by the fact of abandoning millions of human beings to the cruelty of beasts with human faces. Others maintained that from the vantage paint of diplomacy a defense of the Jews would have hindered the plans of invasion. But no sound answer was given to the question about the stubborn British refusal to open the gates of Palestine to Jewish escapees and about the Mandatory government's practice of imprisoning in detention camps in Cyprus and in Palestine those who reached the shores of the Jewish National Home without bonafide certificates of immigration. Yet, as Abba Eban, the former foreign minister of Israel points out in his book, The Story o f My People, by 1943 Palestine was safe from invasion. Abba Eban further states that it was believed that the most urgent task was then to create a favorable climate for a post-war settlement in Palestine. At this point one cannot help asking, why did the Jewish leaders of the time concern themselves with post-war problems when thousands and thousands of Jews were murdered daily? Why did they not rather dedicate all their efforts toward the goal of rescuing Jewish lives?
Next to the question concerning the attitude of the Allied governments towards the victims of Nazism, arises an even more painful question: why organized religion kept silent in the face of what was happening in countries under the boots of the Nazis? To be sure, some church officials, acting in the spirit of Christian charity, opened their cloisters and monasteries to harried Jews, but these righteous acts were isolated instances, exceptions to the rule. The fact is that no official representation was ever made by the heads of Christian churches, nor by the spokesmen of Islam and Buddhism which could have expressed in the strongest possible terms the protest of all true believers. While the death factories operated at full blast, the papacy itself was silent. The silence of the Pope has been the subject of debate ever since the end of World War II. The playwright Rolf Hochhuth expressed the view in his play, The Deputy, that the Pope's failure to speak out against Nazi brutalities should be considered as telling evidence of his indifference to the plight of the Jews and thus a serious moral lapse. In "Sidelines on History," the appendix to his play, Hochhuth writes, "It remains incomprehensible that His Holiness did not bestir himself to protest against Hitler, when it was clear that Germany had lost the war, while at the same time Auschwitz was just beginning its highest daily quota of killings."
Other writers are not as ready to blacken the character of the Pope. Lean Poliakov, one of the outstanding researchers of the holocaust, finds an explanation for the silence of Pius XII. He writes, "The immense church interests which were the Pope's responsibility, the extensive means for blackmail which the Nazis enjoyed on a scale commensurate with the Universal Church, probably account for his failure to issue that solemn and public declaration which the persecuted looked forward to so ardently."
As for the intellectual community of the free world, save for a number of sporadic denunciations by some writers, scientists and academicians, the majority did not raise their voices in protest against Nazi genocide. The academic communities did not react en masse in a collective ``j'accuse''. The pen clubs of the world did not sow the seed of revolt in the 1930s when outside of Germany it was still possible to arouse the people against Nazi theory and practice. They did not issue proclamations calling upon millions of readers to stand up and be heard. There were few anti-Nazi rallies conducted by the intellectuals on the campuses, in public forums and there was little utilization of the mass media for the purpose of informing the public of the Hitlerite menace.
Reactions of the liberals and progressives in the labor movement and in socio-cultural organizations were in sympathy and solidarity with the suffering Jews, but these feelings were not translated in terms of positive actions on their behalf. Had the multitudes in the free world reacted courageously and vigorously, many of the Nazi acts of terror might have been averted.
The Jewish communities themselves, in countries not overrun by the Nazis, lacked any mass reaction to the horrible news concerning their coreligionists across the ocean. It has been pointed out by students of the holocaust period that most Jewish people could not believe the reports which reached them from the ghettos of Europe. To be sure, these reports sounded incredible, passing human understanding; but when they were confirmed, they had a paralyzing effect upon most of them. Furthermore, the loyalty of Jews as citizens of free countries made them sensitive to the plea not to hamper the war effort by any "exaggerated" demands. Thus, rescue activities were confined to the philanthropic agencies and to the Palestinian Jews through the Jewish Agency. In America, the anti-Nazi boycott conducted by the Joint Boycott Council, which resulted in a decline of Germany's place in the world economy, and the anti-Nazi campaign carried out by various organizations were efforts to unmask the true face of the Nazis and to combat mounting anti-Jewish feelings on the American continent. But the masses of Jews in the U.S. and in other free lands did not make extraordinary efforts to impress on their governments that official reaction doomed their brethren to certain death. During the period of 1933 to 1945 - during the Hitler era - there were no sit-ins nor mass demonstrations in the dense population centers. There were no marches of Jewish masses to Washington, Ottawa, London, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires, and Rio de Janeiro. The majority of the Jewish people during the period of the great catastrophe did not tremble sufficiently to inject a chill into the hearts of their Christian neighbors. Thus, one can see, every organization, every segment of the society of the free world was equally guilty of washing their hands of the fate of six million lives. The survivors of those times may have washed their hands throughout their lives, but they will never become clean again. Yet, and this must be emphasized, the greatest responsibility for this unprecedented mass murder of history lies with Stalin and other leaders of the Soviet Union. Stalin was adamant in forbidding any negotiations with the Germans with a view of saving hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Jewish lives from the clutches of the Nazis. Stalin, who prior to the German attack on Russia had been an ally of Germany, was liable to switch again and rejoin the camp of the enemies of the Allies, which could have spelled the ruin of the Western world. Churchill was mortally afraid of this and because of this, he made sacrifices that he was loathe to make. Because of Stalin's veto, Great Britain foiled the negotiations and induced the United States to cancel military operations against the concentration camps.
The history of World War II furnishes other examples that illustrate Stalin's complete indifference to the sacrifice of human lives.
In 1943 the Polish government-in-exile in London and the Soviet regime came to an open breach as a consequence of the discovery by Polish peasants of mass graves of Polish officers in the forest of Katyn, near Smolensk. Stalin then rejected any knowledge of this massacre and accused the Germans of having been the authors of the same. The Poles knew who was responsible for these murders; Western historians were not sure, but now the guilt of Stalin is established, though the reason remains obscure.
This crime is, by the way, in keeping with Stalin's attitude toward the abortive Warsaw uprising of August, 1944. The Red Army was then at the gates of the Polish capital. The Polish government-in-exile had, through its emissaries, organized it down to the smallest detail, notifying the commanders of the Red Army of the forces that were to attack the Germans in the city. The liberation of Warsaw was to begin the cleansing of Polish territory of the German occupant, and the beginning of the liberation of all other countries occupied by them. Stalin, however, did not want the exiled Polish government to be credited with the liberation of their capital. He had other plans. He refused to assist, or permit to be assisted, the people of Warsaw fighting the Nazis. The Red Army stood by, allowing the troops of Hitler to crush the Poles. By the first days of October, the freedom fighters were annihilated. The Hitlerite soldiery avenged themselves on the population. Most of the inhabitants of the city were massacred, and the city was looted and almost completely destroyed. During all those days Stalin's army was standing by, separated only by the river from the enraged Nazis. The order it received was: no involvement. Let hundreds of thousands of people perish by the bullets of the Nazis. Let women and children be beaten to death, houses set afire, monuments, museums, works of art, schools and buildings that represented the efforts of generations crumble. This was political planning. The fact that Stalin thought of establishing a Communist government in Poland, prevailed over purely humanitarian considerations or loyalty to the Allies. This affair created consternation in the West; it exceeded anything that the Western powers believed to be possible, and laid bare the unreliability of Stalin as an ally. It produced a real, though not publicized crisis in the Big Three Alliance. Fortunately, the German military might was in its last throes; the end of the war was near.
Stalin's grim record of inhumanity is further blackened by his treatment of the Soviet prisoners of war who returned home after the defeat of Germany. They were treated like traitors. The Soviet authorities would not examine the reasons why an individual soldier or a group of soldiers had surrendered to the Germans; they would not bother with individual cases. Many war heroes, defenders of Sevastopol, Odessa, and Brest, partisans, people who had been tortured in Nazi camps, were sent to Soviet concentration camps. The writer Solzhenitsyn eloquently describes in his books, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle, and The Cancer Ward, the atmosphere and the population of those camps. Stalin was even indifferent to the fate of his own son, Jacob. The latter was taken prisoner at the beginning of the war. After Stalingrad, the Germans proposed to exchange him for Field Marshall Friedrich Paulus, commander of the Army that was captured by the Russians at Stalingrad. Stalin refused and Jacob was shot by the Nazis.
Political expediency prompted the Western Allies not to get involved in the saving of six million Jews, but with Stalin there was still another consideration: his inveterate anti-semitism. The latter might go back to his rivalry with Trotsky, the Jewish companion of struggle of Lenin, whose two names were associated in the beginning of the Communist revolution. At a time when Stalin's own name was still comparatively unknown, it is history that Trotsky was exiled by Stalin and assassinated on Stalin's order in Mexico. My own experience, as I told it in previous chapters of this book, taught me that the deportees who had escaped from the Nazi camps could not count on any assistance on the part of the Red Army. On the contrary, if I had not escaped from the Russians after having slipped away from my column of forced laborers, I might have perished somewhere in a camp in Siberia, without anyone knowing where I vanished and what my crime was to deserve such a fate.
One event, commemorated by the Russian poet Yevtushenko and described by another writer, A. Anatoli (Kuznetsov), the story of Babi Yar, links as no other gruesome episode of World War II, the Nazis and the Communists through their utter disregard and contempt of the value of human lives.
Kuznetsov, then a boy of thirteen, lived in that year o£ 1941 in Kiev, in the Ukraine, which the German Army occupied after a long struggle. During the German advance in Russia, the Jews were not alarmed as to their fate at the hand of the occupants. Indeed, as Kuznetsov relates, right up to the German attack on the Soviet Union, Russian newspapers had been praising and glorifying Hitler as the Soviet Union's best friend, and had been silent about German atrocities against the Jews. It was therefore for them a thunderclap from a blue sky when they read stuck on fences after the entry of the Germans into Kiev, the following notice:
Some seventy-five thousand Jews were shot in the first few weeks in Kiev and its surroundings. Babi Yar - the ravine called Babi - received the bones of most of them. The Communists were, of course, innocent of this monstrous crime, but after the war they made extraordinary efforts in order to efface the memory of Babi Yar from the conscience of the world. Indeed, these efforts were so great that they could not have been any greater had the Communists committed the crime themselves. Here is what Kuznetsov tells about this:
Reading this description of the extraordinary efforts of the Soviet authorities to erase the memory of Babi Yar, it is impossible not to ask, why did they divert the talents and the materials of construction from other projects, at a time when a very large part of the Soviet Union lay in ruins and had to be rebuilt? Obviously, there was a powerful psychological reason behind that decision. The gigantic works undertaken at Babi Yar, the sacrifices consented to erase a crime of history can be explained only by the fact that the Soviet leaders themselves felt guilty of similar crimes. Their intervention at Babi Yar aimed at not letting the outside world involve themselves with this and other mass murders committed on their orders. It was an effort to promote no involvement. However, the twenty-odd million peasants from whom the grain was taken on Stalin's orders, and who starved to death as a result of this, the Polish freedom fighters who were allowed to die because of Stalin's politics, the six million Jews for whose death the Soviet Union was indirectly responsible, all confirm this judgment of the author of Babi Yar:
"However much you burn and disperse and cover over and trample down, human memory still remains. History cannot be deceived, and it is impossible to conceal anything from it for ever."
A last word about involvement or the opposite of it. Every state that was moved by humanitarian consideration and opened its doors to the victims of persecution, has always benefited from it. It is practical policy to be humane; the refugees generally work hard and enhance the economy, enrich the culture of the host country. By contrast, an attitude of indifference toward the fates of victims of persecution inevitably engenders the breakdown of international morality and endangers the peace of the world. The events that occurred since the end of World War II amply demonstrate this fact. When it is generally understood and when all the civilized world derives the conclusions from this truth, the day will come when the nations establish a code of international obligations toward the oppressed, the persecuted. A new era of fraternal concern, of the realization of what Martin Buber, the great Jewish existentialist called, "I Am Thou!" will then herald the emergence of a better world. For it has been abundantly proved and recognized by those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, hearts to feel and minds to think, that only love, the love of our fellowmen, well-conceived self-love, and - in religious terms - the love of God can maintain human society together. The weapons manufactured by human ingenuity become ever more sophisticated, and the more sophisticated they become, the more the world becomes insecure. We must all be involved not in the business of forging weapons against each other, but in that of making weapons unnecessary.
In conclusion, it is worth repeating the words of George W. Cecil appearing in an advertisement in American Magazine, who said, "On the Plains of Hesitation bleach the bones of countless millions who, at the Dawn of Victory, sat down to wait - and waiting, died."