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"Haven": The Untold Story of Harold Ickes

by Gad Nahshon

Hollywood would not let the six million martyrs sleep. When they, the victims of the Holocaust, cried out for help, for rescue, the moguls of Hollywood looked the other way. Many of them were Jews who had families or close relatives in Eastern Europe. But their heart was made of stone. Today, Hollywood fights to get its share of the recent markets profits, I mean the growing Holocaust industry.

Recently, CBS joined the crowd of 'Shoa Business' by airing its mini-series Haven with Natasha Richardson, Anne Bancroft, Martin Landau, William Peterson, and Hal Holbrook. The director was John Gray. Haven was based on a book which was written by Ruth Gruber. It is her story about 1,000 Jewish refugees who were sheltered in a military camp in Oswego, New York. Gruber was a young official in 1944 at the Ministry of Interior. She volunteered to go to Italy and to serve as a liaison of these 1,000 displaced Jews.

The story of Haven is one more case study of the controversial issue: did Franklin D. Roosevelt betray the Jews. This mini-series does not contribute any new idea factor or element to this historical discourse. We learn again about the Nazi cruelty and about the anti-Semitic State Department and its leader, Breckinridge Long, who died in 1958. Gruber herself blames the Roosevelt administration for its cruelty to the Jews. She pointed out the existence of anti-Semitism inside the American society as well.

But this mini-series can develop a new image of America, the rescuer. It is not explained to us that this Haven was only a temporary haven. According to the policy, these refugees had to return to their original countries! The Americans essentially adopted the British policy. The British were traumatized by the fear that public opinion would press them to open the gates of Palestine! From this point of view, the 'Oswego Camp' was a model to the refugee camps which the British established in Cypress in 1946-1949 (they were dismantled only on Jan. 18, 1949. Indeed, after Israel was born on May 14, 1948). By the way, Harry Truman decided not to deport these Holocaust survivors and let them stay in America. The irony of history: from 1945 and on, this country opened its gates to many refugees from Europe - German war criminals, East Europe collaborators with the Nazis and many others who were anti-communists but their hands were not that clean... Indeed, many Americans were prejudice and racist.

Some used to define the 'New Deal' as the 'Jew Deal'. But it is clear that F.D.R. was indifferent to the fate of the Jews. On the other hand, America did not control the natural haven for the Jews: Palestine. Indeed Great Britain and Winston Churchill, indirectly, were the bystanders who could change the fate of many Jews had they just opened the gate of Palestine. We should not forget this fact when we assess F.D.R.'s challenge or omission to the Holocaust.

But the mini-series, like its similar plays, tend to ignore two basic facts: A. The Vacuum: No one built a powerful, effective 'lobby' in America. Even on Jan. 22, 1944, when F.D.R. suddenly, in order to stop a new congressional legislation, established the War Refugee Board (W.R.B.), one could not find the existence of a lobby. The W.R.B. was not a Jewish agency for rescue. F.D.R. refused to recognize the fact that the Nazis declared a special war only on the Jews: genocide! Jews did not have representation in the W.R.B. Who was responsible for this terrible vacuum? The American Jewish establishment! Even today we still need more researchers in order to understand the essence of this vacuum and its origin. We must note that American Jewry had a unique record of solidarity with other Jewish communities since the 19th century. What happened to this value from 1939 to 1945? How should we explain the silence and the indifference. Indeed, why should F.D.R. care about Jews anywhere more than their brothers and sisters? This is not to take F.D.R. off the hook, but it is a call for new open discussion and assessments of this chapter of Jewish-American history.

B. The mini-series could have contributed to the discourse by showing that there were Americans who saved America from shame. They protested against the silence of their country. There was a tribe of people who cared about the fate of the European Jewry. They protested, they tried to mobilize public opinion, they tried to push the White House to develop projects of rescue and to establish a special Federal agency in order to save Jews. Why were we not aware of the existence of this tribe? The 'tribe' was excommunicated by the Jewish establishment. The 'tribe' saluted the disciples of Zeev Jabotinsky in America, the members of the Irgun. To work with them was taboo. Their activists such as Hillel Kook (Peter Bergson), Shmuel Merlin or Yitzhak Ben-Ami, were defined as enemies of the Jewish people. Their outcry against the silence was defined as a pro-Semitic act. Jewish leaders informed on them to the F.B.I. But F.D.R.'s own Minister of Interior, Harold Ickes, decided to join this tribe in order to save America from shame. This is a fact that many historians tend to ignore and omit from their textbooks. Indeed, the historiography loves to ignore this tribe, a tribe of many famous American Jews and Gentile alike, who believed that the Holocaust is not a Jewish problem but a humanitarian one. And they, together with Ickes, tried to change history.

One must learn about Ickes' (1874-1952) linkage to Jews in order to understand why this Minister of Interior refused to be a bystander to the Holocaust. Why he protested against the silence and joined the tribe and the Bergson Group (the Irgun delegation in America 1939-1948). It should be noted that Jewish leaders such as Dr. Stephen Wise pressed Ickes to leave the Bergson Group. But their efforts failed because Ickes and many other American gentile celebrities understood that America must be something for rescuing Jews from the Nazi inferno.

Ickes was a person with a high degree of moral integrity. He was a great new dealer and a friend of Henry Wallace. Ickes had many Jewish friends. He was upset by the rise of American anti-Semitism in the 1930's. At the same time, he became an American tough enemy of Nazi Germany. He wanted to cut all American relations in Germany and often annoyed the State Department. He was aware of the fate of the Jews in Germany and in Europe as well. But, first of all, he believed that America must deal with its own native anti-Semitism. In his memoirs, The Secret Diaries of Harold Ickes, The Inside Struggle (Vol. 11 Simon and Schuster, New York, 1954) he recorded his meeting with the famous Zionist Justice Brandeis on Dec. 3, 1938.

The following is the original idea of combating American anti-Semitism: I spoke to him of cowardice on the part of the rich Jews in America. I said that I would like to get two or three hundred of them together in a room and tell them that they couldn't hope to save their money by meekly accepting whatever humiliation others chose to impose upon them. I pointed out that the Catholic minority of this country, because it was well organized, active, and aggressive, was able to protect people of that religion and get more recognition for them then numerically they were entitled to.

Justice Brandeis agreed with me completely. He said there was a certain type of rich Jew who was a coward. According to him, there are German Jews, and he spoke of them with the same contempt that I feel for them. Ickes used to have a good relation with Jews in Chicago. Often he was invited as a guest speaker at Jewish organizations. He was also the spokesman of many other victims of hate. He was a friend of the African-American. He was the defender of the weak. But first of all, he fought against the Nazis. He fought against American corporations which had relations with the Nazis. And he always spoke in public against Nazism and Fascism as well. He also urged his many Jewish friends, such as Henry Morgenthau, to be more active in Jewish issues. He promoted Jews in his own ministry. For example, Abe Portas.

Ickes was among those who wanted to recall Ambassador Joseph Kennedy from London who claimed that the American democracy is Jewish... Ickes wrote in his diary that he was surprised by the fact of the lack of Jewish activism against anti-Semitism. He wrote that the Jews should not wait for F.D.R. to do their job of defense inside America. He suggested that the Jewish multi-millionaires should finance the establishment of a Jewish secret organization which would combat anti-Semitism in America. This organization would target all of the anti-democratic and racist movements. This organization will mobilize young, talented agents and fighters.

Ickes promised Federal cooperation with such an organization. Ickes believed that the Jews must take their fate into their own hands. They should not wait for F.D.R. to act. This idea explains his activities with the Bergson Group which established the only mass movement for rescue of Jews from the Holocaust. Ickes was the chairman of this group in Washington, D.C. He joined the group in July 1943 as a special conference of emergency to save the Jews of Europe. He signed all the declarations and petitions of this group. He was for activism. He tried to influence his government when many Jewish leaders and organizations took the posture of bystanding and indifference. People such as Ickes saved America from shame. Of course, it was not enough to stop the Holocaust or to save the millions of Jews from death but others were silent. They did not cry out. They did not demonstrate in front of the White House.

In response to the refugee problem of the 1930's, Ickes wrote that he tried to find haven for the resettlement of Jews. We do not know the full story but we should note that Ickes tried to bring Jews to the Virgin Islands and also to Alaska, which was then only a territory and not a state. But many objected to this suggestion. Who cared about Jews? Even the Jewish governor of Alaska in that time objected to this idea of resettlement of Jews.

Ickes interest in the plight of Jewish refugees and in their resettlement pushed him to show interest in the Oswego Plan. America decided to bring 1,000 refugees from Italy to this country in 1944, but only 82 came together with Ruth Gruber, an unknown official in the Minister of Interior. Not all these refugees were Jewish! In the mini-series all of them are Jews. These refugees came with the idea that they will be sent back to their original countries. America gave them only temporary haven or shelter. They were under the control of a relocation agency, the same one which handled the Japanese, the citizen ones in California. The refugees were settled in an empty military camp. They were isolated until the war was over on May 8, 1945. Some refugees voluntarily left America but the majority managed to adjust their status and became successful American citizens. Some of them even became celebrities.

The Oswego story should not minimize the American silence. On the other hand, from the vantage point of F.D.R.'s behavior in the Holocaust Era and from the vantage point of the Jewish establishment's behavior, in comparison, Harold Ickes did save America from shame.

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