FDR, Ruth Gruber & Ronald Bleier
- FDR, Ruth Gruber and me: Zionists stymie WWII rescue plan
by Ronald Bleier
From time to time I get into conversations which allow me to tell the
story of my family's immigration to the U.S. when I was an infant
during WWII. In the course of the war, President Franklin Delano
Roosevelt agreed to accept about 1000 mostly Jewish refugees into the
U.S. for temporary asylum. My parents, my brother and I were among
these refugees. We traveled to the U.S. by ship from Italy to New York
in August 1944. Upon arrival we were interned at an old army barracks
in Oswego, N.Y. for almost two years. (After the war, Congress passed,
and President Truman signed legislation that allowed us to remain in
A special hero of this story was a woman called Ruth Gruber, who had
been working in the Interior Dept under Harold Ickes. As she relates
in her book on the subject, Haven (1983, later made into a TV movie),
she bravely volunteered to be our liaison with the government, to join
us in Italy and accompany us to the U.S. Wonderfully capable and
compassionate, she was loved and revered by all for her untiring and
invaluable efforts on our behalf.
It so happens that Ms Gruber, now about 95 years old, is a New Yorker
and my family and I met her in the late 1980s in connection with a
reunion of the Oswego refugees. We met one evening at her apartment on
the West Side of Manhattan and then we went to dinner together. She
had written several books, among them a novel called Rebecca that I
happened to browse while at her apartment. I read the first page which
described an Arab raid on a terrified Zionist kibbutz in Palestine in
the pre-1948 period. It was clear that the story was written from the
Jewish settlers' point of view.
Some time after our dinner evening together, I telephoned Ms. Gruber
and raised the question of Zionism's record when it came to the human
and national rights of the Palestinians. The tone of our conversation
remained friendly, but she was very clear that there was little I
could say that would cause her to change her strong pro-Israeli and
In Haven, she tells the story of how she volunteered to join our
refugee group in wartime Italy, and she gives some background as to
how FDR made the decision to shelter 1,000 refugees. Upon receiving
permission to join the mission as our liaison, she did some research
in State Department files.
According to Gruber (Haven, Ch.2), President Roosevelt was forced into
making some kind of demonstration on behalf of European, especially
Jewish, refugees because of the embarrassing publication of wartime
cables from the U.S. Embassy in Switzerland to Washington relating to
what later became known as the Holocaust. According to Gruber, in
these documents, the State Department in Washington, D.C. revealed its
disinterest if not outright anti-Semitic hostility toward the Jewish
victims of Nazi persecution by ordering their colleagues in
Switzerland to discontinue sending Washington such news.
In Gruber's version, the subsequent shocking public disclosure of
these communications empowered members of the Jewish community to
apply to a reluctant (and she implies, anti-Semitic) President
Roosevelt, with a proposal to save hundreds of thousands of European
Jews. In Gruber's version, FDR finally agreed that the U.S. provide
temporary haven during the war for 1,000 refugees.
I believed Gruber's story and repeated it often to friends. Only later
did I learn that the very opposite was the truth. The real FDR was
very much aware of and troubled by the plight of the refugees and he
proposed a plan to save half a million or more. He envisioned an
agreement with such countries as the UK, Canada, Australia, and others
with the U.S. and the U.K. leading the way by each taking in 150,000
"displaced persons" as they were then called. FDR's emissary for this
plan managed to get agreement in principle from the British but in the
end the plan was vetoed by the Zionists. The Jewish leadership was
afraid that providing haven for European Jewish refugees anywhere but
Palestine would be at cross-purposes with the establishment of a
Jewish state there.
Noted anti-Zionist author Alfred Lilienthal tells the story of FDR's
failed plan to resolve the war refugee problem in his important and
effectively buried book What Price Israel.
President Roosevelt was deeply concerned with the plight of the
European refugees and thought that all the free nations of the world
ought to accept a certain number of immigrants, irrespective of race,
creed, color or political belief. The President hoped that the rescue
of 500,000 Displaced Persons could be achieved by such a generous
grant of a worldwide political asylum. In line with this humanitarian
idea, Morris Ernst, New York attorney and close friend of the
President went to London in the middle of the war to see if the
British would take in 100,000 or 200,000 uprooted people. The
President had reasons to assume that Canada, Australia and the South
American countries would gladly open their doors. And if such good
examples were set by other nations, Mr. Roosevelt felt that the
American Congress could be "educated to go back to our traditional
position of asylum." The key was in London. Would Morris Ernst succeed
there? Mr. Ernst came home to report, and this is what took place in
the White House (as related by Mr. Ernst to a Cincinnati audience in
Ernst: "We are at home plate. That little island [and it was during
the second Blitz that he visited England] on a properly representative
program of a World Immigration Budget, will match the United States up
Roosevelt: "150,000 to England150,000 to match that in the United
Statespick up 200,000 or 300,000 elsewhere, and we can start with
half a million of these oppressed people."
A week later, or so, Mr. Ernst and his wife again visited the President.
Roosevelt (turning to Mrs. Ernst): "Margaret, can't you get me a
Jewish Pope? I cannot stand it any more. I have got to be careful that
when Stevie Wise leaves the White House he doesn't see Joe Proskauer
on the way in." Then, to Mr. Ernst: "Nothing doing on the program. We
can't put it over because the dominant vocal Jewish leadership of
America won't stand for it."
"It's impossible! Why?" asked Ernst.
Roosevelt: "They are right from their point of view. The Zionist
movement knows that Palestine is, and will be for some time, a
remittance society. They know that they can raise vast sums for
Palestine by saying to donors, 'There is no other place this poor Jew
can go.' But if there is a world political asylum for all people
irrespective of race, creed or color, they cannot raise their money.
Then the people who do not want to give the money will have an excuse
to say 'What do you mean, there is no place they can go but Palestine?
They are the preferred wards of the world."
Morris Ernst, shocked, first refused to believe his leader and friend.
He began to lobby among his influential Jewish friends for this world
program of rescue, without mentioning the President's or the British
reaction. As he himself has put it: "I was thrown out of parlors of
friends of mine who very frankly said 'Morris, this is treason. You
are undermining the Zionist movement.' " He ran into the same
reaction amongst all Jewish groups and their leaders. Everywhere he
found "a deep, genuine, often fanatically emotional vested interest in
putting over the Palestinian movement" in men "who are little
concerned about human blood if it is not their own."
This response of Zionism ended the remarkable Roosevelt effort to
rescue Europe's Displaced Persons.
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