Rabbi Stephen Wise (1874-1949)
On August 28, 1942, Rabbi Stephen Wise received an alarming cable from London. It read in part: "IN FUHRER'S HEADQUARTERS PLAN DISCUSSED AND UNDER CONSIDERATION THAT ALL JEWS IN COUNTRIES OCCUPIED OR CONTROLLED [BY] GERMANY...SHOULD AFTER DEPORTATION AND CONCENTRATION IN EAST AT ONE BLOW BE EXTERMINATED." The message had originally been sent by Gerhart Riegner, the World Jewish Congress representative in Switzerland. It came to Wise because, as a leading figure in more than a dozen Jewish organizations, he was probably the most influential and well-respected American Jew of his generation. For the next three years, despite his age and deteriorating health, the rabbi devoted much of his energy to alerting the world to the plight of European Jewry and to urging the U.S. government to thwart Hitler's plans. He met with limited success. At the end of his life he would write of that struggle: "I have seen and shared deep and terrible sorrow. The tale might be less tragic if the help of men had been less scant and fitful."
The grandson of the politically liberal but religiously orthodox Chief Rabbi of Hungary, Wise was born in Budapest on March 17, 1874. Like his grandfather, Wise was a committed humanitarian. In his autobiography he wrote, "I was born into the in-many-ways brave postwar liberalism of the mid-nineteenth century of my adoptive country." And he remained, "an unshakable liberal" throughout his life. As a young rabbi in Portland, Oregon, his political convictions led him to fight for the introduction of a new child labor law, to speak out on behalf of striking workers, and later to become a vocal supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. The president's plan he said, "served the American people by daring to use America's resources for all its people."
But perhaps Wise's strongest political commitment was to the establishment of a Jewish state. He attributed this to his father and to his first encounter with Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. The two men met in August of 1898 at the second world Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland. Years later Wise would write: "I stood before a young, bearded Jew of goodly stature, then somewhat under forty, who bore himself with the simplicity of a son of kings and prophets.... I felt at once a bond with him, apart from my unreserved acceptance of his leadership." In the final months of his life, Wise was to see the creation of Israel, although he died before he was able to set foot in the "Holy Land."
Wise was among the Jewish leaders who spoke out against Nazism shortly after Hitler came to power in 1933. In March of that year the American Jewish Congress organized a mass meeting in New York City's Madison Square Garden where Wise called for an immediate end to the anti-Semitism of the Third Reich. The Nazis responded by announcing further restrictions against the Jews, claiming these were ordered because of the "atrocity propaganda" by Jews in America. By the time Wise received the telegram from London more than nine years later warning of Hitler's plan to kill the Jews of Europe, his tireless anti-Nazi publicity campaign had achieved little to help German Jewry. Rather than opening its doors to Jews from Europe, the U.S. had tightened its immigration procedures.
News about Nazi atrocities had been trickling out of Europe since 1941. In July of that year, New York Yiddish dailies reported that the Nazis had slaughtered hundreds of Jews in Minsk, Lvov and other cities in the Soviet Union. In October, a "New York Times" story reported the Nazis had massacred up to 15,000 Jews in Galicia. And in May of 1942, an underground Jewish organization smuggled information out of Poland which estimated the Nazis had already killed 700,000 Polish Jews.
When Wise received Riegner's message in August of 1942 about the "Final Solution," he was shaken. Not knowing that the State Department had already received the same message, Wise forwarded a copy of the cable to Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles. Welles asked Wise not to release the information to the public until his department could confirm it, a process that took more than two months. On November 24th Wise called a press conference to announce the Nazis were deporting Jews throughout German-occupied territory to Poland for mass slaughter. The news was buried deep in the inside pages of U.S. newspapers.
In December, Wise persuaded President Roosevelt to meet with him and several other rabbis to discuss Hitler's horrifying plans. The delegation had few suggestions for White House action besides urging Roosevelt to "warn the Nazis that they will be held strictly accountable for their crimes." But by March, the American Jewish Congress under Wise's leadership had come up with an eleven-point program with specific rescue proposals that it presented at a "Stop Hitler Now" rally in New York. In the following weeks, Wise tried to capitalize on the mass meeting by sending letters to Roosevelt and every member of congress outlining the suggestions. But he met with little support. The reply back from the president was vague: "This government has moved and continues to move, so far as the burden of the war permits, to help the victims of the Nazi doctrines of racial, religious and political oppression."
During the rest of 1943, Wise did much to publicize the genocide the Nazis were perpetrating, but ultimately it was others who persuaded President Roosevelt that something could be done to rescue some of the remaining Jews in Europe. In January 1944 President Roosevelt was convinced to establish the War Refugee Board, after members of the Treasury Department presented him with a scathing report outlining the State Department's history of obstructing rescue, and after members of the radical Zionist Bergson group were winning political support in Congress for an independent government rescue agency. Some observers at the time suggested that Wise's own effectiveness may have been diminished by the fact that he shouldered too many responsibilities for the American Jewish community. Others have also criticized him for his unshakable faith that FDR would do everything within his power for Europe's Jews. Nonetheless, whatever his failings, when he died in 1949, Wise would be remembered as "one of the greatest fighters for democracy and human rights of our generation."