The Frightening Reality of Choice: Reflections on Holocaust Remembrance
by Ariella Bracha Waldinger
Free choice is one of G-ds premier gifts to mankind. We are called upon every single day to make choices whether mundane ones or life altering ones and these decisions have far reaching consequences. It has been said that making good choices is the greatest challenge of living and I believe that it is all too true. Thank G-d that for most of us, our choices do not bring into account the reality of life and death for others! BUT WHAT IF THEY DID?
Fortunately, Torah sources teach us to make our choices guided by profound wisdom, prayer and deep fore-thought. For extremely difficult choices, the Jewish nation has the added bonus of accessing the wisdom and guidance of our Rabbis and Sages. As Holocaust Remembrance Day is just a day away, I felt compelled to share a mind-blowing article representing, THE FRIGHTENING REALITY OF CHOICE AND ITS FAR REACHING CONSEQUENCES.
In the April 23rd, 2014 edition of the magazine Mishpacha, I came across an article that brought to mind the frightening reality of choice and how one can hold in his hands life and death. The article, written by Dr. Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington D.C. and author of 15 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust, is titled, “Choosing Art over Life”. I am quoting the exact words of the article in order to hold true to its accuracy. This well documented and factual article reveals that
In the spring of 1945, as plans were being drawn up for the use of the atomic bomb against Japan, US secretary of war Henry Stimson met with one of his senior deputies, assistant secretary of war John McCloy, to discuss an urgent question of military strategy. The Air Force had given Stimson a list of the Japanese cities that it felt should be targeted with the bomb. First on the list was the city of Kyoto. Stimson asks McCloy, “Would you consider me a sentimental old man if I removed Kyoto from the target cities for our bombers?” Stimson had visited Kyoto as a young man, and was so charmed by its ancient monuments and artwork that he returned to see it again on his honeymoon. He could not bear to see a center of historic cultural artifacts reduced to rubble. The reason for saving it had nothing to do with military necessity and this decision, to which the Air Force commanders objected, was overruled by Stimson. This decision was one of many instances during the war that US military strategy was altered or military resources diverted, for non-military reasons.
Months earlier, the same John McCloy had personally rejected Jewish organizations’ requests for U.S. planes to bomb Auschwitz or the railway lines leading to it. He told them military resources could not be diverted from the battlefield for non-military purposes such as striking the Nazi death camp- even though US bombers were hitting German oil factories less than 5 miles away and thus would not have had to be diverted at all.
Stimson, too, strongly opposed taking measures to aid Jewish refugees. He tried to block proposals to admit more Jews to the United States, arguing that they were “unassimilable” and would undermine America’s existing “racial stock.” Throughout the war, American Jewish organizations periodically asked Roosevelt administration officials to take steps to aid Europe’s Jews. The answer was almost always “NO.” The usual explanation was that it would divert from the war effort. Send food to Jews starving in the ghettos? That would undermine the Allies blockade of enemy territory. Transport Jewish refugees to havens in the West? All ships were needed for military purposes. Drop a few bombs on the gas chambers at Auschwitz? That would mean taking planes away from battle. Military needs had to come before humanitarian matters! Invoking “the war effort” was an effective way to end the discussion.
Jewish leaders, always sensitive to accusations that Jews were unpatriotic, would never risk pressing for something that America’s leaders considered a diversion from the war effort. Yet the truth is the Allies repeatedly diverted military resources or changed military plans for non-military purposes. For example, in response to pressure from American Catholics, President Roosevelt ordered the Air Force to restrict bombing raids over Rome, using risky pinpoint strikes instead of broader bombing in order to minimize damage to religious structures in or near the Vatican.
In another episode, the British set-aside ships to bring 20,000 Muslims on a religious pilgrimage from Egypt to Mecca. Additionally, Gen. George Patton diverted US troops in Austria to save 150 of the famous Lipizzaner dancing horses that were trapped between the American and German lines.
In March 1945, McCloy happened to be on the scene as advancing American troops approached the German town of Rothenberg. McCloy knew of Rothenberg’s meticulously preserved medieval architecture and monuments. Putting nonmilitary needs first, he ordered the generals on the battlefield to change their military plans in order to spare the town.
The extraordinary steps taken with regard to Kyoto, Rome and Rothenberg reflected the mindset within the Roosevelt administration which placed a high value on rescuing artwork and monuments from the devastation of World War II.
In June 1943, Pres. Roosevelt announced the establishment of the special U.S. government commission “for the protection and salvage of artistic and historic monuments in Europe.” Diverting military personnel to save Jewish refugees was unthinkable; diverting them to save paintings however, was another matter. Beginning in late 1943, small teams of American and British military personnel, many of them art experts or museum curators, set out across Allied controlled sections of Europe to locate paintings, sculptures and other artifacts the Nazis had stolen from art galleries, art museums and private collectors. The name for the group of men selected for this assignment was “The Monuments Men.” They actually intervened to prevent the US Army from carrying out military action that might damage famous architecture or monuments. Their work was fraught with danger and two of the rescuers were killed in the line of duty. They ultimately discovered hundreds of thousands of paintings that the Nazis had stashed away in obscure castles and salt mines.
The irony of discovering these valuable art pieces including a previously unknown work by Mark Chagall is not lost on the fact that the Roosevelt administration stalled on helping the famous artist to flee France and immigrate to America. Because of the delays, Chagall got caught in the police roundup of Jews in April 1941, and was put in prison. Due to the intervention of Hiram Bingham IV, a dissident US diplomat and vice-consul at the American Consulate in Marseille at the time, who took part in a secret effort to rescue Chagall and Varian Fry an American journalist, they got him out of prison and out of France in the nick of time. Three years later the same administration that showed so little interest in saving the painter, assigned military personnel to rescue more of his paintings.”
The tragic double standard that characterized US policy is perhaps best summed up in the 1978 poem “SILENCE” by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel:
What pains were taken to save cathedrals, museums, and monuments from destruction. Treasures of art must be preserved-they are the song of the human soul! And in the camps and streets of Europe mother and father and child lay dying, and many looked away! To look away from evil: Is this not the sin of all “good” people?
A movie called “The Monument Men” was produced by George Clooney to rave reviews. I wonder how audiences would feel if they knew the true story behind the art rescue efforts. Apparently, President Roosevelt was told that victory would have little meaning if the artistic treasures of Western civilization were lost in the fighting.
Artistic Treasures? Monuments? Versus LIFE
The FRIGHTENING REALITY OF CHOICE! Especially when we understand there are always consequences to our choices. Choose wisely my friends and choose good over evil to help eradicate its darkness. Please light a candle on April 16th, in honor of the six million Jews that perished.
For more information and essays from Dr. Rafael Medoff, go to: http://tabletmag.com/author/rafaelmedoff