Published on Apr 2, 2014 A Voice Among the Silent: The Legacy of James G. McDonald is the first documentary to tell the remarkable story of McDonald's efforts, revealed in his recently discovered diaries, to warn the world of Adolf Hitler's plans for the Jews.
The documentary was shown at the Begin Center on Sunday Evening. In addtion to the movie we listened and were able to ask questions to the director Shuli Eshel and historian Dr. Rafael Medoff. Among the most controversial questions was the role of Rooselvelt in Saving Jews during World War Two. This requires an additional blog so I will talk about it in a future blog
James mcdonald and the Jews: From abandonment to statehood
Seventy years ago this month, the same McDonald arrived in Tel Aviv as the first US envoy to the newborn State of Israel that had arisen from the ashes of the Shoah. By SHULI ESHEL July 28, 2018 22:20
At a conference in France eighty years ago this month, US diplomat James G. McDonald watched in frustration as representatives of governments from around the world essentially decided to do nothing to help Europe's Jews on the eve of the Holocaust.
Seventy years ago this month, the same McDonald arrived in Tel Aviv as the first US envoy to the newborn State of Israel that had arisen from the ashes of the Shoah. The two anniversaries serve as fitting bookends to the most consequential decade in modern Jewish history.
McDonald, a Catholic from the Midwest, was a foreign policy scholar and journalist with no particular interest in Jewish affairs. That all changed when McDonald secured an interview with new chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler in 1933.
McDonald was the first American to hear Hitler explicitly vow to destroy the Jews.
In the years to follow, McDonald devoted himself to the cause of Europe's Jewish refugees. In 1933, he was appointed as the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Coming from Germany. But he resigned just two years later over the refusal of the international community to open its doors to Jewish refugees.
One of the sources of his frustration was president Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he asked for a US contribution of $10,000 to support the commission's work. It was a small token sum that McDonald hoped would encourage other countries to contribute. FDR promised to give the funds, but never came through with them.
The brutal persecution of Jews in Austria following the German annexation of Austria in March 1938 led to an outpouring of calls from Congress and journalists for US intervention. In response, President Roosevelt invited thirty-three countries to send delegates to a conference in Evian, France, to discuss the refugee crisis. McDonald was appointed as a member of the American delegation.
FDR made it clear even before the conference opened that "no nation would be expected or asked to receive a greater number of emigrants than is permitted by its existing legislation," and that the US was not ready to take any special steps, either. "We knew that inevitably Evian would create bitter disappointment," McDonald remarked soon after the conference.
And so it did. Delegate after delegate declared that their countries would not admit more Jews.
The Australian representative announced that "as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one."
Golda Meir, who attended Evian as an observer, said afterwards that "nothing was accomplished at Evian except phraseology... There is only one thing I hope to see before I die, and that is that my people should not need expressions of sympathy any more."Recommended videosPowered by AnyClip Now Playing
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Beginning in the spring of 1938, McDonald also served as chairman of the President's Advisory Committee on Political Refugees. FDR told McDonald he would consider seeking a $150 million Congressional appropriation to resettle Jewish refugees.
Once again, Roosevelt broke his promise; he never requested those funds.
Although the president usually ignored the committee's advice, and the administration's severe immigration policy made their work extremely difficult, McDonald and his colleagues helped bring over 2,000 Jewish refugees to safety in the United States during those years.
Oddly, McDonald's heroic efforts are not mentioned at all in the new exhibit on "Americans and the Holocaust" that recently opened at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C. The curators say there wasn't enough room in the 5,400-square foot exhibit to mention McDonald.
That's hard to believe.
Many people suspect – with justification, I think – that the real reason the Museum curators omitted McDonald is because his story reflects poorly on President Roosevelt's record. A major theme of the exhibit is that FDR did his best to help the Jews, but not much could be done. McDonald's diaries prove otherwise. They were donated to the US Holocaust Museum by his daughters and published in four volumes from 2007 to 2017. Maybe the curators should have consulted the diaries when they were preparing the exhibit.
McDonald arrived in Tel Aviv in July 1948, as the first US government representative to the new Jewish State. At crucial stages during the War of Independence, he intervened with president Harry Truman to avert sanctions that the State Department wanted to impose because Israel refused to surrender the Negev.
In February 1949, President Truman appointed James McDonald the first United States Ambassador to Israel.
After his years of bitter experience trying to stand up against the world's abandonment of the Jews, McDonald keenly understood the need for the Jewish state to have a defensible southern border, so that the fate of the Jewish people would never again be subject to the mercies of the international community. This month's anniversaries of the Evian conference and McDonald's service in Israel offer poignant reminders of that powerful historical lesson.
The writer is an Israeli-American filmmaker who has produced and directed critically acclaimed documentaries about Jewish women in sports, Israeli-Palestinian women peacemaking efforts, and the Holocaust.
McDonald Street in Netanya from Grapvine December 19.
THERE'S A McDonald Street in Netanya and another spelled MacDonald in Ramat Gan, but they are both named for James Grover McDonald, an American who was a truly righteous Christian who deserves an honored place in Jewish history. Sixth-generation Jerusalemite Shuli Eshel, a documentary filmmaker who now lives in Chicago, has made a film about McDonald, which has been shown in Israel before but has not yet made as broad an impact as it should. The film was screened again this past Sunday as a prelude to the 10th of Tevet, which is a day of mourning for victims of the Holocaust who have no graves and whose date of death is unknown.
But there was another reason for screening the film at this time, and that was to expand the wave of protest at the omission of McDonald's name from the comprehensive exhibition that has been on view in Washington since April under the title "Americans and the Holocaust." Eshel and numerous Holocaust scholars, including Holocaust historian Dr. Rafael Medoff, have written letters to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to protest the omission, but have not received a satisfactory answer, though Medoff, who was in Israel for the screening at the Begin Heritage Center, surmised that to include McDonald might have cast president Franklin D. Roosevelt in a negative light.
What baffled him and Eshel was that the museum had co-published two books based on McDonald's detailed diaries, which he dictated to his secretary every day. The information added valuable data to historical records of the Holocaust years, what preceded them and what came after.
McDonald, who was the first US ambassador to Israel, was the son of a German mother, who taught him to speak fluent German. He also looked very Aryan. Thus, when he went to Germany in 1933 and met Hitler, the latter actually told him how he was going to get rid of the Jews. McDonald conveyed this information to Roosevelt, but it didn't move him to do much if anything to save the Jews of Europe.
According to Medoff, Roosevelt did not have to do anything special to save some 190,000 Jews from Germany. He just had to abide by the regular quota of immigrants from Germany – but he didn't. Roosevelt and his advisers looked for any excuses to keep Jews away from American territory, said Medoff.
Because she had to interview people in the United States and Israel, in addition to researching archive footing, and was working on a low budget, it took Eshel three-and-a-half years to make the film, which is called A Voice Among the Silent: The Legacy of James G. McDonald. She was grateful to the McDonald family, which she said was very cooperative and supportive, and moreover liked the result. Although Eshel has made several documentaries of Jewish interest, she had never tackled the Holocaust before, but believes that this film is her best work.
The screening and post-screening discussion were sponsored by the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, the Israel Council on Foreign Relations and the World Jewish Congress.
The sad thing is that so many Israelis and so many Jews in the Diaspora have never heard of James G. McDonald, and are unaware of his superhuman efforts before and during the Holocaust on behalf of the Jewish people, whom he code-named refugees, and later for the phoenix that rose from the ashes to help create the State of Israel. Perhaps Yad Vashem or one of the smaller Holocaust memorial museums in Israel will make up for Washington's omission, and will have a yearlong James G. McDonald exhibition in Israel – which of course the US ambassador would be invited to open.
Letter to My Cremated Father By Michael Chighel
Dear Tata, the cremation of your body has singed my soul.
And so I am compelled to seek some relief from the burn in the composition of a letter to you aimed across the great divide between the World of Mendacity in which I am still residing and the World of Truth in which you are now a blessed new citizen.
You never liked phonies and poseurs. I don't doubt that, now, seeing me as you do from the World of Truth, the artificial nature of this letter is entirely obvious. My complex motives, noble and ignoble, are transparent to you, more so than they are to me. Let's be honest about at least one motive. I have an agenda. Since your passing, I have corresponded with three fellow Jews asking me for advice. Their parents have informed them of their plans to have their bodies cremated upon death. I advised them to share their anxieties with their parents before it's too late. My hope is that this letter, an artifice to ease my double grief over your death and cremation, will reach other Jews in the same plight, children and parents.
I suppose this letter is my ersatz shiva. May it be the catalyst of real shivas that will otherwise have been unrealized.
Let me begin by sympathizing, as best I can, with your decision.
You specified in your will that, upon your demise, your dead body is to be completely burnedYou specified in your will that, upon your demise, your dead body is to be completely burned, that a gentile funeral home is to expedite the incineration, and that the resulting ashes should be disposed of in any way the executor of the will deems fitting.
In a way, I admire your bold decision. I am your son, after all. I know how you felt about Jewish traditions, how little stock you put by them. You were a thinking man. It's from you that I learned to think myself. You taught me how to see the beauty in a Euclidean proof in geometry. You explained to me how a car motor works. You taught me to trust in my intellect. To take the deepest pleasure in the feeling of wonder. Later, on my way toward attaining a PhD in philosophy, I would learn how Aristotle said that all thinking originates in a sense of wonder. You never read Aristotle yourself. But you understood him instinctively.
(Perhaps you're attending Aristotle's lectures now? But no, I don't believe it. I believe your infinite thirst for knowledge has drawn you willy-nilly into the great hall in which the soul of Rabbi Akiva imparts the greatest secrets of the Torah.)
You loved Reason. And in your passion for the rational, you found it necessary to dismiss the Torah. I understand. I myself, your reason-loving son, had to undergo the most grueling mental exercises, and the most purgatorial gestures of self-introspection, in order to come to terms with the non-rational truths of the Torah. It was only after reaching the outermost limits of rational thinking—with the help of philosophers like Immanuel Kant, Thomas Kuhn, Jacques Derrida—that I discovered the very real possibility, indeed the very reality, of the non-rational. I don't blame you. Nor am I patronizing you. ("Patronize": from pater, father. Can a Jewish son ever really patronize his father? Your mind begat mine.) I am arguing with you. It was you who taught me to argue with you. You would be so proud of me when I was able to disagree with you. You'd frown and shake your head and smile a big secret smile.
You loved Reason, yes, and in your love for Reason, you concluded that the Torah is nothing but a product of human imagination. That there is nothing like life after death. That the soul is nothing but a wondrous symphony of electrical impulses played in the grey concert hall of the brain. That once the concert ended and all these impulses become quiet, nothing remains but a useless lump of organic material to be disposed of like an old automobile beyond repair.
I truly admire the fierceness of your conclusion. I admire your intolerance for magical thinking, for voodoo. I admire the extraordinary existentialist's courage with which you faced the profound meaninglessness of reality—which is to say, a reality that you felt to be ultimately meaningless. You waved your fist against fate in the manner of a Greek tragic hero? (Is that why you died so close to Hanukkah—Kislev 21? Is Rabbi Akiva presently explaining how the Maccabee victory was a victory over the Tyranny of Reason and the Hellenistic Empire of Tragic Heroism?)
If I could have entered into a philosophical discussion with you about such questions, I would have. But you were not impressed by philosophical ideas. You left those to me.
And now I see a different route I might have taken, a route to a different conversation, a route I never saw before. I see it so clearly now because of my pain. My pain makes me lucid. So let me say what I should have said. Let others hear it on behalf of your memory ….
I wish I could have buried your body. I wish I could have strewn earth upon your shroud.I wish I could have buried your body. I wish I could have strewn earth upon your shroud. I wish I could have recited Kaddish by your grave. I wish I could have invoked the Great Name, the Shmei Rabba, over your body's quiet enfoldment in the earth and its return to its element.
Instead of earth, you chose fire. Fire too is a primordial element, yes. But fire mocks. When our people were condemned to a Final Solution during your childhood which you spent in Siberia, those who murdered them did so with a double mockery. They poisoned them with gas like an exterminator killing insects. And they incinerated their remains in fire like a garbageman burning waste.
I feel—I don't know, but I feel—that you opted for cremation in some kind of unfathomable solidarity with those of us whose bodies were cremated in Auschwitz. I heard of a survivor who had intended to make such a posthumous gesture. I think it was an unconscious solidarity in your case. The heroic gesture, again, of a tragic hero. In light of your decision, I can't help but feel that the crematoria of Auschwitz are still with us. Golus is something the Jew suffers deep, deep within. You accepted the Golus. You made room for Auschwitz. I wish you could have heard and believed the words of the Rebbe: Golus is unacceptable! Auschwitz has no more place in this world, not even as little place as the tip of a single match head!
And I should have said something else. I should have told you about my need to mourn for you in the company of others. My need, yes, admittedly only mine, not yours, Tata. But you loved me so much, surely you would have acquiesced to my need, the need of your son whom you loved with a boundless love, even if you would have disagreed with the validity of this need …. My need to sit shiva for you—to sit and mourn in the company of family and friends, to talk about you, to share memories of you.
Putting my hands around my father in New York, circa 1976.
As you know, dear Tata, I cry when I am alone. I weep like a boy. (You remember the sound?) I think about you. I look through old photos of you. I even talk to you. And I weep. I mourn. Nothing can take away my private mourning. But it is just that—private. Why should I want to mourn publicly as well? Is private mourning not enough? Indeed, isn't private mourning more genuine than public mourning?
Yes, that's just it. Public mourning all too easily becomes a spectacle, a maudlin charade. We who still reside in the World of Mendacity will sometimes take advantage of any occasion to get a little more attention, narcissistically, even a funeral or a memorial service. And yet, at the same time, we are social creatures, who naturally take comfort in the presence of family, friends and community.
And that's just it. The old and venerable Jewish tradition of a public comforting of mourners, the tradition of sitting shiva, is what gives legitimacy to public mourning. For a Jew, any other way of mourning publically must indeed be a farce. A shiva house alone, for a Jew, constitutes an authentic way to mourn in company, authentic because so very old, so utterly unoriginal.
Shiva is the final hammer blow that snaps shut the iron link in the chain of a family history.
You know very well, dear Tata, that I bear no resentment toward you. You know I adored you. The fact that I wish you had decided otherwise in no way diminishes my adoration for you or how dearly I will cherish your memory. It was your unbounded paternal love for me that made me so Jewish. Your love for me was fashioned in the image of G-d's love for His children. It was your own very Jewish upbringing that engendered this paternal love in you. What choice did I have but to take this infinite love to a G-d Himself, to an ahavat Hashem?
A photo of me and my father at my wedding in 2001.
I hope I always honored you properly in life. And I hope this open letter does you honor. Let no one imagine for a moment that you meant anything less to me than the earthly manifestation of divine love.
My prayer now is that our common Divine Father is taking you in His infinite paternal bosom, and that, from your heavenly perspective and station, you will move angelic forces to influence Jews contemplating cremation to think things through a notch more carefully. Intercede for us.
I miss your arms around me, Tata. Hug me now.
By Michael ChighelMore by this author Michael Chighel (Kigel) received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Toronto for his dissertation on the Book of Job, after a specialization in 20th-century French and German thought. In Canada he taught in the departments of philosophy and of Jewish studies at the universities of York, Queen's and Waterloo. He produced Passages and Messages for eleven seasons on Canadian television (CTS). Until this year he held the Rohr Chair of Jewish Studies at the Lauder Business School in Vienna, where he taught Torah, European ethics and political economy. He has translated a number of books and published various articles in Jewish thought. Michael and his family have made aliyah, and now live in Jerusalem.
See you tomorrow
Love Yehuda Lave
Rabbi Yehuda Lave
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