Jay Winik has accomplished much with 1944 - FDR and the Year That Changed History. For one thing, he mimics the message of the book in its title and cover. Nowhere in the title, on the cover, or anywhere else on the jacket of the book will you find the word 'Holocaust'. When you pick up this book, you are led to believe you are going to be sitting down to read a nice little political/military history. Then comes the kick-in-the-stomach moment when you realize this work is instead primarily about America's lack of action in taking down the Nazi death camps in 1944. Winik's thesis is that Franklin Roosevelt was focused solely on winning the war and never sought an 'Emancipation Proclamation' moment to turn World War II into something greater, as Abraham Lincoln had done against slavery during the Civil War. Thus, the book's title and jacket reflect the way FDR would like the book to read - focusing on the war - while Winik's inside text shows the hard truth that 1944 could have been about much more than winning a war.
Winik jarringly introduces Auschwitz into the narrative roughly 100 pages in with the story of an Auschwitz inmate, Rudolf Vrba. While at the death camp, Vrba was able to survive and reach a point where he was a registrar responsible for keeping records. Vrba began to keep his own statistics and calculations to determine the number of mass murders being committed daily. Winik writes, "His memory was phenomenal. He made a mental note of each transport that arrived, and carefully recorded the number of people." In 1944, suddenly Vrba noted an expansion in the size of the camp. He learned from an SS guard that a large contingent of Hungarian Jews was expected to arrive shortly. Vrba estimated there were 1,000,000 Jews in Hungary.
Vrba wanted to save as many of those Jews as possible. To do so would mean getting word to the world about what was going to happen. Vrba realized the only way to do this was to escape. A successful attempt could only be undertaken, Vrba felt, if it was done in stages. An initial escape while remaining on the grounds [hidden, obviously] was necessary for a few days until the search died down. Winik writes, "After a high alert, the troops and dogs would control the camp for only three days and nights. If the escapee wasn't caught by then, the Germans retrenched, assuming the inmate had broken out." Vrba therefore believed that a man who could remain hidden beyond the inner perimeter for three days and three nights had a a reasonable chance to escape.
After two failed attempts to escape [in which both of his partners in the attempt were caught and killed], Vrba met Fred Wetzler. Vrba and Wetzler devised a plan to escape and first hide in construction materials [wooden planks] for three days until the main search was over. Basically, they would hide in plain sight. On April 7, 1944, Vrba and Wetzler began their escape to the wooden planks. They fled from the woodpile on April 10. The Vrba-Wetzler break became big news for the Germans [even Heinrich Himmler was briefed on the escape]. After a harrowing journey in which they were almost captured, they crossed into Slovakia on April 21, 1944. A farmer helped to get them to Zilina, to meet Jewish leaders there.
But Vrba's battle was really just beginning. On April 25, he met with the Jewish Council and told them about the horrors - but at first no one believed him. Jewish leaders at that moment believed the Jews were in prison camps, yes; but that they were still very much alive. Because of his record-keeping, however, when Vrba was able to name names and give the Council minute details on the operations of the camp, the Council was convinced. The Council helped him create a 60-page, single-spaced document that came to be known as the Vrba-Wetzler Report. The document provided detailed sketches of how Auschwitz and Birkenau were organized. Vrba and Wetzler hoped that with the publication of the evidence, the Hungarian Jews could be saved.
That there was any Jewish community left in Europe by early-1944 was a miracle. But, since the outset of the war, the pro-Nazi Hungarian government had largely allowed their Jewish community of 750,000 to exist unmolested. As he proceeded with the Final Solution, however, Adolf Hitler was adamant: Hungary's Jews must be deported. When the Hungarian government continued to stall, Hitler installed another government willing to do his bidding - on March 19, 1944 - and the crackdown on Hungary's Jews began. The first deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz began May 14, 1944.
Sadly, an opportunity was missed a few weeks later. On June 6, 1944, both British and American intelligence agencies were pouring over air reconnaissance photos taken earlier that day - D-Day, Winik writes the photos, "showed in chilling detail the buildings at the main campus of Auschwitz. Three photographs in particular revealed the death chambers in Birkenau. Yet the analysts skipped over the apparatus of death. As it happens, their superiors had given them no reason to examine that part of the camp closely. They instead focused on their actual mission: the nearby synthetic rubber and oil plants part of the so-called oil war. Those targets were critical to the air campaign and intended to strangle Germany's war machine."
It is at this point - roughly the middle of the book - that Winik goes back to look at the events leading up to 1944, particularly as it relates to the Final Solution.
While the book is an indictment of Franklin Roosevelt [as you'll see], two administration figures are prominent villains: Breckenridge Long and John McCloy. In 1939, Long was at the State Department as an Assistant Secretary of State responsible for overseeing immigration and the all-critical Visa Division. Long believed that all refugees were potential saboteurs and constituted a menace to U.S. national security. Long wrote a secret, critical interdepartmental memo in June 1940. Winik writes, "From the memo Long ordered, 'we can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States. We could do this by simply advising our councils to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postponed and postponed and postponed the granting of the visas.'" According to Winik, "As a consequence, Long's attitude affected far more than just a visa policy: it helped define the government's entire response to the European Jewish crisis. So long as he had his way, the United States would remain a timorous bystander."
In Germany, a key moment was reached on January 20, 1942, at a conference on the Final Solution. Even to most of the Nazi hierarchy in attendance, the idea of transporting all the Jews of Europe to the eastern territories and then killing them seemed like lunacy. Not from a moral standpoint, but from a logistical one. But Winik writes that there was one man at the conference to whom this task seemed quite possible. Thus, at the meeting it was decided that Adolf Eichmann would be put in charge of coordinating all aspects of the Final Solution. Work camps were converted into concentration camps. There were five at first: Belzec, Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno, and Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Two years prior to the Vrba-Wetzler Report there had been an effort to expose the horrors of the Final Solution. This first warning came from within the Nazi hierarchy itself. Eduard Schulte was a high-ranking German industrialist with ties to the top echelon of the Nazi government. As he learned more and more about the plans for the Final Solution, Schulte became determined - and soon obsessed - to gather information and undertake a dangerous plan of action to undermine the Nazi regime's plans.
Schulte was appalled. But he wasn't prepared for what he learned about a dinner hosted by Himmler. An attendee told Schulte that at the dinner - on July 17, 1942 - Himmler told the gathering of the plan to exterminate all of European Jewry. Schulte was stunned. Eliminate them? All of them? The numbers were incomprehensible. Schulte traveled to Zurich, on July 30, and met with a contact there. Schulte told the contact everything about all the plans and urged the contact to get the information immediately both to leading Jewish organizations in America and to the U.S. government itself. Schulte was clear: if immediate action wasn't taken, the Jewish people would be wiped out. Schulte stressed, "that this information came from unimpeachable sources in the upper reaches of the Nazi regime, but that otherwise the plan was and shrouded in the greatest secrecy."
The contact suggested to Schulte that the information be shared with Benno Sagalowitz, a prominent Jewish journalist respected "in all the right circles" in Switzerland. Schulte agreed the story should be shared but refused to meet with Sagalowitz personally - the contact would need to pass on the information. When Sagalowitz was briefed, he decided to bring the information to a contact of his, Gerhart Riegner of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva. Sagalowitz and Riegner talked for five hours about Schulte's information and wrote what would come to be known as the "Riegner Telegram". They didn't realize that the killing had already begun. By this time the Nazis had already killed 1,500,000 Jews.
By late-August 1942, Rabbi Stephen Wise, one of the United States' most prominent Jews and a close personal ally of President Roosevelt, had read the Riegner Telegram. He secured a meeting on August 28, 1942, with U.S. Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles. Wise suggested to Welles that the Riegner Telegram be brought directly to President Roosevelt's attention. Because the State Department continued to downplay the possibility that the Riegner Telegram was real, Wells requested that Wise keep its contents under wraps until it could be confirmed. As Winik writes, "Faithfully, Wise relented. He did so having no idea how long the government would drag it's heels. In the meantime the Nazis' roundups went on, the cattle cars continued to release those prisoners who survived the journey, and hundreds and thousands of Jews were being murdered each day."
On November 24, 1942, Welles met again with Wise, this time to tell him that he believed that the Riegner Telegram was real. According to Winik, Welles said, "There is no exaggeration. These documents confirm and justify your deepest fears." But Wells insisted to Wise that he - Welles - could not release this information to the news media himself. Instead, Welles said that Wise should do so. Wise agreed and promptly called a press conference early that evening. The New York Times and Washington Post - and 17 other newspapers - showed up. Wise walked the reporters through the details in the Riegner Telegram: the Nazis were transporting Jews from cities all across Europe to Poland for annihilation. Wise intoned, "Of the half million Jews in Warsaw, only one hundred thousand remained. And the Nazi extermination campaign had already wiped out 2 million Jews." In the article printed the next day, the camp 'Auschwitz' was mentioned by name for the first time.
No longer able to avoid the unpleasant task, Roosevelt agreed to meet with Wise and his colleagues on December 8, 1942. It was one of the rare face-to-face discussions FDR had with any Jewish leaders about the Holocaust. Wise gave Roosevelt a 20-page memorandum entitled Blueprint for Extermination, which gave a horrifying summation of the Nazis' activities, including a country-by-country analysis provided by Riegner. Roosevelt's reply left little doubt that he had already been fully briefed on the Final Solution, or at least on what the U.S. government and Wise knew about it.
Here, Winik is critical of Wise and the others for not being more specific with Roosevelt. Roosevelt asked "were there any other recommendations?" Wise and his colleagues had none. Beyond the request for a warning [to the Germans] and a commission, they had settled on no other specific requests. As Winik writes, "They should've known better; the president's time did not come lightly, and this was their one opportunity." Winik, however, saves his greatest criticism for FDR as, "there was one thing in his power that Roosevelt did not offer to do. Unwilling to detract from the war effort or to risk political capital, he neither offered to make a speech personally denouncing the Final Solution nor offered to make it a topic for a fireside chat, as he did with such wartime issues as rationing and rubber. Nor did he offer to undertake anything to counteract the State Department's obstructionism."
That obstructionism was best demonstrated on February 10, 1943, with a cable now known as Telegram 354. It bore the Secretary of State's name and was sent to the Bern embassy in Switzerland. The document instructed the legation to cease transmitting future reports on Nazi atrocities coming from private individuals unless there were "extraordinary circumstances". The real intent, Winik says, "was to impede the flow of information from Europe to the United States about the ongoing Holocaust. In effect, the State Department was now using the machinery of government to prevent, rather than facilitate, the rescue of the Jews."
If the State Department would not move, others would. Throughout 1943, a lower-level bureaucrat in the Treasury Department went to work on a document. When he was done, on December 25, 1943, the man - Josiah DuBois, Jr. - delivered to the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, a memorandum entitled, Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews. In his report, DuBois wrote, "One of the greatest crimes in history, the slaughter of the Jewish people in Europe, is continuing unabated." He wrote of "the tragic history of this government's handling of this matter" and the fact that officials in the State Department "have not only failed to use the governmental machinery at their disposal to rescue Jews from Hitler, but have even gone so far as to use this governmental machinery to prevent the rescue of those Jews." Winik writes,"He laid out in shocking detail the chronology of the government's indifference, complicity, or obstructionism (or outright antisemitism), and prominently mentioned the Riegner Telegram and Schulte's efforts." DuBois chillingly concluded his report, "If men of the temperament and philosophy of [Breckenridge] Long continue in control of immigration administration, we may as well take off that plaque from the Statue of Liberty and black out the lamp beside the golden door."
Stunned, Morgenthau decided he had to bring DuBois' report to Roosevelt. Morgenthau thought his best bet was to impress upon Roosevelt that - if he did nothing - he would go down in history bearing the shared responsibility for the extermination of an entire people.
On January 16, 1944, Morgenthau, his general counsel Randolph Paul, and aide John Pehle met with FDR, bearing a copy of the DuBois report, as well as a copy of a proposed Executive Order that would set up an agency to tackle the issue from the refugee angle. Although he defended Long, FDR agreed to the proposal. The new agency would be led by Morgenthau, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and Secretary of War Henry Stimson. On January 22, 1944, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9417, formally establishing the War Refugee Board [WRB].
If Breckenridge Long was the villain in the story to this point, John J. McCloy assumed that title from 1944 until the liberation of the camps. For it was McCloy - the man most responsible for the Japanese-American internment camps - who became the point man for the War Department regarding what - if anything - was to be done to try to save the Jews inside or bound for Auschwitz.
Bombing the camps was one solution. Despite the fact that this was possible, no actual study of the military feasibility of bombing the rail lines, or of any comparable measures to slow the deportations, was ever conducted. As Winik writes, "In fact, the United States would conduct an intense air war against Germany's synthetic fuel plants in that same region [Auschwitz] in the weeks to come; frequently these attacks were close to the death camps themselves." Winik claims that such bombings occurred August 7 and on August 20. In addition, Winik says that United States planes flying reconnaissance above Auschwitz took aerial photographs of the camps in 1944 on April 4, June 26, August 9, August 12, and August 25. Winik says, "had these images been carefully examined - they were not - the analysts could have pinpointed the gas chambers, the crematoriums, the railway sightings, the trains in the platforms, the huts in the women's camp, and even the specially landscaped garden created to conceal the gas chambers. Taken in bright sunlight, the photographs of August 25 particularly standout....[and] visible is something quite startling: a snake-line of Jews trudging on their way from a cattle car to a gas chamber. Moving across the frame they are hauntingly visible."
At the Treasury Department, in early November 1944, John Pehle, Assistant to Henry Morgenthau stumbled upon the Vrba-Wetzler Report - more than six months after the two escapees had first dictated it. Digging further, Pehle uncovered two other, corroborative reports. To this point, Pehle had agreed with McCloy in resisting the bombing plans. After reading these documents, however, this made him hesitant no longer. Pehle wrote a strong memo to McCloy outlining why the bombing had to happen. McCloy responded on November 18, writing that the bombings, "would necessitate a hazardous round-trip flight on escorted of approximately 2,000 miles over enemy territory". Winik notes that McCloy makes no reference to the Foggia airbase in Italy, which reduced the distance by 700 miles. [Winik says when the Allies captured Foggia in October 1943, "it enabled them finally to employ heavy bombers over the Balkans, over Austria, and even Poland - including the area around Auschwitz."] He ignored the fact the round-trip had already been routinely carried out many times by U.S. planes bombing industrial targets throughout the Auschwitz region." Winik thunders, "had McCloy ushered the policy to bomb in mid-August , some 100,000 Hungarian Jews almost certainly would've been given a reprieve from the gas chamber [which would've been destroyed]. If the decision had been made earlier - around July 7 - 50,000 more would've been spared."
The truth, the numbers, would begin becoming widely known as the Allies uncovered the remains of the camps. Ohrdruf was liberated by Americans on April 4, 1945. Here, there were 10,000 survivors but many died in the coming days. Among those freed was a man named Charles Payne - a great uncle of President Barack Obama.. On April 12, three American generals - Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, and Omar Bradley - came to see the camp. Patton vomited at what he saw.
Although men like Long and McCloy were instrumental in the obstruction, Winik places responsibility for many of these deaths on Roosevelt. Winik writes, "Roosevelt spoke many fine words and much soaring praise for democracy and human dignity...yet there was no moment when he unequivocally made World War II about the vast human tragedy occurring in Nazi-controlled Europe, about the calculated efforts to wipe out an entire people from the Earth."
Why? Ultimately that is the question the book asks. Winik asks, "why had so little imagination or effort been devoted to rescuing the Jews, as opposed to the imagination and effort that was put into covering up their terrible fate [by the State Department]? Why was this president, who so masterfully was able to give a lift to America's hopes and mobilize popular energy to attack the Great Depression and lead the United States in another World War, coming so late to this matter? Why didn't this president, who so ably understood that his departments, Treasury and State and War, were 'large and far-flung and ingrained' in their practices;... and who by a contest of wills and skillful timing knew how to outwit and outsmart the foot-dragging bureaucracy and recalcitrant officials, why did he not do more earlier? Why, it was asked by critics; why, why?"