How 80 years ago today the U.S., Great Britain abandoned the Jews of Europe


U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington, D.C., Nov. 9, 1943. Credit: National Archives and Records Administration.

Dr. Rafael Medoff, Special To The Jewish Light

The name “Bermuda” conjures up a variety of images. Tourists think of it as a tropical vacation site. Scientists ponder the disappearance of ships in the Bermuda Triangle. But for those concerned with the history of the Holocaust, Bermuda is remembered as the site of a notorious U.S.-British conference, eighty years ago this week, that was organized for the ostensible purpose of rescuing Jews from Hitler, but instead abandoned them.

“All FDR Said Was ‘No’ ”

In early 1943, following the Allies’ verification of the Nazi genocide, some British parliament members and church leaders began pressing for rescue action. To appease the growing clamor, the Churchill and Roosevelt administrations announced they would hold a conference to address the crisis.

The island of Bermuda was chosen for the gathering. Nahum Goldmann, cochairman of the World Jewish Congress, suspected the remote setting was selected so “it will take place practically in secret, without pressure of public opinion.”

Jewish organizations asked permission to send representatives to the conference; their request was rejected. They sent the State Department a list of proposals for rescue action; the memo was ignored. Jewish congressmen met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to suggest rescue steps, “but the answer to all of [our] suggestions was ‘No’,” according to Congressman Daniel Ellison (R-Maryland).

Basking in the Sun

American Jewish groups were alarmed that U.S. Congressman Sol Bloom (D-New York) was chosen as a member of the American delegation to Bermuda. Bloom was a staunch defender of FDR’s harsh policy toward Jewish refugees; Jewish leaders feared Bloom would serve as “an alibi” for the administration’s claim that rescue was impossible. Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long wrote in his diary that he chose Bloom because the congressman was “easy to handle” and “terribly ambitious for publicity.”

The Bermuda gathering opened on April 19, 1943, which coincided with the first night of Passover and the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt against the Nazis. The British and U.S. governments decided beforehand that in their discussions, there would be no emphasis on the plight of the Jews, nor would they adopt any policies that would benefit Jews in particular.

Nearly every rescue idea that was raised was shot down. The U.S. refused to use trans-Atlantic ships to transport refugees, not even troop supply ships that were returning from Europe empty. The Roosevelt administration also rejected any increase in the admission of refugees to the United States.

The British delegates refused to discuss Palestine as a possible haven, because of Arab opposition. They also rejected negotiating with the Nazis to release Jews, on the grounds that “many of the potential refugees are empty mouths for which Hitler has no use.” Their release “would be relieving Hitler of an obligation to take care of these useless people,” a senior British official asserted.

The delegates also dismissed the idea of shipping food to starving Jews as a violation of the Allied blockade of Axis Europe, even though Allied leaders previously made an exception for German-occupied Greece and sent food there.

In the end, the Bermuda conferees spent a large amount of time on very small-scale steps, such as evacuating 5,000 Jewish refugees from Spain (who were not in immediate danger) to the Libyan region of Cyrenaica.

After twelve days of basking in the tropical sunshine, the delegates adjourned without achieving anything of significance. The two governments kept the proceedings of the conference secret rather than admit how little they had accomplished.

A Cruel Mockery

The failure of the Bermuda conference provoked the first serious public criticism of U.S. refugee policy. A large advertisement in the New York Times, sponsored by the rescue advocates known as the Bergson Group,  was headlined “To 5,000,000 Jews in the Nazi Death-Trap, Bermuda was a Cruel Mockery.”

Rep. Emanuel Celler (D-New York) charged that the delegates in Bermuda had engaged in “diplomatic tight-rope walking,” at a time when “thousands of Jews are being killed daily.” In a slap at Congressman Bloom, Rep. Celler characterized the conference as “a bloomin’ fiasco.”

The editors of The New Republic charged that Bermuda revealed “the bitter truth” that the U.S. and Great Britain were unwilling to aid “these potential refugees from murder.…If the Anglo-Saxon nations continue on their present course, we shall have connived with Hitler in one of the most terrible episodes of history.”

Bermuda galvanized some mainstream Jewish leaders to speak out more forcefully for rescue. Dr. Israel Goldstein, president of the Synagogue Council of America, charged that “the victims are not being rescued because the democracies do not want them, and the job of the Bermuda conference apparently was not to rescue victims of Nazi terror but to rescue our State Department and the British Foreign Office from possible embarrassment.”

Even the chief British delegate to Bermuda, Richard Law, later acknowledged that Bermuda was a “façade for inaction.”

Historians have come to view the Bermuda conference as one of the era’s most vivid demonstrations of the Roosevelt administration’s abandonment of the Jews. The many books and films about America’s response to the Nazi genocide devote ample space to the Bermuda failure—with the notable exception of the recent Ken Burns documentary, “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” which for some reason never mentioned Bermuda at all. Perhaps one day, some interviewer will ask him about that.

An Eyewitness Account 

The day the Bermuda conference concluded, April 30, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency published an extraordinary eyewitness account of Nazi atrocities against Jews in the Polish city of Lvov.

A 40 year-old bank clerk named Arthur Rotenstroikin described how he and other Jews in Lvov were “lined up and machine gunned,” but “I fainted and fell to the ground before a bullet hit me and thus escaped death.” Late that night, he “crawled from the mound of dead and returned home.”

Rotenstroikin recounted a wide range of Nazi outrages in Lvov, from young Jewish boys “forced to beat their parents,” to Rosh Hashana worshippers compelled to spread Torah scrolls on the ground “and dance upon them.” He also detailed the mass murder process: executions of tens of thousands of Jews in a nearby forest where “the cries of the victims could be heard for miles,” and mass deportations to the Belzec death camp.

Within a year, “only 10,000 Jews were left of [Lvov’s] original Jewish population of 160,000,” Rosenstroikin reported. Among the murdered were his own wife and two year-old child. His harrowing testimony offered a heartbreaking eyewitness counterpoint to the Allies’ farce of a conference in Bermuda.

(Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, D.C., and author of more than 20 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust.)