IN Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin there appears a young man named Landauer of mixed Anglo- German-Jewish parentage, wealthy, exotic, small, oriental, dark-eyed -- a mixture of Beau Brummel and Hamlet against a Charlottenburg background. This was meant to be Wilfrid Israel, but the real Wilfrid Israel was tall, blond, blue-eyed. He owned a kimono, but otherwise there was nothing oriental about him. Generally speaking, there was no more in common between him and Landauer than between, say, Leopold Bloom and Leon Trotsky.
Israel was born in London in 1899, and he died in June 1943 when an unarmed plane flying from Lisbon to Britain was intercepted by a Luftwaffe fighter and shot down. Among those who perished was the actor Leslie Howard; it is possible that the German command thought Churchill was among the plane's passengers. In his short life Israel did more good than most people; holder of a British passport he could move relatively freely in Nazi Germany during the '30s; he had access to influential people in London and New York; he could help and he did save people. He was deeply involved in the German Jewish youth movement and his rescue missions continued well into the war. It was during one of these that he lost his life. He was a man of boyish enthusiasm yet exceedingly reserved and often painfully shy, a gentle man and a gentleman, an individual with hundreds of friends hardly any of whom penetrated the private sphere of his life. He did not have the disdain for business which the sons and grandsons of wealthy people are said to display. He might have been a major business executive had he wanted.
But he got his priorities right, realizing that there were more important things to do in 1933 than to devote most of one's time and energy to the family interests -- which included one of Berlin's largest department stores. He was a true volunteer for the common good who hated the limelight. Hundreds, perhaps thousands survived without ever knowing that they owed their lives to him. Wilfrid Israel was neither a political thinker nor an activist but a man with a pronounced sense of duty and a visionary faith which sustained him even during the darkest days. He was also an exceedingly vulnerable man. He was perfectly aware, as he once wrote a friend, that great happiness had been denied to him in his private life.
I never met Wilfrid Israel but knew many of his friends and collaborators. I watched the making of this biography from afar but doubted whether someone hailing from a very different milieu (Naomi Shepherd's background is British; she had no first-hand knowledge of Germany, Nazism, German Jewry or the German youth movement) could possibly make sense of a personality and a culture so far removed from her own. There was another problem: Wilfrid Israel was not a man of Napoleonic dimensions, he wielded no power, and while he appreciated the arts he was neither a creative artist nor an original thinker. He was just a good man, a civilized human being, in some respects a blissful fool. Was a story of such a human being likely to be of public interest? I had my doubts but Shepard triumphantly proves them wrong. She does so with great sensitivity and insight in a book that is a true labor of love. It is a fine portrait not only of one man but also of those around him and of the whole period. It does not shed sensational new light on matters of high policy, but it will help others to understand a world which has now gone forever. It is a story which could not have been written on the basis of diplomatic files or editorials. Among the students of the Holocaust there have been few non-Jews, yet few have written on the subject with greater sensitivity and competence than Professor Wyman. He summarizes his findings at the beginning of this devastating study: the State Department and the British Foreign Office had no intention of rescuing large numbers of European Jews. Roosevelt was quite indifferent; he took some half- hearted action only when he was faced with political pressures. But it would be a distortion of historical truth to put the entire blame (as so often) only on politicians and heartless bureaucrats. For similar indifference was shown by the media, the churches, the whole political and intellectual elite of the country. Wyman argues that many more could have been saved and that the bombing of Auschwitz would have been perfectly feasible. But he also blames the Jewish leadership for not giving top priority to the rescue issue and mounting a sustained and united campaign for government action. Lastly, poor as they were, the American rescue efforts were better than those of Britain, Russia and the other Allied nations.
Most of these facts have certainly been known in broad outline and to a certain extent also in detail, and Wyman's publisher does not do his author a service by calling these revelations "stunning" in character. But it is certainly true that never before has the evidence been marshalled so painstakingly, with such meticulous scholarship and to such effect. Some of Wyman's interpretations will be questioned -- for instance, the importance of the Bergson-Merlin Emergency Committee, a radical Zionist group which engaged on its own efforts to mobilize public opinion.
Elsewhere the author takes issue with the argument that the American Jewish leaders were slow to believe that systematic extermination was occurring. He argues that this impression is inaccurate, once aware of Gerhart Riegner's warning from Switzerland (August 1942) virtually all Jewish leaders in America recognized that extermination was underway. But American Jewish leaders (and the same applied to Weizmann and Ben Gurion who were in the Unites States at the time) were relatively slow in accepting the information, and the issue at stake was not, in any case, "believing." By the end of 1942 they had to believe it, for the evidence was overwhelming. The real issue was grasping the full enormity of what had happened.
The case of Wilfrid Israel (who was also in New York part of the time) may serve as an illustration. In March 1942 he wrote in a memorandum that Nazi rule was aiming at the extermination of the Jews. In May of that year he commented on the concentration of the entire European Jewish population in "annihilation areas of Eastern Europe." And in July 1942, even before Riegner he again stressed the Nazi aim of extermination. Yet at the same time, and even later on, Wilfred Israel was preoccupied with all kinds of postwar planning schemes for European Jewry all based on the tacit assumption that millions of Jews would somehow survive. The same is true with regard to the American Jewish leaders and also the Zionists; this curious schizoid way of thinking is the real problem, baffling the student of the period in retrospect, not the question of "believing."
These and other related issues will be debated by the experts for a long time to come. They do not affect in the least the validity of the author's conclusions about the Department of State, about the White House, about Congress and about U.S. attitudes toward European Jewry in general. The title of the book, says all there need be said about this sad subject.
Monty Noam Penkower's book is a collection of essays on various episodes in the history of the diplomacy of the Holocaust -- amongthem, the Bermuda conference in April 1943 and the creation of the U.S. War Refugee Board in January 1944 (both also covered in Wyman's book), while others break fresh ground, such as an interesting investigation of the role of the Red Cross in 1941-44. The book is very rich in detail and if research were the only yardstick for judging scholarship this book would score very high indeed. With admirable tenacity the author has combed archives, corresponded with and interviewed witnesses.
On other counts, this is, alas, a problematic book. Penkower has no literary gift at all. He does not always succeed in putting the mass of material in a coherent framework and his judgments are sometimes open to doubt. He attributes inordinate importance to the activities of people who played a marginal role at the time. One glaring example is the account of the late Haim Pazner (Posner), a fine old gentleman who happend to be by accident in Switzerland during the war and who persuaded himself (and a few historians) in later years that he had somehow played a role of paramount importance in the dramatic events of 1942-1943, an allegation with no foundation in fact. There are other such examples in this book. The dramatis personae who had the good luck to survive to the late '70s, to be interviewed by the author and to put their papers at his disposal figure prominently in his account, others fare less well. Still, among the material amassed by the author there is much of interest.