By Shuli Eshel
The Jewish Voice
We’ve all heard plenty about U.S. government officials who turned a blind eye during the Holocaust. But next month, New Yorkers are going to hear the little-known story of an American diplomat who did everything he could to warn the world about Hitler, and to help rescue European Jewish refugees.
That story will be told in my new documentary, “A Voice Among the Silent: The Legacy of James G. McDonald,” which will have its world premiere in Manhattan on Sunday evening, October 19, and in Great Neck, on Monday evening, October 20. In both events, the film will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Dr. Barbara McDonald Stewart (McDonald’s daughter), historian Dr. Rafael Medoff and filmmaker Shuli Eshel.
McDonald was an unlikely figure to end up playing such a central role in Jewish affairs. A Catholic from the Midwest (born in Ohio, raised in Indiana), a foreign policy scholar and diplomat with no special interest in Jewish matters. But during a visit to Germany in 1933, he unexpectedly found himself in private conversation with the new chancellor Adolf Hitler–and became the first American to hear the Fuehrer explicitly vow to “get rid of the Jews.”
That shocking experience changed McDonald’s life. He met repeatedly with world leaders, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, to tell them of Hitler’s threats against the Jews. But McDonald’s warnings were largely ignored.
He ran into similar obstacles during his two years (1933-1935) as the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Coming from Germany. During that early phase of the Nazi regime, Hitler was willing to let the Jews leave. The problem, as McDonald discovered, was that no other country was willing to receive them. He resigned as commissioner in 1935 as a protest against the failure of the international community to open its doors.
Nonetheless, McDonald refused to be deterred. In 1938, he became chairman of the President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees. Although its hands were largely tied by the Roosevelt administration’s harsh immigration policy, McDonald and his colleagues did manage to help bring more than two thousand Jewish refugees to the United States on the eve of the Holocaust.
McDonald’s heartfelt concern for the Jewish people extended into the postwar period. He served on the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine, which in 1946 sought to press the British to open Palestine to Holocaust survivors.
Then, in 1948, he was appointed to serve as America’s first ambassador to Israel. That appointment proved fortuitous, because he was able to serve as a counterweight to officials in the State Department who wanted the Truman administration to adopt a more pro-Arab posture.
For many years, the story of McDonald’s efforts were known only to a handful of scholars. But the discovery of McDonald’s diaries in 2003, shed a whole new light on this amazing story. The diaries were recently published by Indiana University Press in association with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and form the basis for my film.
The work of James McDonald is an inspiring story of a remarkable Christian who reached out to help others in history’s darkest hour. But it is not only a matter of historical interest–it also has important contemporary implications. Should the United States intervene against human rights abuses abroad? Should we have taken action in Darfur? Were we right to intervene in Libya? The experiences of James McDonald have a lot to teach us today.
The Manhattan screening will be held on Sunday, October 19, 2014. Reception is at 6:00 PM; Film starts at 7:00 PM at Park East Synagogue 164 East 68th Street; the Great Neck screening will take place on Monday, October 20, 2014, at 7:30 PM (Doors open at 7:00 PM), at Bow Tie Squire Cinemas, 115 Middle Neck Road. To purchase tickets www.parkeastsynagogue.org and www.goldcoastfilmfestival.org. To view the trailer of the film, please visit: www.avoiceamongthesilent.com For more information about either of these programs, call (516) 829-2570.