Two of the Greatest Generation's not-so-finest hours

Books on World War II reveal moral challenges and failings of U.S.

April 29, 2014|Dan Rodricks

Taken in tandem, the stories told in two new books — one by a Maryland author who lost family members in the Nazi Holocaust, the other detailing our government's postwar collaboration with Nazi scientists, some of them in Maryland — raise complex and disturbing issues that tarnish the heroic image of the Greatest Generation in World War II. The stories also underscore the immense moral challenges and failings of a nation that believes itself the leader of the free world.

In "Alex's Wake," Martin Goldsmith, host of classical music programs on NPR and Sirius XM, leaves his home in Maryland in 2011 to travel to Europe on the trail of family history. He traveled back 75 years, to the months following Kristallnacht, Hitler's glass-smashing turn toward the extermination of the Jews.

Goldsmith's father and mother, musicians both, managed to flee Nazi Germany early in the war. But other members of Goldsmith's Jewish family were not as fortunate.

Martin Goldsmith's paternal grandfather was a successful businessman named Alex Goldschmidt. He and his 17-year-old son, Helmut, boarded a ship in Hamburg in May 1939, hoping to find refuge in Cuba.

There were more than 900 other German Jewish refugees aboard the ocean liner St. Louis that spring, all hoping to flee the Third Reich and start a new life in a new and welcoming country.

Martin Goldsmith tells a heartbreaking story of fear, frustration, anti-Semitism and betrayal. Turned away by Cuban authorities in Havana harbor, the St. Louis, with a fearless German captain at its helm, tried to enter the United States. With immigration quotas in place, the U.S. government, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, refused to take any special action to help the Jews aboard the ship.

The Canadian government also turned away the St. Louis.

The ship returned to Europe. Some of its passengers were left in England, some in the Netherlands and Belgium. Goldsmith's grandfather and uncle were among those left in France.

During his nearly three years in a series of refugee camps, Alex Goldschmidt wrote increasingly bitter letters imploring his son in the United States to "move heaven and earth to help us" and warning him that failure to do so would "be on your conscience."

Reflecting on this 75 years later, Martin Goldsmith feels both anger toward and pity for his father, who faced a seemingly impossible task: a rescue in the monsoon of war. Goldsmith writes: "There were reasons aplenty why every effort under the sun might have failed to win his family's freedom, but the inescapable fact remains that Alex begged his son to save his life and my father failed to do so. 'It will be on your conscience,' wrote Alex, and Alex was right."

Alex and Helmut Goldschmidt later were forced to board a train to Auschwitz.

That would not have happened had the Roosevelt administration acted when the St. Louis sought safe harbor. What a shameful chapter for the United States, with bigotry and politics trumping the country's commitment to freedom and sanctuary for the oppressed. Even considering the turbulence of the times, the treatment of the passengers of the St. Louis remains a stain on the American record.

Given the stories related in Annie Jacobsen's new book about Nazi scientists being recruited to the United States to help develop our space and defense programs, the story of the St. Louis is all the more appalling.

We turned away Jews before the war; we welcomed Nazis after it.

Jacobsen's comprehensive book is "Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists to America."

In it, she describes a U.S. government so convinced of a new threat from the Soviets that it recruited to America "a tawdry group of amoral war opportunists, many of whom were linked to war crimes." Most prominent, of course, was Werner von Braun, Hitler's favorite rocketeer, who went on to become a star of the U.S. space program.

But there were others — 1,600 is a conservative estimate, Jacobsen says — and many had been Nazi party members. The count includes scientists assigned to two research installations in Maryland.

At what was then known as Edgewood Arsenal, they tested German-developed nerve gas on thousands of unsuspecting U.S. soldiers. In the laboratories at Camp Detrick (now Fort Detrick) in Frederick they worked on biological weapons. Also, a Nazi doctor implicated in experiments on Jews in concentration camps ended up working at the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda. And Jacobsen documents a Nazi doctor who got some help from the Air Force in fleeing to Argentina after working for the U.S. at a base in Texas.

A few years ago, the Justice Department was forced to release a secret internal history of the nation's pursuit of Nazis, and its author noted how a country that "prided itself on being a safe haven for the persecuted" had provided "a safe haven for the persecutors as well." You can call that ironic. A better word, even 60, 70 years out, is infuriating.

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