- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 5, 2009

By James G. McDonald
Indiana University Press, $39.95, 838 pages, illus.

By James G. McDonald
Indiana University Press, $29.95, 359 pages, illus.

Few people today remember James G. McDonald, but he was one of the unsung angels in the dreadful story of Hitler’s Holocaust and how the world reacted to its coming. Now, with the publication of two volumes of his diaries and papers covering the terrible 12-year Nazi reign of terror, his righteous and indefatigable efforts on behalf of its victims are coming to light. As the editor writes at the conclusion of the first volume, “Advocate for the Doomed.”

“Six decades after the end of the Holocaust, scholars and the public continue to ask why no one ‘moved Heaven and earth’ to prevent it or mitigate it.’” Well, it is clear now that if anyone undertook that task it was Mr. McDonald.

This amazing force of nature was a Catholic Hoosier, educated at Indiana University and Harvard, who became deeply involved in foreign affairs in the years of his nation’s isolationism after World War I. A lynchpin of the Foreign Policy Association, his bona fides as an internationalist were such that, despite the United States not being a member of the League of Nations, he was appointed its High Commissioner for Refugees in 1933, the year that Hitler came to power.

Firsthand experience of the Nazis left him under no illusions as to their intent toward the Jews from the very beginning. A close confidant of the Fuhrer, Putzi Hanfstaengl, ominously boasted to him on March 29, 1933, that “Germany could deal with 600,000 Jews in a single night.” Meeting with Hitler himself the following month, Mr. McDonald came away shaken by “Hitler’s acrid conclusion: ‘The world does not know how to get rid of the Jews. I will show them.’” He had come to Hitler saying that as a longtime friend of Germany, he wanted to warn him that Nazi anti-Jewish policies were harming the nation’s interests. He never forgot Hitler’s retort: “Even if Germany must draw its belt very much tighter, that will be a small price to pay for ridding itself of the menace of the Jew.”

Immediately involving himself in the minutiae of facilitating Jewish emigration from the Reich under the most favorable possible terms, he came into contact with two men who would later be key players in the extermination of European Jewry, Reinhard Heydrich “a blond gorilla — big shoulders, long arms, powerful legs” — and Heinrich Himmler, dreaded head of the SS, who “at first glance, appeared like an experienced title searcher in the office of Recorder of Deeds of a country county seat. No pomp, no table thumping, no attempt to make an impression. He sat there with three SS men around him, but those eyes of his; those beady, button eyes, cruel as he was cunning and cunning as he was cruel.”

That’s the great thing about Mr. McDonald: He had his own eyes wide open and really took in what he saw. A superb observer, he was the opposite of the proverbial innocent abroad, bemused by all the strange, alien people and things he beheld. Perhaps the most marked impression left by reading these remarkable diaries and papers is of Mr. McDonald’s preternatural capacity to really understand what is going on no matter how many diverse circles and milieus he confronts.

Whether he is negotiating the slippery diplomatic corridors of the League of Nations in Geneva or the foreign ministries of countless European (and other) capitals, the interstices of various nongovernmental agencies involved in refugee affairs, the complicated web of private charitable institutions, or even Zionist politics, this is one smart, tough cookie who can hold his own — and more — anywhere. He is quick on the uptake and just as quick to pass along what he has learned to good effect.

Totally disillusioned with the ability of the impotent League of Nations to deal effectively with the growing refugee problem created by Nazi anti-Jewish policies, Mr. McDonald quit his post in disgust at the end of 1935. Henceforth, he concentrated his efforts on his own nation, involving himself deeply in the efforts to prod the U.S. government into a more aggressive policy toward Nazi Germany and acting more assertively and constructively on the refugee problem. “Refugees and Rescue,” the second volume of Mr. McDonald’s papers, provides an invaluable insight into the efforts of President Roosevelt in these regards.

Mr. McDonald had the ear of the president and even more of the first lady: If she was even more sympathetic to what Mr. McDonald was trying to achieve, it is clear from what is reported here that her husband’s heart was also very much with him. Restrained by political and economic exigencies, he could not always act in accordance with his wishes, but Mr. McDonald chronicles countless instances where his intervention was crucial. And it is clear that the presidential mind as well as his heart was actively engaged in matters large and small to great and beneficial effect on these matters.

Mr. McDonald had to fight numerous bureaucratic and, it must be admitted, ideological obstacles to his efforts to admit more refugees to the United States, whose numbers were never as numerous, despite everything he did, as he would have wished. But he was justifiably proud of the efforts, also chronicled here, to find Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany a haven elsewhere. His most notable success was in Bolivia, where some 20,000 were able to find safety. Reading these two volumes induces a feeling of awe that one man could achieve so much during those dark years against so many obstacles large and petty — a tribute to his energy and even more to his moral compass.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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