Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Official Slanderer

Looking to find one emblemmatic villain behind America's decision to slam its doors against immigrant refugees in the early 1920s -- especially Jewish people from Eastern Europe like my grandparents for whom failure to escape would mean death in the Holocaust? Look no further than this man: Brigadeer General Marlborough Churchill, head of American Military Intelligence (MID) from 1918 through 1920. During this time, Churchill's MID generated a parade of reports painting Jews as undesirables, subversives, and Reds, as slanted as any Anti-Semitic propagrada of the era.

These became the chief ammunition xenophobic Congressmen used to justify imposing quotas in 1921 and 1924 designed to block all but a tiny trickle of immigrants, aimed primarily at Jews and Italians. Italy, which sent over 270,000 to Ellis Island in 1913, was restricted after 1924 to 3,845 per year. Poland, which had sent 174,000 -- including about 100,000 Jews -- was cut to 5,982 per year.

The American public backed restrictive quotas by a large margin. And for his part, General Churchill was probably not even a bigoted man. A distant relative of England's Winston Churchill, product of Andover Academy and Harvard, he was a rigorous professional and brilliant staff officer. His job demanded that he protect the United States, which in 1919/1920 included two key points:
  • First, America was committed to supporting the new country of Poland, created in 1918 at the close of World War I and thrown immidiately into a life-or-death military struggle against Bolshevik Russia. Saving Poland was critical to stabilizing Europe after the War.
  • Second, Americans demanded safety against saboteurs and subversives, primarily leftists and Socialists who in 1919 had driven the country into the deliriums of the First Red Scare. The large majority of leftists were Eastern European immigrants.
Both these missions led Churchill and MID to focus on The Jews. It is alarming that today there survives a thick file of memos written by MID under General Churchill containing a barriage of slanders against Jews people as a group. They focus on Eastern Europeans but include surveillance of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, financiers Paul Warburg and Jacob Schiff, and western Zionist leaders Chiam Weizman and Theoodore Herzl. The reports finger Jews as instigators of the Bolshevik Revolution and rulers of the Western Press, a secret conspiracy ready to subvert any country. They describe Jewish people as personally filthy and non-hygenic and, if allowed into the US, "a serious menace to our civilization."
To Churchill's MID, stories of violent anti-Jewish riots -- pogroms -- in Poland and the nearby Ukraine in 1919 were simply slanders spread by Jews to undermine Polish independence.
Think I'm exaggerating? Make a visit some time to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and ask them to show you Record Group 165 (Military Intelligence), file 245-15. That's the Jewish File. Hold on to your socks while you read it!
Having recently discovered how the restrictive immigration policies of the 1920s almost cost the lives of my own grandpatents and family, I've now spent time studying these old archive records trying to figure out how intelligent and well-meaning professionals like General Churchill could do so much damage in the world. More on this to come....

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Guardian Angel - The Ostrovsta Rebbe

Meet Meir Yechiel HaLevi, Rabbi of the tiny hamlet of Ostrowiec, Poland, in the early 1900s, known as the Ostrovtsa Rebbe. He lived almost eighty years and became world renowned as a leading Hasidic figure of his time. About four months ago, I learned that this odd, pious, brilliant, often eccentric man had intervened with my grandparents about ninety years ago, back in 1920, and essentially saved our family from the Nazi Holocaust.

At a key moment of indecision, with newly-independent Poland being invaded by Bolshevik Russia's Red Army and Jewish people in particular torn between patriotism and revulsion at escalating pogroms, it was this Ostrovtsa Rebbe who turned boldly political and insisted that my grandfather refuse to bloody his hands and instead take the family to America -- a journey frought with danger and uncertainty.

For the past six or so months, I have been digging into this story and finding surprise after surprise, bombshells hiding in dusty old archives. The Rebbe turned out to be just one of many guardian angels for us. Another was a criminal smuggler named Rubinsky who spent most of the 1920s in European jails, charged with forging passports and visas for refugees trying to circumstant newly-imposed American immigration quotas.

I'll tell you more about this in posts over the next few weeks. Stay tuned. But for now, a simple acknowledgment to Rebbe Meir Yechiel of Ostrovtsa. I'm glad to have found him.