The American Politician Who Would Not Remain Silent in the Face of the Holocaust

How Henry Morgenthau went from mild-mannered cabinet secretary to being one of the greatest advocates for Europe’s Jews during the Holocaust?

Official portrait of Henry Morgenthau, Jr., 1930s, Collection of the National Library

Despite his many virtues, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in short supply of the virtue of religious tolerance. During a meeting with Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., he told the Jewish politician that the United States was a Protestant country and therefore, as President he would never openly petition for either the Catholic or the Jewish minority. He explained that in his choice of Morgenthau for the position of secretary of the treasury – a key cabinet post in the period of the Great Depression and World War II – he was looking for the best man for the job. However, his aides claimed, even when he was still alive, that he had asked them to find him “the most talented Jew for the position.”

Nevertheless, the Secretary of the Treasury still considered the President a very close friend. Roosevelt’s relationship with Morgenthau however, was no different than the relationships he had with his other subordinates – the President specialized in provoking a basic insecurity among those who worked under him. Due to his independent wealth, Morgenthau would have had no problem buying a fancy home for his family to live in while he was working in Washington, DC, but instead, he moved his family from one rented apartment to another because. “I never felt that my work could wait until morning,” Morgenthau remarked years after Roosevelt’s death. This fear made the Secretary of the Treasury (along with most of the President’s advisors), into a submissive employee who did his best to not provoke the President’s ire.

The Three Great Leaders at Yalta: Joseph Stalin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill

This all changed with a phone call to Morgenthau’s office toward the end of 1943. That fateful day, the Secretary of the Treasury picked up the phone in his office and was surprised to hear a familiar voice – it was none other than the Rabbi and close friend who had officiated at Morgenthau’s own wedding. The agitated Rabbi pressured Morgenthau to tell him everything he might know about what was happening in occupied Europe. The baffled Secretary of the Treasury asked his friend to explain the meaning of his request.  Over many minutes, the Rabbi related in great detail the long list of atrocities the Nazis were perpetrating against the Jews, the emptying of the ghettos, the trains to the East and the concentration camps. “Henry, do you know that lampshades are being manufactured out of the skin of the slaughtered Jews?” his friend asked. Reeling from all he had heard, Morgenthau asked to end the conversation before he fainted.

The more he learned and heard from the many reports coming from survivors who had managed to escape the inferno,  the more Morgenthau felt himself changing from a mild-mannered man into a man with a mission. He felt it his duty to save as many Jews as possible.  Determined to force Roosevelt to act even at the price of his job, he met with the President in 1944 and presented him with a detailed report titled “Report on the Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of Jews.” He then spread the facts before the President (which Roosevelt had known already since the start of 1942), and demanded that the American government take every action to stop the systematic and industrialized killing of the Jewish People. He did not stop with a moral demand, but appealed to the President’s base interest. He called upon Roosevelt to reveal publicly what was happening in Europe and to condemn the Nazi atrocities in no uncertain terms, lest the discovery lead to a scandal which would seriously damage Roosevelt’s chances of re-election to a fourth presidential term.

The chance Morgenthau took paid off: within weeks a refugee commission was formed, whose purpose was to unite the efforts to smuggle Jews out of Nazi occupied areas. An agreement was signed allowing for the unrestricted admission into the US of Jews from Europe, and considerable aid was sent to Raoul Wallenberg to help in his heroic rescue efforts. Less than two months after their encounter in the Oval Office, Roosevelt made his first speech acknowledging the Holocaust that was raging in Europe. Morgenthau did not stop there. He formulated a plan of action against Germany: the plan called for the destruction of all military and civil industry in Germany at the end of the war. “The Morgenthau Plan” was rejected by Harry Truman, Roosevelt’s successor to the presidency after the latter’s death in April 1945 (only weeks before Germany’s surrender).  In the end, the efforts of Morgenthau and of other American activists led to the rescue of 200,000 Jewish refugees from the jaws of the Nazi killing machines.

After the war Henry Morgenthau was fired by President Truman. He became an enthusiastic and loyal supporter of the fledgling State of Israel, and was appointed chairman of the United Jewish Appeal in America.

Letter from Morgenthau to Dr. Yehuda Leib Magnes, congratulating him on the achievements of the Hebrew University, and showing Morgenthau’s support (even during the war) for the “state in the making.” From the Yehuda Leib Magnes Archive, The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel

The Renaissance Woman Who Documented the Scientific Revolution

During the Reign of Terror Marie-Anne Lavoisier never surrendered in the face of persecution and kept the Scientific revolution alive and safe.

Marie-Anne and Antoine Lavoisier by Jaque-Louis David

When Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze was 12 years old, she was already courted by the men of her social milieu. Precocious and self-confident, she rejected their advances. Though her father supported her in this, there was an understanding that in order to protect herself from ill-suited men, like her 50 year old great-uncle, she would have to marry someone rather soon.

Knowing this, at 14 she accepted the match to one Antoine Lavoisier who was only 28. Lavoisier was a colleague of her father’s in the pre-Revolutionary office, the “Ferme générale”, the most hated tax collectors of the crown. Antoine Lavoisier, by chance, was also one of the great revolutionaries of chemistry, credited with the discovery of the function of oxygen in combustion.


“Traite elementaire de chimie organique” (Elements of chemistry : in a new systematic order) by Antoine Lavoisier, Paris: Chez Cuchet, 1789

Marie-Anne Lavoisier was the one who arranged her husband’s laboratory life, of which she was an active participant. She was fascinated by his research from the start and helped with his endeavors, detailing his equipment and chronicling the processes of his chemistry experiments..


Lab equipment drawn by Marie-Anne Lavoisier from “Traite elementaire de chimie organique” (Elements of chemistry : in a new systematic order) by Antoine Lavoisier, Paris: Chez Cuchet, 1789


Her sketching was not simply secretarial work for her husband, nor was her art a hobby she did in her spare time. But rather it was the work of a skilled and talented artist. While Antoine Lavoisier worked his day job at the “Ferme générale”, Madame Lavoisier studied under the tutelage of renowned painter Jaque-Louis David, the man who would become the portrait painter of Emperor Bonaparte.

Madame Lavoisier cultivated her talents of art, languages, and science with equal fervor, translating scientific texts from English to French, all of which were part and parcel of the chemistry breakthroughs Antoine Lavoisier came to in the 1770s.
However, after the Revolution and the start of the Reign of Terror in France, Marie-Anne’s family suffered greatly and it seemed everything she had worked for with her husband had fallen apart.

In 1794 Antoine Lavoisier and Messer Paulze, Marie-Anne’s father, were guillotined. All her possessions were confiscated, including the books and journals in which she and her husband documented their experiments. She herself was imprisoned for 65 days after her husband’s execution.

After her release she continued to write protest letters, demanding the return of her books. Her efforts were not in vain and she eventually got back everything the authorities confiscated in the name of the Revolution.

She went on to publish Antoine Lavoisier’s final writings on chemistry in 1805 under the title, “Mémoires de physique et de chimie” (Memories of Physics and Chemistry) – thus keeping the scientific Revolution alive.

Lab equipment drawn by Marie-Anne Lavoisier from “Traite elementaire de chimie organique” (Elements of chemistry : in a new systematic order) by Antoine Lavoisier, Paris: Chez Cuchet, 1789


This article was written with the generous help of Chaya Meier Herr, curator of the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Was This Ad Published by Franz Kafka in a Zionist Newspaper?

A discovery by an archivist at the National Library sheds new light on Kafka’s connection with the Zionist movement.

A photograph from the famous “Prater” amusement park in Vienna. From left to right: Franz Kafka, Albert Ehrenstein, Otto Pick, Leisa Waltsch, photographed in 1913. The photograph is taken from the Albert Ehrenstein Archive at the National Library.

In the fall of 1911, Karl Hermann proposed to his brother-in-law, Franz Kafka, that he join him in managing the asbestos factory he had recently established. The offer of extra income appealed to Kafka, who worked in the “Governmental Company for Insuring Workers from Accidents”; even though he regarded his duties in the factory as an additional bureaucratic nuisance to a life already rife with bureaucracy. This fact caused many of Kafka’s biographers to minimize his contribution to the factory’s success and to state that the author took advantage of any opportunity to avoid his professional responsibilities as a lawyer.

An advertisement discovered by Dr. Stefan Litt, an archivist at the National Library of Israel, sheds new light on Kafka’s work in the factory and on the surprising connection between the asbestos factory and the Zionist movement.


Insurance, Asbestos and Zionism at the Vienna Congresses

Two years after joining his brother-in-law in managing the asbestos factory, Kafka’s life had reached a new low point. Battling insomnia, preoccupied with fears stemming from his recent engagement to Felice Bauer, and grappling with a persistent case of writers’ block; Kafka left his fiancé in Berlin and boarded a train.

His destination, along with his travel companion, author Otto Pick, was Vienna.

It was September of 1913.

Franz Kafka and Felice Bauer, a photograph from 1917. Source: Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images.

Kafka wanted to kill two birds with one stone in Vienna. Firstly, he had to participate in the Second International Congress for Rescue Services and Accident Prevention as part of his governmental work. Secondly, he was hoping to take part in the Zionist Congress which had begun a week earlier.

Kafka and Pick arrived in Vienna several days before the beginning of the insurance congress. They spent their first day in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire visiting their friend, the influential expressionist author and poet, Albert Ehrenstein. Even if he would have preferred to spend his first hours in the city alone and in complete anonymity, Kafka knew that he had to visit Ehrenstein – who was the first critic to read his literary works.

After spending several days of leisure in the city, Kafka took part in the debates of the 11th Zionist Congress. Almost ten thousand participants from across the Jewish world attended the Congress. If Kafka had previously considered Zionism a vague and elusive expression of Jewish nationalism, he now encountered the Zionist movement as an orderly and active force, even if not one that he perceived to be particularly positive.

Until Dr. Stefan Litt’s discovery, the only information we possessed about Kafka’s activities at the Zionist Congress was the little Kafka himself recorded in a letter to his fiancé on September 13th of that year.

Kafka’s testimony from the Congress shows an attitude which is, to say the least, not complimentary: “Endless shouting”, petty disagreements and a description of the typical Zionist activist as a person with “a small round head and frozen cheeks”. The author was singularly unimpressed by what he saw.

However, it seems that Kafka’s contribution to the Congress did not end there. During an incidental perusal through a special issue of the “Die Welt” Zionist newspaper published in honor of the Zionist Congress in Vienna, Dr. Litt discovered a notice which drew his attention: an advertisement for the asbestos factory owned by “Hermann & Co.” – the same factory established by Kafka’s borther-in-law Karl Hermann, and for which Kafka himself worked from 1911 onward. As no one in Kafka’s family had any real connection with the Zionist movement, and in light of the fact that Kafka participated in the meetings of the Congress to which this special edition of the newspaper was dedicated, it is a reasonable assumption that he himself purchased and ran the advertisement in the well-known Zionist newspaper

The advertisement for Karl Hermann and Franz Kafka’s asbestos factory, which appeared in the Zionist newspaper “Die Welt”


Supporter or Opponent? Kafka’s Attitude to the Zionist Movement

During the decades since Kafka’s death from tuberculosis on June 3, 1924, many scholars have attempted to provide a conclusive answer to the question of Kafka’s Zionism: What did he think about the Zionist movement at different points in his life? Did he support it? Did he oppose it? We know that in 1917, the same year his illness was diagnosed, he began to study Hebrew. In the period prior to his death he even expressed his desire to visit the Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel – a dream which his severe illness prevented him from realizing. And still, we do not claim to provide unequivocal answers, and it is possible that no such answers exist.

The advertisement discovered in such an important Zionist newspaper, a newspaper established by non-other than Theodore Herzl himself, teaches us that just like many others before and after him – one of the great modernist authors of the twentieth century was not loathe to combine his personal curiosity about the Zionist movement with his professional occupation.

The article was written with the help of Dr. Stefan Litt, from the Archives Department of the National Library of Israel. 


If you liked this article, try these:

German Police Transfer Max Brod Papers to the National Library of Israel

“Now I think that Kafka himself is saying to me: ‘You have done enough’”

On Pilgrimage to Franz Kafka

When the Nazis Desecrated the Jewish Cemetery of Salonika

Human bones and broken tombstones were used as building materials, desecrating 500 years of Jewish history and half a million gravestones.

A swimming pool for Wehrmacht soldiers made out of Jewish tombstones

The Jewish cemetery of Salonika (also known as Thessaloniki) was an anchor of the long standing Jewish community of that city, the largest Jewish community in Greece before the Holocaust. The cemetery was established at the end of the 15th-century, when Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal arrived in Greece. The Jews who survived the expulsion and the long journey, buried their dead in a plot of land that would become the Jewish cemetery of Salonika, as precious and important to the community as their synagogues.

Holocaust survivors gathered for the “Mourners’ Kaddish”

The process of expropriating the land belonging to the cemetery did not begin with the Nazis.

Decades prior to the Nazi occupation, the non-Jewish residents of Salonika sought to take the land and use it for their own benefit. In 1886 a Turkish Ottoman gymnasium was established on the cemetery ground and famously, the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki was founded in 1925. The university took over from the gymnasium when Greece gained independence. In the 1930s the city administration officially decreed that the Jewish cemetery would be expropriated and given to the expanding Aristotle University. The plan never came into effect, but fear of demolishment motivated the Jewish community to give the university a section of unused cemetery ground.

In 1941 the Nazis came, and with them, total destruction of the Jewish cemetery.

By the end of 1942 cemetery grounds were confiscated by the city’s administration, which was controlled by the Nazi occupiers. A Jewish family who had relatives buried there and wished to have the grave exhumed was forced to do so through the city administration. In December of 1942 the city pushed for a quick demolishment and within days gravestones were destroyed and human bones were gathered in unmarked piles. When the Jewish community heard of what had occurred it was too late. All they could do was take the remains of their family members and re-bury them in a mass grave, outside the city of Salonika.

Exhumed bones and desecrated tombstones

The desecration of the dead was part of the Nazis plan to dehumanize the living. With the destruction of the Jewish cemetery, the Germans swiftly began transporting the Jews of Salonika to the death camps.


View the entire album here:

Fifty thousand of Salonika’s Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, 96 percent of the city’s Jewish community perished.

When the survivors returned they found that the broken tombstones were used to build pools for Wehrmacht soldiers, pave the streets of the city, and even rebuild Greek churches that were harmed in the war. They took photographs, documenting the destruction and desecration and demanding compensation from the newly liberated Greek government, to no avail.

A pool lined with tombstones built by the Nazi occupying forces for Wehrmacht jackboots

 The Jewish cemetery of Salonika was a victim of modernization and city development as well as anti-Semitism and Nazism. The photos taken by the survivors were put together as an album, a testament to what had occurred to the living and the dead during the Nazi occupation and the Holocaust. The album was donated to the National Library of Israel in 1949 by Rabbi Michael Molho.

Along with the remaining Jewish community, Rabbi Molho founded the Institute for the Research of the Jews of Thessaloniki, which operates to this day.

Rabbi Michael Molho examining broken tombstones