In late January 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed vhancellor of the German Reich. Immediately, members of Hitler’s Nazi Party began a campaign of violence against German Jews, socialists, communists and other Nazi opponents. Germany’s Jewish Central Association (Verein) issued a statement asserting its belief that “the responsible government authorities are unaware of the threatening situation” and that the Verein had thus “dutifully apprised [the Hitler administration] thereof.” The Verein’s statement concluded, “We do not believe our German-fellow citizens will let themselves be carried away into committing excesses against the Jews.”
As early as 1933, Stephen S. Wise, founder of the American Jewish Congress, seemed to know better.
The Central Verein’s appeal did nothing to stop the terror against Jewish businesses. Stink bombs, picketing, and shopper harassment by Nazi Party thugs continued for several days in Magdeburg, Essen, Kassel and Berlin. Herman Goering announced, “I shall employ the police, and without mercy, wherever German people are hurt, but I refuse to turn the police into a guard for Jewish stores.”
When word of the assaults reached America, representatives of the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith, and the American Jewish Congress met in New York. The representatives established a joint committee to monitor the situation, but agreed that organized public protests in America would further undermine the already precarious position of German Jewry. However, less than a month later, the American Jewish Congress changed its mind and called on its partners to help organize an American protest campaign. On March 12, 1933, the AJCongress resolved to hold a mass protest rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City. A week later, the organization convened an emergency conference of Jewish organizations that was attended by 1,500 individuals.
At the emergency meeting, the AJCongress announced its intention to hold a Madison Square Garden rally on March 27th. J. George Fredman, commander-in-chief of the Jewish War Veterans, called for an American boycott of German imports. After Fredman spoke, Joseph Proskauer and Judge Irving Lehman of the American Jewish Committee publicly counseled restraint. Lehman feared that any rally in America “may add to the terrible dangers of the Jews in Germany.” Lehman pleaded, “I implore you in the name of humanity, don’t let anger pass a resolution which will kill Jews in Germany.”
Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, honorary president of the American Jewish Congress, had the final word:
The time for prudence and caution is past. We must speak up like men. How can we ask our Christian friends to lift their voices in protest against the wrongs suffered by Jews if we keep silent? … What is happening in Germany today may happen tomorrow in any other land on earth unless it is challenged and rebuked. It is not the German Jews who are being attacked. It is the Jews.
The conference voted to hold the Madison Square Garden rally.
On March 27th, the AJCongress and its allies convened simultaneous protest rallies at Madison Square Garden in New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, and 70 other locations. The New York rally was broadcast worldwide. A crowd of 55,000 overflowed the Garden into the streets outside to hear AJCongress President Bernard Deutsch, American Federation of Labor president William Green, Senator Robert F. Wagner, former New York governor Al Smith, and several Christian clergy call for an immediate cessation of the brutal treatment being inflicted on German Jewry.
The Nazi apparatus denounced the American complaints as slanders generated by “Jews of German origin.” Goebbels announced a campaign of “sharp countermeasures” against these attacks. He accused German Jewry of engineering a worldwide boycott of German goods to destroy the German economy. To give Jews a taste of their own medicine, Goebbels announced that the following Saturday, April 1st, all good Aryan Germans would boycott Jewish-owned businesses. If, after the one-day boycott, the false charges against the Nazis in the overseas press stopped, there would be no further boycott of Jewish businesses. If worldwide Jewish attacks on the Nazi regime continued, Goebbels warned, “The boycott will be resumed … until German Jewry has been annihilated.”
The boycott came off as planned. German police and S.S. troops enforced store closings. Protesters smashed the windows of some Jewish-owned shops and department stores and forced others to close when Nazis set off stink bombs inside them.
Urged by Stephen S. Wise to protest to the German government, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull issued a mild statement to the American ambassador to Berlin complaining that “unfortunate incidents have indeed occurred and the whole world joins in regretting them.” He expressed his personal belief, however, that the reports of anti-Jewish violence were probably exaggerated. Unimpressed by Hull’s tepid response, the Jewish War Veterans renewed their call for a boycott of German goods. The AJCongress, the American League for Defense of Jewish Rights, the Jewish Labor Committee, B’nai B’rith, and others joined them shortly thereafter.
Of course, the American boycott did nothing to deter the Nazis, who escalated their violence against Europe’s Jews until settling on the Final Solution. As Rabbi Wise observed, however, the boycott effort, whatever its effect, was a moral imperative. “We must speak out,” he explained. “If that is unavailing, at least we shall have spoken.”
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