The Frank Olson Legacy Project

THE HAUNTED MEMORIES OF ROBERT MORGENTHAU

By James Carroll

Boston Globe
January 13, 1998

 

 

 
“...a measuring of the weight one generation can impose on the next.”  
 
Last week, when Manhattan's District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau intervened in a dispute over two paintings that had allegedly been looted by Nazis, the shadow of history was as personal as political.

Two famous artworks by the Austrian painter Egon Schiele had been on display at the Museum of Modern Art. Heirs of the prewar Jewish owners had claimed the paintings and wanted them held in New York, but the Austrian government had already worked out an agreement with the World Jewish Congress to determine the rightful disposition of the works, an agreement that MOMA took into account in preparing to send the paintings back. Then Morgenthau issued a subpoena, ``freezing the Schiele paintings,'' in the words of a New York Times editorial.

Morgenthau's act drew criticism from Austria, the World Jewish Congress art negotiator, and even the Times editorial. The DA's intervention threatened the international protocols of art exchange and could detract from the international tribunal set up to resolve the claims of the heirs of murdered Jews. The Schiele claimants praised Morgenthau, but others might have wondered what prompted his bold act?

Part of the answer requires a turning back of the clock, a measuring of the weight one generation can impose on the next. The prior story is also one of conflicting claims and of an eventual rejection of the slow, not always trustworthy procedures of institutions and governments. That story, too, involves the World Jewish Congress.

In January 1943, the State Department in Washington received in a cable from Bern, Switzerland, a detailed report of the Nazis' anti-Jewish extermination program, which had shifted into high gear in autumn 1942. The report originated with Gerhart Riegner, head of a World Jewish Congress rescue effort based in Bern. His appeal was for urgent help, but instead, according to David Wyman, whose book ``The Abandonment of the Jews'' is my source, the State Department ordered its Bern legation on Feb. 10 to stop sending ``private messages.'' Wyman writes: ``The obvious intent was to cut off such messages at their source.''

That April, a joint British-American conference in Bermuda reviewed further reports of the now blatant Nazi roundup of Jews but decided to take no special action. Since neither the British nor the Americans were prepared to accommodate large numbers of Jewish refugees, there was no point in mounting rescue operations.

That same April, despite the February ban, another urgent message from Riegner in Bern came to the State Department. The World Jewish Congress had on its own raised money in America for the ransom of Jewish children in France and Spain and of Jews in Rumania, but a US government license was needed for the transfer of funds to Switzerland. The license had to be issued by the Treasury Department, but State did not forward the request until late in June, and it did so with a warning that there were ``no areas to which the . . . Jews could be evacuated.''

Nevertheless, at the direction of the secretary of the Treasury, the license was approved at once. But again, State delayed: the license was not cabled to Bern for nearly four months, on Oct. 26. Even then, State Department officials in Bern, bowing to British pressure, did not issue the license. Learning of this further delay, the secretary of the Treasury denounced ``a satanic combination of British chill and diplomatic double-talk, cold and correct, and adding up to a sentence of death.'' Only when the secretary went to the president was the license issued, but by now it was December, and many of the Jews the money was intended to ransom had been hauled away.

When the secretary of the Treasury's staff investigated the State Department's foot-dragging, the findings were entitled ``A Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of Jews.'' The secretary took the report to the president and demanded that responsibility for the rescue of Jews be removed from the State Department. The secretary told one intimate that if thwarted, he was prepared to resign and release the report to the press.

The president acquiesced, and on Jan. 22, 1944, he established the War Refugee Board -- a year after Riegner's first appeal from Bern. The board was run out of the Treasury Department under the personal supervision of the secretary. It was ultimately responsible for the rescue of 200,000 Jews -- a result that its director would characterize as ``late and little'' and that the secretary's elder son would describe as a ``heart-rendingly disappointing number.''

This secretary of the Treasury who confronted such ``satanic'' indifference to the unfolding Holocaust was, of course, Henry Morgenthau Jr., the only Jew in Roosevelt's Cabinet. His elder son is Henry Morgenthau III, author of ``Mostly Morgenthaus, A Family History,'' my other source. The secretary's younger son is Robert M. Morgenthau. At 78, he has just begun his fourth term as district attorney for Manhattan by inserting himself into the controversyover Nazi-looted art. In 1944 he was 24. And why shouldn't he act like a man with a haunted memory?