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Harry Truman and the Holocaust Decades of Relationships Influenced His Actions

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Above image credit: Israeli President Chaim Weizmann presents the Finkelstein Torah to President Harry S. Truman on May 25, 1948. (Courtesy | Harry S. Truman Library and Museum)
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15 minute read

It happened in the 1930s, when movie houses showed newsreels between the movies.

On one particular Saturday, a Kansas City teenager sat down in a theater with her mother, grandmother and aunt. 

A newsreel began, detailing the latest outrages being perpetrated against European Jews. In telling the story some 70 years later, Gloria Schusterman didn’t recall exactly which actions were being depicted. She did, however, remember how her grandmother had risen from her seat and, standing up in the theater, had begun to shout.

“Those are my people!” she yelled.

“And I remember my mother and my aunt kept saying, ‘Shhh Mama, sit down, sit down,’ “ recalled Schusterman, describing the moment to a Harry S. Truman Library & Museum researcher in 2010.

But her grandmother would not be silenced.

“That’s not just a picture,” she had insisted. “That’s real.”

Coming Tonight on Kansas City PBS

“All These Delicate Sorrows,” a new Kansas City PBS documentary that tells the stories of Holocaust survivors who came to Kansas City, premieres at 7 p.m. on June 17. The documentary complements the traveling exhibition “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away,” open now through mid-January 2022 at Union Station.

Initial news of what came to be called the Holocaust came to Kansas City in a variety of  ways – in newsreels, in brief wire stories in the afternoon newspaper, and in conversations at the family dinner table.

It’s not hard, for example, to imagine Gloria describing her grandmother’s defiant reaction to her father, Eddie Jacobson, a traveling men’s shirt company representative and member of Congregation B’nai Jehudah, Kansas City’s first and oldest Jewish congregation.

It’s also possible that Jacobson may have passed on the story to his best friend and former business partner, who in 1935 had gone to Washington D.C. as Missouri’s new senator. 

That was Harry Truman, whose response to the Holocaust can be studied over the course of almost 20 years.

Consider the actions he took as the 33rd president, from 1945 through 1953. He acknowledged the Middle East region of Palestine as an international haven for Jewish refugees after World War II. In May 1948, he also decided to authorize de facto recognition of the new state of Israel mere minutes after it was established, which remains one of the Truman Administration’s marquee moments, a reconfiguring of global politics whose  ramifications today still resonate today.

The story of how Truman reached that decision – a drama in which Jacobson filled an almost cinematic role – remains familiar to Truman admirers.

Less familiar, perhaps, are Truman’s actions while serving as a senator and vice president from 1935 through 1945.

It’s unclear just when Truman, just like those patronizing Kansas City movie houses, had begun to acknowledge the undeniable. 

In the vast collection of letters he wrote to wife Bess Truman, the senator appears silent on the topic. Many of the papers generated during his first Senate term, meanwhile, are unavailable.

But some do remain. They document how Truman and his Senate office staff responded to the requests of his friends in the Kansas City Jewish community, Jacobson among them, requesting assistance from State Department and other government officials in securing visas for Jews seeking to escape Hitler’s Germany.

In 1941 Jacobson wrote Truman, thanking him for his assistance “in helping these various people in getting into this fine land of ours…”

Truman’s frustrations with the bureaucracies controlling that process, some think, may have influenced his decision to recognize Israel.

‘Enslaved, Crushed and Brutalized …’

During the 1930s and early 1940s the news being disseminated in American newspapers and movie theaters may have seemed unbelievable at first.

Still, evidence piled up in plain sight. 

A project entitled “History Unfolded,” organized by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and enlisting volunteers to review pre-war archival newspaper coverage, has inventoried examples of how knowledge of the targeting of European Jews likely grew in a slow, cumulative way.

The news that German officials were set to authorize forced sterilization of those with mental or physical disabilities such as epilepsy appeared in a brief Associated Press article published on the front page of The Kansas City Star on July 26, 1933.

Almost a decade later, another wire service story detailing the denouncing by the United States and 11 allies of the apparent implementation of a Nazi plan to murder the Jews of Europe, appeared on The Star’s front page on Dec. 17, 1942.

During Truman’s second term in the Senate, when he led his high-profile committee on wartime waste and fraud, he was receiving reports from a variety of Jewish organizations.

Those included the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency for Palestine and the American Palestine Committee, wrote Shirley Christian, a Kansas City area journalist and author who in 2014 published a two-part series detailing the Truman-Jacobson friendship in the Jackson County Historical Society Journal.

Truman responded, Christian wrote, in signaling his general support of creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

“There was heavy action from those groups from sometime in the 1930s onward in trying to influence the United States and the United Kingdom,” Christian said recently.

But on Palestine and related issues, Truman also had his own sources, among them his friends in the Kansas City Jewish community.

That included Jacobson but also A.J. Granoff, Jacobson’s lawyer. Granoff first met the future president at a Kansas City barber shop in the 1930s. 

Truman also maintained friendships with members of the St. Louis Jewish community, and for that he could credit his Masonic connections.

Truman’s Masonic activities date back to 1908, when he became a member of a Belton lodge. Three years later he led the effort to organize a lodge in Grandview.

By the early 1930s he was active in the Grand Lodge of Missouri, whose members included Samuel Thurman, a lodge chaplain and rabbi at United Hebrew Congregation of St. Louis, considered the oldest congregation west of the Mississippi River.

“Truman had his concept of brotherhood of man and working together,” said Jon Taylor, a Kansas City area author of several Truman volumes who is now preparing a history of Truman’s Senate years.

“He once called Freemasonry ‘a system of morals which makes it easier to live with your fellow man, whether he understands it or not.’ There are biblical elements in Freemasonry and Truman drew upon those as he used them as a way of organizing his life and principles.

“It wouldn’t be surprising to me that during this time Rabbi Thurman might have been passing him information on events in Europe.”

In 1939, speaking before 1,000 guests attending a luncheon organized by the Zionist Organization of St. Louis, Truman said he had been instrumental in bringing at least 100 German Jewish refugees to Missouri over the previous two years.

The president of the Missouri Zionists was David Berenstein, an immigrant from Russia who had earned his law degree from Saint Louis University. In 1940 Berenstein agreed to serve as director of Truman’s Senate re-election campaign.

In the early 1940s Truman perceived the rise of fascism in Europe from a Freemasonry perspective.

“The Masonic fraternity on the European continent has been suppressed,” he told a St. Louis audience in 1941. “It has been suppressed because it stands for freedom of thought and freedom of expression.”

By then some of Truman’s Jewish friends across Missouri had begun receiving urgent requests from distant relatives in Europe, seeking to escape Nazi Germany and asking for any assistance the Missouri senator could provide.

They included Alex Sachs, who had served as Jackson County highway engineer in the early 1930s, when Truman was county presiding judge.

In the early 1930s Alex Sachs (left) and N.T. Veatch (right) served as engineers under Harry Truman (center) during his time as Jackson County presiding judge.
In the early 1930s Alex Sachs (left) and N.T. Veatch (right) served as engineers under Harry Truman (center) during his time as Jackson County presiding judge. (Courtesy | Harry S. Truman Library & Museum)

Truman Library files examined by Howard Sachs, senior judge for the U.S. Western District in Kansas City and son of Alex Sachs, suggested that during Truman’s first Senate term Truman and his staff had responded to visa-related requests submitted by his father.

“Several distant cousins were so assisted,” Howard Sachs wrote in a 1978 essay, “Hearsay and Impressions,” which detailed the relationship between Truman and his father.

Yet, during his research, Sachs noted that about a dozen immigration cases submitted to Truman by his father apparently had not been resolved. Today Sachs wonders whether any lack of zeal on the part of State Department representatives simply reflected sentiments shared by others at the time.

“As one who remembers public attitudes as a kid sensitive to public opinion regarding Jews from the late 1930s and 1940s,” Sachs said recently, “perhaps I should opine that the State Department people – whether motivated by public opinion or not – surely had the more ‘popular’ attitude, which was opposing immigration and aggressive help for ‘foreigners,’ especially in late Depression conditions.”

But, as the evidence for Nazi outrages grew clear, Truman left no doubt regarding his own sentiments.

“In conquered Europe we find a once-free people enslaved, crushed and brutalized by the most depraved tyrants of all time,” Truman said in April 1943, during a “United Rally to Demand Rescue of Doomed Jews,” organized in Chicago.

“Through the edict of a mad Hitler and a degenerate Mussolini, the people of that ancient race, the Jews, are being herded like animals into the ghettos, the concentration camps, and the wastelands of Europe. The men, the women, and the children of this honored people are being starved – yes – actually murdered…”

In the same speech, Truman also endorsed the concept of an international refuge for those oppressed. 

“Today – not tomorrow – we must do all that is humanly possible to provide a haven and place of safety for all those who can be grasped from the hands of the Nazi butchers.”

Two Double Bourbons

Truman recognized Israel as a state minutes after it was established on May 14, 1948.

The path to that moment had been turbulent, with Truman receiving guidance from a wide variety of stakeholders, with the president sometimes growing fatigued with the issue.

But the drama would turn on a timely walk-on appearance by Truman’s longtime friend, Eddie Jacobson.

They first met in the early 1900s. 

Jacobson, employed by a Kansas City dry goods store, routinely made deposits at the nearby bank where Truman worked. That Jacobson, some four decades later, would play a minor but crucial role in international diplomacy he himself could only attribute to destiny.

“My father always said that he was beshert, which is a Yiddish word meaning that it was just his fate to be at the right place at the right time,” Gloria Schusterman told The Kansas City Star in 1998.

“My father was a very modest man and when he was saying he was beshert, he was saying that he really didn’t do anything special.”

During World War I Jacobson and Truman both had trained at a U.S. Army camp in Oklahoma, where they had operated a successful canteen.

After the war they ran their downtown Kansas City haberdashery. While it failed in the early 1920s, plunging them both into debt, they nevertheless remained steadfast friends. For decades Jacobson worked as a traveling men’s shirt salesman. But by 1945 he had gone back into retail, opening a men’s clothing store at the intersection of 39th and Main streets in Kansas City.

Although their downtown Kansas City haberdashery failed in the early 1920s, Harry Truman and Eddie Jacobson remained steadfast friends.
Although their downtown Kansas City haberdashery failed in the early 1920s, Harry Truman and Eddie Jacobson remained steadfast friends. (Courtesy | Harry S. Truman Library & Museum).

“I am pleased to death you are back in the game again,” Truman had written Jacobson. He would see a lot of Jacobson over the next couple of years, due to events that had been unfolding in the Middle East for decades.

In 1917, the Balfour Declaration by the British government transferred rule of Palestine to the British as a temporary home for Jewish refugees. But the declaration was set to expire on May 14, 1948.

In November 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. 

The vote lent momentum to a 2,000-year-old dream of a Jewish state that Zionist leaders had been articulating since the late 19th century. The full revelation of Holocaust atrocities after World War II gave that concept added urgency.

Zionist leaders who had begun organizing a government and military promised to proclaim a Jewish state on May 14 and proceed to defend it.

Crucial to Israel’s future was official recognition from the United States. 

Many were opposed.

The State Department believed the Arab nations surrounding Israel would push its residents into the Mediterranean. The Joint Chiefs of Staff felt a new Jewish state would represent a possible new outpost for Soviet communism. Secretary of State George Marshall, the man whom Truman likely most admired in Washington, believed official U.S. support for Israel would endanger long-range American interests.

Truman, meanwhile, had grown exasperated by what he once called the “pressure boys,” which apparently included some Zionist leaders. During one White House meeting, one had pounded on the president’s desk. 

“Individuals and groups asked me, usually in rather quarrelsome and emotional ways, to stop the Arabs, to keep the British from supporting the Arabs, to furnish American soldiers, to do this, that, and the other,” Truman wrote in his memoirs, first published in 1955.

“The persistence of a few of the extreme Zionist leaders … disturbed and annoyed me,” Truman wrote.

In 1948, when Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann wished to visit Truman, the president declined.

American Zionist officials asked Jacobson to intervene. 

Both of Jacobson’s daughters, in separate 2010 Truman Library oral histories, described their father as a not especially active or ardent Zionist. But he became so following visits from leaders of what is now B’nai Brith International.

“Daddy was not a Zionist,” Elinor Borenstine had said.

“He didn’t know about Palestine. We lived in the Midwest. We were not on the East Coast where a lot of Zionist activity occurred. Two men from B’nai B’rith, Frank Goldman and Maurice Bisgyer, decided that Daddy needed to be educated, and they would come out to Kansas City and in the parlors of the few Kansas City Zionists of that time they educated Eddie Jacobson.

“They taught him about Palestine, and they also taught him about what was going on in the camps and about the plight of the Jews who were left in Europe.”

Several times with A.J. Granoff, his friend and lawyer, Jacobson had gone to the White House to have off-the-record discussions on Palestine with Truman.

In March 1948, Jacobson flew to Washington again.

“In all my years in Washington (Jacobson) had never asked me for anything for himself,” Truman wrote in his memoirs, adding that Jacobson sometimes had spoken to him about “specific hardship cases” but “he did this rarely.”

Jacobson walked to the White House on March 13, a Saturday. The president’s appointment secretary, who knew Jacobson from previous visits, allowed Jacobson in only after receiving a promise that he would not discuss Palestine.

When Jacobson sat down with Truman, he brought up Palestine.

“He (Truman) immediately became tense in appearance, abrupt in speech and very bitter in the words he was throwing my way,” Jacobson later wrote.

Then Jacobson noticed a small statue of Andrew Jackson on Truman’s desk. It was a miniature of the three-ton statue of Jackson astride a horse by sculptor Charles Keck, whom Truman, when Jackson County presiding judge, had commissioned to render. Margaret Truman, then 10 years old, had unveiled the statue during the December 1934 dedication of the new Jackson County Courthouse in Kansas City.

Jacobson knew that Truman greatly admired the seventh president.

“I, too, have a hero,” Jacobson said. “A man I have never met but who is, I think, the greatest Jew who ever lived…

Jacobson praised Weizmann and chided Truman for bowing to pressure, saying, “It doesn’t sound like you, Harry.”

Schusterman said her father often described what had happened next.

“He said that Harry swiveled around in his chair and looked out the window to the Rose Garden. And when he started drumming his fingers on the desk, my father knew Harry was changing his mind. He knew Harry so well.” 

Truman, according to Jacobson’s account, turned back around in his chair and voiced an epithet, saying, “You win … I will see him.”

Jacobson left and stopped at a hotel and ordered two double bourbons.

Eddie Jacobson, after many years of traveling as a men’s shirt company representative, in 1945 opened his own store at 39th and Main streets in Kansas City.
Eddie Jacobson, after many years of traveling as a men’s shirt company representative, in 1945 opened his own store at 39th and Main streets in Kansas City. (Courtesy | Harry S. Truman Library & Museum)

Weizmann came to the White House on March 18, without public announcement. Truman authorized de facto recognition that May.

(The same statue that Jacobson seized upon recently has been the subject of protests regarding the seventh president, who was a slaveholder and signed into law the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Jackson County voters last year defeated a ballot measure that would have removed the downtown Kansas City Jackson statue, as well as a smaller version at the Historic Truman Courthouse in Independence.)

Jacobson’s story about comparing Weizmann to Andrew Jackson seemed a stretch to Granoff.

“I used to poke fun at him for that,” Granoff said in a 1969 interview. “He had that story. That’s Eddie’s own story and I sort of let him know that I took it with a grain of salt.”

Others, however, today credit Jacobson with having as much influence on Truman as Secretary of State George Marshall and Clark Clifford, a St. Louis lawyer who advised Truman on domestic affairs and who had been asked by Truman to present the case for recognition of Israel during a tense White House meeting.

“I think Truman listened to the Clifford-Marshall debate, but also had Eddie Jacobson’s views in his mind as well,” said Shirley Christian.

“To me, there is no doubt that Jacobson was a very key player in Truman’s decision to support Israel.”

At minimum, Elinor Borenstine knew Truman believed he had no greater friend than her father.

After her father’s death in 1955, Truman had come to the Jacobson home and promised Elinor that he would autograph copies of his just-published memoirs for her children. But when she brought the books to Truman’s downtown Kansas City office the following week, the former president said he was still too devastated by Jacobson’s death to sign them.

“And he put his head in his hands,” Borenstine said, “and he started to sob and sob and sob…”

‘I’m Happy to be Here’

On Sunday, June 9, 1963, officials at the Jewish Community Center in Kansas City escorted Harry Truman to an outdoor podium.

The occasion, as captured on home movie footage posted online by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education in Overland Park, was the dedication of a sculpture financed by members of the New Americans Club, made up of Kansas City area Holocaust survivors, many of whom had lived in the Warsaw ghetto before being moved to concentration camps.

During the ceremony six men wearing striped concentration camp clothing helped unveil the sculpture.

Truman, in speaking to the approximately 1,000 spectators at the center’s former location at 8201 Holmes Road, conceded that when he first began learning of the Nazi atrocities in Europe, he had a hard time processing the news.

“When I heard of it, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I didn’t think it possible that any of the Germans I had known could do such a thing.

“But a cold-blooded, ignorant corporal did do it,” he added, referencing Hitler’s time in the Germany military during World War I. “I hope they drew and quartered him for it. I know he was burned, and I’m sure he’s still burning somewhere.”

In recent years, more has been learned about Truman’s personal thinking on Jewish matters at the time.

In 2003 officials at the Truman Library in Independence discovered a previously unknown diary maintained by Truman in 1947.

While the diary contained Truman’s thoughts on a variety of topics, much was made of one entry, on July 21. ”The Jews, I find, are very, very selfish,” Truman wrote that day, apparently just after speaking with Henry Morgenthau, former treasury secretary under President Franklin Roosevelt. 

Morgenthau’s topic likely had been the “Exodus 1947,” a passenger ship carrying some 4,500 Jewish refugees that had been refused entry into British-ruled Palestine.

“He’d no business, whatever to call me,” Truman wrote.

“The Jews have no sense of proportion nor do they have any judgement [sic] on world affairs.”

Scholars at the time called the remarks surprising – but still subordinate in significance to Truman’s decision to recognize Israel in May 1948.

That November Truman received 75% of the country’s Jewish vote during his 1948 upset victory over Republican presidential nominee Thomas Dewey. Rabbi Samuel Thurman of St. Louis would deliver a benediction at Truman’s 1949 inauguration ceremony, becoming only the second rabbi to do so.

Howard Sachs, meanwhile, wonders whether Truman’s resolve to secure a place of refuge for Jews had been influenced by the memories of his frustration as a senator seeking to help refugees.

Sachs was interested, during his Truman Library research, to find the future president’s handwritten notes on specific requests, including one that had been passed to the senator by his father.

The request had sought assistance for a large family, and the future president had exhibited concerns about the quality of the paperwork. “I don’t know if the affidavit is a copy or not,” the future president had written to a member of his staff.

“A large family in Poland was seeking help and Truman wrote Dad,” Sachs said recently 

“Those people, a dozen or more, were all lost in the Holocaust. Things like that would not likely be forgotten when Truman became president.

“It shows that the senator dealt personally with such items and took a personal interest. It is my guess that Truman was significantly influenced by that sense of frustration and lost opportunities, as well as being distrustful as president of the State Department efforts to help displaced persons get to Palestine.”

One month after authorizing recognition of Israel, Truman signed the Displaced Persons Act, intended to aid in the resettlement of many European refugees, largely through the issuance of American visas. Two years later he signed an amendment to the act which removed a cutoff date that had blocked thousands of refugees from entry.

Details of the Holocaust don’t make for casual conversation and, accordingly, Clifton Truman Daniel, the former president’s eldest grandson, does not recall any sentiments volunteered by his grandfather during his family’s visits.

“He and my grandmother didn’t talk about that,’ Daniel said recently.

It’s also true, said Daniel, who was a teenager when his grandfather died in 1972, that he  didn’t seek out dialogue on such topics with his grandfather.

But, Daniel can today point to his grandfather’s memoirs, in which the 33rd president summarizes the Palestine issue of 1948 in context of “the victims who had survived the mad genocide of Hitler’s Germany” and the threat to western civilization such war crimes had represented.

“He always had sympathy for those who had been preyed upon and subjugated,” Daniel said.

Today the sculpture Truman helped dedicate in 1963, entitled “The Memorial to the Six Million,” stands on the Jewish Community Center campus in Overland Park.

“This is a very solemn occasion,” Truman had said in 1963, “one that touches a person in the heart, especially if you are familiar with what happened. 

“I am very happy this moment is here. The history of the United States of America is a history of fighting for the rights of the individual. It is a great thing for you as citizens to have done what you’ve done here.

“My heart is in it, and I’m happy to be here.”

Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a Kansas City area writer and author. He also is serving as president of the Jackson County Historical Society 2021 Board of Directors. Photos in this story credited to the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum are are either in the public domain or any copyright claims are unknown to the library.

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