Rafael Medoff: Chicago filmmaker focusing on U.S. diplomat who warned of Holocaust

Rafael Medoff : Chicago filmmaker focusing on U.S. diplomat who warned of Holocaust.

By Rafael Medoff (09/14/2012)

Israeli-American filmmaker Shuli Eshel has produced and directed critically acclaimed documentaries about topics ranging from Jewish women in sports to grassroots Arab-Jewish peacemaking efforts. Now the Chicago-based Eshel is turning her attention to one of the last untold stories of the Holocaust: the little-known one-man campaign by U.S. diplomat James G. McDonald to expose Hitler’s genocidal plans and rescue Jews from the clutches of the Nazis. McDonald recorded his insights in a diary that was recently discovered and published by Indiana University Press, in association with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC.

What drew you to McDonald’s story?

Eshel: By chance, I received an invitation to a lecture about McDonald at a synagogue in Chicago three years ago. The invitation included a photo of McDonald and his daughter Barbara with Golda Meir in 1948. Although I grew up in Israel, I had never heard of McDonald’s efforts to help save Jews during the Holocaust or that he was the first U.S. ambassador to Israel. McDonald had been left as a footnote in history books. The publication of his diaries changed that. When I learned that McDonald’s two daughters were still alive, I realized that a documentary, including interviews with the daughters, the editors of the diary and others could help bring the story of McDonald’s humanitarianism to larger audiences. As an Israeli-American filmmaker, I felt a particularly strong calling to make this film.

How did McDonald learn of Hitler’s intentions regarding the Jews?

Eshel: Incredibly, from Hitler himself. As a journalist and head of the Foreign Policy Association, McDonald went to Germany soon after Hitler’s rise to power and was one of the first Americans to meet with him in 1933. Face-to-face, Hitler was amazingly blunt with McDonald about his plan to get rid of the Jews from Germany. McDonald’s diaries reveal he correctly understood Hitler’s war on the Jews would engulf all of Europe.

What did McDonald do with the information?

Eshel: He tried to raise the alarm. He met and shared his fears with President Roosevelt, with Cardinal Eugenio Marìa Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII and with Jewish leaders in Britain and the United States. His words of warning were met with sympathy certainly, but mostly disbelief, indifference and in some instances even anti-Semitism.

I suppose it wouldn’t have been surprising if he had lost heart and given up at that point.

Eshel: True, but to his credit McDonald did exactly the opposite — he threw himself into the business of finding safe havens for Jewish refugees, as the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Coming from Germany.

That didn’t go very well.

Eshel: Well, McDonald learned a lot about the world’s lack of concern for the Jews. He ended up resigning his League of Nations post in protest because the various Western countries wouldn’t open their doors to Jews fleeing from Hitler. But three years later, when FDR decided to establish the President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees, he chose McDonald as its chairman.

How did that differ from his position at the League of Nations?

Eshel: Now he had to deal with the Roosevelt administration’s refugee policy from the inside. He found the president had delegated authority on refugee issues to the State Department, and the State Department was run by bureaucrats who were deeply anti-immigration. In the film, we see how incredibly frustrating it was for McDonald to deal with the State Department’s obstacles, and how he would sometimes try to go directly to the FDR. But the results were not what he hoped for.

For a while in the 1930s, McDonald served on the editorial staff of the New York Times. Was he able to make any headway there, on the Jewish issue?

Eshel: He wrote a number of important articles, but he wasn’t able to change the Jewish-owned paper’s policy, which, incredibly, was to always play down the Jewish angle of what Hitler was doing. It is well-known that the publisher, C.L. Sulzberger, didn’t want to be accused of being a “Jewish newspaper.” In one instance that the film shows, Sulzberger actually forced McDonald to decline an award from a Jewish organization.

McDonald was Christian. How did that affect his perspective on these issues?

Eshel: He believed that Christians had a religious obligation, a moral obligation, to help save Jews from the Nazis. He felt that obligation personally, and it was one of the major sources of inspiration and motivation for him. It’s a pity not many other people felt the same way.

Was McDonald, then, the exception that proved the rule?

Eshel: There’s no denying that much of the civilized world abandoned the Jews during the Holocaust. But there were also a small number of decent people like James McDonald who spoke up when others were silent and did everything they could to help save Europe’s Jews.

McDonald’s courage and bravery is a role model for human decency that is as relevant today as it was 75 years ago. The film will culminate with McDonald service as the first U.S. ambassador to Israel in 1948-51. This part of the film will include interviews with his daughter Barbara McDonald Stewart, who was with her father in Israel; Prof. Shlomo Slonim, who is the James G. McDonald Professor of American History, Emeritus at Hebrew University in Jerusalem; Ayalah Rottenberg, an Orthodox Jewish woman now in her 90s, was McDonald’s translator in 1949; and members from the synagogue on McDonald Street known as the McDonald Shul in Netanya, Israel.

For more information about the film, contact Producer/Director Shuli Eshel at eshelred@aol.com or (773) 868-4140.

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