A September 3 caption on Canada’s Global News:
“Warning: the next image contains content some viewers may find disturbing. Discretion is advised.”
The impact of that image of a three-year old Kurdish boy, drowned, lying face down on a Turkish beach is astonishing. What is remarkable is the hesitancy of much of the media to publish the picture. What is most “disturbing” about the picture is that it speaks to the world’s incredible apathy over the past many months as the greatest refugee crisis since World War II has continued to build—in plain sight.
Somehow, that one forlorn image has managed to pierce the hypocrisy and cant of most of our leaders and obliged them to deal with the crisis they—and we--had been desperately squirming to avoid.
Question: could such an image have thwarted the Holocaust?
Indeed, we are now hearing statements from religious leaders pleading with their governments to open their doors to the refugees, pleas similar to the dramatic speech made by the archbishop of Canterbury to the House of Lords in London. "We, at this moment, have upon us a tremendous responsibility," he said. "We stand at the bar of history, of humanity, and of God."
The fact is that speech was made before the House of Lords by Archbishop William Temple, more than 72 years ago, on March 23, 1943.
Ironically, he was referring then not to the terrible dilemma of millions of Arabs and others fleeing the Middle East, but the plight of millions of Jews facing imminent death in the Nazi-held territories of Europe.
Terrifying accounts of the Holocaust had begun to leak out of Germany a few months the archbishop spoke. But, as today, Allied leaders were also searching for anyway to avoid having to respond to mounting evidence of a ghastly human tragedy. They were aided by the fact that, though there was much horrifying chapter and verse on Hitler’s murderous actions, there were no stark pictures.
Imagine--if, instead of a Kurdish boy lying dead in the surf, there’d been images of a terrified three year-old Jewish boy in the arms of his mother, being jammed into a gas chamber? Or pictures of horror-stricken women and girls--desperately trying to hide their nakedness -- being herded by guards towards a ditch already filled with human bodies.
Similar images at the time were taken by German officials and guards in Nazi occupied territories but never made it to the outside world until after the terrible events.
What if the hundreds of thousands of witnesses to those crimes back then had I-phones and access to social media? On the other hand, Anti-Semitic and anti immigrant feelings were rife in Britain and the U.S. (and Canada). They were particularly pervasive in the State Department and The Foreign Office. There was little appetite to aid millions of desperate European Jews.
But as more information leaked out about the Nazi horrors, the leaders in Washington and London were finally obliged to at least go through the motions of taking action.
On April 19, 1943, they convened a conference in Bermuda. But with conditions: only official delegates from the U.S. and Britain would attend. No Jewish groups could be present, even as observers. The media was also barred. And in that distant Atlantic island, there’d be no danger of public demonstrations from noisy Jewish groups and their liberal supporters.
The Allied delegates in Bermuda were to discuss approaching Hitler with a proposal that, in exchange for some kind of vague quid pro quo, the Jews in Germany and its conquered territories would be allowed to emigrate to such countries as the United Kingdom, or other parts of the globe, far from Nazi control.
From the start, however, the whole affair was just a façade. The ideas went nowhere.
- Indeed, the British Foreign Office actually feared that their plan to rescue Jews might be too successful. In a memo the Foreign Office pointed out there were some "complicating factors": "There is a possibility that the Germans or their satellites may change over from the policy of extermination to one of extrusion, and aim as they did before the war at embarrassing other countries by flooding them with alien immigrants."
- The British were concerned, for instance, that Jewish immigration to places like Palestine would infuriate the Arab world. Or that rescuing the trapped Jews in Europe would tie up Allied ships needed to transport troops and war supplies.
But the bottom line was there was no way the UK or the United States—mirroring the dark sentiments of much of their peoples--would be willing to accept masses of Jewish refugees.
From the late thirties, the two countries had severely restricted the number of Jewish immigrants---in 1939 the U.S. infamously turning back one ship, the St. Louis, that had sailed from Germany loaded with 900 Jews frantically attempting to escape Hitler’s “Final Solution”.
As if to spur the Allies to action, two days after the Bermuda conference opened, the Allies learned that another horrific tragedy was taking place in Nazi Europe. The Jews of the Warsaw ghetto had launched a suicidal uprising. Now, they sent a last desperate radio message to the west—ending with the plea “Save us.”
After 12 days of secret negotiations, the conference ended. The conclusions were also kept secret, but it was made clear there’d be no action taken to save Europe’s Jews. The delegates had successfully avoided coming up with any solution to the distant, dim tragedy. The only way to help the Jews, they declared, was for the Allies to win the war.
In despair, Szmuel Zygielboim, a member of the Polish government-in-exile in London, who had made it his mission to tell the world about the Holocaust, committed suicide as one last gesture of protest at the Allies’ refusal to act.
In the weeks following the Bermuda Conference, Jewish groups in Canada also tried desperately to convince Ottawa to open the doors to at least a few thousand Jewish refugees--with no success. Indeed several Canadian politicians and newspapers railed against the proposal. In Alberta, for instance, the Hanna Herald, “A Paper with a Conscience” warned its readers against signing a petition to loosen immigration regulations.” It questioned “why Jews were “the most universally disliked people in the whole world.” In southwestern Ontario, the “Sarnia Observer” opined that while Canada might need more people, the government must “first check which races and which sections of the globe and even countries yield the highest percentage of criminals, such as bootleggers and gunmen.”
We would like to believe that, if they have existed back then, the I-Phone and Twitter and Instagram would have overwhelmed such repugnant, racist views. They would have made all the difference. That’s what we’d like to believe.
But, 70 years later, despite this era of rampant social media, viewing the astonishing acclaim that has greeted Donald Trump’s rabid warnings of the perils of immigration-Mexico’s rapists and criminals--we can’t really be sure.