How American Passivity in the Face of the Holocaust Left Its Mark on Robert Morgenthau

July 29, 2019 | Steven I. Weiss
About the author:

Robert Morgenthau, who died on July 21 ten days shy of his 100th birthday, had a long career as a U.S. attorney and as Manhattan district attorney. A decorated World War II veteran, he was the son and grandson of two of the most prominent Jews in American public life: Henry Morgenthau, Sr., a real-estate baron who had served as ambassador to the Ottoman empire, and Henry Jr., who was Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of the treasury. Robert Morgenthau had little to do, publicly, with Jewish affairs, yet they affected him deeply. Steven I. Weiss writes:

[T]he horrors of Hitler’s Germany weighed on [Robert Morgenthau] as an example of what could go wrong when decision-makers in a country become corrupt opportunists. . . . Some of the lessons of what could go wrong in fighting injustice came from his own, insider’s view of the American government’s response to the Holocaust. When Morgenthau volunteered for military service in World War II, he already knew of his father’s fights within the Roosevelt administration to try to do more about the ongoing genocide of Jews in Europe. Henry Jr. was . . . nearly [removed] from his cabinet position for trying to arm France in 1939, [and] had to lobby hard [merely] to establish a Jewish refugee camp in upstate New York.

In the late 1980s, [Robert] accepted a commission from then-Mayor Ed Koch to lead an effort to build a Holocaust memorial in New York City. After others failed to raise the necessary money, Morgenthau stepped in to call millionaires personally and solicit large donations from the very sorts of financiers he’d made his name investigating, and managed to bring the project back on track.

In connection with this project, Morgenthau was also influential in arranging for John Cardinal O’Connor to deliver a speech apologizing for the Catholic Church’s role in the Holocaust, the first such statement from a high-ranking church official.

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