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A Jewish Homeland in Alaska Print E-mail
By Jay Bushinsky
April 9, 2007

JERUSALEM -- Fiction inspired by modern history can be spell-binding, but without proper attention to the real-life context, it can be absurd if not offensive.  This dictum applies to the well-meaning burlesque of Jewish folklore and folkways, entitled, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" by Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon. (He won the prestigious award for a previous work: "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.")

Time, the weekly newsmagazine, paid jocular respect to Chabon's tongue-in-cheek thriller in its May 7, edition, but, like other major American media, gave short shrift to the historical background on which his tale unfolded.  Its reviewer dispensed with it in a parenthetical aside that referred to the serious, though abortive proposal to open up Alaska to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.  He or she disposed of the idea of an ad hoc Jewish sanctuary noting, "(as supposedly really almost happened) Alaska, not Israel was designated as the Jewish homeland."
In truth, this was far from being a far-fetched, off-the-wall idea.  It was broached by Rep. Charles Buckley, a New York Democrat, a few days after the barbaric "Kristallnacht" pogrom raged across Germany and Austria, Nov. 9-10, 1938. Buckley, whose constituency was centered in New York's largely-Jewish Borough of The Bronx, wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nov. 18, 1938, urging him to open up Alaska, then a Federally-administered territory, as a refuge for desperate German Jews. According to the Anchorage Daily News' Tom Kizzia, who wrote a brilliant four-part series on this affair eight years ago, "Roosevelt turned him down."

Kizzia's empathy for the 230,000 Jews still on German soil (about a third of the number who were there when Adolf Hitler came to power) is reflected in this journalistic, but touching, lead: "On the eve of World War II, Alaska became an improbable beacon of freedom for Jews trapped inside the Third Reich."

He quotes the hopeless correspondence conducted by Bruno Rosenthal, a member of the tiny and incredibly patriotic Jewish community of Neustadt, a small town in northwesternGermany, with the U.S. State Department.

Writing in somewhat cumbersome and unidiomatic English, Rosenthal, who then was a wealthy man in his own right, expressed the urgency of his cause: "We beg imploringly for the High (cq) Department of State to permit us to immigrate to Alaska."  His letters "went unanswered," Kizzia goes on.

There was a ray of hope in another branch of the federal government, though.  Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes favored the idea and his staunch support mollified Roosevelt's knee-jerk opposition to a certain extent.  But the project went into abeyance with the outbreak of World War II, Sept. 1, 1939.

The most shameful phase of American indifference and disinterest in the German plight occurred two years later, when the Alaska project was revived by several of the U.S. Jewish community's foremost leaders.  They lobbied for it all the way up to the White House and came to believe that FDR would no longer stand in their way.

However, the persistent anti-Semitism that lurked in the darkest corners of the U.S. political system finally delivered the coup de grace.

The campaign against the well-meaning and understandable concept of 'Jews in Alaska' (no offense intended to novelist Chabon; that metaphor was inspired by Mel Brooks' once-
laughable 'Jews in space' quip) began when the landscape-loving and environmentally-enamored movers and shakers of Alaskan society let it be known that Jews would be an unwelcome demographic element in their pristine, glacier-packed territory.

They got their message across to the subliminal anti-Semites in the U.S. Congress.  And when FDR tried to nail down support in the House of Representatives for an appropriations bill which was meant to finance the crash buildup of the U.S. Navy, the hard-boiled politicos told him he could have one or the other -- money for the fleet or Alaska for the German Jews -- not both.  Roosevelt opted for the former and the Alaska project died there and then.

This tragic episode in the history of World War II and its accompanying genocide should have been brought out into the open by the book reviewers who ran the Chabon novel over their literary coals.  It would have been a well-deserved reminder that the American body politic has a few moral skeletons its closet, among them its pre-war and wartime imperviousness to the Nazis' annihilation of European Jewry.
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