Remarks delivered at the Fifth National Conference of

The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies

Sunday, June 17, 2007 - Fordham University School of Law

Bill O'Dwyer, Paul O'Dwyer, and the Forgotten Irish-Jewish Alliance for Holocaust Rescue

Edward I. Koch

New York City is home to many large, colorful, and assertive ethnic groups. None of them are more colorful or assertive than the Irish and the Jews.

In my remarks today, I want to draw your attention to an important but little-known Irish-Jewish alliance in support of rescue from the Holocaust and creation of a Jewish State.

The influx of large numbers of Irish immigrants in the mid-1800s, and large numbers of Jewish immigrants in the early 1900s inevitably meant that there would be flashpoints of tension between the two groups in areas such as housing and jobs.

For example, since antisemitism in the academic world kept most Jews out of college faculty positions, many of them became elementary or high school teachers in the public school system --an area previously dominated by the Irish. There were political conflicts, too: in the 1930s, Jews favored helping England against Hitler while the Irish, not surprisingly, opposed aiding the British. The Catholic Church, an important force in the Irish-American community, was strongly anti-Communist and was deeply suspicious of Jewish involvement in leftwing causes.

The most disturbing points of tension during those years were the repeated outbreaks of antisemitic assaults on Jewish youngsters by Irish youths in various parts of the city, particularly during the 1930s and early 1940s. Some of these attacks were inspired by antisemitic rabble-rousers such as the infamous Reverend Charles Coughlin and the Christian Front. Some of it, pre-Vatican II and the great Pope John XXIII who clearly loved the Jews, was probably encouraged by the teachings of those elements in the Catholic Church who still clung to, and propagated, anti-Jewish prejudices rooted in theology, such as the idea that contemporary Jews bear collective responsibility for the death of Jesus. That was the environment of sixty-five years ago.

Professor Stephen Norwood of the University of Oklahoma, a member of the Academic Council of the Wyman Institute, recently published an important study of anti-Jewish violence by Irish gangs in New York and Boston in the 1930s and 1940s. His two most important findings, in my view, were --first-- that the problem of such violence was considerably worse than other historians have acknowledged; and --second-- that the violence decreased very significantly in the mid-1940s.

In Professor Norwood's view, the decrease was primarily due to three factors: (1) “Public awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust...” (2) “A markedly improved economic climate and better prospects for social mobility reduced frustration and resentment against other groups.” (3) “The movement of many Jews to suburban neighborhoods lessened direct physical contacts with hostile Irish Americans on the streets.”

Now I offer a possible additional reason: the impact on the Irish community of the support given by prominent Irish-Americans to the Jewish cause in the 1940s.

Let me begin with Congressman Andrew Somers, Democrat of Brooklyn. He represented the Sixth Congressional District from 1929 until 1945.

From the Bergson Group's earliest days, Andy Somers was its most enthusiastic supporter on Capitol Hill. The British government was more than a little annoyed at Somers's involvement with Bergson. One memo from the British Embassy in Washington to the Foreign Office in London described Somers as “the less happy type of Irish American Catholic demagogue.”

Rabbi Baruch Rabinowitz, who was the Bergson Group's first lobbyist in Washington, recalled in his memoirs how when he first came to Capitol Hill, he didn't have an office. So Congressman Somers gave him his office. Literally. Rabinowitz camped out in a room in Somers's office, and ran the Bergson lobbying operation from there. Somers's secretaries did Rabinowitz's typing. And considering how much the Bergson Group had to say, that was no small task.

Somers made speech after speech in the House of Representatives about the plight of the Jews. And he did not mince words. In one speech in 1944, he said that the British policy of keeping the Jews out of Palestine, thus trapping them in Hitler Europe, made England “a virtual partner of the bestial Nazis.”

When the Bergson Group placed full-page ads in the newspapers, Somers's name appeared prominently as an endorser. When Bergson needed to put together a delegation to meet with an important government official or foreign diplomat, Somers was part of it.

Let me note again that Somers was a Democrat. A liberal Democrat from New York, who was openly challenging the policies of a liberal and very popular Democratic president, in the middle of a world war. It is not a simple thing to oppose a president from your own party. Somers was risking his political life by going out on a limb with the Bergson Group against the Roosevelt administration. In a much smaller and less threatening situation for me, I challenged President Carter on several occasions because of his then anti-Israel position, which he continues to promote currently in his book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.”

Now let us turn to the case of an earlier predecessor as mayor of New York City, William O'Dwyer.

I should note, first of all, that Bill earned his law degree right here at the Fordham Law School, Class of 1923. He did it the way many immigrants did it in those days--by going to night school. During the days, he was a police officer. After graduating from Fordham, he built up a very successful law practice in Brooklyn, and then began serving as a Kings County judge, with his eye on the District Attorney's office.

It was at this point that Bill's interest in Jewish affairs began. Thanks to research by the Wyman Institute, we now know that, in 1938, when he was preparing to run for District Attorney, Bill gave assistance to Jewish activists, including future leaders of the Bergson Group, who had come to the United States to raise funds for illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine.

Think about that: a judge, and aspiring District Attorney, helping people to break the immigration laws of one of America's closest allies. If what he was doing was discovered, it would have been quite a scandal and could have ruined his political career. And, I should add, he was a Roosevelt Democrat, who was probably already thinking about running for higher office after District Attorney--yet he was involving himself in activity that was staunchly opposed by the Roosevelt administration. It was not what I would call a politically wise move. But it was the right thing to do.

After two years as District Attorney, during which he became nationally known for his fight against the gangsters known as Murder Incorporated, Bill ran for mayor and lost to Fiorello La Guardia. Shortly after that, America entered the war; Bill joined the military and eventually became an official of the United States occupation government in Italy, where he was credited with implementing a number of successful policies. That was what brought him to the attention of the War Refugee Board. As many of you know, the Board had been belatedly established in 1944 by President Roosevelt, under strong pressure from the Treasury Department and Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, and from Congress, much of it generated by the Bergson Group. When the Board's director, John Pehle [PAY-Lee], resigned in early 1945, O'Dwyer was chosen to replace him.

Some have suggested that O'Dwyer was given the job because Roosevelt was grooming him to run for mayor again. Assuming he had the Irish vote in his pocket, giving O'Dwyer a high-profile job helping Jewish refugees would be a good way to get him Jewish votes. It would have been pretty tough to beat a candidate who was popular among both the Irish and the Jews. And it may be that O'Dwyer took the job for that reason. There's no way to be sure of his motives, and I'm not sure if it even matters, because the help that O'Dwyer gave to refugee activists seven years earlier, in 1938, when it was contrary to his political interests, already demonstrated that he had a heart--and a conscience.

O'Dwyer served as director of the War Refugee Board for the last five months of its existence, that is, for the last five months of the war in Europe. During that period, the Board saved many lives by moving Jewish refugees out of the way of the retreating German armies. O'Dwyer also personally undertook an extraordinary and successful effort to convince the War Department to give him dozens of Army trucks to bring food and medicine from Switzerland to starving Jewish refugees.

You all know about the one thousand Jewish refugees who were allowed to come to the United States in 1944 and housed in Oswego, in upstate New York, the one token shipment that Roosevelt permitted. What you may not know is that as the war was ending, there was strong pressure to send the Oswego refugees back to Europe, and Bill O'Dwyer played an important role in the lobbying effort that made it possible for them to stay in America.

Elected mayor in 1945, Bill was a proud and outspoken Irish nationalist. At his inauguration, they played the song “It's a Great Day for the Irish.” Clearly his sentiment about Ireland and the British deeply influenced his sympathy for the Jewish struggle against the British. One might say that it was simple political common sense for the mayor of New York City to support the struggle of the Holocaust survivors and the fight to create a Jewish State. After all, these were the motherhood-and-apple pie issues for Jewish voters in New York City. Maybe we would say motherhood and knishes in this case.

But let me also point out that you don't need to associate with the most militant or controversial factions in the Jewish community in order to get Jewish votes. He didn't have to become a supporter of the Bergson Group, which was openly supporting the Irgun's revolt against the British in Palestine. He could have aligned himself with the mainstream Jewish leaders, and their more moderate positions, and he still would have impressed Jewish voters.

Yet there he was publicly endorsing the controversial play that
Ben Hecht wrote for the Bergson Group, “A Flag is Born,” in 1946, and a similar production the following year called “That We May Live.” Let me tell you from experience that a mayor does not just agree to lend his name to any cause, or to publicly endorse any group that comes along, or to be photographed with anyone who wants to be in the picture. Mayors understand, and their advisers understand, that an endorsement from City Hall carries weight and bestows legitimacy and credibility. The decision as to who to endorse or to which cause the mayor should lend his name, is not made lightly. It comes only after careful deliberation.

One last anecdote about Bill O'Dwyer, which actually does not have to do with the Irgun but its rival, the Haganah. But it says a lot about Bill. One day in 1948, New York City police officers stumbled upon a warehouse in which the Haganah was storing weapons prior to shipping them, hidden in coffins, to Israel, in defiance of the State Department's embargo on arms to the Middle East. A friend of the Haganah who had a relationship with the mayor immediately informed him of the development, and --as the story goes-- O'Dwyer instructed the police officers guarding the cordoned-off warehouse to be “out sick” for 24 hours. During that time, the Haganah emptied the warehouse and packed the guns on ships bound for the Holy Land.

Truth in packaging requires that I refer to the scandal involved in his resignation as mayor. I will quote from Wikipedia: “Shortly after his re-election to the mayoralty in 1949, O'Dwyer was confronted with a police corruption scandal uncovered by the Kings County District Attorney, Miles McDonald. O'Dwyer resigned from office on August 31, 1950. President Harry Truman appointed him U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. He returned to New York City in 1951 to answer questions concerning his association with organized crime figures and the accusations followed him for the rest of his life. He resigned as Ambassador on December 6, 1952, but remained in Mexico until 1960.”

The Bergson Group had the good fortune to have not one, but two, O'Dwyers among their allies. Bill's younger brother, Paul, began his public career as an attorney --later, of course, he became a New York City Councilman and president of the City Council. But in the 1940s, his battlefield was the courtroom, and he used his talents as a lawyer and a public speaker on behalf of the Holocaust survivors in Europe and the struggle to establish a Jewish State. Like his brother the mayor, Paul O'Dwyer was an Irish nationalist and viewed the Jewish fight for Palestine as another front in the battle against the British. Menachem Begin, in his book “The Revolt,” referred to Paul as “that gallant Irishman.”

Once, when the trade union activist Harvey Rosen urged Paul to break his ties with the Irgun and the Bergson Group on the grounds that they were “reactionary and anti-labor,” Paul replied: “If Israel were to wait for freedom to come from the conference table, Harvey Rosen would be getting Social Security before the matter would come up for the second reading. To ask me to turn my back on the Irgunists would be like asking me to denounce the Irish Republican Army.”

The Bergson Group frequently sent Paul to lecture in synagogues. Here's how he later characterized that experience: “The feeling was that they would think if this goy thinks this is the right thing to do, then why shouldn't us Jews be generous?”

In his autobiography, Paul described sitting back stage at an Irgun fundraising rally at Madison Square Garden in 1948, together with the African-American congressman and former clergyman, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Dissatisfied with the effectiveness of the Jewish speaker who was making the pitch for contributions, Powell turned to O'Dwyer and said, “This guy's blowing it! Paul, I think this calls for a Baptist minister and an Irish revolutionary. You handle that microphone over there and I'll handle this one.” O'Dwyer wrote: “In unison we rose and in unison we took the microphones gently away from the [speaker]. We collected $75,000 from the crowd that night ...”

For a lawyer, Paul was up to some pretty risky business. We don't know the full details, but we do know that he undertook missions to Dublin and Paris to assist in Irgun smuggling operations. Alluding to the fact that he had worked on New York's docks as a young man, he wrote: “The fact that I had had waterfront experience helped in making arrangements when shipping was necessary” --that, is shipping of guns to the Jewish fighters in Palestine.

But he was best known for several sensational courtroom victories in defense of young Zionsits who were arrested in these gun running operations. Appearing on behalf of two Bergson men caught at an Irgun arms depot in lower Manhattan in the spring of 1948, Paul declared at the first pre-trial hearing that the charges should be dismissed on the grounds that even if it were proven “that these defendants had been actively engaged in sending arms and ammunition to Israel, it would be a worthwhile act.” Over the loud objections of the Assistant District Attorney, Magistrate Frederick Strong threw the case out.

Later that year, Paul defended five young Irgun supporters who were caught loading arms to be shipped to Israel. In his opening statement, Paul launched into a speech about how the defendants were trying to “help people defend their homes and hillsides,” and “if there is any conspiracy at all, that conspiracy exists with the State Department and--” But Judge Vernon Riddick dismissed the charges before O'Dwyer could finish his sentence.

I have always placed great stock in the concept of leading by example.

Political leaders set an example for the rest of society to follow. They pass the laws. They determine many of our social and cultural boundaries. They certainly set the tone of public debate. As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and as mayor of New York City, I tried to set a good example, as a political leader. I was also well aware that I was perceived as a Jewish public figure. I recognized that minority politicians, particularly Jews, blacks and Hispanics, are regrettably judged by many, not on their own, but as representatives of their ethnic group. That occurs much less these days.

I don't know to what extent Congressman Somers, or Mayor Bill O'Dwyer, or attorney Paul O'Dwyer, felt an obligation to set a good example as Irish-Americans. But they did set a good example. By their activities in support of Holocaust refugees and Jewish statehood, they sent a powerful message to the Irish community that helping the downtrodden Jews was the morally right thing to do.

We cannot know for certain if their actions had an impact on the level of Irish gang violence against Jews, but it seems to me that it is very likely it had some impact. Somers and the O'Dwyers were just too prominent to be ignored. If that is the case, if the forging of this Irish-Jewish alliance not only helped the cause of the refugees and creating Israel but also helped reduce antisemitism in the Irish community, then we must add another important achievement to the Bergson Group's impressive list of accomplishments.