Two Holocaust books you can judge by their covers
By Larry Domnitch
Forty-two years ago, a book with an explosive title and a jarring cover illustration shook the American public’s faith in one of the nation’s most beloved presidents.
“While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy,” by Arthur Morse, was the first book to expose President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s indifference to the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust. The cover’s caricature of Roosevelt averting his eyes captured the spirit of FDR’s response to the Shoah.
Dr. Rafael Medoff’s recent book “Blowing the Whistle on Genocide” tells the story of a Treasury Department lawyer, Josiah E. DuBois, Jr., who compelled Roosevelt to help rescue some Jewish refugees in the latter years of the war. “While Six Million Died” was the first book to mention DuBois; “Blowing the Whistle” reveals the rest of the story.
In an unusual twist, the artist who drew FDR’s face for Morse’s book returned, for the first time in four decades, to the field of Holocaust-related art by creating a stunning portrait of DuBois for the cover of Medoff’s book. How his remarkable artwork came to appear upon two book covers which appeared forty years apart turns out to be quite a story in itself.
Morse, a reporter and director for CBS Television in the 1950s, was one of the top investigative journalists of his generation. Working for Edward R. Murrow’s “See It Now” series on CBS Television in the 1950s, he wrote exposés about such controversial subjects as race relations, McCarthyism, and the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. By 1964, he became the producer of the program “CBS Reports.”
At that time Morse began to delve into a subject that would dramatically change his career. As a Jew and as a journalist, Morse had long wondered about how the United States government had responded to news of the mass killing of European Jews by the Nazis.
He began filming interviews with former government officials involved in the Roosevelt administration’s refugee policy, including Josiah DuBois. Morse’s plan was to produce a segment for CBS Reports about America and the Holocaust. For reasons that were not made public, Morse’s superiors nixed the project. Morse resigned from CBS in 1964 to devote himself full-time to the project.
He spent three years examining government records in Washington, Geneva, London and elsewhere. What finally emerged from Morse’s research was shocking.
“Many of the issues he dealt with [at CBS] were explosive,” the New York Post’s Roberta Gratz noted, “but their drama pales when compared to the subject of the book he has just written… He accuses the U.S. government of apathy, inaction, and outright obstruction in the face of efforts to rescue scores of European Jews from extermination by Hitler.”
The accusations of “American complicity with the greatest crime in recorded history” are “valid,” Elie Wiesel wrote in Hadassah Magazine in 1968, declaring that after reading the evidence presented by Morse, “one feels like spitting in the face of humanity.”
Morse’s findings would later be expanded upon by other historians, such as David Wyman and Monty Penkower, but in the pages of While Six Million Died, the basic features of the American response to the Holocaust emerged. Ships with refugees, such as the S. S. St. Louis, were refused admission to the United States. Information about the mass murder of the Jews was kept under wraps by the State Department. Opportunities to rescue Jews were repeatedly ignored.
The powerful cover illustration of Roosevelt averting his eyes summed up the tragedy of a president who claimed to be a humanitarian but turned away when the Jews needed him most.
Morse’s findings surprised so many people because for years after World War II, Franklin Roosevelt was still widely adored by the public including the Jewish community.
“Another reason Morse’s book was so shocking was that back in the 1950s and early 1960s, presidents were not so closely scrutinized by the media”, historian Medoff states. “Journalists sometimes consciously refrained from investigating rumors of presidential misbehavior. It was only much later that the public became accustomed to learning unpleasant things about their presidents.”
Morse was killed in an automobile accident in Yugoslavia in 1970. He did not live to see the powerful impact of “While Six Million Died.” Years later, Soviet Jewry protesters and pro-Israel lobbyists alike would cite it as a key influence on their own activism.
Likewise, Rafael Medoff, whose books focus on America’s response to the Holocaust, cites “While Six Million Died” as the book which introduced him to the field that was to become the theme of his professional career. “And it was that captivating cover illustration of FDR averting his eyes that drew me to the book,” he recalls.
In 2003, Medoff and several colleagues established the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based research institute. Its work is based on Wyman’s landmark 1984 book about the Roosevelt administration and the Holocaust, “The Abandonment of the Jews.”
In preparation for a Wyman Institute project focusing on the influence of “While Six Million Died,” Medoff intended to contact the artist who drew the cover to Morse’s book. But the book itself did not identify the artist, the signature on the cover was murky, and the publisher was no longer in business.
Last year, “thanks to the internet and a couple of strokes of good fortune,” Medoff says, he finally tracked down the artist. He turned out be much closer to home than expected: it was Gerry Gersten, the renowned political caricaturist. “And Gersten, I discovered, was the brother of one of my aunts. It was an unbelievable that after all these years, I track down the artist whom I so admired, and he turns out to be my relative.”
Gersten was born in the Bronx in 1927, to Polish Jewish immigrants who could not imagine it was possible to make a living as an illustrator, especially during the Great Depression. “I remember once picking up a copy of Life magazine and saying to them, ‘A page in this magazine would cost an advertiser $50,000, of course you can make a living in this field,'” he recalls. “But I couldn’t convince them. They wanted me to be an accountant.”
During the 1960s, Gersten emerged as one of America’s finest caricaturists. He drew illustrations for hundreds of books and magazines, including the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Time, Newsweek, and Rolling Stone.
“Mad” magazine editor Nick Meglin has described Gersten’s style as “new and different and exciting.” Gersten “has always been interested in growth and he achieves it by not compromising his approach to his work,”
Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush called Gersten’s caricature of him “a masterpiece” and asked for a copy (Gersten sent him the original). Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath asked for copies of a caricature Gersten did of him shortly after he led the New York Jets to victory in the 1969 Super Bowl. Gersten agreed on condition that Namath autograph a copy for his son.
At the time he met Gersten, Dr. Medoff was at work on his tenth book, Blowing the Whistle on Genocide: Josiah E. DuBois, Jr. and the Struggle for a U.S. Response to the Holocaust. “Morse had identified DuBois, but discussed him only very briefly,” Medoff notes. “David Wyman, in “The Abandonment of the Jews,” provided important additional information about DuBois. But a full book about DuBois was long overdue.”
Shortly before the manuscript was complete, Medoff called Gersten with a request: Would Gersten illustrate the cover of “Blowing the Whistle on Genocide?” “He was the artist who drew that memorable portrait of FDR averting his eyes from the Holocaust-now I wanted him to draw the whistle-blower who forced Roosevelt to stop averting his eyes.”
Gersten agreed to take on the assignment. “You don’t get too many opportunities to draw somebody whom you deeply admire,” he says. “I wasn’t going to miss the chance.”
Working from the few existing photos of DuBois, who died in 1983, Gersten created a rich, detailed portrait of the Holocaust hero, with a distant Nazi death camp and flickering flames in the background. DuBois’s son Robert called the illustration “a terrific likeness of Dad, and a wonderful tribute to what he did to save people from the Nazis.”
The book was launched at a recent Wyman Institute conference, at the Fordham University Law School in New York City. In their remarks at the event, Prof. Wyman and Dr. Medoff recounted how DuBois’s exposé of the State Department helped force President Roosevelt to establish a new government agency, the War Refugee Board. DuBois became one of the leaders of the Board.
Medoff described some of the Board’s unorthodox ways of rescue. It bribed border officials to let Jewish refugees pass, produced forged ID papers to protect Jews from the Nazis, and moved Jews out of the path of the retreating German army. It was the War Refugee Board that sent Raoul Wallenberg to Budapest and financed his rescue work there. Historians estimate that the Board played a central role in the rescue of more than 200,000 refugees during the last fifteen months of World War II.
With Gersten and other family members sitting in the front row, Medoff proceeded to tell the audience the surprising story behind the book’s cover. “This is one of the few times that you really can judge a book by its cover,” he concluded. “And I hope you will.”
Larry Domnitch is an educator and author. His books include “The Cantonists: The Jewish Children’s Army of the Tsar “and “The Jewish Holidays: A Journey Through History.”