On April 8, 1933, a little more than two months after Adolph Hitler came to power, American James McDonald met with Hitler.
McDonald, who chaired the Foreign Policy Association in New York, asked Hitler why he was targeting Jews. Irritated by the question, Hitler lost his temper.
"I will do the thing that the rest of the world would like to do," Hitler told McDonald. "It doesn't know how to get rid of the Jews. I will show them."
A month later, McDonald met with Franklin Roosevelt, warning the president of Hitler's plans and also of his feeling that war was inevitable. He alerted Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII. For more than a decade, he did everything he could to try to find a safe haven for the Jews of Europe.
His warnings were largely ignored.
Many U.S. government officials turned a blind eye to the Holocaust. A new film tells the little known story of one who did not. And it changed the course of his entire life.
The documentary, A Voice Among the Silent: The Legacy of James G. McDonald, tells the story of McDonald, a diplomat, professor, and journalist who became a champion of the Jews of Europe and a passionate Zionist. A man of great courage and perhaps even greater persistence, McDonald is credited with personally saving 2,000 German Jewish refugees. He later became the first U.S. ambassador to Israel.
The film, by Chicago filmmaker Shuli Eshel, is based on his meticulously kept diaries. The diaries, which were never intended for publication, were rediscovered only in 2003 after being lost for more than 50 years. Donated by McDonald's daughters to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the museum published them with Indiana University Press in three volumes.
To commemorate the 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Illinois Holocaust Museum will show the film on Sunday, Nov. 8. Eshel and McDonald's daughter, Dr. Barbara McDonald Stewart, who accompanied her father to Israel in 1948, will lead a discussion following the film.
"Here is a man, a Catholic, born in Ohio and raised in Indiana, who helped to rescue Jewish refugees before the Holocaust," said Eshel. Eshel, who was born in Israel, has made more than 15 films, including Maxwell Street: A Living Memory.
"McDonald's courage and bravery to act in the darkest period of history is amazing," she said.
"He was never deterred. He did everything in his power to save the Jews and alert world leaders."
Eshel learned about McDonald, who was born in 1886, a few years ago at a program at Temple Shalom and was immediately intrigued.
It took Eshel over a year to trace two McDonald's daughters, at the time in their 80s and 90s, and seek their cooperation. They described their father, although Catholic, as "part of American Jewish history."
Production started in 2011.
For Eshel, the big question was why? Why did McDonald, a blond German-speaking 'Aryan'-as he wryly referred to himself-of Scotch-Canadian descent whom the Nazis saw as one of them, stick out his neck so far to save Jews? Eshel found her answer in his writings. "The threat to Jews was not only a hideous wrong but also created a world problem of overwhelming significance," he said. "It was that not only for the sake of the Jews but for the larger cause of freedom, justice and equal treatment of all human beings, everywhere, whatever their race, religion, or nationality."
Months after his fateful meeting with Hitler, McDonald became the High Commissioner for Refugees for the League of Nations. Two years later, he resigned in protest because of world apathy.
Later on, he was appointed chairman of Roosevelt's Advisory Committee on Political Refugees, although his hands were largely tied by Roosevelt's immigration policy that severely limited the number of German Jews allowed to flee to the U.S. After the war, Roosevelt sent McDonald as a special envoy of the U.S. to the provisional government of Israel. He persuaded Truman that Jews couldn't go back to their homes in Europe and was appointed the first U.S. ambassador to the new Jewish State.
"He's a role model for me," Eshel said. "When others were silent, he spoke up."
• The Illinois Holocaust Museum, 9603 Woods Drive, Skokie, will show the film at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 8. Eshel and McDonald's daughter, Dr. Barbara McDonald Stewart, will lead a discussion after the film.
• Temple Shalom, 3480 N. Lake Shore Drive, will show the film at 3 p.m., November 23. Post-screening discussion with Eshel and scripwriter Roger Schatz.
Lisa Pevtzow is a freelance writer living in the Chicago area.