A Catholic diplomat from the Midwest, James G. McDonald, was one of the first people in the world to know that Adolph Hitler intended to annihilate the entire Jewish people.
After all, he heard it from Hitler himself.
But when he tried to warn world leaders, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he mostly met indifference.
McDonald, who went on to become America’s first ambassador to Israel, is hardly a household name even among American Jews. That’s why Chicago filmmaker Shuli Eshel felt she had to tell his story.
The result is a documentary, “A Voice Among the Silent: The Legacy of James G. McDonald” that will be shown on Sunday, Nov. 9 at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center’s Kristallnacht commemoration and also on Nov. 23 at Temple Sholom of Chicago. McDonald’s daughter will be present at the Holocaust Museum screening.
Eshel, an Israeli-born Chicago filmmaker whose popular documentaries have included “Maxwell Street: A Living Memory” and “To Be a Woman Soldier,” had never heard of McDonald before she read a column about him in a 2012 edition of Chicago Jewish News, she said in a recent phone interview. She later went to a lecture about him at Temple Sholom of Chicago and found out that little had been known about McDonald until after his death, when his daughters found and published more than 500 pages of his diaries.
“I had never heard of his efforts to save Jews during the Holocaust or that he was the first U.S. ambassador to Israel. I come from Israel and I had never heard of his name. He had been left as a footnote,” Eshel says.
In 1933, she says, McDonald – born in Ohio, raised in Indiana – was serving as the head of the Foreign Policy Association in New York.
“He had heard conflicting reports about Hitler and thought he would go to Germany and find out directly. His mother was German and he spoke the language,” she says.
A meeting was arranged, and at one point McDonald brought up the subject of Jews.
“Hitler at first said we don’t have anything against Jews but the more McDonald brought up the subject he started losing it,” Eshel says. “Finally he lost his temper and told McDonald he planned to annihilate the Jews. He said there had already been a boycott and Jewish stores were closed and storm troopers were attacking people and not letting them into (the remaining) stores.”
This information wasn’t yet widely known outside of Germany and “McDonald was totally shocked that this was happening right in front of his eyes,” Eshel says.
He took Hitler’s words seriously and three weeks later met with President Roosevelt.
“We know from (McDonald’s) diaries that Roosevelt heard from McDonald first hand what Hitler’s plan were, and he was very shocked,” Eshel says. But when McDonald sought funds to help resettle Jewish refugees, “(Roosevelt) said he would, but he dragged his feet, and in the end it was forgotten,” she says.
McDonald’s name was submitted to become ambassador to Germany, but he was not chosen. “We don’t know if a frank account of his talk with Hitler changed Roosevelt’s mind. Did they think he was too pro-Jew?” Eshel asks.
Later McDonald was named League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “He got together with prominent Jews in New York City and decided to reach out to European countries and get safe haven for refugees,” Eshel says. He even talked to the future Pope Pius XII about the impending doom he foresaw for Europe’s Jews.
He asked Roosevelt to donate $10,000 in hopes that other countries would follow, but it never happened. In a letter to The New York Times Albert Einstein backed the plan and appealed to humanity for help in resettling Jewish refugees.
Despite such pleas, Eshel says, McDonald soon found out that “a lot of countries didn’t want to open their doors to Jewish refugees. He went to South America and other places and found nobody wanted to help resettle Jews. Even the (U.S.) State Department was indifferent to the plight of Jews.” In 1935 McDonald resigned the League of Nations post.
He later worked on The New York Times and taught at Indiana University, eventually becoming the first U.S. ambassador to Israel. “He laid down the foundation of the relationship between Israel and the United States,” Eshel says.
To tell the human story she worked with McDonald’s two daughters, using the diaries as source material.
“He never thought he would publish them,” she says. “He just kept them as a record of what he did, who he spoke to. The diary was a very thick volume and was mainly for scholars who were researching this period. But no one had made a documentary about him and I thought a documentary would reach a much bigger audience all over the world.”
The film ended up being somewhat controversial, Eshel says, because “it shows that Roosevelt did very little to help people who were denied entry to the country.”
But more important, she says, is that “Chicago should hear the little-known story of an American diplomat who did everything he could to warn the world about Hitler.”
“A Voice Among the Silent: The Legacy of James G. McDonald” will be shown at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9 at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, 9603 Woods Drive, Skokie, followed by a program with McDonald’s daughter, Dr. Barbara McDonald Stewart, and filmmaker Shuli Eshel. Reservations required, firstname.lastname@example.org. It will also be shown at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 23 at Temple Sholom of Chicago, 3480 N. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago. More information, (773) 435-1541.