“The things that I saw beggar description. … The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were … overpowering. … I made the visit deliberately in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.’”
That is what Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote in a cable message to Gen. George C. Marshall on April 15, 1945, after having witnessed the horrors of the World War II death camps. Eisenhower went on to order extensive documentation of the Holocaust. He invited journalists, photographers, governmental officials and his own son to bear witness.
Marvin Kalb, a veteran reporter and author, recalled the words of the man who went on to become the 34th president in a conversation with Eisenhower’s granddaughter, Susan Eisenhower, hosted by The Generation After on Sunday afternoon.
What he had seen, bore witness to — how did that impact Eisenhower’s life?
“The answer that she gave is that it reflected his most profound disgust with everything associated with the Holocaust,” said Kalb in a follow-up interview. “Eisenhower was so appalled by this that he insisted that the leaders of the local communities around the death camps come and see for themselves what had gone on in their neighborhoods.”
Eisenhower’s son took a series of photographs of the camps and shared those images with his young family, making sure they understood what they meant.
What stood out to Kalb, and to many of the approximately 120 survivors, child survivors and descendants of survivors who attended the talk at Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, was the deep embarrassment Eisenhower felt about his ancestors’ countrymen.
Susan Eisenhower, CEO and chairman of the Eisenhower Group, said that her grandfather was of German descent and was raised in a German-infused environment in Kansas. It was Eisenhower’s father who was the first in his family to speak English, she said.
“Eisenhower himself was appalled that his people, in effect, his lineage, was responsible for the Holocaust,” said Kalb. “That’s why when the final unconditional surrender of the Germans was going to take place, Eisenhower chose not to be in the room with the senior German generals.”
But when did the then-general learn of the genocide? When did President Franklin D. Roosevelt learn of what was happening to the Jews of Europe, many in the audience asked Susan Eisenhower during the question-and-answer portion of the event, as well as individually during the reception that followed.
Though she did not answer the question directly, Eisenhower gave the sense that her grandfather was caught off-guard by the scale of the German operation to extinguish Jewish life in Europe.
Genie Glucksman, co-president of Generation After, said that her impression from Susan Eisenhower was “the enormity of [the Holocaust] clobbered [Eisenhower] between the eyes.”
“Not only me, but a lot of people had a newfound appreciation for President Eisenhower,” said Glucksman, whose parents were survivors from Germany and Poland.
Glucksman’s co-president, Anat Bar-Cohen, added: “It was very encouraging to know that this did have an impact on people like [Susan Eisenhower’s] father and her generation, people who were disconnected from the Jewish community in Europe.”
It was as though Eisenhower “foreshadowed the denier” phenomenon that exists today, said Bar-Cohen.
Her parents were survivors from Poland. Bar-Cohen’s father was imprisoned in Auschwitz from 1942 until the Allies liberated the camp in 1945. Her parents met in a displaced persons camp outside Munich and Bar-Cohen was born in Germany. The family later immigrated to the United States.
Kalb also asked Susan Eisenhower about her grandfather’s famous farewell address.
“She gave some fascinating insights into which the military industrial complex has permeated the economic and political life of this country,” said Kalb. For example, when a major weapons system is developed, the work is spread out over contractors in different parts of the country, making it difficult to pull the plug, as no member of Congress wants to be responsible for job losses in their home district.
“Her grandfather’s comment was valid not only when he said it in 1961 January, but for [administrations] down the line,” said Kalb.
Susan Eisenhower said that though she’s been a Republican in the past, she is now an Independent. She said that she felt the Republican Party had left her. She did not endorse any current presidential contenders, but did share that, given her background growing up surrounded by military heroes, she believes that whoever wins their party’s nomination “ought to be mindful of the necessity of creating a policy that would head off war,” said Kalb.
The Generation After is an organization for children and descendants of Holocaust survivors that offers remembrance programming, guest speaker series and a book club. The Generation After was started by University of Maryland students in 1979 and is affiliated with the Second Generation (2G) groups around the world, Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.