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Books, Writing, History, and the Ritchie Boys

In "Books, Writing, History and the Ritchie Boys" I share my thoughts on certain books, the process of writing, the experiences of an indie-publisher, short pieces on WWII and the Holocaust, highlights of places from Immigrant Soldier, and, occasionally, profiles of Ritchie Boys. Everything in this blog reflects my personal ideas and feelings–a memoir of sorts, it is my perspective and any errors or omissions are mine.

The Muralist and LBJ, a Secret Hero.

Summer is a great time for catching up on that stack of books waiting to be read. Maybe your stack is on your bedside table, or in leaning towers on the floor under your desk, or stashed neatly in boxes in a corner of a little used room. My waiting books are scattered in small horizontal piles across the top of the neat vertical rows of titles in my several bookcases. 
Many of the books in my stacks are World War II related fiction and nonfiction.  But sometimes I crave a break and want to read a book that has a different slant, and these wait patiently, too.  Thus, some weeks ago, I selected from the stack of waiting books a historical novel about an abstract painter.  I thought it would be a pleasant break to read about another of my interests—art, artists, and painting.   

The MuralistThe novel, The Muralist, by B.A. Shapiro, did not disappoint.  Real artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Lee Krasner populated the pages and were friends of the fictional main character, Alisée, a mural painter working for the WPA (Works Progress Administration).   Set in New York in 1939 and 1940, the book soon revealed that I had not strayed as far from my WWII obsession as I hoped.  Alizée is not only French but also Jewish.  A US citizen because she was born in the states, after the death of her parents, she was raised by relatives in France.  While she works in New York City, painting and experimenting with abstract images, she is also obsessed with trying to get visas for her aunt, uncle, cousins, and brother, who are still in France as that country is overrun by the Nazis.
  
Very soon, Alisée’s struggle to help her family escape Europe becomes the heart of the novel.  Shapiro deals with organizations such as the Emergency Rescue Committee, a private relief organization trying to help refugees, President Roosevelt’s hesitancy to buck isolationism, which was vocally supported by Charles Lindberg and Joseph Kennedy, the US visa quota system of the time, and the anti-Semitism of Breckinridge Long, who was Assistant Secretary of State.  The author also manages to create a plausible friendship between Alisée and Eleanor Roosevelt, who unsuccessfully attempts to help secure the needed visas.  During an early meeting, the First Lady mentions to Alisee, “a young congressman . . . confided he’s getting visas to Polish Jews and secretly bringing them into the country through the port of Galveston, Texas.”   This seemed odd when I first read it. Texas is not a place I associate with rescuing Jews, though I know there are three Holocaust museums in the state (Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston), a fact that perplexed me when I was researching places to market Immigrant Soldier, The Story of a Ritchie Boy.

A few chapters later, the heroic congressman was again discussed by Eleanor Roosevelt in a fictional conversation with Alisée, and this time his name—Lyndon Johnson —was mentioned.  Generally, historical fiction endeavors to make all references to actual people factual or, at the very least, possibly true or likely. My interest sparked, I wanted to find out if there was any truth to Lyndon Johnson’s involvement in helping Jewish refugees.  So I headed for Google.  Happily, there is quite a bit of material, though the story remains unclear and largely substantiated except by anecdotal and circumstantial evidence.   

 “Operation Texas” was Johnson’s alleged undercover operation to help European Jews enter the United States through Latin America with false passports and one-way visas. Once in the US, they were initially housed in facilities of the Texas National Youth Administration where Johnson had connections. Finally they would be settled safely in surrounding areas, especially around Houston.  The number of refugees helped by “Operation Texas” may be as low as forty-two documented Polish Jews who were able to leave Europe before the war because of visas given by Lyndon Johnson to his friend, Jim Novy, an American Polish business man who visited his homeland in 1938. There are also estimates of four to five hundred additional Jewish refugees who may have entered the country extra-legally with Johnson’s help, after they made it first to Cuba, Mexico, or elsewhere in Latin America.  The lack of primary documentation is not surprising for such a clandestine operation.  The need for secrecy would naturally have produced no written documents or tangible evidence that might cause the arrest and deportation of the refugees, the arrest of anyone involved, and the destruction of Lyndon Johnson’s political career.

The first known public mentions of Johnson’s involvement helping Jewish refugees came when he was introduced by his friend Novy at the dedication of a new sanctuary at an Austin synagogue.  Only thirty days after Kennedy’s assassination, the event was Johnson’s first public appearance as the 36th President. After Novy’s introduction, which referenced Johnson’s aid to Jewish refugees with gratitude, the president’s keynote speech did not acknowledge or deny Novy’s story.

The announcement at the Austin synagogue attracted little attention in 1963,; however, twenty years later, a doctoral dissertation submitted by Louis S. Gomolak to the history department of the University of Texas began to circulate.  In the dissertation titled, Prologue: LBJ’s Foreign Affairs Background, 1908 — 1948, Gomolak put forward the theory that, without the knowledge of the US government and with the help of Novy, LBJ managed two large-scale covert rescue missions of European Jews. Gomolak refused to reveal the identity of the survivors he interviewed, which has made substantiation of his theory difficult. 

Johnson’s political record shows he was always a friend to Israel and an opponent of anti-Semitism;  however, efforts begun in 2008, to have LBJ declared a “Righteous Gentile” did not gain traction. This was partially due to lack of documentation, though additional antidotal evidence from the families of survivors surfaced as the result of the inquiry. In the end, Lyndon Johnson was not awarded “Righteous Gentile” status by Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among Nations Department because most of the Jews he helped had already escaped Europe and he only helped them gain admission to the United States.  Also, LBJ did not put his life in danger by his actions—only his career was jeopardized.  

Though LBJ did not receive this high honor from Yad Vashem, in 1994, the Holocaust Museum of Houston honored him by establishing the Lyndon Baines Johnson Moral Courage Award.  This award is given to persons who show moral courage, individual responsibility, and the willingness to take action against injustice, either by a single act or a lifetime of behavior. Past recipients have included Miep Gies (bookkeeper of the Otto Frank family), Steven Spielberg, Bob Dole, Martin Luther King Jr., Elie Wiesel, and Daniel Pearl. 
 
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