Late, great Utah senator recognized

Published April 8, 2005 2:24 am
Utah Senator from 1932-50: His advocacy for U.S. intervention during the Nazi Holocaust draws great
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Never heard of Elbert Thomas? It's time that changed.

The Salt Lake City native, who served 18 years (1932-1950) in the U.S. Senate and was a leading advocate for U.S. intervention during the Nazi Holocaust, is someone worth remembering.

To that end, more than 50 years after the Utah senator's death and 60 years following the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s office has declared today, "Senator Elbert Thomas Day."

"He deserves it," Thomas' 87-year-old daughter, Salt Lake City's Edna "Mickey" Louise Thomas Hansen, said Thursday morning, her eyes tearing. "He was the dearest dad that ever was."

The impetus behind honoring Thomas began as Ogden community members and Weber State University organized its 11th annual Holocaust commemoration events, which run through most of April.

"We decided that as the crisis in Sudan is happening before our eyes, and as we as a nation are doing nothing, we wanted to understand how societies can be lulled into complacency," said Susan Matt, assistant American cultural history professor and member of the planning committee.

"Thomas was one of the people not lulled into complacency."

When the world turned a blind eye to the plight of European Jews - eventually 6 million Jews, or one-third of the world's Jewish population, would be annihilated - Thomas raised his voice.

Early on, in 1934, he visited Germany and witnessed Adolf Hitler's discriminatory practices - before the Nazi regime instituted its "Final Solution" of genocide.

Over radio airwaves, and as a signatory in national advertisements, Thomas openly criticized the Roosevelt administration - breaking with his own Democratic Party - for its restrictive immigration policies and for not doing more to save Jewish refugees.

''Anyone with any foresight could see grandpa's vision,'' remarked Thomas' grandson, Forrest Brian Hansen, 58, of Nampa, Idaho. "His intentions were noble. His scope was the whole world."

In 1943, the Mormon senator - he credited his faith for his resolve to stop persecution - co-chaired a weeklong "Emergency Conference to Save the Jewish People of Europe" and introduced a resolution in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to build a U.S. government agency to rescue refugees from mass murder.

Thomas then wrote the legislation that would create it. The result: The War Refugee Board that - in the final 15 months of the war - saved about 200,000 Jews and 20,000 non-Jews the Nazis had targeted for extermination.

"I was fascinated to hear about him," said Matt of Weber State, who learned about Thomas from the Pennsylvania-based David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. That group provided the speaker, Benyamin Korn, for Thursday's event in Ogden: "The American Media and the Holocaust: What Did They Report and When Did They Report It?"

Thomas, a one-time professor at the University of Utah and an outspoken supporter for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Israel, "seems to have fallen into obscurity," Matt continued. "A lot of [Utahns] I've spoken to hadn't heard of him, but were proud once they had."

Together with the Wyman Institute - named for the scholar who authored 1984's best seller The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945 - the Holocaust commemoration committee encouraged the governor's office to recognize Elbert Thomas.

But more important than a day named in his honor, Wyman Institute Director Rafael Medoff said he hopes awareness of Thomas' efforts - along with curriculum materials his institute provided to Utah high school principals - will promote reflection and spark conversation.

"What Thomas did carries important historical and moral lessons," Medoff said Wednesday. "His actions compel students to think about important questions, such as: What is America's responsibility when people are being persecuted in other countries? . . . And what is the responsibility of every person when it comes to speaking out?"

Thomas' grandson Lawrence Rhodes Hansen, 50, of Gunnison, Colo., echoed Medoff's sentiments Thursday. He got emotional just thinking about the grandfather he never knew.

"I hope he's able to encourage youth of America to be proud and make courageous decisions."

Honoring the victims

Weber State University's 11th annual Holocaust commemoration:

Schedule of events

l Today: Reading of "Senator Elbert Thomas Day" Proclamation - 11 a.m., Special Collections Area, Stewart Library

l Tuesday, April 12: "Independent Media in a Time of War" with Amy Goodman, executive producer of Pacifica Radio's show "Democracy Now!" - Noon, Shepherd Union Wildcat Theater

l Thursday, April 14: "Darfur, Sudan: The World's Worst Humanitarian Crisis" with William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, who will discuss his 2004 investigative mission to Sudan - 7 p.m., Shepherd Union, 801-338-340

l Friday, April 15: "Schindler's List" Reel Life Series - 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., Shepherd Union Wildcat Theater

l Wednesday, April 20: "Schindler's List: A Survivor Celebrates Life" with Zev Kedem - Noon, Shepherd Union Ballroom



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