Stop me if this sounds familiar: FDR could have done more to save the Jews of Europe during World War II. The topic has been debated for so long that it’s hard to believe there was a time when merely raising the question was taboo. The U.S. beat the Nazis and liberated the camps. FDR was the best thing that ever happened to the Jews. What more could anyone ask?
But something shifted in 1968, two decades after the war, when TV journalist Arthur D. Morse wrote While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy. The radical ideas Morse introduced—that Roosevelt could have admitted more refugees throughout the ’30s, that he should have bombed Auschwitz and the rail lines leading there, that the State Department was a hotbed of anti-Semitism, and that the American government could have done so much more to save Jews—kicked off a slugfest among historians, one that still bruises and bloodies the best of them today.
In 1984, University of Massachusetts historian David S. Wyman mainstreamed these ideas with The Abandonment of the Jews, a more scholarly argument that a concerted effort from Roosevelt could have saved several hundred thousand more lives—at a minimum. Wyman subsequently published 13 volumes of supporting documents to bolster his side of the case.
And the corollary question is even more taboo. Had American Jews done enough? Two years before Wyman’s book, a controversial documentary film, Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die, directed by Laurence Jarvik, featured interviews with many of the surviving players, including several Roosevelt-administration figures and key Jewish figures from the time. Like Wyman, the film highlighted the tragic ineffectiveness of the Jewish-American establishment, led by the New York rabbi Stephen Wise.
But FDR and the Jewish establishment still have their allies and defenders. In one well-received recent book from 2013, FDR and the Jews, Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman insist that FDR acted in good faith and did all he could to save the Jews of Europe. Depression America would never have tolerated hundreds of thousands of new immigrants, and FDR couldn’t risk framing a war against Germany as, even in part, a war to save Jews. The Jewish establishment was right to support him, and the final outcome of the war was also the best possible outcome.
It’s Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the legal battle that never ends.
Now, Rafael Medoff, director of the David Wyman Institute of Holocaust Studies in Washington, D.C., fires back in the latest book on the subject, The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust. He rounds up the usual suspects and reprises the well-rehearsed arguments about admitting more refugees and bombing the camps, and he thoroughly annotates the internal Jewish-American divisions. But Medoff goes further than previous accounts by adding several dark new twists about Roosevelt and Wise, none of them pretty.
He digs into FDR’s personal anti-Semitic views, suggesting they played a larger part in his decision-making than previously believed. Medoff rejects the view that political constraints alone explain Roosevelt’s uncharitable policies to-ward refugees, noting numerous ways his administration could have gotten around the political opposition to increased immigration. For example, Roosevelt’s State Department never even filled the immigrant quotas approved by Congress, leaving hundreds of thousands of German Jews stranded. Medoff argues that FDR could have pushed to open other escape routes as well: Cuba, the Virgin Islands, Santo Domingo. He could have pressured England to open Palestine to more refugees. He could have allowed more temporary visas and opened refugee camps for displaced persons. Some 425,000 German prisoners were transported to the U.S. during the war, yet only one camp for refugees was opened, in Oswego, N.Y., housing barely a thousand Jews.
The conventional view holds that FDR liked Jews, at least certain kinds of Jews. He had Jewish advisers and one Jewish cabinet member, Hans Morgenthau Jr. But as Medoff shows, FDR also employed outspoken anti-Semites as advisers, such as Isaiah Bowman, who, as president of Johns Hopkins University, set quotas for Jewish students. Just as FDR had done as a member of Harvard’s Board of Trustees.
Medoff unearths early interviews and columns that reveal how Roosevelt’s personal theories about Jews went beyond the usual genteel prejudices of his class. Roosevelt believed that Jews themselves caused anti-Semitism by clustering together, not only geographically, but professionally. They took disproportionate roles in certain professions and businesses, in his view, which drew attention to themselves and alienated their neighbors. He blamed German and Polish anti-Semitism on Jewish behavior in those countries.
“Our main trouble in the past has been that we have permitted the foreign elements to segregate in colonies,” Roosevelt told an interviewer in 1920. “They have crowded into one district and they have brought congestion and racial prejudices to our large cities. The result is that they do not easily conform to the manners and the customs and the requirements of their new home.”
The solution was clear: Jews had to stop being so Jewish. Only complete assimilation could provide the cure. He believed that spreading them out, rather than allowing them to cluster and concentrate in a handful of geographic centers, would facilitate that. As a result, he favored limiting the admission of European Jews and dispersing the ones who came. “If, twenty-five years ago, the United States had adopted a policy of this kind,” he wrote in a 1925 newspaper column, “we would not have the huge foreign sections which exist in so many of our cities.”
These prejudices, Medoff argues, do more to explain Roosevelt’s policies than fear of a political backlash. Not only did his administration leave immigration quotas unfilled, it piled on additional bureaucratic hurdles and paperwork that made it more difficult to enter the country than it had been under Herbert Hoover.
Medoff also makes a detailed and forceful case debunking claims that bombing the camps was impractical and would have diverted crucial resources needed elsewhere. One unlikely source in support of his account is former senator and presidential candidate George McGovern, who was a B-24 pilot during the war. Having flown missions in the vicinity of Auschwitz, McGovern testified that it would have been easy to add the camp and the rail lines to target lists. Indifference, not logistics, was the determining factor.
The primary target of The Jews Should Keep Quiet is not FDR, however. Building on Wyman’s scholarship, Medoff savages Rabbi Stephen Wise, America’s preeminent Jewish leader during the ’30s and ’40s. Wise led the American Jewish Congress, the World Jewish Congress, and the American Zionist movement. By 1936, he was on a first-name basis with FDR, who encouraged Wise to believe he was part of the president’s inner circle. In letters and memos, Wise called FDR “chief” and “the boss.”
FDR wanted to sidetrack Jewish misgivings about his policies and stifle any dissent within his own broad-based political coalition. Jewish votes and campaign contributions were critical to him in New York and Illinois. A master psychologist, FDR spotted Wise’s Achilles’ heel—his preening vanity—and seduced him with charm and faux intimacy. Though Wise had real power and influence, FDR convinced him that the only way to wield it was discreetly, through back channels, and not through activism or public pressure.
It worked. Wise didn’t use his power or his organizations to publicly pressure FDR, and he worked behind the scenes to silence other groups, such as the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People
of Europe, led by Peter Bergson, a politically savvy young Palestinian Jew living in New York. Thankfully, Wise was unable to stop Bergson, whose dissident campaign, comprising protests, petitions, public demonstrations, conferences, and huge pageants at Madison Square Garden eventually succeeded in shifting American policy after Wise and his campaign of quiet diplomacy failed.
Bergson’s efforts provide the answer to the historical question: Could more have been done? His limited success in forcing the Roosevelt administration to establish the War Refugee Board in 1943, a grudging concession that still managed to save close to 200,000 Jews, proves that more, possibly much more, could have been done—and that Wise was wrong to take Roosevelt at his word. As an observer ruefully noted after hearing Wise boast that he was on a first-name basis with the president, “I had the terrifying feeling that for the privilege of calling Roosevelt ‘Franklin,’ the Jewish people would pay heavily.” Wise, however unwittingly, sacrificed his own people for the sake of his self-image. Wise’s love of status lethally harmed the Jewish cause.
Medoff assembles facts and footnotes like a bricklayer. He wants his edifice to last. He is scrupulous and fair, never questioning Wise’s sincerity or commitment to the Jewish people. But his concluding judgment is brutal. “[Wise’s] relationship with President Roosevelt was his most important political asset and elevated his stature among American Jews,” Medoff writes. “Yet it was precisely in this area that he stumbled. Franklin Roosevelt took advantage of Wise’s adoration of his policies and leadership to mani-pulate Wise through flattery and intermittent access to the White House.” Without ever saying so directly, he makes it clear that Wise was FDR’s enabler. Together they promoted policies that doomed the Jews of Europe.
Hindsight may be 20/20. But if your view is that events of the past could unfold in only one way, the way they did, then you’re no longer talking history; you’re talking theology. Like Morse and Wyman before him, Medoff forces us to ask, “What if?”
A close collaborator and supporter of Wise at the time, Rabbi Israel Goldstein, who went on to become president of the Zionist Organization of America, wrote a devastating mea culpa in his later years. “Everyone—including the writer—who held a position of Jewish leadership, major or minor, during that tragic period of our history should feel, in retrospect, a sense of his own inadequacy and of contrition in the light of what transpired. Thus in the end, six million Jews perished while the United States dithered and temporized, while the British doggedly sealed off ports of embarkation, and while we Jews in the Free World naively heeded assurances that ‘everything possible would be done’ to save lives.”
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