What Ken Burns got wrong about FDR and the Holocaust
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What Ken Burns got wrong about FDR and the Holocaust

Caldwell congregation to hear historian Rafael Medoff on the help not offered

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was determined to win World War II. He was much less concerned with saving Europe’s Jews, Dr. Medoff argues, particularly if those Jews wanted to come to the United States.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was determined to win World War II. He was much less concerned with saving Europe’s Jews, Dr. Medoff argues, particularly if those Jews wanted to come to the United States.

Dr. Rafael Medoff thinks Ken Burns let Franklin Delano Roosevelt off too lightly in his recent documentary “The U.S. and the Holocaust.”

Dr. Medoff is the founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, D.C. The institute is named for the author of the National Jewish Book Award-winning “The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945.” Dr. Medoff’s own research has expanded on Dr. Wyman’s work with such books as “FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith.”

(Dr. Medoff will speak on Thursday in a Zoom session sponsored by Congregation Agudath Israel of West Caldwell; see below for details.)

The Ken Burns documentary, Dr. Medoff said, “tends to minimize Franklin Roosevelt’s responsibility for his own policy. Burns and his partners present a picture of America in which public opinion controls government policy, as if FDR was some sort of helpless prisoner of public antisemitism and racism. While it’s true there was a great deal of antisemitism and racism in the U.S. in the 1930s, it is the president — then as now — who decides government policy regarding immigration.”

Dr. Rafael Medoff has published many books, most focusing on America’s lackadaisical response to Hitler’s war against the Jews.

When Jews were fleeing Nazi Germany, “the Roosevelt administration suppressed immigration far below what the quota laws allowed,” Dr. Medoff said. The laws allowed 26,000 Germans to enter the U.S. annually. But that quota was filled “in only one of Roosevelt’s 12 years in office. In 11 of those years, it was less than 25 percent filled. That was not because of public opinion.

“Roosevelt made a policy decision.”

The documentary gave “the erroneous impression that anti-immigration sentiment in Congress tied Roosevelt’s hands,” Dr. Medoff said. But in fact, the unfilled quotas represented 190,000 German Jewish refugees “who could have been admitted to the country using existing law, without any fight with Congress, with no controversy.”

Dr. Medoff said that American Jewish leaders were “privately disappointed at the fact the quotas were unfilled, but they were uneasy about the idea of publicly challenging a popular president, especially on a sensitive issue like immigration. They did raise the issue privately with Roosevelt administration officials, but they were rebuffed.

“Again and again, FDR told Rabbi Stephen Wise” — the head of the American Jewish Congress, and the de facto leader of the American Jewish community — “that the Jewish community should keep quiet and trust that he was doing the best he could to help the Jews in Europe.”

In fact, though, “we see examples where American Jewish leaders did exercise political pressure, and where they were successful. The most vivid example was in late 1943, when American Jewish groups” — particularly those operating outside the consensus led by Rabbi Wise, including the “Bergson Group,” led by Hillel Kook, nephew of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine — “played a major role in forcing Roosevelt to belatedly establish the War Refugee Board, whose purpose was to rescue Jews from the Holocaust,” Dr. Medoff said.

“Another one of the myths that appear in the Burns film is that Congress was overwhelmingly antisemitic and anti-immigration during this entire period. During the war years, there was a significant shift in American and congressional opinion. During the war years, unemployment was eliminated and there was less fear of immigration. In April 1944, when the War Refugee Board began pressing Roosevelt to admit refugees on a temporary basis, the White House commissioned a Gallup Poll that found that 70 percent of Americans favored admitting an unlimited number of refugees to save them from the Nazis.”

Yet despite this support, Roosevelt “only agreed to admit a token ship of 982 refugees who were settled in Upstate New York in the summer of 1944,” Dr. Medoff continued. “That episode illustrates that it’s not just a matter of hindsight to say Roosevelt could have done more. He knew in April 1944 that he had public support for doing more.

Eric Godal, whose anti-Nazi images led him to flee Germany in 1933, is among the cartoonists whose works appear in Dr. Medoff’s volume “Cartoonists Against the Holocaust.”

“Another option was to admit refugees to a U.S. territory, such as the Virgin Islands. It was proposed in 1938, by the governor and legislative assembly of the Virgin Islands.” Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. — the only Jew in Roosevelt’s cabinet — raised that possibility when the St. Louis, that ship that had brought more than 900 Jewish refugees from Germany, crossed the Atlantic in search of a safe harbor for them. “FDR found a technicality on which he based his objections,” Dr. Medoff said. The Jews on the St. Louis were returned to Europe — where many were killed by the Nazis.

So what motivated Roosevelt’s objections to accepting Jewish refugees?

“Every president is motivated by a number of factors,” Dr. Medoff said. The Great Depression and the fear of being dragged into conflict with Europe shaped Roosevelt’s policies in his first terms; “during the war, his chief priority was winning the war.”

But those factors alone cannot explain Roosevelt’s policies toward the endangered Jews, Dr. Medoff continued.

Eric Godal published this attack on the Roosevelt Administration’s State Department after his mother, a passenger on the St. Louis, was deported to her death in Auschwitz.

“One of the great mistakes made in the Ken Burns film was that he gives the impression that helping to rescue Jews during the Holocaust would have conflicted with the war efforts,” he said. This reflects what the Roosevelt administration told American Jewish groups at the time — that bombing railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz “would have diverted American bombers from combat missions elsewhere in Europe.” But that argument was false when it was made, Dr. Medoff said. “We now know that American planes were bombing industrial targets within the Auschwitz industrial zone. Dropping a few bombs on the tracks leading to Auschwitz would not have impeded this.”

Similarly, “American Jewish leaders during the 1940s were repeatedly told that no ships were available to carry refugees, that all were needed for the war effort. In fact, American ships that brought soldiers and war materials to Europe returned empty. They had to be loaded with ballast — rocks and rubble from blitzed British cities — so they wouldn’t tip over. Jewish refugees could have served as ballast.

“We have to ask ourselves, why did the Roosevelt administration lie? We have to consider the possibility that Roosevelt’s very unflattering private views about Jews could have played some role. Over the past decade, historians have discovered statements Roosevelt made about Jews that have to be considered antisemitic. The themes in those private remarks are that Jews cannot be completely trusted, that Jews have to be spread out thin so they don’t dominate any profession.

“He favored and was part of the decision to impose a quota on Jewish students at Harvard in the 1920s. Roosevelt was a member of the Harvard board. He was proud of his role in establishing the quota. He boasted about it in a private conversation with Morgenthau that Morgenthau wrote about in his private records.”

Josiah DuBois Jr. is featured in Dr. Medoff’s forthcoming graphic novel, “Whistleblowers.”

Dr. Medoff’s bibliography lists roughly two dozen published books, starting with “The Deafening Silence: American Jewish Leaders and the Holocaust” in 1987 through “America and the Holocaust: A Documentary History,” a textbook published this May. But because people are complicated and their interests can be surprising, lurking in Dr. Medoff’s list of published work, as well as in the list of yet-to-be-published books now in process, is an unexpected strand of pop culture.

“I was a teenage comic book fan who in later years came to realize that the comic book format could be an effective tool in talking about issues that most teenagers find difficult and complicated,” Dr. Medoff said. “The phenomenal success of the graphic novel ‘Maus’ demonstrated that using visuals is a powerful way to address these topics,” he said.

In 2009, Dr. Medoff collaborated with “Maus” creator Art Spiegelman on a full-page comic that ran in the Washington Post on the 70th anniversary of the St. Louis’s return to Europe. He has written a book collecting anti-Nazi editorial cartoons from the 1930s and 40’s, and another collecting postwar comics dealing with the Holocaust. He contributed an essay to “Theology and Batman: Examining the Religious World of the Dark Knight,” scheduled for publication next month by Fortress Academic.

As is Jan Karski.

And next year the comic publisher Dark Horse will publish “Whistleblowers,” a collection of four comic book stories illustrated by Dean Motter about Americans “who tried to blow the whistle on Roosevelt’s abandonment of the Jews,” he said.

One focuses on Josiah DuBois Jr., the non-Jewish, New Jersey-raised State Department lawyer who “risked his career to expose the State Department policy of obstructing rescue opportunities and ultimately helped bring about the heroic rescue work of the War Refugee Board,” he said.

Another looks at Jan Karski, the underground courier who brought out the news of the Holocaust in 1942 and 1943. “We originally created this comic book story as a joint project with the Karski Educational Foundation,” Dr. Medoff said. “It has been translated into Polish and used in schools.

“One of the important aspects of ‘Whistleblowers’ is that it provides young people today with examples of moral courage. These individuals were heroes. Most of the story of the American response to the Holocaust is a story of abandonment, but there was also a minority that did try to help the Jews.

“The Wyman Institute feels it’s very important to shine a light on these moral exemplars. Tragically, the Holocaust was not the last genocide, and every generation of Americans face the same dilemma, whether or not the U.S. should use its power to act on behalf of oppressed people around the world.”


Who: Rafael Medoff, founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies

What: Will talk about “Fighting Antisemitism, Then and Now: Lessons for Today from the Holocaust Years”

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, October 27

Where: Online. Register at Agudath.org

Sponsored by: The Combatting Antisemitism Initiative and Interfaith Committee of Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell

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