On saving Jews: Actions speak louder than words

On saving Jews: Actions speak louder than words

Having watched Ken Burn’s three-part documentary, “America and the Holocaust,” I was reminded of a book review I wrote for the New Jersey Jewish News 15 years ago. My review was of “Saving the Jews: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Jews” by Robert N. Rosen; the book was an apologia for Roosevelt’s administration, because as it faced so many obstacles preventing it from acting more forcefully in saving Jews.

It faced the rabid antisemitism of the general American population, stoked by the likes of Father Coughlin and Henry Ford. Then there was the Great Depression, causing unemployment to rise to a ghastly 25%. Labor unions were loath to admit refugees who would compete for scarce jobs. There was the isolationist impulse led by Mid-Western and Southern senators, and there was general hostility to immigration from southern and eastern Europe, as codified by the anemic quotas set by the Johnson Reed Act of 1924.

With the onset of World War II, Roosevelt felt the United States could do little else to save Jews other than defeating the Nazis. By the time of the D-day landings, most of the six million already had perished by bullets or in gas chambers. And bombing Auschwitz presented the dilemma of diverting military resources away from winning the war, endangering pilots and killing thousands of Jews in the process.

Assuming all the obstacles cited were significant barriers to decisive action, what Rosen and other apologists discounted was what Roosevelt and his administration could have done anyway.

The best way to save a significant number of Jews was by filling all the quotas allotted by law. As recounted by noted historians David Wyman and Rafael Medoff, quotas for eligible refugees were not filled for 11 out of the 12 years of Roosevelt’s presidency. This resulted in 190,000 lives not rescued. The heroic work of American diplomat Varian Fry in saving 2,000 lives was halted by Secretary of State Cordell Hull to appease Vichy France, which was allied with the Nazis. The shameful betrayal of the passengers of the St. Louis was animated by the hostility of the State Department.

In 1944, Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long was caught lying to Congress when he told them the quotas were filled. His delaying tactics in transferring funds to help Jews in Europe was also exposed. This became the impetus for the establishment of the War Refugee Board in 1944, when more than 5,500,000 Jews already were dead. The driver behind its creation was Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., who reported to the president on the memo, passionately written by Josiah DuBois Jr., informally knows as the “Report to the Secretary (of Treasury) of the Acquiescence of the Government in the Murder of the Jews.”

How could all of this have happened? Virtually all the top state department officials, including assistant secretaries Long, and Sumner Wells, as well as many consular officials, were either antisemitic and/or actively engaged in bureaucratic efforts to sabotage visa applications by the hundreds of thousands. Who made these appointments and did nothing to stop their nefarious activities? Who politely listened to Jewish leaders’ pleas to open up the gates and ignored them? The commander-in-chief. Roosevelt. In his diary, which was not meant for public release, Breckenridge Long wrote that he briefed Roosevelt on his tactics to restrict immigration and that FDR was “100% in accord with my ideas.” That’s why none of these bureaucrats were removed.

As a patrician, Roosevelt was a social antisemite who didn’t want Jews to pollute the country clubs of the elite. But his animus toward Jews went beyond this, when as late as 1938 he blamed the Jews in Poland for instigating attacks against them because they controlled the economy. He also invoked the danger of foreign agents to justify further curbs on immigration, a theme he applied to justify the incarceration of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans in concentration camps.

He was all form and no substance, even when he acted in the decade preceding the war. He was a force behind the Evian Conference of 1938, which purported to address the dire situation facing European Jewry and other potential refugees. Its importance in his mind can be judged by the fact that his secretary of state would not attend. The 32 countries represented said all the right things but virtually none opened their gates to Jewish refugees. Hitler got the message that no country would accept Jews in large numbers. He would have to come up with another solution. The next year, Great Britain shut down emigration to Palestine to appease Arab countries. Meanwhile, the Germans were experimenting with the most efficient means of mass murder.

With FDR’s death, the accidental president Harry Truman took over the reins of government. He was the anti-Roosevelt. He was not an aristocrat but a commoner, but an urbane cosmopolitan but instead shy and socially awkward. And he was petrified when he assumed the presidency after Roosevelt, for whom power was the great elixir.

He was not an orator; instead he was plain-spoken. He spewed antisemitic stereotypes in private. His mother-in-law refused to allow his friend Eddie Jacobson to enter her house because he was a Jew. But he was not afraid to act on his convictions as they related to the Jewish people.

As Michael Benson wrote in his “Harry Truman and the Founding of Israel,” Truman defied his powerful secretary of state, World War II hero George Marshall, on recognizing the Jewish State. Despite Marshall’s threat to go public with his opposition, Truman immediately recognized the establishment of the State of Israel, fulfilling his pledge to Israel’s future first president, Chaim Weizmann.

In 1948, the year of Israel’s founding, Truman reluctantly signed the Displaced Persons Act, which allowed thousands of Jewish refugees to enter the United States. The problem with the bill was that it applied only to would-be immigrants who arrived at Displaced Persons camps before December 22, 1945. This foreclosed the possibility of immigration to the United States to tens of thousands of Jews who went back home after liberation to learn if any of their relatives were still alive, and made their way to DP camps only after that sad journey.

When he signed the bill, Truman remarked that the bill “formed “ a pattern of discrimination and intolerance wholly  inconsistent with the American sense of justice…”

So he actively lobbied to amend the bill; in 1950 it was changed to allowed 200,000 additional refugees to enter the United States — this despite the pervasive antisemitism and the emerging Red scare animating the American consciousness. My parents, like so many others, had languished in a DP camp for years. After the bill was updated in 1950, they were allowed to arrive on our shores.

Despite Roosevelt’s espousal of the “four freedoms” immortalized by Norman Rockwell’s painting — freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear — it was the Missourian, Truman, who desegregated the armed forces.

Judaism’s foundation is our mitzvah system: the doing rather than just the thinking. The actions that justifies the rhetoric. Harry Truman exemplifies this ideal.

The great historian on leadership James McGregor Burns characterized Roosevelt as “a lion and a fox.” He led us through the Depression and World War II. But when dealing with the plight of Jewry he was the mouse who would not roar.

We need leaders who act after thoughtful deliberation.

Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell will host noted Holocaust historian Rafael Medoff, who will discuss the lessons of the Holocaust we can apply to addressing anti-Semitism today on Thursday, October 27, at 8 p.m., on Zoom. Register at Agudath.org

Max Kleinman of Fairfield was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest from 1995 to 2014. He is a historian and the president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation and consultant for the Jewish Community Legacy Project.

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