A new 3-year exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Americans and the Holocaust, continues to generate controversy over its whitewashing of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust and its numerous distortions of history.
“Millions of visitors will walk away from this exhibit misinformed” about the magnitude of FDR’s failure to provide aid to Jews facing slaughter in Nazi-occupied Europe, remarked Dr. Rafael Medoff of the Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in an exclusive interview with Yated.
In a multifaceted report, Distorting America’s Response to the Holocaust, published by the Wyman Institute, a group of historians and documentarians expose the exhibit’s subtle and not-so-subtle distortions and omissions that rationalize the refusal of the United States and its allies to significantly help Jewish victims, or to even slow the pace of their extermination.
‘Understanding’ Roosevelt’s Dilemma
Visitors are asked to “understand” Roosevelt’s dilemma, explained Prof. Daniel Greene, one of the key architects of the exhibit, in a press interview.
“Throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, isolationist and anti-Semitic sentiment in the U.S. was strong,” Greene noted. “ Many Americans viewed Hitler’s conquests as Europe’s problem, not ours. The president knew he had to lead Americans toward [military] intervention while at the same time bowing to widespread public anti-immigration sentiment.”
Was Roosevelt in fact a weak executive unable to stand up to political pressure, hamstrung by old immigration laws, and the futility of trying to rescue Europe’s Jews from the Nazi inferno?
This is a far cry from the iconic leader known as “The Boss,” king of the Fireside Chats, elected to office for four terms and revered for his bold initiatives and shrewd leadership.
“We have nothing to fear but fear itself!” FDR’s legendary slogan that rallied millions of Americans behind him puts the lie to the Museum’s new narrative.
Emergency Bill to Admit 20,000 Jewish Children
In a scenario that reflects the exhibit’s theme of slanting the picture for an FDR facelift, a display recaptures the emergency legislation authored by Sen. Robert Wagner, D., NY, and Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers, R., Mass to save 20,000 Jewish children following Kristallnacht.
The two proposed a bill to provide visas for 20,000 German Jewish children above existing quotas. This was just a few months after the November, 1938 Nazi-coordinated pogrom against Jewish businesses, homes and shuls. Thousands of Jews had been assaulted in their homes and in the streets. 30,000 were arrested and shipped to early concentration camps at Dachau.
The bill never came to the floor, due to ardent opposition from white Southern Democrats. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt urged her husband to support the bill, but FDR told reporters that he had no intention of raising immigration quotas at that time. Congress failed to pass the legislation that would have saved 20,000 children.
The exhibit notes that FDR “never officially commented on the bill despite his wife’s urging,” implying that he unofficially tried to support the bill, which he did not, notes Medoff in “Making Excuses for FDR.”
Most of the children who could have been saved by the Wagner-Rogers bill certainly perished.
Was this an example of Roosevelt bowing to the public will? Or was it more likely that he was the one calling the shots and Congress was following his lead?
The exhibit tries to pin the blame on Congress, noting that the president chose not to ask Congress to reconsider the quota system, without even mentioning a life-saving option that FDR chose to spurn. This was the offer by the governor of the Virgin Islands to open the territory to Jewish refugees following Kristallnacht.
“Roosevelt could have aided German Jewish refugees without clashing with those opposed to immigration. But the administration was unwilling to bring in substantial numbers of Jews into any locale in proximity to the U.S. mainland,” writes Medoff in Distorting America’s Response to the Holocaust.
Why Did the Starvation, Torture and Extermination of Millions Make So Little Impact On Him?
Even toward the end of the war, when the hastily created War Refugee Board urged military action to bomb the tracks leading to the death camps, Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy responded that the government’s priority was victory over Germany; incapacitating the extermination camps wouldn’t advance that goal.
Roosevelt’s clear aim in the war was defeating Hitler, a goal distinct and disassociated from the tragedy befalling the Jews, explained Prof. Greene of the Washington Holocaust Museum.
But the question remains: Why? Why was the goal of defeating Hitler “disassociated” from the unprecedented humanitarian crisis, even when, as historians have demonstrated, saving Jewish lives would not have undermined the Allies’ military goals?
For a thoughtful visitor with a grasp of contemporary history, this gnawing question runs through the exhibit: What really explains FDR’s inaction, inertia and apparent indifference to the plight of the Jews under the Nazis?
When it came to responding to genocide against millions of helpless people, where was the man’s moral authority and decisive leadership that marked much of his presidency? How did the starvation, torture and extermination of the Jews make so little a dent on his mind and heart?
New research points to the troubling answer, long suspected and now confirmed.
Historians have documented more than a dozen bigoted statements about Jews that were made privately by Franklin Roosevelt between the 1920s and the 1940s. These comments reveal his dislike and distrust of Jews, especially traditional-looking ones whom he believed would resist integration into American society.
The documented statements include FDR boasting that he helped impose a quota on the admission of Jews to Harvard, cited in FDR and the Jews, by Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman.
In another disclosure of anti-Jewish bigotry, he claimed that Jewish domination of Poland’s economy was the cause of anti-Semitism in that country, cited in FDR and the Holocaust, by Rafael Medoff, based on an account by Stephen Wise, found in the Central Zionist Archives.
In a conversation with Winston Churchill, FDR opined that the “the best way to settle the Jewish question…is to spread the Jews thin all over the world.”
At a cabinet meeting, FDR complained that there were “too many Jews among federal employees in Oregon,” cited in the above-mentioned FDR and the Jews.
He also insisted (at the Casablanca conference) on quotas for Jews in professions in Allied-liberated North Africa. Otherwise, he argued, there would be a repeat of “the understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews in Germany.”
FDR referred to Jewish Communists as “kikes,” cited in FDR and the Jews, based on a transcript in the series “Foreign Relations of the United States.”
None of these statements exposing FDR’s ingrained bias against Jews appear in the exhibit. The museums curators obviously saw no linkage between the president’s bigotry against Jews and his policies of ensuring that as few Jews as possible immigrated to America’s shores.
Refusing To Bomb the Crematoria
Perhaps the fiercest criticism of FDR focuses on his administration’s refusal to heed the many pleas from Jewish and non-Jewish leaders in America and abroad, as well as officials in his own cabinet, to bomb the death camp crematoria, and railway lines and bridges leading to the killing centers.
These entreaties originated in a series of frantic cables in 1943 from Rabbi Michoel Ber Weissmandl, then in Nazi-occupied Bratislava to Jewish leaders in Switzerland, the United States and Israel (then Palestine).
His cables were received as news of mass deportations of Hungarian Jews to industrialized killing centers had begun to flood international media through the vehicle of the Auschwitz Protocols, authored by two young escapees from the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
FDR’s War Department consistently refused to heed these desperate pleas.
The Holocaust exhibit trots out all the discredited excuses offered by historians for this unconscionable failure. These include arguments that diverting bombers would have hurt the war effort, would have taken the lives of Jewish prisoners, and would have reaped little success.
Rebecca Erbelding, an archivist and historian at the Museum, who is one of the curators of the exhibit, “Americans and the Holocaust,” told the Times of Israel. “I’m extremely cautious about saying that bombing the gas chambers would have saved a lot of lives…Now, that would have killed a lot of people! There were about 100,000 people in Auschwitz [at this time]. And so if they had carpet bombed the camp, most of the camp would have died.”
Had they bombed the rail lines, they certainly could have stopped the gassing for a day or two. But prison labor was repairing train lines fairly quickly. So it would have had to be a continuous bombing of rail lines for it to be successful,” Erbelding said.
Film maker and documentarian Stuart Erdheim, writing in Distortions in Ameirca’s Response to the Holocaust, is astounded at how Erbelding, a staff member at the Holocaust museum, could be so misinformed about a subject in which she supposedly specializes.
He writes that P-38 or Mosquito fighters could have been used without causing significant collateral damage, as most Birkenau prisoners worked outside the camp, and that pilots were able to execute precision “pinpoint” bombing.
In an essay, “Could the Allies Have Bombed Auschwitz-Birkenau?” published in the museum’s journal, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Erdheim demonstrated that the Allied air forces were capable of precision bombing when necessary. A good example was the highly accurate Allied air raid at the Gustloff Armaments factory adjacent to the Buchenwald concentration camp in August 1944, the Holocaust scholar wrote.
“The commander of that attack told me in an interview that he and his crew were briefed to avoid hitting the concentration camp, in order to avoid killing the inmates,” Erdheim testified.
Erdheim notes in “The Failure To Bomb Auschwitz” that even if bombings would have only slowed down the pace of the mass-murder process, that would have been significant. At its peak, 12,000 Jews were being gassed in Auschwitz every day.
With the Allies closing in on the last pockets of Nazi resistance, any interruption in the slaughter would have saved lives, conceivably many thousands, Erdheim notes. With the Allies in control of the skies at this time, the bombing of Auschwitz ran little to no risk of enemy fire.
Erdheim’s research drew on the findings of premier historian David S.Wyman in his landmark 1978 essay in Commentary magazine, “Why Wasn’t Auschwitz Bombed?”
Wyman’s revelations, based on exhaustive study of historical documents including declassified military documents, sparked a paradigm shift in how Holocaust researchers, laymen alike, viewed the subject of why Auschwitz wasn’t bombed.
Wyman: No Question that Bombing the Gas Chambers and Crematoria Would Have Saved Many Lives
“Mass murder continued at Auschwitz until the gas chambers closed down in late November,” wrote Wyman. “Throughout the summer and fall, transports kept coming from many parts of Europe, carrying tens of thousands of Jews to their death. There is no question that bombing the gas chambers and crematoria would have saved many lives.”
“Heavy bombers-flying at their normal 20,000 to 26,000 feet could have knocked out the mass-murder apparatus,” the Holocaust scholar asserted.
By May 1944, the U.S. Fifteenth Air Force fleet had turned its primary attention to oil targets, Wyman wrote, noting that successfully wiping out Germany’s oil supplies “gradually strangled the Third Reich’s military operations” and helped bring about its defeat.
In late June, the U.S. Air Force trained its sights on Upper Silesia, where Germany had created a major synthetic oil industry. At least eight important oil targets were clustered there, with Auschwitz near the northeast end of the arc. Beginning in early July, U.S. and British war planes carried out extensive air strikes in the area.
The area around Auschwitz, including Auschwitz itself was a virtual “hotbed of United States bombing activity” during July and August, wrote Wyman.
From the Wyman report: “On Sunday, August 20, 1944, late in the morning, 127 Flying Fortresses, escorted by 100 Mustang fighters, dropped 1,336 five hundred-pound high-explosive bombs on the factory areas of Auschwitz, less than five miles to the east of the gas chambers.
“Again on September 13, a force of heavy bombers rained destruction on the factory areas of Auschwitz. As before, no attempt was made to hit the killing installations which stood about five miles to the west.”
With U.S. planes raining bombs all around Auschwitz, the War Department had no compunctions about writing that bombing Auschwitz would be possible only by diverting airpower from “decisive operations elsewhere.”
Ironically, despite the claim made by the FDR administration that military resources could not be “diverted” for non-military objectives – the military did divert resources, just not for the Jews, wrote Dr. Medoff.
He cited an Air Force plan to bomb the Japanese city of Kyoto that was blocked by Secretary of War Henry Stimson because he admired the city’s artistic treasures.
In another example, noted the historian, Assistant Secretary of War McCloy diverted American bombers from striking the German city of Rothenburg in order to spare its famous medieval architecture.
And in yet another case, “Allied ships were diverted to bring thousands of Muslims on a religious pilgrimage to Mecca in 1943 – at the same time U.S. officials were saying no ships were available to take Jewish refugees out of Europe.”
Medoff noted the supreme irony in the FDR administration rejecting calls by Jewish groups to create a government agency to rescue Jewish refugees, while at the same time setting up an agency “for the protection and salvage of artistic and historic monuments in Europe.”
General George Patton even diverted U.S. troops to rescue 150 of the prized Lipizzaner dancing horses in Austria, in April 1945, the historian noted.
“Saving animals, works of art, historic buildings… all these justified the diversion of military resources. Only the saving of Jewish lives did not.”
Former U.S. Senator George McGovern piloted a B-24 Liberator in December 1944, and his squadron bombed Nazi oil facilities less than five miles from Auschwitz. In 2005, he testified, “There is no question we should have attempted … to go after Auschwitz,” McGovern said.
“There was a pretty good chance we could have blasted those rail lines off the face of the Earth, which would have interrupted the flow of people to those death chambers. We had a pretty good chance of knocking out those gas ovens.”
“The failure to bomb Auschwitz-Birkenau, the hugest of the Nazi killing sites,” wrote McGovern, “was a missed opportunity of monumental proportions.”
A Hostile State Department
That Answered to “The Boss”
“Why the double standard?” asks Medoff. “Why was the Roosevelt administration willing to undertake diversions from standard military policy when medieval artwork, or dancing horses, or Catholic shrines were in danger, but refused to “divert” a few bombs to strike the railways that were bringing hundreds of thousands of Jews to their deaths?”
A review of private communications between FDR administration officials during 1941-1943 illuminates the answer. One official, Cavendish Cannon, was worried that rescuing Jews from Rumania would open a floodgate of pressure to do the same for other Jewish populations suffering “intense persecution.”
His colleague R. Borden Reams warned of “the danger that the German government might agree to turn over to the United States and to Great Britain a large number of Jewish refugees.”
In the same spirit, assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, a personal friend of President Roosevelt, advised his colleagues in charge of the visa departments, to use every means possible to keep Jews out of the country. In his infamous 1940 memo, Long writes:
“We can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States…by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in their way, to require additional evidence, and to resort to various administrative devices, which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of visas.”
Three days after Long’s memo, the State Department ordered consuls abroad to reject applications where there was the slightest irregularity. The new instructions specifically noted that this policy should result in “a drastic reduction in the number of immigration visas issued.”
The tactic worked seamlessly. In the following year, immigration from Germany and Austria was kept to just 48 per cent of the quota. This policy of almost never allowing the quotas to be filled came at the direct cost of Jewish lives, historians say. It played a crucial role in Nazi Germany’s decision to solve its ‘Jewish problem’ by more radical means—wholesale extermination.
State Department anti-Semitism does not sufficiently explain the draconian US immigration policy that shut out Jews. After all, Breckinridge Long, and the above-mentioned Cavendish Cannon and H. Border Reams all answered to FDR, not the other way around.
A more plausible explanation, historians now believe, is that Roosevelt’s own bigotry that not only harmonized with the anti-Semitic sentiments of those in his administration, but fueled his unresponsiveness to the Holocaust and drove his policies of doing nothing for the victims.