The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C, recently opened a controversial new exhibit, “Americans and the Holocaust,” that claims President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried his best to aid Jews feeling Hitler but was thwarted by public and congressional opposition.
It’s a view that many historians are calling a whitewash of historical truth.
Washington Post called it an FDR “makeover,” as leading Holocaust scholars have established that FDR’s failure to aid Europe’s Jews sprang from a fundamental disinterest in helping them.
Seminal works such as David Wyman’s The Abandonment of the Jews (1984) and other definitive research in the 70s and 80s found that the Roosevelt administration knew of the Nazi genocide early enough to have taken meaningful steps to save lives.
The research showed that FDR consciously neglected opportunities to find a haven for Jewish refugees when it was still possible for them to emigrate, and that he turned his back on rescue opportunities during the Holocaust itself.
Despite these authoritative studies, millions of visitors will walk away from the “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibit believing that Roosevelt bore no responsibility for his administration’s massive failure to aid Jewish refugees, noted Dr. Rafael Medoff , founding director of the David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in an interview with Yated.
The museum “excuses FDR’s inaction by blaming it on the Great Depression, isolationism, an anti-Semitic State Department – everything except the president’s own opposition to rescue,” Medoff said.
The exhibit’s spin recasts FDR as a weak president whose hands were tied by public opinion, not the strong, trail-blazing leader enshrined in American history books.
Mainstream historians are loathe to let this revisionist approach pass unchallenged.
Distorting America’s Response to the Holocaust, a report on the exhibit published by the Wyman Institute, features essays by eight leading Holocaust historians who have analyzed the exhibit’s various displays, crosschecking the presentations against facts on record.
What emerges from chapter after chapter of analysis is a plethora of troubling omissions of documented facts that create a distorted picture of FDR’s legacy.
“Positions taken by FDR which might be unflattering or indefensible, are in almost every instance, glossed over minimized or omitted altogether,” wrote Medoff in Making Excuses for FDR.
FDR Refused to Criticize Hitler’s Policies Even After Passage of Nuremburg Laws
The whitewash begins at the very outset of the exhibit, with a defense of FDR’s refusal, even as the 1935 Nuremburg Laws stripped German Jews of their civil rights, to publicly criticize Hitler’s policies.
The exhibit notes that “the accepted rules of international diplomacy obliged [the FDR administration] to respect Germany’s right to govern its own citizens and not intervene on behalf of those being targeted.”
This is a clear distortion of the record, attests Medoff.
“Presidents Van Buren, Buchanan, and Grant protested the mistreatment of Jews in Syria, Switzerland and Romania, respectively,” the Holocaust scholar notes in a Jerusalem Post op-ed. “Theodore Roosevelt protested the persecution of Jews in Romania. And the US government, under President William Taft, canceled a Russo-American treaty to protest Russia’s oppression of Jews.”
“There was ample precedent for Franklin D. Roosevelt to speak out; he chose not to.”
The Strange Omission of James McDonald, Champion of Rescue
The museum’s narrative marginalizes and in some cases, completely omits mention of the role of heroic Americans who distinguished themselves as rescue advocates when activism on behalf of Europe’s Jews was almost non-existent.
One of these courageous individuals was US Diplomat James McDonald, a Catholic from the Midwest, who in a private 1933 interview with Hitler, heard him explicitly vow to annihilate the Jews, according to documentary- maker Shuli Eshel in “Distorting America’s Response.”
“That shocking experience changed McDonald’s life,” the author wrote.” He met repeatedly with world leaders, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Cardinal Giovanni Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, to warn them of Hitler’s threats against the Jews. But McDonald’s warnings were largely ignored.”
Between 1933 and 1935, as the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees From Germany, McDonald ran into additional roadblocks. He resigned as commissioner in 1935 as a protest against the failure of the international community to open its doors to Jews.
In a Jerusalem Post op-ed, Eshel noted McDonald’s disillusionment with FDR after being promised a US contribution of $10,000 to support the commission’s work. The contribution never materialized.
“It was a small token sum that McDonald had requested, hoping it would encourage other countries to contribute,” but even that paltry amount was not forthcoming,” writes Eshel.
He Knew The Evian Conference Was A Farce
McDonald refused to give up activism on behalf of Jewish refugees. He served on the US committee at the 1938 Roosevelt-inspired Evian Conference devoted to the discussion of the growing Jewish refugee problem [although FDR was careful to omit the word “Jew” or “Jewish” from the discussion headings].
The president made it clear even before the conference opened that no nation would be asked to raise its immigration quotas, and that the US was not ready to take any special steps, either. McDonald knew then that the conference, which raised so much hope for Europe’s Jews, was doomed to fail.
He later said, “We knew that Evian would create bitter disappointment.”
Although two U.S. agencies were created in the wake of the Evian Conference ––the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees (IGCR), and the President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees (PAC)—these committees turned out to be little more than window dressing.
Like the conference itself, they were aimed at keeping rescue activists quiet, rather than actually helping any Jews, notes Prof. Paul R. Bartrop, one of the authors in Distorting America’s Response to the Holocaust.
McDonald went on to serve as chairman of the President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees and approached the president for funding. FDR told McDonald he would consider seeking a $150 million Congressional appropriation to resettle Jewish refugees.
Breaking his promise to McDonald once again, Roosevelt never even requested those funds, attests Eshel.
Although the administration’s severe immigration policy greatly hampered their work, McDonald and his colleagues helped bring over 2,000 Jewish refugees to safety in the United States during those years, the article notes. Later, in 1948, McDonald served as the first US ambassador to the State of Israel.
Why Was He Boycotted?
His championship of rescue and aid for Europe’s Jews is very well known at the U.S. Holocaust Museum as the directors received 10,000 pages of McDonald’s diaries and co-published 4 volumes of them, calling them a “landmark acquisition.”
In honor of his achievements, the museum also published a James McDonald 2005 Calendar, highlighting his accomplishments month-by-month, and even created a glossy brochure featuring this unsung hero as “a champion for Jewish aspirations and equal human rights.”
In view of the museum’s embrace of McDonald, it is surprising that his name and heroic efforts receive no mention at all in the new exhibit.
Writing in “Distortions of America’s Response to the Holocaust,” Eshel expressed bewilderment over the exclusion of a man “the museum once championed as an American hero.” She wrote to the museum requesting an explanation for their strange omission but their responses were so contrived, she wrote, they only deepened the mystery.
There was insufficient room [in the 4500 square ft. exhibit space] to feature McDonald, the directors explained. Also, they were seeking displays that would offer more “compelling” visual graphics.
For the truth about why McDonald has been boycotted, one must probe the past a bit more closely.
McDonald did not hide his frustration and disappointment with the FDR administration for its inadequate response to the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews. In articles and speeches, even during the Holocaust, he harshly rebuked the administration for paying only “lip service,” to the issue of rescue, and for declining to make Nazi crimes a major issue.
Such a perspective does not harmonize with the exhibit’s theme of a great humanitarian leader held captive by the public’s mood. It is perhaps not so surprising, after all, that the curators of the exhibit chose to exclude this heroic American from “Americans and the Holocaust.”
Bermuda Conference: ‘A Mockery and a Cruel Jest’
The exhibit glosses over a second “refugee initiative” Roosevelt undertook in 1943, together with the British, when the Final Solution was reaching horrifying dimensions and finally sparking public outcries. This was the Bermuda Conference that also ended in futility, and whose very essence was a charade.
The purpose of the conference had nothing to do with saving the doomed Jews and everything to do with silencing the growing public demand for their rescue, notes historian Monty Penkower (The Jews Were Expendable) in his analysis of the museum’s exhibit. “Lots of talk but no action” doesn’t begin to describe the farce that unfolded there.
Historians say the organizers designed the conference to be as unsuccessful as possible. “The venue of Bermuda itself was remote and hard to reach, almost no reporters were admitted in, and no Jewish representatives were invited,” states Yad Vashem’s Shoah Center.
The Jewish aspect of the issue and the very words ‘Final Solution’ were taboo at this conference, exposing the hypocrisy behind the administration’s professed aim of rescuing Jews.
The Bermuda Conference was a mockery and a cruel jest, wrote Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook), the maverick activist who succeeded in breaking the wall of silence around the Holocaust and igniting public and congressional demands for a government-funded organization to save Jewish lives. The War Refugee Board, finally created in 1944, is credited for saving the lives of 200,000 Jews.
WRB: Eleventh Hour Rescue: Too Little, Almost Too Late
Historians in the nothing-could-be-done-to-save-the-Jews camp, challenge the WRB’s statistics of 200,000 lives saved. One of the most vocal of these critics, Israeli historian Prof. Yehuda Bauer, says, “any claims that the WRB rescued large numbers of Jews…is incorrect.” The Board, he said, had only “marginal success.”
An apologist for FDR and for the Allies’ failure to make the saving of Jewish a military goal, Bauer insists that “the ability of the Allies to accomplish any sort of rescue operations was almost zero. No military action could have been implemented.”
Countering Bauer’s position, Prof. Medoff points out that between financing underground activities and aiding holders of Latin American passports, the Board helped save at least 10,000 Jews. The WRB also engineered the evacuation of another 15,000 Jewish refugees (and more than 20,000 non-Jewish refugees) from Axis territory.
Medoff notes the diplomatic pressure and psychological warfare waged by the Board was crucial in getting 48,000 Jews moved out of parts of Transnistria that were in the path of the retreating German army. The WRB was also a pivotal force in bringing an end to the Hungarian deportations, leaving 120,000 Jews alive in Budapest.
That is a total of more than 200,000 lives saved due largely to the War Refugee Board. Not millions but far from “marginal success,” to use Bauer’s term.
Bauer defends Roosevelt, opining, “The [Roosevelt] administration was not wrong: as it was powerless to save the millions, the only answer was to win the war and kill the murderers.”
In other words, if they could not save millions, they should save nobody? Are the lives of thousands, or tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of too little value to justify rescue efforts?
Bauer and his colleagues argue that even if the Roosevelt administration had established the War Refugee Board in 1943 (instead of fighting its creation and establishing it only in 1944), not much more could have been accomplished.
In fact, the success of the Board’s 11th-hour effort –despite severe underfunding and obstruction by the State Department—underscores the haunting question that pervades all study of the Holocaust: How many more could have been saved had America acted sooner?
Behind The Whitewash
The “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibit claims that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was unable to grant haven to Jewish refugees because of strong public and congressional opposition to more immigration in the year 1930 and during the war years.
“But that assumption ignores the many ways in which FDR could have aided Jewish refugees without any public controversy or fight with Congress, notes Medoff in a Jerusalem Post op-ed.
“For example, he could have permitted the existing immigration quotas to be filled — 190,000 quota places from German and Axis-occupied countries sat unused during the Holocaust years, because the administration suppressed immigration below the levels allowed by law.”
There were other avenues of rescue and relief that FDR could have exploited to help Jews fleeing Hitler such as permitting Jewish refugees to enter a U.S. territory such as the Virgin Islands, the article notes.
After the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, the governor and legislative assembly of the Virgin Islands publicly offered to open their doors to Jews fleeing the Nazis. But the FDR administration worked from behind the scenes to restrict this offer of a haven, apprehensive that the refuges would sneak into the U.S. mainland.
The Missing Poll
The exhibit uses light-up screens with digitalized poll surveys from the war years to make the case that public sentiment consistently opposed admitting refugees.
A striking departure from this pattern, notes Medoff, is an April 1944 Gallup poll — commissioned by the White House itself — which found that 70 percent of Americans favored granting “temporary protection and refuge” in the United States to Nazi victims.
This poll was taken at a stage in the war when Americans had learned more about the horrors of the death camps and the mass killings. American’s opposition to admitting refugees apparently underwent a significant shift at this juncture.
In the same spirit as the exhibit’s exclusion of James McDonald, the April 1944 poll proving that public opinion would have supported FDR had he granted Jews temporary haven, has been excluded from the display.
The museum thus protects its carefully constructed image of FDR as a prisoner of public opinion whose humanitarian efforts were thwarted by an unsympathetic public.
“Making excuses for FDR’s abandonment of the Jews should not be the mission of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,” commented Dr. Medoff.
Apparently, not everyone agrees.
Part Two will discuss other aspects of the Holocaust exhibit’s whitewash of FDR, and the distortions of history on which this new narrative rests. Included is the still festering question of why Auschwitz was not bombed; the recent disclosures of anti-Semitic slurs made by FDR in remarks to close friends; and the exhibit’s treatment of the Rabbis March on Washington in Sept. 1944.