America, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust

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"America, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust"

By William J. Vanden Heuvel

Keynote address of the fifth annual Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt Distinguished Lecture, held Oct. 17, 1996 at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

For those who share Winston Churchill's judgment, and I do, that the Holocaust "is probably the greatest and most terrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world," there can be no greater indictment than to allege complicity with that crime. There are some whose legitimate concerns over those grievous events leads them to try and make America and Americans feel guilt and responsibility for the Holocaust. They write and talk with barely a reference to the colossal military struggle known as World War II in which 67 million people were killed, where nations were decimated, where democracy's survival was in the balance. The Holocaust was part of World War II. Any discussion of the Holocaust must put events, values and attitudes in their time and place.

The scholarship that informed a documentary presented on the Public Broadcasting System on April 6, 1994, entitled "America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference" made our country and its leaders "accomplices" to the Nazi barbarism. It is such scholarship that has caused many young American Jews to criticize and even condemn their grandparents and parents for being "passive observers" of the Nazi genocide, accepting the inference that they did not want to know what was happening to Europe's Jews, that they were so absorbed in their effort to be accepted or assimilated in American society that they chose silence rather than public outrage at the Nazi crimes, that they gave their overwhelming support to a President who was indifferent to the fate of Europe's Jews despite his knowledge of what was happening to them. Accusing the United States not only of abandoning the Jews but of complicity in the Holocaust, one eminent spokesman for this viewpoint has written: "The Nazis were the murderers but we"--and here he includes the American government, its president and its people, Christians and Jews indiscriminately--"were the all too passive accomplices."

I am here today to offer a different point of view.

Five weeks after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Franklin Roosevelt became President of the United States. Roosevelt's loathing of the whole Nazi regime was known the moment he took office. Alone among the leaders of the world, he stood in opposition to Hitler from the very beginning. In a book published in 1937, Winston Churchill--to whom free humanity everywhere must be eternally indebted and without whose courage and strength the defeat of Nazi Germany could never have been achieved--described Hitler's treatment of the Jews, stating that "concentration camps pock-mark the German soil..." and concluding his essay by writing that "the world lives on hopes that the worst is over and that we may live to see Hitler a gentler figure in a happier age..." Roosevelt had no such hopes. He never wavered in his belief that the pagan malignancy of Hitler and his followers had to be destroyed. Thomas Mann, the most famous of the non-Jewish refugees from the Nazis, met with FDR at the White House in 1935 and confided that for the first time he believed the Nazis would be beaten because in Roosevelt he had met someone who truly understood the evil of Adolf Hitler.

Before the Holocaust: 1933-1941

To understand those years, we must differentiate between the German Jews who were the immediate and constant subjects of Hitler's persecution and the Jews of central Europe who were the principal victims of the Holocaust. The Jews of Germany numbered about 525,000 in 1933. They were the yeast of Germany's great culture--leaders in literature, music, medicine, science, in its financial and intellectual life. For the most part, they wanted to be thought of as Germans. They had been a proud part of Germany's army in World War 1. Anti-Semitism shadowed their lives but they were citizens who thought of Germany as their country and were deeply rooted in its existence. "We are either Germans, or without a country," said a leading Jewish writer. They witnessed Hitler's coming to power with disbelief and saw Nazi dominance as a temporary phenomenon. In the face of Nazi persecution, those who left Germany did so reluctantly, many seeking refuge in neighboring countries from which they expected to return to Germany when the Hitler madness subsided. In the early years, many--if not most--believed Hitler and his regime could not survive, that the Germany that was their country too, would disown the Austrian corporal who threatened their well being.

In his autobiography, Rabbi Stephen Wise--one of the most powerful and respected leaders of the American Jewish community--and a personal friend and close advisor of President Roosevelt who had constant access to the White House throughout the Roosevelt Administration--tells how in October, 1932, he received a report from a scholar whom he had sent to Germany and who had interviewed 30 leading Jews all of whom with one exception had declared that "Hitler would never come to power." They sent a message to tell "Rabbi Wise that he need not concern himself with Jewish affairs in Germany. If he insists upon dealing with Jewish affairs in Europe, let him occupy himself with Jewish problems in Poland and Rumania..." When Rabbi Wise organized a New York rally in March, 1933 to protest Nazi treatment of Jews, he received a message from leading German rabbis urging him to cut out such meetings and in a most insulting way indicating that American Jews were doing this for their own purposes and in the process were destroying the Germany that the German Jews loved. Rabbi Wise, continued to believe that the only option for the Jews was to leave Germany. As the Nazi persecution intensified, as the Nuremberg Laws degraded the Jews as nothing before, as Hitler strove to cause their emigration and confiscated Jewish property and wealth, the prospect of departure continued to be confronted. In 1934, 37,000 Jews fled Germany--but in the relative calm of the next year, 16,000 returned. The good and brave Chief Rabbi of Berlin, Leo Baeck, opposed mass emigration, setting a personal example of not abandoning his community, surviving even the horror of a wartime concentration camp. Every Jewish group affirmed the right of Jews to be German, to live in and love their country; they affirmed the legal right, the moral necessity and religious imperative of not surrendering to the pagan persecutors. As important as any barriers to immigration in western countries was the attitude of not wanting to leave Germany until absolutely necessary. It is crucial to our understanding of these years to remember that at the time no one inside or outside of Germany anticipated that the Nazi persecution would lead to the Holocaust. As Gerhard Weinberg has cogently written, the actions of the German government were generally understood, both by the victims and the bystanders, as a return to the kinds of persecutions and restrictions imposed on Jews in prior centuries, not as steps on the road toward genocide.

The annexation of Austria, the appeasement of the Nazis represented by the Munich pact, and especially Kristallnacht in November, 1938, changed the situation dramatically. Especially Kristallnacht. Using as a torch the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris by a 17-year-old Jewish youth whose father had been among the thousands of Polish Jews expelled from Germany and dumped across the Polish border just weeks before, Goebbels sparked an orgy of arson and looting in almost every town and city by Nazi thugs. Huge, silent crowds looked on. The police did nothing to contain the violence. Many German Jews for the first time understood the hopelessness of their situation.

The America which elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt its president in 1932 was a deeply troubled country. Twenty-five percent of its work force was unemployed--and this at a time when practically every member of that work force was the principal supporter of a family. The economy was paralyzed, despair hung heavy on the land. Disillusion with Europe after the sacrifices of the First World War encouraged profound isolationist sentiments. This is not the time or place to recount the accomplishments of the New Deal nor the daring, innovative leadership that brought about the peaceful social revolution that has earned the bipartisan, contemporary judgment of Roosevelt as the greatest president of this century. Let us rather discuss what was most relevant to Germany's Jews--our immigration laws and American attitudes to events in Europe.

The immigration laws of the United States had been established by legislation in 1921 and 1924 under Presidents Harding and Coolidge and by a Congress that had rejected the League of Nations and defined the new isolationism. The Congress controlled the immigration laws and carefully monitored their implementation. A formula assigned a specific quota to countries based on population origins of Americans resident in the United States in 1890. The law was aimed at eastern Europeans, particularly Russia and Poland which were seen as seedbeds of Bolshevik revolution. Italians were a target and Asians were practically excluded. The total number of immigrants that could be admitted annually was set at 153,774. The two countries most benefited were Great Britain (65,721) and Germany (25,957). As the Depression took hold, President Hoover tightened regulations by mandating that no immigrant could be admitted who might become a public charge. The Depression also encouraged an unusual coalition of liberal and conservative forces, labor unions and business leaders, who opposed any enlargement of the immigration quotas, an attitude that Congress adamantly reflected. The overwhelming majority of Americans agreed with the Congress, opposing the increased admission of immigrants, insisting that refugees be included in the quotas of countries from which they were fleeing. Jewish refugees from Germany, because of the relatively large German quota, had an easier time than anti-Communist refugees from the Soviet Union, not to mention the Chinese who were victims of Japan's aggression, or the Armenians or the Spanish fleeing a civil war where 500,000 were killed between 1936-39. Spain's annual quota, for example, was 252.

The President and Mrs. Roosevelt were leaders in the effort to help the German Jews fleeing political persecution. Mrs. Roosevelt was a founder of the International Rescue Committee in 1933 which brought intellectuals, labor leaders, and political figures fleeing Hitler to sanctuary in the United States. President Roosevelt made a public point of inviting many of them to the White House. In 1936, in response to the Nazi confiscation of personal assets as a precondition to Jewish emigration, Roosevelt greatly modified Hoover's ruling regarding financial sponsorship for refugees thereby allowing a substantially greater number of visas to be issued. As a result, the United States accepted twice as many Jewish refugees than did the rest of the world put together. As Professor Weinberg has stated, Roosevelt acted in the face of strong and politically damaging criticism for what was generally considered a pro-Jewish attitude by him personally and by his Administration.

Hitler's policy never wavered in trying to force the Jews to leave Germany. After the Anschluss in Austria, Roosevelt, on March 25, 1938, called an international conference on the refugee crisis. Austria's 185,000 Jews were now in jeopardy. The conference met in Evian, France. There was no political advantage for Roosevelt in calling for a conference "to facilitate the emigration from Germany and Austria of political refugees." No other major political leader in any country matched his concern and involvement. The Evian Conference tried to open new doors in the western hemisphere. The Dominican Republic, for example, offered sanctuary to 100,000 refugees. The Inter-Governmental Committee (IGC) was established, hopefully to pressure the Germans to allow the Jews to leave with enough resources to begin their new lives. The devastating blow at Evian was the message from the Polish and Romanian governments that they expected the same right as the Germans to expel their Jewish populations. There were less than 475,000 German and Austrian Jews at this point--a number manageable in an emigration plan that the 29 participating nations could prepare, but with the possibility of 3.5 million more from eastern Europe, the concern now was that any offer of help would only encourage authoritarian governments to brutalize any unwanted portion of their populations, expecting their criminal acts against their own citizens to force the democracies to give them haven. The German emigration problem was manageable. Forced emigration from eastern Europe was not. The Nazi genocide was in the future--and unimaginable to the Jews and probably at the time unimagined by the Nazis. National attitudes then are not very different than today's. No country allows any and every refugee to enter without limitations. Quotas are thought even now to deter unscrupulous and impoverished regimes from forcing their unwanted people on other countries.

By the end of 1938, Kristallnacht had happened. Its impact on the Jews of Germany and Austria was overwhelming. Munich was a tragic reality. Truncated Czechoslovakia would last six months before Hitler broke his promise and occupied the rest of the country. The German Jews at last understood the barbarism of the Nazis--and that Hitler was totally in power. America's reaction to Kristallnacht was stronger than any of the democracies. Roosevelt recalled his Ambassador from Germany. For the first time since the First World War an American president had summoned home an ambassador to a major power under such circumstances. At his press conference then, Roosevelt said: "I myself can scarcely believe that such things could occur in a 20th century civilization." [ note ] He extended the visitors' visas of all Germans and Austrians in the United States who felt threatened. The reaction of Americans in opinion polls showed overwhelming anger and disgust with the Nazis and sympathy for the Jews. Roosevelt remained the target of the hardcore anti-Semites in America. He welcomed them as enemies and in brilliant maneuvering, he isolated them from mainstream America and essentially equated their anti-Semitism with treason and the destruction of both the national interest and national defense. Recognizing the inertia, frequent hostility, and sometime anti-Semitism in the State Department, he entrusted Sumner Welles, the Undersecretary of State and a person totally sympathetic to Jewish needs, to be his instrument of action. President Kennedy, a generation later, commented to friends that he would order something to happen at the State Department--and frequently nothing would happen. Roosevelt understood as Kennedy and every President learns that there is a bureaucracy in government that can limit the possibilities of executive action.

Immigration procedures were complicated and sometimes harshly administered. The immigration laws and quotas were jealously guarded by Congress, supported by a strong, broad cross-section of Americans who were against all immigrants, not alone Jews. Of course, there were racists and anti-Semites in the Congress and in the country--there are today--only now, after 60 years of government based on liberal values, they dare not speak their true attitudes. The State Department, which jealously guarded its administrative authority in the granting of visas, was frequently more concerned with Congressional attitudes and criticisms than in reflecting American decency and generosity in helping people increasingly in despair and panic. Roosevelt undoubtedly made a mistake in appointing and continuing in office Breckenridge Long as Assistant Secretary of State. Many allege Long was an anti-Semite. Others argue "that he was in an impossible situation with an insurmountable task." His presence at State was undoubtedly an assurance to the Congress that the immigration laws would be strictly enforced. On the other hand there were countless Foreign Service officers who did everything possible to help persecuted, innocent people--just as they would today. There was an attitude that there were many sanctuaries available in the world besides the United States, so the Department, controlled by an elite and very conservative officialdom, was quite prepared to make Congressional attitudes the guide for their administration of immigration procedures rather than the attitudes of the White House. Congress looked at the turmoil in Germany as a European problem in which it did not want America to be involved. Nevertheless, between 1933 and 1941, 35 percent of all immigrants to America under quota guidelines were Jewish. After Kristallnacht, Jewish immigrants were more than one-half of all immigrants admitted to the U.S. Of course, there were other countries of refuge--many of them preferred by German Jews who--like everyone else did not foresee the Nazi madness of conquest and extermination--and who wanted to stay in Europe. Public opinion everywhere in the democracies was repelled by the Nazi persecution. Great Britain, for example, after Kristallnacht granted immigration visas essentially without limit. In the first six months of 1939, 91,780 German and Austrian Jews were admitted to England, often as a temporary port en route to the Dominions or other parts of the Empire.

Roosevelt from the beginning saw the larger threat of the Nazis. Hitler wanted to present Germany as the champion of a universal struggle against the Jews. Roosevelt would not let him. The President understood that he had to explain the vital interest that all Americans had in stopping Hitler in terms of their own security, at the same time protecting Jews from being isolated as the sole cause of the inevitable confrontation. He pressured the Europeans to respond to Hitler. His speech in 1937 calling for the quarantine of the aggressors was met with political hostility at home and abroad. He was constantly seeking havens for the refugees in other countries knowing that he did not have the power to change the quota system of our own country. His critics refuse to acknowledge limitations on presidential power but clearly the President could not unilaterally command an increase in quotas. In fact, his Congressional leaders, including Representative Dickstein who chaired the House subcommittee on immigration, warned him that reactionary forces in the Congress might well use any attempt to increase the quotas as an opportunity to reduce them. Faulting FDR for not using his political power to urge changes in immigration laws when he knew he could not win--or worse, that the isolationists would work to reduce the quotas, does not make much sense.

Seventy-two percent of all German Jews had emigrated before further emigration became impossible with the beginning of the war. Eighty-three percent of all German Jews under 21 emigrated. There are many reasons why the others did not get out--some were too old to leave, some believed it their religious duty to stay, some were in concentration camps and prisons, some just did not know what to do. Emigres were plundered of virtually all of their assets, and not until Jews faced the reality of terrorism and imprisonment were many of them prepared to give up their family's wealth and everything that they had worked for all of their lives.

In his painfully eloquent book, Bound Upon a Wheel of Fire, John Dipple writes:

Yes, there were tight restrictions on entering into the United States and other countries, but were Germany's Jews really blocked by them before 1938? Most evidence suggests that the Jews could have circumvented these obstacles in greater numbers if they had wanted to escape Germany badly enough, if they had grasped the desperateness of their plight earlier on. But they had not. Despite everything, Germany was still their home. And, despite almost everything they were prepared to stay there...

It is important to say over and over again that it was a time and a place when no one foresaw the events that became the Holocaust. Given the reality of the Holocaust, all of us in every country--and certainly in America--can only wish that we would have done more, that our immigration barriers had been less, that our Congress had had a broader world view, that every public servant had reflected the attitudes of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. If anyone had foreseen the Holocaust, perhaps--possibly--maybe--but no one did. Nevertheless, the United States, a nation remote from the world in a way our children can hardly understand--the United States accepted twice as many Jewish refugees than did the rest of the world put together.

Among the events that cause despair and anguish when we read about it is the fate of the ship, the S.S. St. Louis of the Hamburg-America line which left Germany and arrived in Cuba on May 27, 1939, with 936 passengers, 930 of them Jewish refugees. This was three months before the outbreak of the war, and three years before the establishment of the death camps. Other ships had made the same journey, and their passengers disembarked successfully, but on May 5th the Cuban government had issued a decree curtailing the power of the corrupt director general of immigration to issue landing certificates. The new regulations requiring $500 bonds from each approved immigrant had been transmitted to the shipping line but only 22 passengers of the St. Louis had fulfilled the requirements before leaving Hamburg on May 13th. The 22 were allowed to land but intense negotiations with the Cuban government regarding the other passengers--negotiations in which American Jewish agencies participated--broke down despite pressure from our government. It was not an unreported event. Tremendous international attention focused on the St. Louis, later made famous as the Voyage of the Damned. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., and others, including Eleanor Roosevelt, worked to avoid the harsh reality of the immigration laws, for example, by attempting to land the passengers as "tourists" in the Virgin Islands. Despite the legal inability of the United States to accept the passengers of the St. Louis as immigrants, our diplomats were significantly helpful in resettling them. None--not one--of the passengers of the S.S. St. Louis were returned to Nazi Germany. They were all resettled in democratic countries--288 in the United Kingdom, the rest in France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark. The Nazi genocide was in the future, unforeseen and unimaginable by the Jews and those who wanted to help them.

What were Franklin Roosevelt's own attitudes toward Hitler and the Jews? Did he reflect the social anti-Semitism that was endemic in the America of that era? Contemporary Jews knew that they had never had a better friend, a more sympathetic leader in the White House. Roosevelt opened the offices of government as never before to Jews. Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Samuel Rosenman, Felix Frankfurter, Benjamin Cohen, David Niles, Anna Rosenberg, Sidney Hillman, and David Dubinsky were among his closest advisors in politics and government. Rabbi Stephen Wise, the pre-eminent spokesman for American Zionism, and his daughter Justine Polier, were personal friends of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt with as much access to the White House as anyone. Rabbi Wise described FDR by saying "No one was more genuinely free from religious prejudice and racial bigotry..." He recalls in March, 1933 how "Roosevelt's soul rebelled at the Nazi doctrine of superior and inferior races..." and how in March, 1945, days before his death, Roosevelt spoke movingly of his determination to establish "a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth in Palestine."

The Holocaust: 1941-1945

The persecution of the Jews and their emigration from Germany were the prelude to the Holocaust. Nazi policy changed radically after the outbreak of war. The possibility of emigration ended. Germany's Jews were now prisoners. The Holocaust--the systematic killing of 6 million Jews--took place between 1941-45. The likelihood is that Hitler did not expect Britain and France to go to war over Poland.

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