Memories of FDR contradict realities of his inaction

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Fifty-one years ago, the Jewish Forward newspaper noted a rally at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The rally marked the second anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising by demanding that Jews be represented at the United Nations.

The Forward article went on to say "the program will also demonstrate our sorrow in memory of our immortal president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt."

In April 1945, American Jews mourned the death of FDR with genuine sorrow. To the overwhelming majority of them, he was a hero and a symbol of all that was good, generous and brave in the American character. Jews saw the four-term president as a special friend and protector who championed their interests. He led the nation out of the depression and to victory in war. Even while demonstrating their grief over the destruction of European Jewry, FDR was still their hero.

Five decades later, most of those who came of age between 1933 and 1945 — the generation of my parents — remained devoted to his memory. For those who fought in the Second World War or did their bit on the Home Front, he was a father.

The abiding affection for FDR on the part of my parents has been a source of family conflicts. It's an argument that has lasted more than 20 years, since my high school days. For them, Roosevelt was the idol of their youth. For me, he is the man who was indifferent to the Holocaust.

To many in my generation, Roosevelt is a symbol of the failure of the United States to take action to save those who perished in the Holocaust. The publication in 1967 of Arthur D. Morse's "While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy" and the many books that followed it such as David Wyman's "The Abandonment of the Jews" revealed the truth about FDR.

Far from acting as our best friend, Roosevelt and his administration knew the details about the death camps and did nothing. We learned that almost to the very end of the war, the State Department used all of its power to prevent the escape of Jews from Hitler.

The rail lines to Auschwitz were not bombed, even though American planes took reconnaissance pictures showing the doomed Jews being "selected" for the gas chambers. While the Allies diverted vast resources to aiding ineffective underground movements behind German lines, almost nothing was done to save the Jews. While American perfidy on the issue of Europe's Jews did not match that of Britain, it is still a terrible record.

My generation was shamed by the memory of the failure of American Jewish leaders to use their access to FDR to attempt to galvanize him into action as our own flesh and blood were murdered.

Men like nationally known Rabbi Stephen Wise are today chiefly remembered for being FDR's dupes. Blinded by their devotion to Roosevelt and naively trusting in him, Wise and others like him chose not to speak out against the calculated and cynical inaction of the United States and its president.

Worse, they heaped abuse on those few Jewish dissidents such as the Emergency Committee To Save the Jewish People of Europe, which acted against the Jewish establishment's consensus.

The Committee did its best to bring the issue of rescue before the American public and helped to bring the War Refugee Board into existence, which eventually saved many Hungarian Jews in the waning months of the war.

We read with disgust about FDR's interview with Polish secret envoy Jan Karski, who gave him an eyewitness account of the carnage, and of the president's failure to act on it. We learned that Jewish giants like Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter heard the same evidence and refused to believe it.

For those of us who came of age in the 1970s and '80s with the movement to free Soviet Jewry, our main inspiration came from the memory of the failure of American Jewry to act to save those who perished in the Shoah. If the leaders of American Jewry in the 1940s were afraid to challenge FDR, we would not flinch from using all of our influence and power in the struggle to confront the greatest anti-Semitic power of our time or American politicians who were uninterested in the fate of Jews.

For us, Jewish affection for Roosevelt was the epitome of a community acting against its own interests. If American Jews had once valued Roosevelt's good will more than Jewish lives, we would "never again" trust in false friends. American Jews were now self-confident enough to wage political war on those who would sacrifice our interests for the sake of realpolitik or detente. We were prepared to lobby Congress, demonstrate, and scream from the rooftops about the plight of our brethren trapped in the evil empire. If we succeeded, I think it is because of so many of us were motivated by the example of FDR and the Holocaust.

The judgement of history on FDR has been mostly kind. For most biographers, and indeed most Americans, the Holocaust is a side issue, as was reflected in last week's coverage of the anniversary of his death.

For people like my parents, judging Roosevelt is more difficult. They always tried to tell me how much he did for the country during the Depression, how he gave hope to the masses and helped people to survive.

But their memories of the era impede sober historical evaluation. They remembered the fireside chats, the inspirational leader who seemed to stand between America and the abyss. I would respond by pointing out some of the long-term repercussions of the New Deal and say it was the Japanese warlords who bombed us into the war and who ended the depression. And always I would return to the Holocaust. FDR was the man who did nothing to save the Jews.

My parents were reluctant to believe that FDR knew everything and did nothing. But over time, they read and heard enough of the truth to acknowledge with sorrow that, at least on this point, he had failed terribly.

The debate is a dialogue of the generations. My parents and I will always approach the FDR question differently. It is wrong to judge any man by the standards of another time or with hindsight. But the failure to act in the face of the greatest catastrophe to befall the Jewish people must forever taint his memory for Jews.

The writer is executive editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger.

Jonathan S. Tobin portrait
Jonathan S. Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of and a contributing writer at National Review.