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More than six decades after the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, even the youngest of his contemporaries are now fading from the scene. World War II and the Holocaust are, to most Americans, as distant as the Civil War and the battle of Gettysburg.
And yet, the arguments over his legacy are not going away. That is the only conclusion you can draw from the publication of a new book that modestly describes itself on its dust jacket as a "fearless, outstanding example of historical detective work."
Saving the Jews: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust by Robert N. Rosen is a partisan riposte to the decades of serious work on the subject that has depicted the indifference of the American government to the slaughter of European Jewry and the unwillingness of the president to use his power to make a difference on the issue. This is a difficult piece of history whose examination requires us to discard the godlike image of FDR that has been burnished by his idolators.
Chipping away at this stained-glass image to the point where his less than praiseworthy record on the Holocaust could be dispassionately examined was not easy. Though there were other important books on the subject, it was not until the publication of the seminal The Abandonment of the Jews by David S. Wyman, which first appeared in 1984, that a change in the way Roosevelt's record was viewed took hold.
Wyman debunked the widely held belief that no one knew about extermination prior to the liberation of the death camps, and that little could have been done to help. But to those who prefer the myth of FDR to the unvarnished truth, there is Robert Rosen's new book, published by Thunder Mouth's Press, a publication house created by the far-left Nation magazine.
Rosen is well-suited to such a task; his last historical work, The Jewish Confederates, was a book whose aim was to portray Jews who supported the effort to preserve slavery as heroes and their abolitionist Yankee opponents as the bad guys. To anyone capable of that astonishing feat, rewriting the history of World War II is mere child's play.
AS WAS the case with his Confederate book, Saving the Jews is chockful of footnotes and references to give the impression of scholastic weight. But all it proves is that Rosen has read a great deal of history and understood little of it. As with his rebel heroes, Rosen gives Roosevelt every benefit of the doubt. Every piece of evidence that showed the government's indifference is credited to others, while all instances of sympathy for rescue are considered his doing.
Even worse, Rosen adopts the despicable attitudes of those Jews and non-Jews who resisted rescue by denigrating those like Hillel Kook and his Emergency Committee to Rescue the Jews of Europe who worked to force the administration to act. He even condescendingly describes the October 1943 pro-rescue march on Washington by 400 rabbis as the work of "bearded, foreign-looking" and "medieval" men.
If, as some assert, Roosevelt refused to meet with those rabbis because his feckless Jewish advisers told him these were not the sort of Jews whom he wanted to associate with, then Rosen seems to follow in their footsteps. In short, the book is a travesty that no serious reader should bother with.
BUT FOR those who worry that the study of this important chapter is being left to the likes of Robert Rosen, there is some comfort. Though the brilliant David Wyman has retired, an institute named in his honor is carrying the fight to pursue the historical truth about the American reaction to the Holocaust.
The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies (www.wymaninstitute.org) was founded a few years. Its goal is to bring the historical record on the American response to the Shoah to a broad rather than a scholarly audience. Its fourth annual conference, held earlier this month at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, focused on one particular largely unsung hero: Josiah E. DuBois Jr.
DuBois was a non-Jewish lawyer working in the Treasury Department in 1943 when he stumbled onto a startling conclusion: The U.S. State Department, acting in conjunction with the British, and without protest from the president, wasn't merely indifferent to the fate of the Jews; it was actually doing everything possible to obstruct every attempt to rescue even those few of Hitler's victims who had a chance to escape Europe, and to silence those who wished to publicize news of the slaughter or work for rescue.
DuBois's investigations were summarized in an 18-page document titled "Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews." Decades before any debate about the question, this Penn-trained lawyer blew the whistle on the government with a document that still makes for painful reading.
The secretary in question was his boss, Henry Morgenthau, the Secretary of the Treasury. An assimilated Jew himself who was no Zionist, Morgenthau was shocked to his core by DuBois's findings. DuBois threatened to resign and to call a press conference to publicize the truth, but Morgenthau needed no further prompting.
After failing to make headway with a State Department that was a stronghold of anti-Semitism, he took the DuBois report to FDR himself and demanded action in the form of an agency devoted to rescue. Seeing that the secretary meant business - and also facing pressure from Congress to act - Roosevelt gave in and signed an executive order creating the War Refugee Board in January 1944.
DuBois left the Treasury to help create this agency, which was largely responsible for, among other things, Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg's saving of thousands of Hungarian Jews in late 1944.
Though given little money - and still obstructed by the rest of the government, and with no active backing from FDR - the board proved that given the will, there was a way. Effective action was possible. Had it been created only a year earlier, once the extent of the Shoah was confirmed by Washington, far more might have been saved.
DuBois, who was labeled a "Jew" by his detractors, followed this meritorious service by a stint as a prosecutor at Nuremberg, where he obtained convictions of the executives of I.G. Farben pharmaceutical conglomerate, though he protested the light sentences meted out by the court.
Disillusioned by his experiences and having burned many bridges in the course of his pursuit of justice, DuBois left government service for good. He died in 1983 at the age of 70.
AS WE have seen in the largely indifferent reaction to genocidal regimes since the Holocaust, indifference and inaction are the rule, not the exception. And there will always be those who will be there to rationalize the indifference afterward, especially if it serves some political agenda.
If we are ever to vanquish that sort of moral complacency, it can only be by studying the example of people of courage and decency like Josiah DuBois. The Wyman Institute deserves credit for mounting a tribute in his honor. With so much nonsense masquerading as history nowadays, one can only hope their efforts will flourish.
The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. [email protected]