Franklin Delano Roosevelt inauguration 311.
(photo credit: Library of Congress)
In 1939, before his invasion of Poland, Adolf Hitler allowed 907 Jews to leave
Germany on a Hamburg-American liner, the St. Louis.
The ship was bound
for Cuba, according to a deal that would have allowed the refugees to land and
find a safe haven. Many had plans to enter the US, where relatives were
waiting. At the last minute, the Cubans reneged on the deal.
Representatives of the Joint Distribution Committee tried but failed to find a
safe port for the ship’s passengers in the US or elsewhere. They were returned
to Europe, where many were murdered.
This story was told in the 1967 book
While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy, by Arthur Morse. These
events entered the annals of Holocaust history and are remembered today as an
iconic reference point for the hostility and indifference that greeted European
Jews during that period.
The St. Louis does not appear in Robert Shogan’s
new book, Prelude to Catastrophe. Instead of recounting how immigration
laws written by Anglo-Saxon purists in the 1920s kept Jewish refugees offshore a
decade later, Shogan focuses on the few powerful Jews in president Franklin
Roosevelt’s circle of advisers.
He is evenhanded in his approach to these
men – and they are all men. He recounts their connections to American
presidents, beginning with Woodrow Wilson, and Supreme Court justice Louis
Brandeis was the unofficial dean of American Jewry during these
decades. He was instrumental in bolstering the case for a Jewish homeland in
On the occasion of Kristallnacht in Germany in 1938, when
shops, synagogues and homes were vandalized and burned and Jews rounded up for
arrest, however, Brandeis was missing. Instead, he wired Rabbi Stephen Wise,
“Think Skipper [Roosevelt] should not be called upon to make suggested protest
he expressed himself fully.”
Wise, head of the World Jewish Congress,
bemoaned Brandeis’s inaction and seemed more forceful than any of the other
personalities here. He had access to the president but not Brandeis’s influence.
We read in anguish when he first tried to inform administration officials that
the mass murders had started, but he could not get a memo past the
obstructionists in the State Department.
Supreme Court justice Felix
Frankfurter, born in Vienna in 1882, was an American success story. He graduated
from City College of New York at 19, went to Harvard Law School and joined the
ranks of the legal do-gooders of New York City before becoming part of the
circle around Roosevelt, then New York’s governor. He helped Roosevelt
find talented individuals, particularly lawyers from Harvard, for the
Frankfurter was often a target of anti-Semites aiming to
prove that Roosevelt was under the thumb of “the Jews.” But as Shogan shows us
in detail, he did little on behalf of European Jews. Indeed, he was a
circumspect figure who was unwilling to appear sectarian.
In the end,
Brandeis, Frankfurter and Wise, like other Jewish figures at the time, were
unable to move Roosevelt on matters related to European Jews. His administration
was hemmed in by isolationists and others who wanted no part of the
When the US did enter the fighting, it did so for its own interests,
not at the pleading of Jews. They could not even persuade the administration to
bomb the railroad tracks that carried men, women and children into
If Shogan’s Prelude to Catastrophe
is the story of a few
powerful Jewish men, it is also a lesson in the actual limits of Jewish
influence in American life.– The Kansas City Star/MCT