New book: Roosevelt tried to save Europe's Jews

New book disputes notion that FDR was insensitive to plight of refugees in Nazi-occupied Europe.

refugees and rescue 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
refugees and rescue 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A new book disputes widely held assumptions that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was insensitive to the plight of European Jews under the Nazis, and instead concludes that he tried to arrange resettlement for thousands of refugees in the late 1930s, only to be thwarted by his own State Department. The book, "Refugees and Rescue," claims FDR developed plans in 1938 for the United States to fill its immigration quota with 27,000 Jews from Germany and Austria and to send others to British-held Palestine and friendly nations in Africa and Latin America. "Most of the initiatives to resettle refugees in underdeveloped areas proved impossible, met substantial resistance abroad, or developed very slowly partly because of resistance by the Department of State," the Center for Jewish History said in a statement about the book. The claim that Roosevelt actively sought ways to help Jews escape Europe before the war began in 1939 challenges the widely accepted view that he ignored warnings of Adolf Hitler's plan to exterminate them. One example supporting that theory was the government's refusal to allow the SS St. Louis, a German ship carrying 900-plus Jewish refugees, to dock at a US port in 1939. Instead, the ship was sent back to Europe where many passengers later perished in Nazi camps. The book is based primarily on diaries of James G. McDonald, the League of Nations' top official concerned with refugees from Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s. "In tracking him, we stumbled on other new evidence about FDR's role," Richard Breitman, one of the book's three editors, told a news conference on Friday. In 1935, McDonald quit the League of Nations post to protest lack of support on the issue and later headed a committee advising Roosevelt, while also pressing for changes in US immigration laws. In 1948, he became the first US ambassador to the new state of Israel. McDonald's diaries, owned by his family, were analyzed by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and provided to a team of editors headed by Breitman, an American University history professor and Holocaust scholar. The team's resulting book is published by Indiana University Press. The State Department raised bureaucratic obstacles to immigration, through denial of visas and in alloting quotas for refugees, and along with Congress, resisted funding conferences or other initiatives on refugee resettlement. The State Department also stifled public release of reports about genocide. In 1942 it received but declined to release a report detailing Nazi plans to wipe out Europe's Jews, according to the Holocaust museum. McDonald's writings "provide a unique perspective on the workings of Nazi Germany and the American reaction to them," said Holocaust museum research director Paul Shapiro. He called the preservation of this evidence "especially urgent" as that generation dies off. Scholars disagree as to whether "Refugees and Rescue" sheds important new light. Deborah E. Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Atlanta's Emory University, said it would "change the consensus" about FDR's role. But Henry Feingold, a retired professor at Manhattan's Baruch College and author of a previous book on the resettlement issue, said he did not see the latest book as "moving history very much." Roosevelt lacked both the power and the inclination to resettle the Jews, Feingold said in an interview. "With a leap of courage it might have been possible to place them in Alaska or the Virgin Islands," he said, but Roosevelt's priority in the late 1930s was to get the United States into the fight alongside Britain. "We did not go to war singing 'save the Jews.' We went to war singing 'remember Pearl Harbor,'" he said. The book says McDonald met Hitler in early 1933 and was immediately convinced that the then-new German chancellor was determined to destroy the Jews. At their March 31, 1933 meeting, a McDonald's diary entry says, Hitler told him: "Even if Germany must draw its belt very much tighter, that will be a small price to pay for ridding itself of the menace of the Jews. The world will yet thank us for teaching it how to deal with the Jews." Rafael Medoff, a Holocaust author and director of Washington's David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, vigorously dismissed the idea that Roosevelt was committed to saving Jews. "Roosevelt may have talked about mass resettlement of Jewish refugees but actions speak louder than words," he said.