Book review: America’s abandonment of Jews during the Holocaust

When America entered the war in 1941, ships that took soldiers to Europe returned empty after FDR rejected using them to rescue Jews.

MEDOFF WRITES that FDR refused to bomb railways leading to Auschwitz (Pictured: Railways to Auschwitz, Illustrative) (Arnd Wiegman (photo credit: REUTERS)
MEDOFF WRITES that FDR refused to bomb railways leading to Auschwitz (Pictured: Railways to Auschwitz, Illustrative) (Arnd Wiegman
(photo credit: REUTERS)
America abandoned European Jews during the Holocaust mainly because of two men: Franklin D. Roosevelt, US president during the Great Depression and World War II, and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, then America’s foremost Jewish leader. In The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust (University of Nebraska Press, 2019), Dr. Rafael Medoff explores the influential actions of these two using new archival materials and interviews.
Medoff, founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, examines FDR’s ingrained and long-standing antipathy toward Jews that led to indifference to the fate of Europe’s Jews. The author illustrates how the president manipulated an esteemed rabbinical leader to keep Jewish protests in check and retain Jewish political support. Meanwhile, Rabbi Wise’s high-level political access engendered in him a sense of self-importance and a fear of fomenting antisemitism that led to his willingness to whitewash the president’s true sentiments and policies.
Medoff begins in 1933 when FDR opposed the American Jewish Congress’ boycott of Nazi Germany asserting harm to America’s economy. FDR refused to criticize the Nazis and undermined the boycott, replacing “Made in Germany” with German city names unrecognizable to most Americans. He kept silent even though he knew that books by Jewish writers were burned, Jews were banned from civil service and certain professions and their numbers limited in universities. He rejected the proposed boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympics as “undue interference in American-German relations.”
Following the devastating 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, Roosevelt, prepared for a broadcast response insisting all references to Hitler and Nazis be removed. Throughout the 1930s, FDR maintained diplomatic and trade relations with the Third Reich with Nazi warships in American ports receiving formal diplomatic greetings. Persecution of German Jewry was “not a US. governmental affair,” Roosevelt stated. His State Department opposed the 1938 Virgin Islands resolution to accept Jewish refugees, claiming Jews would sneak onto the mainland. The following year, FDR forced 900 Jews fleeing Germany on the S.S. St. Louis back to Europe, claiming refugee groups might include Nazi spies.
For his part, Rabbi Wise, a Roosevelt and New Deal supporter, was reluctant to pressure the president on behalf of the Jewish community, Medoff notes. Wise’s hesitancy arose from the antisemitic atmosphere of the late 1930s and early 1940s when more than half of the US. population viewed Jews as greedy and dishonest and up to 50% believed Jews had too much power. A congressman accused Jews of trying to drag America into war, Catholic priest Father Coughlin’s antisemitic radio broadcasts reached 30 million listeners, and over 100 antisemitic organizations existed.
Wise parroted the rationale that Jews would be best served by using US resources to win the war rather than undertaking rescues. His eminence in the American Jewish community silenced other Jewish leaders, even though some believed the deferential Wise was being used to block rescues and suppress information, Medoff reports. Indeed, the State Department did withhold information from Jewish leaders and discredited atrocities as political “exaggerations” by Jewish organizations.
When America entered the war in 1941, ships that took soldiers to Europe returned empty after FDR rejected using them to rescue Jews. By December 1942, the Allies confirmed the existence of the Holocaust, but the administration remained unmoved, with Roosevelt insisting resources existed only for the war effort. He rejected US humanitarian responsibility to resolve the crisis and closed America’s doors to Jewish refugees, at a time, late 1941 to early 1945, when only 10% of immigration quotas from Axis-controlled European countries were used. Although 190,000 places remained vacant, FDR’s State Department, refused to change immigration policy, maintaining that Jewish refugees would take jobs away from Americans.
Despite having seen the Auschwitz Protocols, a first-hand account of Nazi mass murders that pinpointed gas chamber and crematoria locations, FDR refused to bomb railways leading to Auschwitz. He claimed it would divert war resources, even though Allies bombed less than five miles away. By 1944, when the plight of 1 million Hungarian Jews prompted calls to bomb death camps, the administration insisted that bombs were needed for military targets. Yet, FDR willingly sent planes to aid the Polish underground, a clear “diversion” of the war effort but one that helped him retain Polish-American political support. To deflect criticism and ensure continued Jewish-American support, Roosevelt initiated two, window-dressing conferences from which nothing resulted.
Faced with a GOP platform for “the reconstitution of Palestine as a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth,” FDR promised Jewish leaders support for a Jewish homeland. Yet, on his return trip from the Yalta Conference at war-end, he met with Saudi King Ibn Saud and promised the US would not assist the Jews against the Arabs. He backed the British closure of Palestine to mass Jewish relocation, supporting false statements that insufficient land existed.
Medoff opines that American Jewish community leaders could have criticized FDR and pressured him with loss of Jewish political support to demand that the president urge the UK to accept Jews in Palestine. However, because Wise’s loyalties lay with FDR and not his fellow Jews, the rabbi did not create a strong united front with Jewish allies, such as sympathetic Republicans, conservative Christians and pro-Jewish-rescue members of Congress. Instead, Wise endorsed FDR’s message that Jews keep quiet and subverted the efforts of more aggressive Jewish organizations.
In the end, an antisemitic president, with no desire or intention to save Jews despite full knowledge of the Holocaust, and an ineffectual, egotistical Jewish leader who misinterpreted political manipulation as a “close” relationship with a US president, determined the grievous fate of Jewish victims. Together, they constituted a moral failure that led to the deaths of millions and long-lasting tragic consequences for world Jewry.