When Secretary of State John Kerry appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September to make the case for U.S. intervention in Syria, he offered a historical analogy.
“History is full of…moments where someone didn’t stand up and act when it made a difference,” Kerry said. “And whether you go back to World War II or you look at a ship that was turned away from the coast of Florida and everybody on it lost their lives subsequently to German gas, those are the things that make a difference. And that’s what’s at stake here.”
It was a moment of vindication for the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which in its ten years of existence has labored to persuade government officials, the news media, and the general public that the lessons of America’s response to the Holocaust are relevant in today’s world. Now the secretary of state himself was arguing, before the Senate and the world, that the fate of the infamous refugee ship St. Louis in 1939 was a reason for the United States government to undertake military action in the Middle East to save innocent civilians. America’s record during the Holocaust is relevant, after all.
When Professor David S. Wyman was working on his magnum opus, The Abandonment of the Jews, in the late 1970s, most Americans still idolized President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was revered as the president who had led America out of the Depression and to the threshold of victory in World War II, before tragically dying in office. Revelations about the personal lives or private conversations of several other presidents had brought them down a notch or two in the public’s eye, but the image of FDR had remained largely unscathed.
Abandonment changed all that. For the first time, large numbers of Americans were faced with indisputable historical research laying bare the extent to which Roosevelt knowingly turned away from the Nazi genocide. The immigration quotas that were almost never filled…The troop supply ships that returned to America empty, instead of carrying refugees…The administration’s suppression of news about the massacres…And most of all, the refusal to undertake militarily feasible bombing raids on Auschwitz and the railway lines leading to it.
The painful facts had been uncovered by a Harvard-trained historian, a Christian who himself had been an unstinting admirer of FDR – until he discovered the truth. The Abandonment of the Jews transformed the way Americans perceive Franklin D. Roosevelt and the U.S. response to the Shoah.
But no book can hold the public’s attention indefinitely. By the late 1990s, Prof. Wyman had retired from the public arena. Numerous Holocaust museums had been established, but their exhibits had not always kept pace with the latest research – for example, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which opened in 1993, did not mention the Bergson Group, the Jewish activists whose protests had forced the Roosevelt administration to belatedly take some steps to rescue Jewish refugees.
Even worse, professional partisans were entering the fray – officials of the Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, in Hyde Park, NY, launched a vitriolic public campaign against critics of FDR’s response to the Holocaust. (At one point, its president actually sent Prof. Wyman and this author a note accusing us of “peddling hate as though it were history.”)
By 1996, FDR’s cheerleaders had succeeded in pressuring the U.S. Holocaust Museum to alter a text in its permanent exhibit that had criticized the Roosevelt administration’s refusal to bomb Auschwitz.
They Spoke Out
It was clear there was a need for a new institution, one that would carry on Prof. Wyman’s work, by encouraging new research on unexplored aspects of America’s response to the Holocaust; by helping museums correct inaccurate exhibits; and by finding innovative new ways to teach the lessons of the 1930s-1940s, especially to young people.
The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, established in 2003, was especially determined, from the outset, to shine a spotlight on those Americans who had not abandoned the Jews. “They Spoke Out” became an enduring theme of the Institute’s work precisely because the activists of the 1940s had been so neglected.
Four hundred rabbis had marched to the White House in 1943, the only protest in Washington for rescue from the Holocaust – yet they were not mentioned in history books.
About the Author: Dr. Rafael Medoff is the founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and coeditor of the Online Encyclopedia of America's Response to the Holocaust.
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