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FDR And The Holocaust, On Stage

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The story of the Roosevelt administration’s response to the Holocaust has been chronicled in books and on film. Now, for the first time, it is coming to the stage.

“The Accomplices,” an off-Broadway play written by former New York Times correspondent Bernard Weinraub and directed by Ian Morgan, will be performed by The New Group with preview performances starting March 20. After meeting earlier this month with the author and cast for more than two hours, I have no doubt this is one play that will not be soon forgotten.

Weinraub recently retired from the Times after a long and distinguished career as a staff correspondent. He is best remembered in the Jewish community for his explosive front-page exposes in 1983 about the ill-fated American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust.

Chaired by former associate justice of the Supreme Court Arthur Goldberg, the commission brought together scholars and representatives of Jewish organizations, ostensibly to prepare an impartial review the American Jewish community’s response to news of the Holocaust. Instead, as Weinraub revealed, it fell apart, largely because some Jewish groups were not ready to acknowledge their predecessors’ failings.

Weinraub’s articles in 1983 stimulated some much-needed introspection among American Jews, and “The Accomplices” will help complete the process. There is no doubt that the American Jewish community’s view of its past has matured a great deal in recent decades. Most Jewish leaders today recognize the need to learn from, rather than attempt to deny, the mistakes that were made in the 1940’s. Those mistakes are addressed frankly, but soberly, in “The Accomplices.”

On one side of this drama stand President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the anti-Semitic Breckinridge Long, whom FDR put in charge of immigration affairs. The play shows how, with FDR’s approval, Long did everything possible to obstruct opportunities for rescue, and to keep the number of Jewish immigrants way below even what the restrictive immigration quotas allowed.

On the other side stands the American Jewish community – anguished over the suffering of Europe’s Jews but deeply divided as to how to respond. These divisions are exemplified through Rabbi Stephen Wise, the most prominent Jewish leader of the time, and Hillel Kook – better known as Peter Bergson – a maverick activist who led controversial protests against Roosevelt’s refugee policies.

Wise favored a cautious, low-key response to the news from Europe; Bergson led marches in Washington and sponsored full-page newspaper advertisements that rocked the Jewish community, Capitol Hill, and beyond.

Infusing the characters’ dialogue with their actual language, taken directly from historical documents, Weinraub succeeds in bringing these painful events to life.

Precisely because Weinraub strives to maintain historical accuracy, the story does not reflect well on FDR. That’s obvious from the play’s title. But then, one sometimes forgets that even at the time, Roosevelt was strongly criticized – including by some of his most loyal supporters – for his refusal to rescue Jewish refugees.

For example, a March 1943 editorial in the liberal political magazine The Nation declared: “You and I and the President and the Congress and the State Department are accessories to the crime and share Hitler’s guilt. If we had behaved like humane and generous people instead of complacent cowardly ones, the two million lying today in the earth of Poland … would be alive and safe. We had it in our power to rescue this doomed people and yet we did not lift a hand to do it…”

In a similar spirit, the editors of The New Republic wrote in May 1943: “If the Anglo-Saxon nations continue on their present course, we shall have connived with Hitler in one of the most terrible episodes of history… if we do not do what we can, our children’s children will blush for us a hundred years hence.”

During the first week of rehearsals, I was invited to brief the cast of “The Accomplices” about the historical issues and personalities they are portraying. As it turned out, they needed much less briefing than I would have expected. They had been reading David Wyman’s 1984 best-seller The Abandonment of the Jews, Stephen Wise’s autobiography, transcripts of interviews with Peter Bergson, and the diaries of Breckinridge Long. They are likely one of the best-informed casts of any historical drama in recent memory.

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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