In April 2001, I visited my daughter Ali, then a fifteen-year-old student at Phillips Academy in Andover, near Boston. We went to the Holocaust Memorial near Quincy Market in downtown Boston, and I was taken aback by a seemingly innocuous but in fact outrageous statement engraved in stone: “By late 1942, the United States and its Allies were aware of the death camps but did nothing to destroy them.”
I knew that, in 1942, the Allies lacked the ability to destroy the Nazi death camps. Over lunch, this Jewish American father explained to his Jewish American daughter that the United States was not even a belligerent in World War II until the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and that our armed forces and citizens, I believed, were woefully unprepared for war at that moment.
I told Ali that in 1942, President Roosevelt began fighting what, for Americans, appeared to be a desperate multifront war against brutal Japanese militarists in the Pacific and a triumphant Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in Europe and North Africa. We strove mightily, I explained, to save Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and all of Europe from the German juggernaut.
“But why didn’t we try to save the Jews?” Ali asked.
“FDR did the best he could,” I told her.
But was I right?
After five years of research, I found the main charges against the Roosevelt Administration – FDR’s alleged “abandonment of the Jews” and “complicity in the Holocaust” – were not true. On close examination, the charges of the Roosevelt decriers fall apart.
For example, take the charge that Jewish refugees onboard the S.S. St. Louis, which sailed from Hamburg to Cuba in May 1939, were returned to Europe to die in the Final Solution. I examined the records of the State Department. Our diplomats tried to convince the Cuban government to allow the passengers to disembark in Havana. When that failed, the Roosevelt administration cooperated with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (“The Joint”) to save the passengers from returning to Germany. One-third of them disembarked in Great Britain, the remainder disembarked in Antwerp. None were returned to Germany.
Yet most American Jews today believe a fairy tale: that the S.S. St. Louis left the shores of Miami and sailed to Hamburg where the passengers were taken off to extermination camps. It was June of 1939. World War II had not begun. The Final Solution had not begun. Auschwitz had not been built. Two-thirds of the S.S. St. Louis passengers survived the Holocaust. No one knew in June 1939 that Hitler would reach into France, Belgium, and the Netherlands three years later in 1942 and deport Jews.
I also examined fairy tale number two: Roosevelt and American Jews were silent about the Holocaust. When the Final Solution began in the Soviet Union in June of 1941, it was not clear at first that the Nazis were bent on the extermination of the Jews. It did become clear by the fall of 1942. Roosevelt publicly denounced these atrocities on numerous occasions. He warned the Germans of “fearful retribution” in August 1942. He warned of war crime trials in October.
On December 17, 1942, in a declaration downplayed by FDR’s critics, the Allies condemned “in the strongest possible terms this bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination” of “the Jewish people in Europe.” This United Nations Declaration on Jewish Massacres was published on the front page of the New York Times.
Those who claimed there was “a conspiracy of silence” were wrong on both counts. There was no conspiracy, and Roosevelt certainly was not silent. Neither were American Jews who protested, held memorial services, and demanded action.
The bombing of Auschwitz turned out to be another red herring. Very few Jewish leaders asked the British and American governments to bomb the camps. Most Jewish groups and leaders opposed the bombing of Auschwitz for the obvious reason that if the camps were bombed, the Jews in the camps would die. On June 1, 1944, the Jewish Agency Executive in Palestine voted 11-1 against asking the Allies to bomb Auschwitz.
“It is forbidden for us to take responsibility for a bombing that could very well cause the death of even one Jew,” one member said. The World Jewish Congress consistently told the Department of War and the War Refugee Board that it was opposed to bombing “as the first victims would be the Jews who are gathered in these camps.”