A New York Times feature story, “FDR and Jews: Book Tries for Balanced View on Roosevelt and Jews” March 9, 2013, took up a subject I addressed some seven years ago. As suggested by the Times headline, the new book attempts to revise the widely held understanding of FDR as unwilling to do much to help save Europe’s threatened Jews. According to the article, FDR and the Jews contends that while FDR might have done more, he saved, by means of “little known initiatives…several hundred thousand Jews” a total which “exceeds that of any subsequent president in responding to genocide in the midst of fierce political opposition.”
As it happens I had a slight personal connection with the subject in that as an infant I was one of about 1,000 (mostly Jewish) refugees that FDR managed to bring to the U.S., by ship from Italy, in the summer of 1944, on condition that we be repatriated to Europe at the end of hostilities. (In the aftermath, under the Truman administration, a law was passed that allowed us to remain in the U.S.)
Two books were written about our little group. One of those books, Haven, (and an undistinguished TV movie based on the book), was by noted journalist and author, Ruth Gruber, whom I and my family met around 1990.
My understanding (backed up in part by the March NYT article) is that the view of FDR as unwilling to help European Jews is still widely held. In a typical instance, I recall happening to catch Madeline Albright on CSPAN II Book TV last year discussing her memoir where the subject came up. As a young Czech girl, her family – one of the fortunate ones -- had to relocate more than once during the Hitler years. Although I don’t’ recall that she actually used the word reprehensible, she didn’t hide her indignation at what seemed to her to be FDR’s lack of compassion behalf of the wartime refugees.
Ruth Gruber’s book repeated the same theme of FDR’s indifference (at best) to the fate of the Jews with the added twist of her research findings in State Department files in preparation for her indispensable and much appreciated mission as liaison to our little group.
(Here I copy from my 2006 article on the subject,” FDR, Gruber and me: Zionists stymie WWII rescue plan.” (available on the internet)
According to Gruber (Haven, Ch.2),President Roosevelt was forced into making some kind of demonstration on behalf of European, especially Jewish, refugees because of the embarrassing publication of war time cables from the U.S. Embassy in Switzerland to Washington. In these documents, the State Department revealed its disinterest if not outright anti-Semitic hostility toward the mostly Jewish victims of Nazi persecution by ordering their colleagues in Switzerland to discontinue sending Washington such news.
In Gruber’s version, the shocking disclosure of these communications empowered members of the Jewish community to apply to a reluctant President Roosevelt, with a proposal to save hundreds of thousands of European Jews. In Gruber’s version, FDR finally agreed that the U.S. provide temporary haven for 1,000 refugees.
I believed Gruber’s story and repeated it often to friends. Only later did I learn that the very opposite was the truth. The real FDR was very much aware of and troubled by the plight of the wartime refugees and he proposed a plan to save half a million or more. He envisioned an agreement with such countries as the UK, Canada, Australia, and others, with the U.S. and the U.K. leading the way. Both countries would shelter some 150,000 “displaced persons” as they were then called. FDR’s emissary for this plan managed to get agreement in principle from the British but in the end the plan was vetoed by the Zionists. The Jewish leadership were afraid that providing haven for European Jewish refugees anywhere but Palestine would be at cross purposes with their plan for a Jewish state.
Lilienthal rebuts popular view of FDR –- Points to Zionists
Noted anti-Zionist author Alfred Lilienthal tells this story in his important and effectively buried book What Price Israel. www.alfredlilienthal.com/what_price_israel_2.htm
President Roosevelt was deeply concerned with the plight of the European refugees and thought that all the free nations of the world ought to accept a certain number of immigrants, irrespective of race, creed, color or political belief. The President hoped that the rescue of 500,000 Displaced Persons could be achieved by such a generous grant of a worldwide political asylum. In line with this humanitarian idea, Morris Ernst, New York attorney and close friend of the President went to London in the middle of the war to see if the British would take in 100,000 or 200,000 uprooted people. The President had reasons to assume that Canada, Australia and the South American countries would gladly open their doors. And if such good examples were set by other nations, Mr. Roosevelt felt that the American Congress could be "educated to go back to our traditional position of asylum." The key was in London. Would Morris Ernst succeed there? Mr. Ernst came home to report, and this is what took place in the White House (as related by Mr. Ernst to a Cincinnati audience in 1950):
Ernst: "We are at home plate. That little island [and it was during the second Blitz that he visited England] on a properly representative program of a World Immigration Budget, will match the United States up to 150,000.
Roosevelt: "150,000 to England—150,000 to match that in the United States—pick up 200,000 or 300,000 elsewhere, and we can start with half a million of these oppressed people."
A week later, or so, Mr. Ernst and his wife again visited the President.
Roosevelt (turning to Mrs. Ernst): "Margaret, can't you get me a Jewish Pope? I cannot stand it any more. I have got to be careful that when Stevie Wise leaves the White House he doesn't see Joe Proskauer on the way in." Then, to Mr. Ernst: "Nothing doing on the program. We can't put it over because the dominant vocal Jewish leadership of America won't stand for it."
"It's impossible! Why?" asked Ernst.
Roosevelt: "They are right from their point of view. The Zionist movement knows that Palestine is, and will be for some time, a remittance society. They know that they can raise vast sums for Palestine by saying to donors, 'There is no other place this poor Jew can go.' But if there is a world political asylum for all people irrespective of race, creed or color, they cannot raise their money. Then the people who do not want to give the money will have an excuse to say 'What do you mean, there is no place they can go but Palestine? They are the preferred wards of the world."
Morris Ernst, shocked, first refused to believe his leader and friend. He began to lobby among his influential Jewish friends for this world program of rescue, without mentioning the President's or the British reaction. As he himself has put it: "I was thrown out of the parlors of friends of mine who very frankly said 'Morris, this is treason. You are undermining the Zionist movement.' " He ran into the same reaction amongst all Jewish groups and their leaders. Everywhere he found "a deep, genuine, often fanatically emotional vested interest in putting over the Palestinian movement" in men "who are little concerned about human blood if it is not their own."
This response of Zionism ended the remarkable Roosevelt effort to rescue Europe's Displaced Persons.