Monday, October 04, 2010

FDR and the Jews

Up until the early 70s I was blissfully ignorant about the FDR’s attitude toward the Jewish people and his approach to the Holocaust. It was about that time that I picked up a book entitled While Six Million Died by Robert Morse. For the first time in my relatively young life (I was in my early twenties) I was shocked by what I read. It was a documented account of American apathy towards Jewish suffering during the war. Jews were being systematically slaughtered on a mass scale and the government apparently knew it.

Based on that book alone, I might have thought that the author had some sort of agenda to discredit the Roosevelt administration and taken his claims with a grain of salt. But it wasn’t only him. The epic Holocaust documentary ‘Shoah’, a series of PBS documentaries, and the testimony of many people from that era – unconnected to each other- seemed to condemn the Roosevelt administration as unconcerned with the fate of Jews of Europe. He was concerned with only one thing: Winning the war!

It has - for example - been asserted by historians that FDR could have easily bombed the railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz on one of the many missions flown over that area by bomber pilots during the war. They instead were ordered to fly over the death camp and carry out their mission without any delay. Who knows how many Jewish lives could have been spared had they dropped a couple of bombs as they were flying over Auschwitz! As recently as a couple of years ago when former President George W. Bush toured one of the Holocaust museums he questioned why it wasn’t done?

There are other stories about Roosevelt’s apparent indifference. He seemed to be doing his level best to ignore the annihilation of the Jews of Europe.

There was a famous march on Washington in 1943 by a group of Orthodox rabbis (See photo above). They had petitioned to meet with the President and plead the case of European Jewry. After marching to the White House and waiting until the President was free to see them, they were eventually denied the meeting and had to settle for a meeting with the Vice-President.

One of the most important meetings of that era was famously recorded in a a story I once heard by Irving Bunim’s son, Amos Bunim. Irving Bunim was a close confidant of Rav Ahron Kotler. Rav Aharon Kotler became very active in Hatzala (saving Holocaust victims) upon his arrival in this country. He somehow managed to arrange a meeting with Henry Morgenthau – FDR’s Secretary of the Treasury. He was the only Jewish member of the Cabinet.

Morgenthau’s background was completely secular and he had little connection with Jewish causes. As R’ Bunim tells it, R’ Aharon Kotler - speaking through a translator - asked him to help his European brethren. Morgenthau replied to the translator saying something to the effect that his hands were tied; he had no power and the treasury department had little control of foreign policy matters.

R’ Kotler who was a recent immigrant nevertheless understood English well enough and started physically crying. He responded immediately – but in Yiddish. He said to the translator: Tell him that if he cannot help save his fellow Jews from being led to the slaughter then his position is completely worthless. When Morgenthau heard this. It apparently touched his heart and he changed his entire approach to the war. He then became very active in saving Jewish refugees.

All in all – a pretty negative and sad picture is painted about American attitudes towards the Jews of Europe – especially FDR’s attitude!

Are the above – rather famous incidents reflective of an anti Semitic FDR and an apathetic secular American Jewry?

Once one starts to sort through the facts one cannot really come to that conclusion. There is at least room to question conclusions about Roosevelt’s anti Semitism. FDR’s administration was in fact populated by closet anti Semites – some of them Jewish!

One needs to remember that FDR was once the icon of every Jew in America at that time – and one of the most popular Presidents in American history. The Jews in America loved Roosevelt. He opened doors fort them that had never been opened before. The friendship he expressed towards the Jewish people was well known in those days. He appointed a Jew -his close friend Henry Morgenthau - to a Cabinet post. It was the first appointment of its kind. Why would he so publicly embrace American Jewry if he was an anti Semite? It gained him nothing politically –the Jews of America were an infinitesimally small percentage of the electorate. There were some wealthy Jews who supported him, but he probably alienated a lot more wealthy non Jews by openly showing friendship to the Jewish people.

How does one reconcile the two faces of Roosevelt? By understanding the dynamics of the time.

There was an aura of prejudice in polite society against Jews at that time – a sort of quiet ‘gentleman’s’ agreement’ to subtly bar Jews into their world. There were still restrictive policies against Jewish membership in those areas of American life. Henry Ford reflected that attitude and took the trouble to ‘explain’ why Jews were to be ostracized.

There was no hard core persecution. But there was prejudice. And it reached into the highest echelons of the government. Immigration polices were put in place to limit Jewish immigration long before the Holocaust. And when the serious persecution began in Germany European Jews were denied entry even when they later were being systematically slaughtered.

Roosevelt needed to deal with that mentality.

The events above should be seen in that context. And they have been seen exactly that way by my own Rebbe Rav Ahron Soloveichik. He explained in Shiur one day what happened at that 100 rabbi march. Those rabbis were not turned down by the President. It was a Jewish advisor that convinced FDR that these rabbis were relics representing only a tiny remnant of extremely religious Jews. This is what Rav Ahron Soloveichik told his Shiur in defending Roosevelt one day. He believed that FDR got a bum rap from his Jewish critics and others who characterized that incident as anti-Semitic. If anyone was anti Semitic, it was the Jewish advisor.

That FDR thought that winning the war would be the best way to help the Jews of Europe should not really be held against him. Could he have bombed those railroad tracks at Auschwitz without adversely affecting the war effort? It is easy yes now - with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. But one must consider that fighting Hitler was not a popular option for the American people prior to Pearl Harbor. After Pearl Harbor Roosevelt concentrated – not so much on the Japanese, but on Germany.

What about bombing those railroad tracks at Auschwitz? It is very likely that bombing those railroad tracks would not have saved that many lives. How do I know? I don’t - but in an interview of Robert Morgenthau he makes that very claim. Robert Morgenthau is in a position to know. He is the former DA of New York County and the son of Henry Morgenthau. He saw the President from a very unique perspective. That of being a very close friend of the Roosevelt family.

According to him there is no anti-Semitism whatsoever and no controversy. Roosevelt did everything he could to save the Jews. And his father Henry did everything he could as well. In fact the way the R’ Ahron Kotler story was not what precipitated his father’s actions during the holocaust. That happened well before his father spoke to Rav Kotler.

None of this proves anything. But it should give us pause and possibly reconsider current attitudes about FDR’s supposed anti Semitism. It would serve us well to look at the facts of history before we condemn good people.

Roosevelt desperately wanted to fight Hitler. The sentiment in this country was to stay out of a foreign war. It took Pearl Harbor to get popular support for the war. But that support was directed against Japan, not Germany. Yet Roosevelt took that opportunity to concentrate on destroying Hitler – not Hirohito. Many more American soldiers were killed at Normandy in Europe than were ever killed in the south Pacific.

Could Roosevelt have diverted some of his war machine towards humanitarian endeavors and save Jewish lives without compromising the goal of winning the war? Probably. But he did not have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. And I think he really believed that ending the war was the best way to save European Jewry. I therefore choose to do what my Rebbe Rav Ahron did and give FDR the benefit of the doubt. He should not be recorded into the Jewish History books as one of the Jewish people’s worst enemies.