By Rafael Medoff
The most important person in the story of America’s response to the Holocaust, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was not mentioned even once in a recent article about the new “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. But perhaps that’s not surprising, since Roosevelt is reduced to such a minor figure in the exhibit itself.
The exhibit blames the Roosevelt administration’s failure to aid European Jewry on public opinion, former President Herbert Hoover and a few bad guys in the State Department — but never the president. Most Americans recall FDR as a strong, decisive leader, but in the Holocaust Museum’s new exhibit, he becomes the Incredible Disappearing President.
When the exhibit does mention Roosevelt, it is to excuse and minimize his responsibility for his own policies. For example, the exhibit defends FDR’s refusal, from 1933 to 1938, to publicly criticize Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. A text panel claims that “the accepted rules of international diplomacy obliged them to respect Germany’s right to govern its own citizens and not intervene on behalf of those being targeted.”
On the crucial issue of Roosevelt’s immigration policy, the exhibit omits important information. The exhibit does not mention that clergy (rabbis), professors and students could have been admitted — within the existing law — with no numerical limit. Nor is there any mention of FDR’s rejection of the proposals that were made to admit refugees temporarily to U.S. territories.
Of course, acknowledging those options would have conflicted with the exhibit’s theme of a weak, hapless Roosevelt who had no choice but to follow public opinion — an FDR who was a prisoner of the immigration policies initiated by the Hoover administration.
In a particularly egregious misstatement, the exhibit claims that “most [German Jews] did not have enough money to qualify for immigration” to the United States.
But in fact, nothing in U.S. law required a visa applicant to possess a specific sum of money. There was no monetary threshold for immigrants. Individual U.S. consuls in Germany decided whether they thought an applicant had sufficient means — or American relatives — to support them. And the consuls made those decisions in accordance with the president’s overall policy of suppressing refugee immigration below the limits allowed by law. As a result, the quota from Germany was filled in only one of FDR’s 12 years in office, and 190,000 quota places sat unused.
The exhibit claims that there was nothing Roosevelt could do to admit more refugees, because the public was against increasing immigration, even as Holocaust atrocities were becoming known.
But once again, the exhibit is distorting the historical record. The exhibit shows many polls from the 1930s and early 1940s demonstrating public opposition to immigration. But it fails to explain that after the tide of the war turned in 1943 and substantial information about the massacres reached America, public opinion did change. The exhibit omits the April 1944 Gallup poll which found 70 percent of the public in favor of granting temporary haven to Jewish refugees.
Daniel Greene, the exhibit’s lead curator, was quoted in Washington Jewish Week saying that the exhibit asks, “Why didn’t rescue ever become a priority?” But that’s the wrong question.
Rescue didn’t have to become a priority for Jews to be saved. There were numerous steps the Roosevelt administration could have taken that would have involved minimal effort and not interfered with the war effort.
For example, the president could have permitted the immigration quotas to be filled. That didn’t require an act of Congress or a public controversy. Or Roosevelt could have permitted empty troop transport ships returning from Europe to carry refugees. Those ships were too light to sail and had to be weighed down with ballast.
Perhaps the best-known example of what the United States could have done, without making rescue a priority, was to bomb Auschwitz, or the railways and bridges over which Jews were deported. U.S. planes repeatedly flew over Auschwitz in 1944 when they bombed oil factories that were adjacent to the death camp. For those planes to have dropped a few bombs on the gas chambers and crematoria, or on the transportation routes leading to the camp, would not have delayed victory over the Nazis.
Even if bombings only slowed the pace of the mass-murder process, that would have been significant. At its peak, 12,000 Jews were being gassed in Auschwitz every day.
Unfortunately, the exhibit gets too caught up in making excuses for Roosevelt to acknowledge these facts. But making excuses for FDR’s abandonment of the Jews should not be part of the museum’s mission.
Rafael Medoff is founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.