Did the Allies Abandon Europe’s Jews?
An article of faith among many US and Israeli Jews is based on tendentious historical revisionism
“FDR, ymakih shemo!” wrote Harry in response to some issue in recent US history.
I was shocked.
Ymakih shemo … ?
May his name be erased….
It is a curse applied originally to Haman from the Book of Esther. Observant Jews get drunk during Purim while children use noisemakers to blot out the original anti-Semite’s name. Later examples of Y”S (opposed to Z”L, of blessed memory) might include Hitler, Stalin, Martin Luther, etc.
But Franklin Roosevelt? How was Harry equating our nation’s 32nd president with Hitler?
Harry’s response: Roosevelt, Y”S sent the people on the St. Louis to Auschwitz!
So, not only was FDR prescient enough to foresee Japan’s raid on Pearl Harbor—also knowing that battleships were no longer the key players in the vast regions of the Pacific—he predicted the Nazi takeover of a sleepy Polish rail town, Oswiecim, and its transformation into a factory of death such as the world had never seen.
Six months before the Germans had even invaded Poland, a year before Henrich Himmler would select the site as a nexus for systematic slaughter.
Okay. I knew what he meant. The story of the St. Louis is tragic. After being denied entry to Havana, the ship’s captain, Gustav Schroder, attempted to dock in Florida. In light of strict immigration quotas, the US was reluctant to accept refugees. Cordel Hull advised the president not to allow the passengers to land in the US.
Canadian Prime Minister MacKenzie King similarly declined to take them. Unwilling to give up easily, Captain Schroder found refuge in Great Britain for some, and Antwerp for rest.
In the circumstances prevailing in the spring of 1939, all of the St. Louis passengers were safely disembarked. Unfortunately, circumstances changed quickly. Germany conquered Belgium. Ultimately 254 out of the ship’s 900 passengers were murdered by the Nazi regime.
Harry’s conservative. He would not have voted for FDR, the father of American socialism. I got that. But blaming FDR rather than Hitler—and let’s be honest here, we’re not just talking about one refugee ship, but the entire Holocaust—is a bit extreme?
A little background….
Harry’s by no means the first.
When I was younger, Allied and even the entire world’s indifference to the Holocaust had become an article of faith for many American Jews, even some who had fought in the Second World War.
Was it that German shoulders were too narrow to support the enormity of humanity’s greatest crime against itself?
The historiography of Allied culpability follows a specific trajectory. Articles recounting calls to Allied military and political leaders to bomb Auschwitz-Birkenau, the rail tracks leading into the camp, and the gas chambers-crematoria appeared in the late 70s. David Wyman’s “Why Auschwitz Was Never Bombed” in the May ’78 edition of Commentary delves into the complexity of wartime information flow and decision making before concluding: “…the terrible plight of the Jews did not merit any active response remains a source of wonder, and a lesson, even today (emphasis added).”
Wyman followed up with a book, The Abandonment Of The Jews. Published in 1984, it has become the bible of the Allies-to-blame school, and David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies the go-to source for material indicting FDR, and, to a lesser extent, Churchill, for their alleged inaction. In spite of the organization’s title, “Holocaust Studies”, the material it presents exclusively follows Wyman’s thesis, leaving the impression that no other view of the Second World War is possible.
Rolling off the presses just before Reagan trounced Mondale, Abandonment coincided with the rise of aggressive Christian Zionism that held the return of the Jewish people to Israel as a vital precursor to the End Times prophecized in the New Testament. It also provided an answer to growing international criticism of Israel’s de facto occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, as well as its willingness to suffer international isolation by continuing to trade with apartheid South Africa when other nations were divesting.
And a lesson even today… namely, the same world that stood by and did nothing while the Jewish people were herded into gas chambers had no business tut-tutting Israeli policies aimed at protecting her citizens today.
Were Europe’s Jews really abandoned by the Allies?
It’s complicated, and multi-layered.
To start with, if the Jews were abandoned, was it really FDR’s fault? Unlike most other wartime leaders, Roosevelt, with the exception of demanding what became Doolittle’s Tokyo Raid, famously avoided interfering in military decisions. If his Army Air Corp generals decided not to bomb Auschwitz why is he to blame?
Furthermore, even if President Roosevelt were more hands-on militarily, just what precise obligations does the President of the US have towards the Jews of Europe?
In his Commentary article, Wyman describes what he believes is US hypocrisy when, after refusing calls to divert air resources to bomb Auschwitz, US and British bombers were sent on supply missions in support of gentile Poles engaged in the Warsaw uprising, which the Red Army had infamously provoked, then stood on the far bank of the Vistula and watched as the Germans ruthlessly wiped out Polish resistors.
Although the Anglo-US missions were of limited success, Wyman writes, the after-reports cite “keeping faith with an ally” as justification. By implication, if the US and or Great Britain could divert to aid Polish forces, why not the Jews?
Perhaps this sounds harsh, but the Jews were not an ally, not a political entity, or even the ostensible cause of the war, as Poland had been. Wyman compares apples and oranges here. Free Polish forces had fought and acquitted themselves well in the air and on ground forces. Supporting their brethren’s uprising was only fair.
Bombing the railroad tracks to Auschwitz, every source agrees, was not a one-off. Tracks are easy to repair. Such bombing would have to be done weekly at least to have any effect. Bombing the camp itself would only kill more Jews more quickly, and bombing the crematoria, probably impossible because that degree of precision bombing, while attempted, never was achieved during the war.
It’s possible some of the bombing plans might have slowed the apparatus of murder a bit. But by no means was it a sure thing. Ending the war, on the other hand, was a sure way to save lives.
What about refugees?
There are many paradoxes at play in this issue. The principal ones were economic. A vast depression that destroyed economies and left millions jobless still engulfed most of the world. Before war was declared Allied nations saw little reason to take in refugees likely to become public charges; after the war began, they were enemy aliens. Complicating things even more, Germany had one of the world’s best pre-war economies.
Growing anti-Semitism, the Nuremberg Laws, and Krystallnacht frightened many Jews into leaving, or attempting to, but the Nazi government essentially demanded German Jews, among the most affluent of any Jewish community worldwide, leave behind nearly all of their acquired wealth and possessions before being allowed to emigrate. Leaving Germany for the relative safety of the US or Great Britain or even Palestine meant arriving as paupers.
Since the Rhineland Pogroms that preceded the First Crusade, 800 years prior, German Jews had experienced anti-Semitism rise and fall. When the Nazis toned down Rassenhass—sanctioned race hatred—for the 1936 Berlin Olympics many Jews took it as a sign that the worst of Hitlerism was behind them.
Great Britain’s notorious White Paper of 1939 limited Jewish immigration to Palestine to no more than 75,000 over the five-year period from 1939 to 1944. Issued in response to the London Zionist-Arab conference, the paper attempted to placate the majority Arabs in Palestine and obviate the need to maintain British forces there.
Damned as only slightly less anti-Jewish than the Wansee Protocol, the White Paper was, in reality, more a reflection of Britain’s inability to maintain ground forces in Palestine to quell the Arab riots of 1936–39 while the clouds of war formed over Western Europe. By 1944 only about 51,000 Jews managed to enter Palestine, 24,000 less than the paper allowed. By then, as William Rubinstein points out in his The Myth of Rescue, Jews weren’t refugees; they were prisoners.
And the US?
Immigration to the US, of course, had been limited to strict quotas imposed in the 1920s. As late as 1939, with Krystallnacht fresh in their minds, 83% of the US public opposed allowing passengers from the St. Louis to disembark in the US. A bi-partisan proposal, the Wagner-Rogers Bill, would have allowed 20,000 German Jewish children to enter the US. It became the first piece of legislation publicly supported by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Jewish Virtual Library, citing the Wyman Institute, claims FDR helped kill the bill, returning a Congressional inquiry into it with “no action, FDR” scrawled on an attached note.
The bill died in committee.
Presidential historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. disagrees, arguing FDR supported the bill, and offered advice on Congressional strategy to further it. According to biographer Joseph Lash, the infamous “no action” note was not written by the president himself.
The American people had spent much of the past two decades believing they had been tricked into entering the World War by profiteers and financiers who relied on specious anti-German propaganda to whip up martial fever. Nativist and anti-Semitic voices such as Father Coughlin, the KKK, Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, even the Lone Eagle, Charles Lindberg all spoke out against Jews, and especially the Jewish influence allegedly dragging the US into another overseas war.
Hitler took full advantage of this, declaring that “international Jewry” was dragging Europe closer to another war and would be made to suffer dire consequences in return.
Interwar anti-Semitism was a cataclysmic force, as ubiquitous as it was powerful. Even after the war and the revelation of death camps, change came slowly. E.g., George S. Patton, lauded in his day and after, regarded Jewish Holocaust survivors as “lower than animals” and put former SS men in charge of the displaced persons camps he operated while military governor of Bavaria.
Roosevelt pushed back by appointing more Jews to significant government positions and his administration than any previous POTUS. His closest advisors—aside from Commerce Secretary Harry Hopkins—were Felix Frankfurter, Henry Morganthau, Ben Cohen, and Sam Rosenman, all Jewish. Nevertheless, he had to move with care. Support for Great Britain was popular; entering another European war, especially if seen as part of a crusade to rescue European Jews, was not.
Despite much criticism for downplaying accounts of atrocities, in October of 1942 Roosevelt singly, then in December jointly with Churchill, issued an unequivocal warning that German leaders would be held accountable for war crimes.
Ultimately, the US would take in about one quarter of all German Jewish refugees, some 132,000. More than any other nation.
Why doesn’t the war itself count?
Implicit in early criticism of Allied response is the acknowledgment that rescue was a sideshow. Some could have been saved. The numbers vary and remain speculative. But the overwhelming majority of Europe’s Jews could only be saved by the military defeat of Nazi Germany.
In this respect the Allied leaders shine. Churchill could have stood down after the fall of France, either accepting a shameful peace or not actively pursuing the war, opting for another Sitzkrieg. Hitler certainly expected that.
FDR could have proceeded with greater neutrality towards Japan and Germany. Once 50 destroyers were transferred to the Royal Navy and oil embargoed to Japan, America’s entry into the war was inevitable.
The Talmud reminds us that saving a single life saves the entire world. Of course, lives that could have been saved with more aggressive rescue efforts matter deeply. But military leaders had to balance rescue efforts against the overall crusade to defeat the Axis. Before faulting them for not engaging in this or that effort, which would have required the allocation of scarce resources, we should examine the overall situation—was a focus on ending the war asap more likely to save lives than engaging in sideshows that might have prolonged the war?
Some proposals, such as threatening reprisals against Axis POWs, it was feared, would have led to the mistreatment of Allied prisoners; others, such as Himmler’s offer to trade Jewish prisoners for 40,000 Allied trucks, are too ridiculous to warrant comment.
What did they know, and when did they know it?
Critics of Allied leadership fail to account for Great War Anglo-French atrocity propaganda, which reached its apotheosis as German forces were accused of monstrous deeds during what became widely known as “the Rape of Belgium” in 1914.
German troops and medical personnel were accused of:
- Denying medical care to wounded Allied POWs.
- Intentionally destroying classic buildings such as Ypres’s Gothic Cloth Hall
- Using the corpses of their own troops to manufacture munitions
- Bayonetting or otherwise mutilating Belgian infants
- Raping Belgian women
- Crucifying Canadian and British PoWs
The artwork of that time contains a psycho-sexual overlay and barely-contained hysteria not seen in subsequent wartime propaganda.
Hitler and the Nazi Party left no doubt that anti-Semitism had risen to new, unprecedented heights. But so many accounts of atrocities in the east, from forest massacres to organized death camp mass murder, still smacked of Great War propaganda.
Even when confirmed, such accounts failed to move the US State Department, which, under Assistant Secretary of State, Breckinridge Long, erected barriers in the name of national security that ensured even the tiny annual quotas set by Congress decades before weren’t met. In early 1944 Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board after being warned by Henry Morganthau that the State Department not only blocked immigrants seeking safety, but also prevented information about their plight from being disseminated.
Some criticism of FDR personally relies on interpretation. E.g., in Claude Lantzmann’s film Shoah, Polish Army officer Jan Karski, who brought some of the first eye-witness accounts of mass murder to Allied leaders, describes an 80 meeting with Roosevelt, during which, Karski states, FDR didn’t ask a single question about the Jews.
Yet, if FDR was so blase, why did he give Karski nearly an hour-and-a-half of his time while in the midst of managing a global war?
Karski also met with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.
“I don’t believe you,” Frankfurter concluded after hearing Karski’s account of the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto.
“He’s not lying!” protested the Polish ambassador who sat in during the interview.
“I don’t say he’s lying,” Frankfurter answered. “I just don’t believe him.”
Early in 1944, Oskar Schindler brought funds to the Jewish Agency in Budapest, which up to that point had been a reasonably safe area for Hungarian Jews. Schindler also brought a warning that dire happenings in the east put them all at risk. Jewish leaders, just a few months from deportation to Auschwitz themselves, replied that his warning was an insult to German character and honor.
People risked their lives to bring eyewitness accounts of monstrous behavior by a modern European state that had been falsely accused of such behavior in the recent past. Is it shocking they were met with skepticism?
Supreme Commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces (SCAEF) Dwight Eisenhower concluded his memoir, Crusade in Europe by recounting a visit to concentration camps in the US zone shortly after Germany’s surrender because he and others of his generation remembered anti-German propaganda from the past war. They needed to see for themselves.
Eisenhower had won the European War. His entry into politics was nearly a decade away. He had no reason to downplay knowledge of Germany’s Final Solution. If the Allied Supreme Commander, on the scene with access to intelligence on every level, still harbored doubts is it reasonable to condemn Roosevelt or Churchill for not demanding their military leadership alter its strategy to make rescue efforts that would have been more symbolic than effective?
Germany’s maniacal focus on completing the Fuhrer’s vision of a Judenrein Europe while massive armies drove deeper into the Fatherland’s vitals must have beggared the imagination of any halfway sane military leader. How could German High Command stand by while precious rolling stock and several divisions’ worth of fit front-line troops continued killing Jews when these resources, applied with skill, might have forced the Western Allies and Soviets into an armistice that might would have prevented Germany’s total destruction?
We know now that they didn’t. Himmler’s SS operated with complete lack of accountability to the General Staff. It was free to commit as much manpower and material as deemed necessary to complete the Final Solution. .
The answer, as in most historical conundrums, is yes … and no.
Lives could have been saved, many perhaps. We will never know for sure. The most effective action not undertaken by the Allies would have been to oppose Hitler’s refortification of the Rhineland, which per the Treaty of Versailles, he had no right to do. Hitler admitted that even a tepid French response would have forced the Wehrmacht to retreat and produced a catastrophic loss of credibility in his leadership and the collapse of National Socialism.
It goes on from there.
One recent entry in the abandonment thesis is Roosevelt And The Holocaust: A Breach of Faith, by Rafael Medoff, current director of the David S. Wyman Institute of Holocaust Studies. Medoff takes Wyman’s thesis a step further by depicting FDR as an avowed anti-Semite who intentionally left Europe’s Jews to their fate.
Warsaw Ghetto survivor Alex Groth of UC Davis contends that both FDR and Churchill hoped the Nazis would murder as many Jews as possible, “thinning out the herd” of “international Jewry”.
Contemporary writers now shamelessly refer to the “millions” that could have been saved by Allied action.
“In recent years, the distorted view of FDR has been promoted by a small group of Israel supporters who cherry-pick the historical record to portray his handling of the Holocaust in the most negative light possible,” wrote Lawerence Zuckerman in a 2013 article in The Nation.
I’m reminded of those Neo-Confederate apologists whose crusade to divest slavery from secession includes portraying Lincoln as a racist who cared nothing for enslaved black people.
Did you know, Lincoln loved minstrel shows! they assert.
Well, there you go.
How many historical leaders of note and accomplishment could pass the diversity muster today?
Damning the Allies for inaction fails to take into account several key points:
- The impact of Great War propaganda on evaluating accounts of contemporary mass murder—we know what FDR and Churchill were told, but that’s not the same as knowing what they knew.
- German mania for keeping details of the Final Solution secret, e.g. transport victims were forced to write letters upon arrival at the death camps attesting to their good treatment; letters that would arrive after their authors were dead.
- The ubiquity and vituperation of anti-Semitism among the US and British public that identified the coming world war as a machination of “international Jewry” preventing leaders from acting more decisively on behalf of refugees.
- The autonomy with which Himmler’s SS pursued the Fuhrer’s Final Solution even while German armies fought desperately on multiple fronts to keep Allied and Soviet forces from breaching the Reich’s borders.
- The continued and unwavering support FDR and Churchill received from their Jewish constituents throughout the war.
If hindsight were truly 20/20 there would never be any historical controversies.
Still, Winston Churchill declined several offers of peace made by Hitler that would have given Germany the chance to conquer the USSR without facing the General Staff’s worst nightmare, a two-front war. How Jews in both the Reich and Eastern Europe would have fared under uncontested Nazi domination takes very little imagination.
Meanwhile facing a public united in their desire to sit this one out, Roosevelt provoked Japan with an oil embargo and Germany with an undeclared naval war in the North Atlantic, bringing unprecedented industrial might and manpower to the conflict.
History, like any kind of information, is a consumer item. The belief that Jews were abandoned by the western powers (while Stalin and the USSR are almost never part of the indictment) is a useful rebuttal for those who support Israeli policies regarding Palestinian Arabs in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, policies which include possible annexation of the West Bank entirely.
Jews must act on their own behalf, they conclude, without regard to international reaction, because where were these countries when Jews were being gassed? Speaking before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamen Netanyahu used the example of the Allied failure to bomb Auschwitz as a justification to attack Iranian nuclear development sites.
In his follow-up to Maus, the graphic novel that tells his father, Vladek’s, story of survival during the Holcaust, Art Spiegelman portrays himself, a man wearing the mask of a mouse, confronted by cat-faced German journalists demanding to know why contemporary Germans, who have no experience of the war, should feel guilty about Nazi crimes. “Maybe everyone has to feel guilty,” Spiegelman replies, “everyone forever!”
Wyman, David A. The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941–1945. New York: Random House, 1984
Rubinstein, William D. The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Save More Jews from the Nazis. New York: Rutledge, 1997
Medoff, Rafael. FDR and the Jews: A Breach of Faith. Washington DC: The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, 2013
Medoff, Rafael. The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust. University of Nebraska Press, 2019
Dawidowicz, Lucy. The War Against the Jews: 1933–1945. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1975
Spiegelman, Art. The Complet Maus. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986
Bauer, Yehuda. A History of the Holocaust. Danbury, CT: Franklin Watts, 1982
Shirer, William L. The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon & Shuster, 1959
Friedlander, Saul. Nazi Germany & the Jews: The Years of Persecution—1933–1939. London: Wiedenfield & Nicholson, 1997
Zuckerman, Lawrence. “FDR’s Jewish Problem”. The Nation, July 17, 2013
Wyman, David. “Why Auschwitz Was Never Bombed. Commentary, May 1978
Lash, Joseph. Eleanor and Franklin. New York: WW Norton, 1971
Eisenhower, Dwight D. Crusade In Europe. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1948