FDR, pictured with his treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau, inscribed this photo, “from one of two of a kind.” Courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum, Hyde Park, New York
A few years ago, I attended a discussion at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan about Franklin Roosevelt and the Holocaust. The featured speakers, historians Deborah Lipstadt and Richard Breitman, gave sensitive and nuanced accounts of the period that were steeped in their own research and a deep knowledge of a time that has become one of the most closely examined ever. They discussed Roosevelt’s strengths and weaknesses as he confronted demands that he rescue Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany while preparing America for war in the face of fierce isolationism, nativism and anti-Semitism at home.
After an hour, the session was opened to questions. An elderly woman stood up and identified herself as a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who had been a prisoner at Auschwitz. She recalled seeing Allied planes in the sky over the camp (“little silver birds, maybe thousands of them”). But the bombs never fell.
Lipstadt and Breitman had explained earlier that the planes were not able to reach Auschwitz until late in the war and that, in any case, bombing the camp would probably not have stopped the killing. But that did not satisfy the woman.
“If they would have bombed the crematoria, they could have at least stopped them from murdering the Jews,” she said, her voice rising in indignation. “That’s why I blame the Allies for it, including the United States. My parents died there—my whole family died over there, OK? And I was 16, so it’s not like you said that Roosevelt couldn’t do nothing.”
The audience of several hundred, which had been largely subdued during the talk, suddenly erupted in applause and shouts of encouragement.
It’s a scene that I have seen play out with minor variations many times over the last decade at similar public events about the Holocaust. No matter the evidence to the contrary, it has become received wisdom among many American Jews that Roosevelt deliberately and coldly abandoned Europe’s Jews in their hour of need.
This marks a dramatic reversal in the image of a president who won more than 80 percent of the Jewish vote in all four of his successful campaigns, who surrounded himself with Jewish advisers and was portrayed by Hitler’s propagandists as Jewish (and not in a good way). Roosevelt brought thousands of Jewish professionals into government, prevented Hitler from overrunning Britain and Palestine (thus saving their large Jewish populations), chose to fight Germany first after the United States was attacked by Japan, and paved the way for New York’s first Jewish governor and senator.
Presidential scholars have consistently ranked Roosevelt as the best chief executive in the nation’s history for his handling of the Great Depression and World War II. But even among liberal Jews who still hold him in high regard for those achievements, his reputation has been tarnished as he has been viewed increasingly through the prism of the Holocaust. What started out in the late 1960s as legitimate historical revisionism—looking critically at what the Roosevelt administration and American Jewry did during the Holocaust—has morphed into caricature, with FDR often depicted as an unfeeling anti-Semite.
This historical debate has a significant contemporary subtext, one that helps explain the intensity of the passions it still arouses. That subtext is today’s debate among American Jews about Israel. 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. These scholar-activists deploy similar sleight of hand to paint a picture of most American Jews as having been disengaged and apathetic about the fate of their European counterparts at the hands of the Nazis, and to cast as heroes a small group of right-wing Zionists who mounted an aggressive public relations campaign to pressure Roosevelt to act. In this narrative, the complexities of history are erased and the passage of time is unimportant. The not-so-subtle message: like the Jews of Europe in 1939, Israel is under an existential threat and cannot count on anyone for help—even the United States, even liberals, even Jews in the United States, most of whom are insufficiently committed to Zionism. Betrayal happened before, and no matter how friendly a president or a country may appear to be, it can happen again.