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America And The Holocaust
The United States and FDR watched the extermination of the Jews with such total indifference that they were actually accomplices— or so says a growing number of historians. Is this true?
July/August 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 4
Among the anguishing events we read about is the fate of the ship St. Louis of the Hamburg-America Line, which left Germany and arrived in Cuba with 936 passengers, all but 6 of them Jewish refugees, on May 27, 1939. This was three months before the outbreak of the war and three years before the establishment of the death camps. Other ships had made the same journey, and their passengers had disembarked successfully, but on May 5 the Cuban government had issued a decree curtailing the power of the corrupt director general of immigration to issue landing certificates. New regulations requiring five-hundred-dollar bonds from each approved immigrant had been transmitted to the shipping line, but only 22 passengers of the St. Louis had fulfilled the requirements before leaving Hamburg on May 13. Those 22 were allowed to land; intense negotiations with the Cuban government regarding the other passengers—negotiations in which American Jewish agencies participated—broke down despite pressure from our government. It was not an unreported event. Tremendous international attention focused on the St. Louis , later made famous as the “Voyage of the Damned.” Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., and others, including Eleanor Roosevelt, worked to evade the immigration laws—for example, by attempting to land the passengers as “tourists” in the Virgin Islands. One survivor of the St. Louis whom I interviewed—a retired professor of human genetics at the University of Washington in Seattle—described its commander, Capt. Gustav Schroeder, as a compassionate man who ordered decent treatment for his Jewish passengers and who told them that he would run his ship aground off England rather than return them to Germany if Cuba refused admission. In the end, despite the legal inability of the United States to accept the passengers as immigrants, our diplomats were significantly helpful in resettling them. Not one was returned to Nazi Germany. They all went to democratic countries—288 in the United Kingdom, the rest in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark. And who, in that spring of 1939, was prescient enough to foretell that in little more than a year all but one of those countries would be held by Nazi troops?
Despite issues that bitterly divided them, the American Jewish community spoke the same words in pleading to do whatever was possible for Europe’s Jews.
What were FDR’s own attitudes toward Hitler and the Jews? Did he reflect the social anti-Semitism that was endemic in the America of that era? Contemporary Jews certainly didn’t think so. Roosevelt opened the offices of government as never before to Jews. Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Samuel Rosenman, Felix Frankfurter, Benjamin Cohen, David Niles, Anna Rosenberg, Sidney Hillman, and David Dubinsky were among his closest advisers in pol itics and government. Rabbi Stephen Wise, the pre-eminent spokesman for American Zionism, said, “No one was more genuinely free from religious prejudice and racial bigotry.”
Did Franklin Roosevelt reflect the social anti-Semitism endemic in the America of that era? Contemporary Jews didn’t think so.
Nazi policy changed radically after the outbreak of war. The Holocaust took place between 1941 and 1945. Hitler’s conquest of the European continent let loose the full force of his psychopathic obsession about Jews. With the start of the war, on September 1, 1939, emigration from Germany was prohibited. Nevertheless, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of German Jews managed to escape across borders into Holland, Belgium, and Switzerland. But by June 1940, with the fall of France, Europe became a prison for Jews. Unoccupied France still offered an escape route, and despite intense criticism from the political left, FDR maintained diplomatic relations with Vichy, France, allowing that route to remain open. The International Rescue Committee, a group of which Eleanor Roosevelt remained very supportive, sent a team headed by Varian Fry that helped countless refugees find sanctuary in Spain and Portugal. But the vise was tightening. The invasion of Russia in June 1941 put the lock on the most terrible dungeon in history. Special squads of the German SS—the Einsatzgruppen —began the slaughter of 1.5 million Jews behind the German lines in Russia. The Wannsee Conference, which structured the “Final Solution,” was held in a Berlin suburb in January 1942.