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Newly uncovered documents reveal that President Franklin D. Roosevelt worked quietly in the late 1930s to find havens for European Jews, contradicting the view that he ignored their plight in the years leading up to the Holocaust.
Roosevelt was “a master politician who tried to carry out some humanitarian steps while juggling political and military considerations,” writes historian Richard Breitman, co-editor of Refugees and Rescue: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald (1935-1945) released today. The book draws on papers at the Center for Jewish History in New York City.
McDonald was chairman of Roosevelt’s advisory committee on refugees. He met Adolf Hitler in 1933 and was convinced the Nazi planned to exterminate Europe’s Jews, prompting him to sound warnings. He later was the first U.S. ambassador to Israel.
Despite FDR’s popularity with Jewish Americans, the influential 1984 book The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust argued that he did little to save their European brethren.
Breitman says McDonald’s papers soften that view, showing that in 1938, Roosevelt:
*Cut red tape that kept immigration quotas from being filled, allowing entry for 27,370 Germans — most of them Jews.
*Hoped to resettle millions of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe to other countries, mostly in Latin America. He called an international conference to line up money and support.
*Promised to ask Congress for $150 million to help resettle refugees if Britain allowed more Jews into Palestine and private funds could be raised.
Roosevelt’s efforts, including the conference in Evian, France, failed. Most countries refused to admit Jews amid a depression and anti-Semitism, Breitman says. Opposition also was strong at the State Department and in Congress, which voted in 1939 not to let in 20,000 German Jewish children.
Breitman says Roosevelt is unfairly criticized for not supporting the bill and refusing to admit 900 Jewish refugees on the St. Louis, which sailed from Germany 70 years ago this month. Cuba, the U.S. and Canada turned away those on the “voyage of the damned,” and the ship returned to Europe. Hundreds of passengers died in the Holocaust.
Roosevelt “made a decision to go for big results,” Breitman says, adding that the president viewed letting in small numbers of Jews as “a gesture, not a solution” to the larger refugee problem.
In 1940, after the start of World War II in Europe, Roosevelt’s priorities turned to national security, Breitman writes.
Rafael Medoff, director of the Wyman Institute, which studies America’s response to the Holocaust, says the book won’t absolve Roosevelt. He says FDR failed to take “concrete steps” such as giving Jewish refugees temporary haven in U.S. territories such as the Virgin Islands.
“Instead, sadly, the president who claimed to be a humanitarian and champion of the little man refrained from taking such lifesaving steps,” he says.
Deborah Lipstadt, a Holocaust studies professor at Emory University in Atlanta, says the book will force historians to rethink their conclusions. “This is consensus-changing,” she says. “He may deserve a lot more credit than he is getting.”
USA Today – May 1, 2009
(c) USA TODAY

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