Why FDR Showed Indifference to Jews during the Holocaust

Before President Franklin Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board in January 1944, he showed little interest in the plight of Europe’s Jews. His indifference wasn’t caused by a lack of information. FDR had read reports that revealed the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews. He also met with Jan Karski, a Polish underground leader, who witnessed the gassing of Jews in a concentration camp. Since he knew what was going on, why did FDR fail to act on proposals to rescue the Jews until 1944?

One problem was FDR’s personal opinion of European immigrants. In his April 23, 1925 column for the Macon Daily Telegraph, FDR wrote that immigration to the U.S. should be restricted to those who had “blood of the right sort.” FDR happily upheld the strict immigration quotas he inherited from previous presidents and even left quota slots unfilled. More than 190,000 additional immigrants from Germany and other Axis countries could have entered the U.S. between 1933 and 1945, without the quotas being exceeded.

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Official Presidential Portrait of FDR

The president’s callous attitude toward immigrants influenced his choice for Assistant Secretary of State, the chief government official in charge of refugee matters. FDR appointed his friend Breckinridge Long to the job. Long had no intention of relaxing the strict immigration laws. On October 3, 1940, Long wrote in his diary “I left him [FDR] with the satisfactory thought that he was wholeheartedly in support of the policy which would resolve in favor of the United States any doubts about the admissibility of any individual.” FDR generally left State department officials in charge of refugee and immigration issues. He knew his desire to limit immigration would be taken care of by Long.

Anti-Semitic feeling among American voters influenced politicians including FDR. Public opinion polls taken during World War II showed one-third of the American public was anti-Semitic. When voters show little sympathy for a group of people, elected officials have little incentive to act.

Yet not all politicians were as insensitive as FDR to the European Jews. For example, some members of Congress drafted the Wagner-Rogers bill. If passed, the bill would have allowed 20,000 Jewish children to enter the U.S. outside the immigration quota. Even though the children were supposed to return to Europe after the war, many members of Congress and the public opposed the bill. The president’s cousin, Laura Delano, commented that “twenty-thousand charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.” When the bill crossed his desk, FDR wrote “no action” on it.

In my next post, I’ll discuss why FDR changed his mind and created the War Refugee Board in January 1944.

Source: Passionate Crusaders: How Members of the U.S. War Refugee Board Saved Jews and Altered American Foreign Policy during World War II by Heather Voight

Book Review: The Life and Death of Adolph Hitler

The Life and Death of Adolph Hitler by James Giblin 223p.

Giblin’s middle grade biography traces Hitler’s life from nearly homeless artist to ruthless dictator.

The first chapter is short and sets up the story with what kids will know about Adolph Hitler: he once ruled Germany and he’s dead. Giblin explains that while young people might not know exactly who he was or what he did, they have older family members who were influenced by Hitler’s actions. Questions that kids might ask about Hitler, such as why didn’t people stop him sooner, are posed and the author promises to explore them in the book.

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Adolph Hitler as a baby

Giblin’s straightforward storytelling of Hitler’s childhood makes him, at least at this point, more relatable to young people. For example, kids that tried out and didn’t make a sports team could understand Hitler’s disappointment when he didn’t get accepted to art school. Any one who has lost a family member can understand why Hitler didn’t want to accept his mother’s cancer diagnosis.

The book goes on to explain Hitler’s crushing disappointment after World War I. He had nearly gone blind trying to defend his country, but Germany lost anyway. Like other German soldiers, Hitler resented the Versailles Treaty which made Germany pay nations like Britain and France for the cost of the war. When the German army needed instructors to teach the evils of Communism and the importance of nationalism to the troops, they had little idea that they were helping to launch the career of a dictator. Through his speeches Hitler learned that he had the power to persuade audiences–a skill he would use again and again in the coming years.

Unlike other biographers, Giblin does not pretend to have all the answers. For example, while other biographers have speculated that Hitler may have disliked Jews because his mother’s doctor was a Jew, Giblin points out that Hitler only had kind words for the doctor. Giblin comes to the conclusion that there is no obvious reason for Hitler’s feelings but that hating Jews was a main feature of Hitler’s life from 1919 until his death.

The book points out why the Nazi party was popular with some Germans during the Great Depression. Hitler’s rise to power coincided with an increase in jobs and better working conditions. People were healthier, too. Hitler even suggested that an affordable car called the Volkswagen (the people’s car) be produced so that the middle class could drive around town and go on vacations. Though the lives of Jewish people were increasingly restricted, Hitler often didn’t emphasize his anti-Semitic beliefs in his pre-World War II speeches.

As Giblin explains, World War II came about because of serious misunderstandings between Hitler and the British and French. Britain and France didn’t want another war, so they stood by while Hitler took over territories like Austria and Czechoslovakia for Germany. Britain warned that it would stand by Poland, however. Hitler thought the British were bluffing and proceeded with his invasion only to find himself at war with Britain, France, and eventually the Soviet Union and U.S.

Although Giblin does talk about the Holocaust, his coverage of the extermination of the Jews is somewhat brief, perhaps because Hitler delegated the working of concentration camps to other Nazi officials. The book does quote Hitler’s book Mein Kampf which outlined his hatred for Jews. It also covers the laws restricting Jewish participation in society in the 1930s.

Giblin does a good job of incorporating stories from and about young people. He includes  members of the Hitler Youth, a group that indoctrinated young people in the policies of the Nazi Party. Hitler’s troubled relationship with his niece Geli and his odd romance with the young Eva Braun are explored. In addition, Giblin includes stories of young people like Sophie Scholl and her brother who bravely opposed Hitler’s political agenda.

Extensive photos help Giblin’s gifted storytelling come to life. Included are rare photos of Hitler in private, family photos and paintings, and photos of Hitler’s Nazi followers.

Readers would have benefited from short summaries of important people in Hitler’s political life. It can be hard for young readers to keep track of people with similar names, such as Himmler and Heydrich.

The book ends with a cautionary note: leaders like Hitler can still come to power under the right conditions, but hopefully future generations will use their knowledge of others’ mistakes to prevent such an event.

Overall, The Life and Death of Adolph Hitler provides young people with a solid introduction to the career of one of the most infamous men in history.

French Attacks about more than Freedom of Speech

I believe in the right to free speech and my right to express my opinions on this blog and elsewhere. I realize that free speech will also allow some people to express themselves in ways that I or others might find offensive.

I also believe that people have the right to freedom of religion and the right not to be discriminated against. Those last two points have been trampled on by some in France in recent years. For example, in December 2014 three armed men broke into a flat occupied by a Jewish couple. The men tied them up, robbed them, and raped the woman.

These incidents do not get much news coverage. In contrast, I can turn on any news station and see pictures of the murderers of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. Some called them artists, but it is not artistic to belittle other religions through cartoons or any other medium. Regardless, murdering people for drawing tasteless cartoons is wrong.

Charlie Hebdo Shooting Press Coverage Photo by Remi Mathis

Charlie Hebdo Shooting Press Coverage Photo by Remi Mathis

In a country where fear and dislike of people who are different is increasingly common, the killers have only succeeded in making a bad situation worse. Innocent, God-fearing Muslims are much more likely to be mistreated because people will say, “See, Muslims do evil things.”

Some light has been thrown on anti-Semitism in France since the attacks on the kosher supermarket. France’s Prime Minister and others have expressed their shock. But how long will it take before French citizens again turned a blind eye to the less dramatic acts of hatred against Jews and other religious groups?