Essayist Milton Himmelfarb famously observed after the 1968 elections “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” His daughter, Professor Martha Himmelfarb, explained he was responding to some on the left who speciously claimed Jews had shifted from supporting liberal causes to “a selfish conservatism.” She said her father believed “Jews would have been better served by abandoning their uncritical commitment to liberalism, including their unwillingness to recognize anti-Semitism on the left, and by taking more seriously their interests as Jews.”
The voting behavior Himmelfarb was describing was the “off the charts” support of Jews for Democratic presidential candidates, which began with the 72% who voted for Al Smith in the 1928 election but was solidified over the course of Franklin Roosevelt’s four campaigns during which he won 82%, 85%, 90%, and 90% of the Jewish vote. Jews adored FDR and believed in his New Deal. The irony is that the Holocaust occurred on his watch.
Though some debate its start date, I believe the Holocaust began 80 years ago during the 48 hours of Kristallnacht on November 9-10, 1938. Nazi storm troopers rampaged through Germany and Austria ransacking Jewish homes; breaking the windows of Jewish-owned stores and looting merchandise; setting fire to synagogues; randomly attacking Jewish men, women and children and arresting thousands of men. When the violence ended, at least 96 Jews were dead, 1,300 synagogues and 7,500 businesses were destroyed, and countless Jewish cemeteries and schools were vandalized. A total of 30,000 Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps.
Later, during the war, the Nazis would do their best to conceal their atrocities; however, Kristallnacht took place in view of the entire world. The New York Times ran a story on the front page on November 11: “A wave of destruction, looting, and incendiarism unparalleled in Germany since the Thirty Years War and in Europe generally since the Bolshevist Revolution swept over Great Germany today as National Socialist cohorts took vengeance on Jewish shops, offices and synagogues for the murder by a young Polish Jew of Ernst vom Rath, third secretary of the German Embassy in Paris.” Another Times story was headlined, “All Vienna’s Synagogues Attacked.”
What was Roosevelt’s response? Silence.
After five days of public outrage, the president recalled the U.S. ambassador from Germany and held a press conference to declare: “The news of the past few days from Germany has deeply shocked public opinion in the U.S. Such news from any part of the world would inevitably produce a similar profound reaction among American people in every part of the nation. I myself could scarcely believe that such things could happen in a 20th century civilization….”
Instead of merely expressing his shock, Roosevelt could have warned Hitler that the United States would take action to penalize Germany for its behavior and intervene if it was repeated. He could have mobilized an international coalition to challenge Hitler. He could have taken measures to protect Jews and facilitate their immigration to the United States and other countries.
This however, was the era of appeasement. Neville Chamberlain had signed the Munich Agreement and declared “peace for our time” just six weeks earlier. The American mood was xenophobic, anti-Semitic and isolationist.
Ultimately, Roosevelt agreed to allow 15,000 German Jews who were already in the United States to remain, but he refused to increase the quota of immigrants from the Nazi-occupied countries. Worse, he opposed Congressional legislation to allow 20,000 Jewish children into the country.
Emboldened by the lack of reaction to Kristallnacht, and convinced the world shared his disdain for Jews, Hitler told the Czech foreign minister on January 21, 1939, “We are going to destroy the Jews.” Nine days later he spoke of “the destruction of the Jewish race in Europe.”
The deportation of German Jews to their deaths began in October 1941. Fewer than 10,000 of the 131,800 German Jews targeted for extermination by the Nazis survived.
Years later historians revealed how the president and his advisers minimized Nazi persecution of Jews to rationalize their inaction. Even today, few people are aware of the obstacles placed in the way of Jews seeking to escape Hitler. For example, American Jews found it difficult to return to the United States. State Department officials did not believe the government had any obligation to protect citizens who chose to live abroad. “Their real status,” Assistant Secretary of State George Messersmith wrote on November 25, 1939, “does not differ very much from that of the many thousands of unfortunate persons deserving of our sympathy, and having no claim to American citizenship, who would desire to come to this country in order to escape from danger zones….”
Kristallnacht was the beginning of the end for German Jewry, and telegraphed the fate of all Jews who would come under Nazi control. The champion of the Jews and liberalism may not have been able to prevent the Holocaust by responding forcefully to the pogroms, but he could have done much more to save Jews before and during the war by, for example, welcoming more immigrants and bombing the concentration camps.
Even in retrospect, however, FDR is a hero for most Jews. He ended the Holocaust by winning the war and thereby cemented Jewish identification with the Democratic Party.
Mitchell Bard is author of 48 Hours of Kristallnacht: Night of Destruction/Dawn of the Holocaust – An Oral History and Forgotten Victims: The Abandonment of Americans in Hitler’s Camps.