The appalling failure of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to provide an American refuge for European Jews confronting the horrors of the Holocaust has long been carefully analyzed and documented by historian Rafael Medoff. Ever since his first book, more than thirty years ago, explored the “deafening silence” of American Jewish leaders in response to the Nazi slaughter, he has probed the evasion in the highest circles of American government and Jewish leadership of the annihilation of European Jewry.
In his newest book, The Jews Should Keep Quiet, Medoff carefully and scathingly analyzes the collaboration of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, leader of American Jewry in the 1930s and 1940s, with the President revered more than any other by American Jews. The dilemma for Wise and his followers, Medoff writes, was whether to speak out against their beloved president’s acquiescence in the Nazi annihilation of European Jewry, thereby jeopardizing their yearning to be recognized as loyal Americans not pushy Jews.
Why, Medoff asks, did Roosevelt do so little to save European Jews? He suppressed immigration; left restrictive quotas unfilled; turned away refugees to the Virgin Islands where they would be willingly accepted; and refused to grant even temporary residence (not citizenship) to desperate Jews fleeing for their lives. His administration would not authorize bombing the railroad and bridges leading to Auschwitz although targets only a few miles away were attacked.
With meticulous detail, Medoff documents the entwined failures of an indifferent president and a deferential Jewish leader. As early as 1933 Wise yielded to the request of government officials requesting silence regarding the deepening plight of German Jews. Given Wise’s “profound aversion to saying anything that would embarrass President Roosevelt,” he remained silent when the President refused to permit the St. Louis, carrying nine hundred German Jewish refugees (primarily women and children), to dock on American shores.
If the President’s indifference to the plight of European Jews seems inexplicable, when so little could have saved so many, how to explain the sycophancy of Rabbi Wise? Founder of the American Jewish Congress and an outspoken Zionist who advocated the fusion of Jewish principles with progressive social and political causes, Wise lavished praise on Roosevelt for his social justice agenda. He was, to be sure, concerned about Roosevelt’s silent response to the worsening plight of European Jews. But at a time of serious economic depression at home he thought it “unfair” to trouble the President with the “lesser problem” across the ocean. Criticizing “court Jews” who were subservient to the President, Wise became prominent among them even as he grasped the mounting danger confronting European Jews.
Medoff carefully documents Wise’s “failure to grasp the overwhelming catastrophe” that confronted European Jews by 1942. Once he did, deference – indeed capitulation – to Roosevelt took priority, with obsequious references in private correspondence to “the Great Man” and “the All Highest.” Recounting Wise’s veto of proposals for mass public demonstrations to protest Nazi atrocities, Medoff notes that he was more concerned with “the difficulties and pressures under which the President rests” than with the desperate plight of European Jews.
For Roosevelt, the Hyde Park patrician, to believe that the United States “was by nature, and should remain, an overwhelmingly white, Protestant country” is not surprising. Claiming that Jews possessed “certain innate and distasteful characteristics,” he opposed bringing more of them to American shores. Wise’s political strategy, Medoff persuasively concludes, was “to shield the Roosevelt administration from Jewish criticism” while the president “maneuvered Rabbi Wise to help insure that the Jews would keep quiet.” A devoted American court Jew, Wise would not publicly challenge Roosevelt’s indifference to the annihilation of six million European Jews.
Medoff’s book, prodigiously researched in Israeli and American archives, is painful, but important, to read. Sadly, it reminded me of the devotion of my own parents and relatives, assimilated American children of Eastern European immigrants, to President Roosevelt and Rabbi Wise. They, too, believed that “Jews should keep quiet.” At stake was nothing less than their passionate desire to be, and be recognized as, loyal Americans.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, published by Academic Studies Press.