How FDR could have rescued Jews

October 5, 2022 5:38 am
FDR sits at his desk with pen in hand

President Franklin Roosevelt “could have admitted refugees temporarily, either to the United States or to U.S. territories such as the Virgin Islands.” (Keystone Features | Getty Images)

The latest film from Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein, “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” has aroused controversy with its claim that President Franklin D. Roosevelt did his best to help save Jews from the Nazis. In the filmmakers’ view, FDR’s hands were tied in the 1930s by domestic antisemitism, and in the 1940s by the war effort.

But in fact, there were many steps President Roosevelt could have taken to aid the Jews that would not have involved political risk or undermining the war effort:

Unfilled quotas: America’s quota for immigrants from Nazi Germany was filled in only one of Roosevelt’s 12 years as president, and in most of those years it was less than 25 percent filled – because the Roosevelt administration piled on extra requirements intended to discourage and disqualify visa applicants. Over 190,000 quota places sat empty during those years. The quota could have been filled without any public debate or controversy; all FDR had to do was quietly admit the maximum number of immigrants that the existing law permitted, instead of suppressing immigration below what the law allowed.

Temporary haven: The president could have admitted refugees temporarily, either to the United States or to U.S. territories such as the Virgin Islands. After the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom in Nazi Germany, the governor and legislative assembly of the Virgin Islands offered to open their doors to Jewish refugees; yet FDR rejected the proposal. An April 1944 Gallup poll found 70 percent of Americans supported giving “temporary protection and refuge” to Jews fleeing Hitler; yet the president admitted just one such group of 982 refugees.

Empty ships: Thousands of U.S. cargo ships, known as Liberty ships, brought supplies to Allied forces in Europe and North Africa, but when they were ready to return to the U.S., they were sometimes too light to sail, so they had to be filled with ballast – rocks and chunks of concrete – to give them added weight. Jewish refugees could have served the same purpose.

Bombing Auschwitz: Beginning in June 1944, the Allies could have bombed the railway lines and bridges leading to Auschwitz or the gas chambers and crematoria in Auschwitz. Damaging the railways, and especially the bridges, would have interrupted the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in 1944. At a time when 12,000 Jews were being gassed to death every day, any interruption could have saved lives.

Just a few weeks before PBS aired the film, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer hosted a special about the Holocaust, which included a previously unseen interview with his late father, an Auschwitz survivor, discussing the bombing issue.

David Blitzer remarked: “The biggest puzzle for me is that they did not bombard the railroads leading to the crematoria. This is the biggest puzzle. We saw the airplanes – in 1944, we saw airplanes bombarding cities. We were laughing, we were happy, we were even praying to God. We could get killed from those bombs, but we couldn’t understand why they did not bombard. Every day, thousands of people were burned and gassed in the camps, only because they had the possibility to bring those trainloads of people. If those rails had been bombarded, they couldn’t have done it so perfectly.”

The airplanes to which the elder Blitzer was referring were American planes that repeatedly bombed German oil factories in the industrial zone of Auschwitz, less than five miles from the gas chambers. George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, was one of the pilots who bombed those oil targets. In a postwar interview, McGovern said: “There is no question we should have attempted … to go after Auschwitz. There was a pretty good chance we could have blasted those rail lines off the face of the earth, which would have interrupted the flow of people to those death chambers, and we had a pretty good chance of knocking out those gas ovens.”

McGovern added: “Franklin Roosevelt was a great man and he was my political hero,” he said in the interview. “But I think he made two great mistakes in World War II.” One was the internment of Japanese Americans; the other was the decision “not to go after Auschwitz. … God forgive us for that tragic miscalculation.”

The various proposals to save Jews are not just hindsight – they were all requested by Jewish organizations or other rescue advocates at the time. Yet President Roosevelt chose to turn away from one of history’s most compelling moral challenges. The problem was not that helping the Jews would have involved political risk or undermined America’s war effort; it would not have. The problem was that FDR was not seriously interested in taking even minimal steps to rescue them.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Rafael Medoff
Rafael Medoff

Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of more than 20 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust. His latest is "America and the Holocaust: A Documentary History," published by the Jewish Publication Society & University of Nebraska Press.