While Ken Burns and his associates are unquestionably capable documentarians, they also carry on an agenda – in this case, a liberal agenda focused more on promoting open and unlimited immigration to America. For the likes of Ken Burns, FDR was a demi-God who saved the world from Fascism and Nazism, and instituted the New Deal following the depression of the 1930’s. For many European Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, however, FDR is a person who could have saved millions of Jews but did nothing.
Burns’ documentary, The US and the Holocaust, excuses FDR’s inaction, and lets the viewers believe that FDR’s hands were tied, that because of the pervasive antisemitism in America at the time he was unable to act. That is a lame excuse. As president he could have fired his antisemitic Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who personally obstructed all efforts to save European Jews. Moreover, he instructed US consulates in Europe to make it impossible for Jews, especially Eastern European Jews, to get visas to America. Such a visa meant life for a family or a person, while without it death was almost certain.
Isaac Feith, married to my father’s sister Sarah arrived in America before WWII, and intended to bring his family out of Poland. When the war broke out in September 1939, he had already secured an affidavit to bring his wife, 16-year old daughter, and 13-year old son. He would visit the US immigration office daily begging to get a visa for his family in Poland. He received one excuse after another, all deliberately instructed from above. By 1942, it was already too late to save them. In October of that year in a German Nazi roundup in Ulanow, Poland, Sarah and his daughter were sent off to Belzec Death Camp and gassed immediately. His son was deposited with a Polish farmer, who received a hefty sum to keep him alive, murdering him to save the money needed to feed him. Isaac Feith survived, but his life turned to hell. Guilt shortened his life. As Chief Executive, FDR could have intervened with the Department of State, and asked Congress for a special humanitarian gesture to allow Jews fleeing certain death to enter the US, especially in cases such as Isaac Feith.
Greek-Americans pressured the US government during WWII to provide aid to the starving Greeks under Nazi occupation. FDR’s administration responded with massive aid, over 2,500,000 pounds of food and nine tons of medicines left the New York harbor to reach the port of Pireous, Greece. The Red Cross and the neutral nations of Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland arranged with the Nazis the distribution of food in Greece. In the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto, Jews were dying in the thousands daily from starvation, particularly children. For a loaf of bread, Jewish families agreed to go to the assembly line that took them by cattle trains to their horrible deaths in the Treblinka Nazi Death Camp, in northeastern Poland. Why couldn’t FDR’s administration do the same for the starving Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto with the aid of the Red Cross and the neutral nations?
This reporter was privileged to have met and conduct an interview with a true hero of WWII, Professor Jan Karsky. A devout Polish Catholic, and a courier for the Polish Government-in-exile based in London, he risked his life several times penetrating Nazi occupied Poland. He smuggled himself into the Warsaw Ghetto dressed as a Ukrainian guard, and he witnessed the dying children in the streets, perishing from starvation and disease. He was the only living witness to the horrible murders at the Belzec Death Camp, where he once again dressed as a Ukrainian guard. Karsky is credited with bringing eye-witness reports to the leaders of the Western allies; among them was President Roosevelt, in July 1943. Karsky described to me the expression on FDR’s face: “He sat behind his desk on a high chair surrounded by American flags, and a cigar in his mouth.” Karsky first described to FDR the overall situation in Poland, and then turned to the plight of Polish Jewry. He pleaded with the President for help, saying: “Without outside help the Jews will perish in Poland.” FDR completely ignored the Jewish aspects of Karsky’s report, and all he could say was, “The allied nations are going to win this war…” Karsky described to me FDR’s passivity when he discussed the Jewish situation. “He didn’t ask a single question about the Jews,” Karsky pointed out. Karsky concluded that the entire western civilization and especially the government of the US was guilty of the Second Original Sin during the Holocaust: the sin commission, omission, and self-imposed ignorance.
At this point in the war, the systematic annihilation of the European Jews was already well known to the leaders of the US and Britain, and FDR was duly informed that millions of Jews had already perished at that time. In August 1942, Gerhart Riegner, the Geneva, Switzerland based representative of the World Jewish Congress sent an urgent telegram to the US State Department, the British Foreign Office, as well as to then President of the World Jewish Congress and American Jewish Congress, Rabbi Stephen Samuel Wise. At the time, Wise was one of the most influential Jews in America, and a friend of the US president – FDR. The State Department blocked Riegner’s message. The message contained the warning that the Nazi German leadership planned to systematically murder the European Jews. Riegner, it turned out, got the sensitive information from a reliable source; a German managing director of a large German mining company operating in Poland named Eduard Schulte. Rabbi Wise might have been alarmed by the telegram but he didn’t want to “disturb” his friend – the US president. Wise didn’t want to “rock the boat.” It is more likely that he knew that FDR would not appreciate it, and would consider it “interference in the war effort.”
To the question of allied bombing of the railway leading to the Auschwitz Death Camp, FDR and his minions had a single answer. “We must only concentrate on the war efforts and win the war.” But did it preclude saving Jews or opening America’s door to fortunate few that escaped the Nazi roundups? As president, FDR could have issued an executive order to temporarily at least allow European Jews to enter America for the war’s duration.
The ship St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany in June 1939 with 900 Jewish refugees who managed to flee Germany. The St. Louis cruised off the Miami Coast but was denied entry to the US. It would be interesting to know what went through Stephen Wise’s mind, and why he didn’t ask his friend to do the human thing; let those fortunate few get asylum in America! Instead most of the refugees were returned to Europe to a certain death. Didn’t the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor proclaim the immortal words of Emma Lazarus, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…?” It wasn’t meant as much for modern economic migrants but for those fleeing persecution and death. It clearly envisioned those refugees fleeing Hitler’s genocide.
In January 14, 1943, at the allies’ conference in Casablanca, Morocco, FDR advised the leaders of the Free French government in North Africa that they should discriminate against the local Jews just as Hitler did in the 1930’s. Was FDR an antisemite? It is only for God to judge. It is clear however that FDR made no serious efforts to rescue the European Jews. None of this was brought up in Ken Burns’ US and the Holocaust.