Standing outside the entrance to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s exhibition “Americans and the Holocaust,” which opens April 23, co-curators Rebecca Erbelding and Daniel Greene disagreed on how to grade Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s efforts to save Jewish refugees during World War II. Erbelding, an archivist at the museum, gave FDR a B-minus, while Greene, who teaches at Northwestern University, was stingier with a C-plus. Both agreed that visitors to the museum in the past would have marked the former president considerably lower.
“We are not trying to apologize for FDR in any way or to put a finger on the scale,” Greene says on a walk-through of the exhibition, which contains artifacts, documents, video footage and a deluge of digital documents and facsimiles.
Erbelding, author of the new book “Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe,” allows that her scholarship on the War Refugee Board, which FDR created to circumvent State Department logjams, might predispose her to look more favorably upon Roosevelt than her colleague. But both agree that it is time for an exhibition that puts the Holocaust in the context of the war and of U.S. public opinion at the time.
“Here FDR is a main character,” Greene says.
The former president, who served from 1933 until his death on April 12, 1945, has long had a checkered legacy when it came to helping Jews fleeing Nazi oppression. Many know of the German ocean liner St. Louis, whose approximately 900 Jewish refugees the United States refused to admit in 1939. The following year, Roosevelt suggested in a news conference that Jewish refugees could be Nazi spies, and when the United States entered the war, FDR’s government prioritized military victory over saving Jewish lives.
Exhibit labels and posted poll questions, which viewers can flip to reveal results, center on what Americans knew about the Holocaust when, and the degree to which the public welcomed refugees. In November 1936, for example, 67 percent of respondents to one poll thought there would be another serious Depression. Three years later, 66 percent of the public said they wouldn’t support the Wagner-Rogers Bill, which proposed allowing 10,000 refugee children from Germany to come live that year with U.S. families.
One of the most powerful artifacts is a set of telegrams that FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt exchanged in 1941, which comes from the FDR Presidential Library and Museum. When the latter asks whether she ought to speak out about the bill, FDR responded that she could, but “it is best for me to say nothing.”
Greene hopes visitors will emerge with an understanding that even the U.S. president faces constraints, and weighing public opinion, FDR decided not to expend political capital to rescue Jews.
This posthumous makeover for FDR at the museum comes amid a new and contentious wave of scholarship, which promises to change the way people think about the former president’s legacy. In addition to the museum’s three-year exhibition and Erbelding’s book, Barry Trachtenberg of Wake Forest University recently wrote “The United States and the Nazi Holocaust: Race, Refuge, and Remembrance.”
“There is clearly a generational shift in the thinking of the U.S. and the Holocaust,” he says. “In spite of occasional articles challenging it, there hasn’t been a systematic and non-polemical reassessment of this relationship until now.”
Erbelding’s book centers on a group that surfaces toward the end of the exhibit as well, the War Refugee Board, which FDR created by executive order in January 1944. The board, staffed largely by Treasury Department employees, was formed to circumvent State Department staffers, some with reputations as anti-Semites, who opposed efforts to save Jewish refugees. It is credited with saving up to 200,000 Jews, creating a refugee camp in New York, negotiating ransoms with Nazis and even laundering money past a friendly government to move humanitarian aid.
“They do extraordinary things,” Erbelding says. “They worked incredibly hard. They followed up on everything that was suggested to them, and they really went to the mat on a lot of things with other government agencies.” It was, she adds in the book, the only time in U.S. history that the government created an agency to save an enemy’s victims.
“There has been a tendency to focus our attention and ire on the U.S.’s lack of coherent response to the Holocaust, mainly on FDR and on the State Department,” Erbelding says. “FDR and the State Department are not the entirety of the government. There hasn’t been as much attention paid to what Americans by and large were thinking and feeling about this.”
In addition to the poll showing that two-thirds of Americans wouldn’t accept 10,000 refugee children, Erbelding notes a later poll in which 83 percent of respondents wouldn’t support their members of Congress proposing any increase in immigration. “So it’s 67 percent against the children, but 83 percent against everybody,” she says.
Erbelding hopes that visitors will learn from the exhibit how complicated things were during the Holocaust, in a country that had recently emerged from the Great Depression and was grappling with nuanced and difficult national security and economic concerns, as the nation does today. Rather than throwing their hands up and saying the challenges are too great, the public and lawmakers should realize how difficult things were during the Holocaust — and yet a few individuals managed to make a big difference, she says.
“There’s a space for all of us to look at the history and figure out what our part is in it, because every day is a day in history. It will be when we look back on it. Do we feel like we are doing the right thing?” she says. “If this exhibit sparks civic engagement, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
But not everyone who studies FDR agrees with this telling. “The very few scholars who have argued that FDR did the best he could have made their case not on the basis of new documents that they uncovered, but by trying to put a positive spin on the sad story that previous historians have documented,” says Rafael Medoff, founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. (Wyman, a historian of the Holocaust, died last month.)
Crediting FDR for the successes of the War Refugee Board is a mistake, according to Medoff. “The Roosevelt administration fights tooth and nail against the proposal to create the board,” he says. “One might say FDR was against it before he was for it. He established it only because of strong political pressure, on the eve of an election year, from the Jewish community, Congress and his own Treasury Department.” FDR afforded the WRB only “token funding,” Medoff adds.
David Woolner, a senior fellow and resident historian at the Roosevelt Institute, the nonprofit organization associated with the FDR Library in Hyde Park, N.Y., says it’s important to correct misconceptions about FDR without apologizing for his behavior.
“We have a much better understanding of where people did act, even though of course the responses — we now know — were inadequate,” Woolner says. Between 1936 and 1940, he says, the United States allowed more German and Austrian Jews to enter the country than did any other nation in the world, and that was partly thanks to FDR.
“Of course, these numbers pale when compared to the hundreds of thousands of refugees who were hoping to get out of Europe at the time. But letting in significant additional numbers would have required a change in the law, and under the political circumstances of the time, this was deemed virtually impossible,” he says. “Even to raise the issue was considered unwise, as many members of Congress and the public wanted to cease immigration altogether.”
“Americans and the Holocaust” opens April 23 and is free. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 100 Raoul Wallenberg Pl. SW.