April 16, 2024
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April 16, 2024
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FDR and the Jewish Refugee Crisis

Part II of III

In the first installment I described the failure of the Evian conference and commented on the failure of the US and others to come to the rescue of the Jewish refugees.

A young Jewish lawyer by the name of Gerhart Riegner, born in Berlin but living in Geneva, handled the day-to-day work of the World Jewish Conference there. He and a Swiss Jewish journalist, Benno Sagalowitz, were contacted secretly in Switzerland by Eduard Schulte, a German industrialist who had been present at a large Nazi gathering when Himmler openly talked about his plans for construction in Auschwitz, and the systematic murder of all the Jews in Europe and beyond. On July 29, 1942, Schulte quietly boarded a train at Breslau going to Zurich. He had a meeting there with a well-placed Jewish contact in the world of high finance. Schulte, through the contact, reported to Riegner and Sagalowitz in detail what he had heard from Himmler. Riegner subsequently sent urgent telegraphic reports to London and Washington via the respective consulates in Geneva.

In Washington, the telegram ended up in the State Department’s Division of European Affairs, where it was generally dismissed, noting that American interests “were not involved.” The telegrams were also not passed on to Roosevelt’s ally Rabbi Stephen Wise.

In London, per Riegner’s request, the telegram was passed on directly to Rabbi Wise by the World Jewish Congress office, who asked the State Department to obtain additional corroboration from Geneva. In response Wise was told to keep the telegram under wraps until it could be “confirmed.”

In another cable from Switzerland received by Wise, he was informed that the Warsaw Ghetto had been evacuated and 100,000 Jews “bestially murdered.” A copy was passed on to FDR as well as to his wife, Eleanor. There was no response. Wise also asked Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter to speak with FDR personally. Frankfurter would not do so.

I could give dozens of other examples where the Roosevelts ran hot and cold, sometimes both at the same time, with regard to support of the Jews. It is true that Eleanor later changed her views considerably, much more so than FDR himself. She eventually would become a passionate supporter of the Jews in their time of need. But as much as she pleaded with FDR, she was not in the government, and could accomplish very little on her own.

But that being said, let us look at another important aspect of FDR that no doubt was a considerable contributing cause of his actions, or lack of actions, on behalf of the Jews of Europe—his health.

FDR could deal with the sights, sounds and scars of a nation at war. He knew it would still be a long war—he could deal with that as well. But there was one thing he knew he could not control. His personal time. As the invasion in France was gearing up in 1944, he was all but a dying man. He would never admit that to the outside world, and likely, never even to himself.

All those years, there was a cover-up, starting already before his first election in 1932. The infantile paralysis that had laid him low in 1921 had left him completely unable to get himself into a standing position without help, or walk under his own power without weighty steel braces on his useless legs, a cane to lean on with his right hand and the strong arm of one of his sons or a bodyguard to cling to with his left.

All that remained a state secret throughout his White House years. It was FDR’s own absolute edict to the Secret Service, press photographers and everyone else around him that he was never to be photographed being helped to stand, to sit or to move.

Now 10 years after he assumed the Presidency, he was the picture of exhaustion. His cheeks were sunken, his hands shook violently when lighting his ever-present cigarette. His face was the color of milky chalk and the skin under his eyes was dark and discolored. He had chronic indigestion. In the morning hours he was too fatigued to work, while in the evening hours he felt too ill to sleep. He would fall asleep during dictating and once blacked out when signing his name. Once a Secret Service agent found him, having fallen out of his chair, sprawled helplessly on the floor. At one point he had influenza and had to take all his meals in bed, cancelling all appointments. A cough racked his lungs and his temperature was 104 degrees.

In March 1944 his daughter Anna grew so alarmed that she confronted his personal physician, Admiral McIntire, who brushed off her concerns, citing the lingering effects of influenza. Anna knew better and insisted that her father receive a full work-up at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Reluctantly McIntire agreed, but he gave an order that the patient should not receive one word of his condition. Although McIntire was an ENT physician, at the hospital FDR was seen by Dr. Howard Brünn, a highly regarded young cardiologist. Brünn was alarmed at the president’s condition. Amongst other signs he heard telltale rattling or bubbling sounds in the president’s lungs indicating that fluid was building up. This was not simply bronchitis or the lingering effects of pneumonia as McIntire had led him to believe.

There were other symptoms that alarmed Dr. Brünn immediately and his diagnosis was that the president was suffering from congestive heart failure, hypertension and hypertensive heart disease. Absent significant intervention, FDR would not have more than a year to live.

As ordered by McIntire, Brünn (only a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy) never said a word to the patient and the patient was not curious about his own condition. This was FDR’s way of avoiding distasteful subjects. Amongst Brünn’s recommendations was complete bed rest for several weeks, to which suggestion McIntire, who had missed most of the President’s ailments, and who had resisted the idea that the President had any kind of a heart condition, exploded, saying, “The president can’t take time off to go to bed. He is the president.”

McIntire brought in two handpicked specialists who sided with him—naturally. Dr. Brünn refused to back down, feeling responsible for his patient, and finally McIntire and Brünn agreed to call in two outside cardiologists. They, after examining the patient, emphatically agreed with Brünn.

One time when FDR was watching a movie featuring Woodrow Wilson’s failure to establish the League of Nations, he got very aggravated, exclaiming: “That will not happen to me!” His blood pressure was taken, and it was 240/130.

On March 18, Roosevelt started taking his dinner in bed. That he was not doing so of his own volition seemed to flash a yellow warning signal. This was not known to anyone outside the inner family circle. It is a fair guess, in the absence of the mysteriously missing medical records (FDR’s medical records had been kept in a safe at the hospital and they vanished after Roosevelt’s death), that he did so on doctor’s “advice,” since no one gave orders to the president. With few known facts, therefore, the mystery of FDR’s condition comes closest to known facts in the conclusions propounded in lectures and articles by Marvin Moser, a retired Columbia University medical professor: “Roosevelt represents a textbook case of untreated hypertension progressing likely to organ failure and death from stroke.”

Soon after, the press was informed that Roosevelt was suffering latent effects of the flu and bronchitis, but would ultimately recover.

In the third and final installment you will read about FDR’s half-hearted attempts to help the Jews and the failure of the Bermuda Conference, as well as a summary of the differences between FDR and Winston Churchill’s relations to the Jewish people and their homeland.

Norbert Strauss is a Teaneck resident and has been a volunteer at Englewood Hospital for

By Norbert Strauss

 the past 30 years. He was General Traffic Manager and Group VP at Philipp Brothers Inc., retiring in 1985. Prior to Englewood Hospital he was also a volunteer at the American Committee for Shaare Zedek Hospital for over 30 years, serving as treasurer and director. He frequently speaks to groups to relay his family’s escape from Nazi Germany in 1941. He has eight grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren.


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