Monday, March 27, 2023

Television viewers received a special bonus during the Rosh Hashanah week, with the showing of the new Ken Burns documentary, “The U.S. and the Holocaust.” Consistent with his past documentaries, this series was outstanding in quality and presentation. It was also welcome, coming at a time when U.S. and worldwide antisemitism is rapidly exploding, negating the lessons learned from the very Holocaust he is documenting.

However, I have to take issue with several of his historical representations. The first is when he claims that Americans knew something about the wholesale slaughter of the Jews in Europe, and cites several articles in a few papers to support this. This is an oversimplification. These few reports were usually presented as unverified wartime speculation, were randomly and widely scattered, were usually buried in inner pages, and were overshadowed by the overall war news. They were little noticed by the general U.S. population. As for the American Jewish population at that time, most knew that the situation in Europe was dire, but like most other sane minds, could not envision the brutal murder of an entire people on a government-run assembly-line basis.

Secondly, Burns whitewashes the inactions of both Rabbi Steven Wise, who was probably the most well-known and influential Jewish leader at the time, and President Roosevelt during the Holocaust period, because they did not want to make waves and make the situation worse. How much worse could it be than the unconstrained murder of 6 million innocent men, women and children? Burns further claims that President Roosevelt may have been sympathetic to the Jews, but could not openly help them because he had to tread a fine line between prosecuting the war and opposition by the fairly strong anti-war isolationist sentiment in America, a general antisemitic atmosphere, a strongly antisemitic State Department that hindered all attempts to help the Jews, and avoid the perception that the war was being waged only to help the Jews.

While some of these conditions may have been present, none should have stopped him from helping at least some Jewish rescue attempts. After all, he was the president, the boss, and could have insisted, for example, that the State Department fill all the immigration quotas they actually had the mandate to fill but did not, he could have allowed the SS St. Louis to disembark its Jewish passengers in a humanitarian gesture instead of sending them back to Europe to face their fate—this was even before the war broke out—and he could have bombed the rail lines and death camps to try to slow the efficient and unrelenting assembly-line murder in the death camps.

Roosevelt chose not to do any of them. While these may not have stopped all the killing, they may have saved at least some, and probably many thousands, of Jews.

Great leaders guide and inspire their people along the moral and righteous path, not follow along behind acquiescing to the basest desires of their people. In this area, both Rabbi Wise and President Roosevelt failed the test of great leadership.

Max Wisotsky
Highland Park
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