Roosevelt Museum Distorts FDR’s Holocaust Record

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

As a government-funded institution, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Museum in Hyde Park, New York, has an obligation to America’s taxpayers to present FDR’s record in a fair, accurate, and balanced manner.  Yet the museum’s panel about Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust is unfair, inaccurate, and unbalanced.

Here’s the key passage in the text of the museum’s panel about FDR and the Holocaust:

“During the 1930s, as many European Jews were looking for a safe haven from official anti-Semitism, members of the State Department enforced the bloodless immigration laws with cold rigidity. Yet even Roosevelt’s bitterest critics concede that nothing he could have done–including bombing the rails leading to Auschwitz in 1944–would have saved significant numbers from annihilation, let alone dissuaded the Nazis from doing what they were so intent on doing.”

What’s wrong with that passage?  Everything.

First, it wrongly attempts to divert responsibility for U.S. immigration policy to a handful of “members of the State Department.” In fact, the immigration policy –which kept immigration far below the legal limits set by Congress– had the full knowledge and approval of President Roosevelt himself throughout the Holocaust years.

Second, the historical record clearly disproves the claim that “nothing [Roosevelt] could have done … would have saved significant numbers from annihilation.”  Varian Fry and his colleagues saved some 2,000 refugees from Vichy France in 1940-41.  Raoul Wallenberg saved many thousands from the Nazis in Hungary in 1944.  The U.S. War Refugee Board helped stop the Hungarian deportations to Auschwitz –saving some 120,000 Jews in Budapest– and helped rescue tens of thousands of others elsewhere in Europe.  These examples demonstrate that when there was the will, ways could be found to save lives.

There are numerous steps that the Roosevelt administration could have taken to save lives, such as granting refugees temporary haven in America or in Allied-controlled regions; pressuring the British to open Palestine to refugees; ordering the bombing of the gas chambers at Auschwitz or the railways leading to them; and giving broader funding and power to the War Refugee Board.

Outraged by the museum’s distortion of the historical record, twenty-five historians who have researched and written about America’s response to the Holocaust have spoken out.  These are the top experts in the field, and they recently signed a petition of protest, organized by The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, calling the museum’s text about the Holocaust “misleading and inaccurate” and urging “that the wording of this panel be corrected as soon as possible.”

The signatories on the petition include Prof. David Wyman, author of the best-seller The Abandonment of the Jews; Prof. Samantha Power of Harvard University, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide; Prof. Greg Robinson of the University of Quebec, author of By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans; and Prof. Blanche W. Cook of the City University of New York, author of the award-winning two-volume biography, Eleanor Roosevelt; and Dr. Racelle Weiman, director of Hebrew Union College’s Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education.

Other individuals of prominence are also speaking out.  Prof. Michael Berenbaum, former research director for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C., told the New York Sun that the Roosevelt museum’s panel is “unbearable. It lacks all shame,” and Marvin Kalb, of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, noted that “even a less-than-serious review of World War II history would show that the Allies could have disrupted rail lines into Auschwitz and thereby damaged Hitler’s killing machine.”

If the Roosevelt Museum were a private institution trying to present FDR’s record in the best possible light, historians would still protest the museum’s distortions of the historical record.  But the fact that it is a government-funded institution makes the offense even graver, since it means that taxpayers’ money is being used for the partisan purpose of whitewashing what Roosevelt did –and didn’t do– in response to the Nazi genocide.

There may yet be hope for change.  Museum officials have informed the New York Sun, which played a key role in bringing the story to light, that the controversial Holocaust text is being reviewed and that the historians’ protest will be given serious consideration.  The historians, and the public, await the museum’s decision.

August 2005