Sidney Zion, FDR, and the Holocaust

By: Dr. Rafael Medoff

Sidney Zion, the federal prosecutor-turned-journalist who passed away on August 2, was widely admired in the Jewish community because of the strongly pro-Israel articles he wrote as a columnist for New York’s daily newspapers, at a time when many other pundits were ganging up on the Jewish State.

But Zion also deserves to be remembered for another courageous stance he took–regarding President Franklin Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust.

Zion was not a historian, but he immersed himself in books and articles about Allied policy toward European Jewry in the 1930s and 1940s. He also spoke personally with many of the men who had been ke y players in wartime Washington. Their eyewitness accounts of that era taught him plenty.

Zion once told me of a conversation he had in 1968 with Fowler Harper, an ardent New Dealer who had served in the Roosevelt administration as Assistant Secretary of the Interior, under Harold Ickes. Zion asked Harper about FDR’s policy toward Europe’s Jews, and was surprised when the usually-gregarious Harper declined to answer and tried to change the subject.

After much prodding by Zion, a crestfallen Harper reluctantly recalled how he and Ickes repeatedly tried to call Roosevelt’s attention to opportunities to rescue Jewish refugees. Tears streaming down his face, Harper slowly lifted his right index finger off the table, and said, “But Roosevelt wouldn’t do this for the Jews.”

Zion was not afraid to publicize this and other unflattering information about FDR, even when it meant enduring barbs from Roosevelt’s apologists.

In 1997, he was invited to participate in a panel discussion at the Harvard Club in New York City, sponsored by the Leo Baeck Institute, on “FDR and the Holocaust: Did the President Do All He Could to Save European Jewry?”

The line up of speakers made it clear that, as Zion would have put it, the fix was in. The other four panelists were William Vanden Heuvel and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the co-chairs of the Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt Institute; and two professors who likewise defended FDR’s response to the Holocaust. In other words, it was four against one. That did not deter Sid Zion in the slightest.

The transcript of the session shows that FDR’s defenders spoke for 79% of the time. Vanden Heuvel alone accounted for more than half of the discussion.

“The German [immigration] quota was the second largest quota,” Vanden Heuvel asserted, as if that was evidence of American largesse, while never explaining that the German quota was almost never filled–in fact, more than 300,000 quota places from Germany (in the 1930s) and Axis-occupied countries (in the 1940s) were never used because the Roosevelt administration actively discouraged would-be immigrants.

At another point, Vanden Heuvel praised FDR for “keeping a relationship with Vichy France despite great political pressure and one of the reasons for keeping it was because it was a channel” for Jewish refugees to escape. Vanden Heuvel neglected to mention that those refugees were rescued not by Roosevelt but by journalist Varian Fry, and when the Vichy French and the Nazis complained about Fry, the Roosevelt administration canceled Fry’s passport, bringing his rescue activity to an end.

This is what Sid Zion had to contend with. Although he had the floor for just 21% of the discussion, and only 6% of the question-and-answer period, he quickly demonstrated that quality was more important than quantity.

Responding to one of his opponents’ claim that the only way to save European Jewry was to win the war, Zion declared: “We won the war and all the Jews were dead, so thank you very much for the notion that all we had to do was win the war and we’d save the Jews.”

“Apologists always think of some reason why you couldn’t do anything,” Zion said at another point. “But I’ll tell you one thing, and everybody knows this for sure, that if Hitler had gotten into England and had started to massacre and gas the English people, do you really believe FDR would have sat back and done thing about that? When he warned the Germans never to use poison gas, they didn’t on anybody–except the Jews.”

Finally, this: “Let’s consider the fate of the St. Louis. FDR could have let the passengers on that ship in, with an executive order, but he didn’t let them in…[One year later,] the English kids were welcomed here….We took them right away….Now there was a double standard like nobody’s business.”

Whether defending Israel ag ainst its enemies or exposing those who abandoned the Jews in the 1940s, Sid Zion fought the good fight, using his sharp tongue and devastating pen “like nobody’s business.” He will be missed.

August 2009