Ken Burns & PBS Whitewash FDR’s response to the Holocaust

by Rafael Medoff


For seven consecutive nights in September, PBS aired the latest Ken Burns documentary, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.” Millions of Americans watched the latest compelling Burns production, which masterfully interspersed old film footage with the actual words of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt, spoken, in character, by Edward Herrmann, Meryl Streep, and other outstanding actors. It was great entertainment. But when it came to the topic of FDR’s response to the Nazi persecution of Europe’s Jews, “The Roosevelts” was fatally flawed.

The fifth and sixth episodes, covering the 1930s, briefly referred to the question of German Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler and seeking to immigrate to the United States. A Gallup poll found more than 80% of Americans “opposed offering sanctuary to European refugees,” the narrator reported.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt “battled on behalf of admitting Jewish refugees to the United States for as long as the Nazis were willing to grant them exit visas,” the narrator asserted. “Restrictive immigration laws frustrated her.”

Missing from this discussion of America’s immigration policy was any mention of the man who was actually responsible for America’s immigration policy–the president.

Yes, the existing immigration laws were “restrictive.” But the manner in which the Roosevelt administration chose to implement them made things much worse. The administration went above and beyond the law, imposing extra requirements and burdensome regulations, in order to discourage and disqualify would-be immigrants.

The annual quota of immigrants from Germany was 25,957, but in 1933, Hitler’s first year in power, barely five percent of that German quota was filled. The following year, less than 14 percent of those spaces were filled. FDR permitted the German quota to be filled in only one year of his twelve years in the White House. In most of those years, it was less than 25% filled. As a result, some 190,000 quota places from Germany and Axis-occupied countries sat unused during the Hitler years.

Since opponents of immigration constantly claimed that newcomers would take jobs away from American citizens, refugee advocates proposed legislation, known as the Wagner-Rogers bill, to admit 20,000 German Jewish children outside the quota system. Nine year-olds would not take away jobs. Laura Delano Houghteling, a cousin of President Roosevelt and wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration, said she was against the bill bcause “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.”

FDR himself took no position on Wagner-Rogers. An inquiry by a congresswoman as to the president’s stance was returned to Roosevelt’s secretary marked “File No action FDR.” Without presidential backing, the bill went nowhere.

Anne Frank, the teenage Holocaust diarist, was one of those who had hoped to immigrate to the United States (and could have qualified under Wagner-Rogers). After the Franks fled from Germany to Holland in 1934, Anne’s father, Otto, repeatedly sought permission to bring the family to America.

Otto Frank had already lived in the U.S. from 1909 to 1911, working as intern at Macy’s Department Store, in New York City. Yet that was not enough to qualify them for immigration visas. Two of Anne’s uncles lived in Massachusetts, giving the Frank family a support network should they fall on hard times. Yet that, too, was not enough. Their application was denied in 1941–a year when less than half of the quota for German-born immigrants was used. Refused asylum, the Franks ultimately secreted themselves in a cramped attic in Amsterdam; the rest of that tragic story is well known.

Anne’s mother, Edith, wrote to a friend: “I believe that all Germany’s Jews are looking around the world, but can find nowhere to go.”

When it came to FDR and the issue of Jewish refugee immigration, Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts” got it wrong. Public opposition to increased immigration was not the main problem. President Roosevelt could have admitted many more refugees–within the existing law–without igniting any substantial public controversy. All he had to do was quietly instruct the State Department (which administered immigration) to permit immigrants to enter the United States up to the maximum number allowed by law. But he did not.


According to Ken Burns, President Roosevelt responded to the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom more forcefully than any other world leader. But the truth is that FDR responded with superficial gestures rather than meaningful action.

On the night of November 9-10, 1938, mobs of Nazi stormtroopers unleashed a hurricane of violence and destruction upon the Jews of Germany. Hundreds of Jews were beaten in the streets, and more than 90 were murdered. About 30,000 more were dragged off to concentration camps. Several hundred synagogues were burned to the ground, while fire fighters stood by, under orders from the Hitler government to act only to keep fires from spreading to property owned by non-Jews. An estimated 7,000 Jewish business were ransacked. The violence became known as Kristallnacht, the “Night of the Glass,” a reference to the widespread smashing of windows of Jewish homes and shops.

Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts” emphasized that FDR was “the only leader of a democratic nation to dare denounce” the pogrom. Six days after the violence ended, Roosevelt told a press conference that he “could scarcely believe such things could occur” in the 20th century.

FDR also took two steps. He extended the visas of the approximately 15,000 German Jewish refugees who were then in the United States as tourists–but he also announced that liberalization of America’s immigration policy was “not in contemplation.” Roosevelt also recalled the U.S. ambassador from Germany for “consultations” –but  he rejected suggestions by some members of Congress to break diplomatic ties with the Hitler regime.

The narrator on “The Roosevelts” pointed out that Roosevelt’s temporary recall of the ambassador was “something neither Britain nor France dared do.”

When it came to token gestures, FDR did indeed surpass Britain and France. But when it came to meaningful action to help the Jews, it was another story.

In the weeks following Kristallnacht, Great Britain took in 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish refugee children (known as the Kindertransport project), 5,000 refugees who had been released from Nazi concentration camps on condition that they leave Germany, and thousands of young German Jewish women who were admitted as cooks and nannies.

France, which was in the midst of cracking down on undocumented Jewish refugees, was less generous. Nevertheless, in the months following Kristallnacht, it did agree to admit 1,000 German and Austrian Jewish children, eased the status of some illegal Jewish immigrants, and accepted 224 of the passengers on the refugee ship St. Louis, which was 224 more than the Roosevelt administration took in.

In any event, the real question is not how President Roosevelt compared to other heads of state, but what options were actually before him as he weighed how to respond to Kristallnacht.

Here are some of the most promising ones:

The governor and legislative assembly of the Virgin Islands, a U.S. territory, offered to open their doors to Jewish refugees. FDR rejected the offer; he said Nazi spies disguised as Jewish refugees might sneak from the islands to the mainland.

Several members of Roosevelt’s cabinet, and some members of Congress, proposed opening the Alaska territory to refugees. The president said he would consider it only if no more than 10% of the immigrants were Jews.

College professors, students, rabbis, cantors, and their families were exempt from the quota limits. Roosevelt could have quietly told the State Department to be more lenient in approving their visas applications. He did not.

The British government suggested that the Roosevelt administration give unused British quota places (there were more than 60,000 left over each year) to German Jewish applicants. U.S. officials indignantly rebuffed the proposal as unwarranted interference in America’s domestic affairs.

When it came to FDR’s response to Kristallnacht, Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts” got it wrong. The president’s actions were thin gestures that look even less impressive when one considers the other steps that were proposed to him at the time.


After President Roosevelt learned that Hitler was slaughtering the Jews, he created a government agency to try to rescue them–according to Ken Burns.

Burns’s depiction of FDR’s response to the Holocaust is an excellent example of something that is technically true–yet is, in fact, utterly misleading.

“When news began to reach [Roosevelt] at the end of 1942 that the Germans had moved on from mistreatment to mass murder,” the narrator of ‘The Roosevelts’ recounted, “he joined Churchill and Stalin and ten Allied governments in exile in promising to prosecute and publish those responsible for what they called ‘this bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination.’ “

Technically true, but profoundly misleading.

The president did not exactly rush to acknowledge and condemn the mass murders. In fact, when information about the killings began reaching Washington in mid-1942, Roosevelt administration officials suppressed it. When that information reached American Jewish leaders from another source, U.S. officials pressed them to hold back the news until it could be investigated further. Finally, three months later, the administration grudgingly conceded that the information was correct.

Even at that point, the White House was in no hurry to speak out. It was the British government that suggested issuing a joint Allied statement about the killings. Roosevelt’s State Department at first resisted the proposal, fearing–as one official put it–that “the various Governments of the United Nations [as the Allies were informally known] would expose themselves to increased pressure from all sides to do something more specific in order to aid these people.”

The Roosevelt administration eventually went along with the joint Allied statement, but only after watering down some of the language. For example, the proposed phrase “reports from Europe which leave no doubt” (that mass murder was underway) was whittled down to just “numerous reports from Europe.”

Back to the Ken Burns version of history: “And [President Roosevelt] eventually created the War Refugee Board, that provided funds and authorization to help Jews flee from the edges of the Nazi empire.”

“Eventually” is what we might call a wiggle word. It’s correct, but it’s so vague that the listener has no idea whether it means four weeks or four months. In this case, it actually meant 14 months.

After verbally condemning the mass murder (in December 1942), President Roosevelt shunted the issue aside. That’s where it would have remained, except for the fact that in late 1943, senior aides to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. discovered that State Department officials had been blocking transmission of Holocaust-related information to the U.S. and obstructing opportunities to rescue Jews from Hitler.

Meanwhile, at almost the same time, the rescue issue was reaching the boiling point on Capitol Hill and in the press. Throughout 1943, the Jewish activists known as the Bergson group had been waging a campaign of rallies, full-page newspaper ads, and lobbying Congress for U.S. rescue action. In November, Members of Congress introduced a Bergson-inspired resolution calling for creation of a U.S. government agency to rescue refugees.

The agency that the activists had in mind ultimately came into existence as the War Refugee Board–that’s the board which Ken Burns credits Roosevelt for establishing. The problem is that the White House actively opposed the resolution that urged creating the board.

In other words, FDR was against the refugee board before he was for it.

The Roosevelt administration’s attempt to block the resolution in the House of Representatives backfired. FDR’s old friend Breckinridge Long, the assistant secretary of state in charge of refugee matters, gave wildly misleading testimony about the number of refugees who had already been admitted into the country. Long’s lies were quickly exposed, triggering a wave of criticism of the administration. Meanwhile, the rescue resolution was quickly approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

It was against this backdrop of congressional pressure and Jewish protests that Secretary Morgenthau met with the president in January 1944. He explained to FDR what his aides had discovered about the State Department blocking rescue, and he warned that “you have either got to move very fast, or the Congress of the United States will do it for you.” Ten months before election day, the last thing FDR wanted was a public scandal over the refugee issue. Within days, Roosevelt did what the Congressional resolution sought–he issued an executive order creating the War Refugee Board.

So, yes–Roosevelt did indeed “eventually” establish the board, as Ken Burns put it. But he did so only after the administration’s attempt to kill the board proposal failed. And it took him 14 months from the time the genocide news was confirmed–14 crucial months in which much more could have been done to rescue Jews from Hitler.

When it came to President Roosevelt’s creation of the War Refugee Board, Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts” got it wrong. Praising FDR for establishing the board that he fought against tooth and nail is giving him credit where credit isn’t due.


“Europe’s Jews were Hitler’s prisoners,” according to Ken Burns. And since the Jews were prisoners, there was nothing the United States could do to help them “other than to obliterate that madman and his monstrous regime.”

The claim that there was nothing President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration could have done to rescue Jews is not new. FDR and his spokesmen themselves made that claim repeatedly during the Holocaust years. They even coined a sound byte to give their policy a positive spin: “Rescue through victory.”

To which Congressman Emanuel Celler replied: “Victory, the spokesmen say, is the only solution…After victory, the disembodied spirits will not present so difficult a problem; the dead no longer need food, drink and asylum.”

The truth is that Hitler’s Europe was not hermetically sealed. We know that many Jews could have been rescued prior to the Allied liberation, because many Jews DID escape or were rescued before the war ended, without the help of the Roosevelt administration.

More than 26,000 European Jewish refugees reached Palestine between 1941 and 1944 in transports organized by Zionist activists. An estimated 27,000 Jewish refugees escaped to Switzerland and were granted haven during the war years, though tens of thousands more reached the Swiss border but were turned back. More than 7,000 Danish Jews were smuggled out of Nazi-occupied Denmark to safety in Sweden in 1943. Thousands of French Jews escaped the 1942 deportations by fleeing to Spain. Thousands more reached Allied-liberated Italy.

There was a myriad of ways to save Jews within Europe.

For example, in 1944, the U.S. government’s War Refugee Board –operating with almost no support from the White House or other government branches– convinced Romania to move 48,000 Jews out of the path of the retreating German Army.

The WRB also financed operations to help refugees survive in France, Germany, Italy, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, including bribing German officials, providing supplies and forged documents, and sustaining 8,000 Jewish orphans hidden in France.

The WRB also mobilized the international pressure that stopped the deportation of Jews from Budapest to Auschwitz in 1944, and Raoul Wallenberg, who was financed and assisted by the Board, saved many thousands in Budapest. As a result, some 120,000 Jews were still alive in Hungary at war’s end.

There were also numerous opportunities to save Jews that were squandered.

For instance, Rumania offered in early 1943 to allow 70,000 Jews to leave Transnistria. The Allied governments ignored the offer.

The War Refugee Board drew up a plan for pressuring Spain to shelter more refugees. The plan was blocked by the U.S. ambassador in Madrid, Carlton Hayes.

More than 200 rabbis held in the Vittel internment camp in France were deported to their deaths in 1944 because the U.S. State Department stalled for seven weeks before asking America’s allies to vouch for the rabbis’ questionable Latin American passports.

The Roosevelt administration refused to order the bombing of the Auschwitz gas chambers or the railways leading there, on the grounds that it would have required diverting aircraft from the battlefront. But, in fact, U.S. planes repeatedly flew over Auschwitz in 1944 when they struck German oil factories within a few miles of the crematoria, and when they dropped supplies for the Polish Home Army.

It was also possible to ship food and medical supplies to Jews in Nazi Europe. Pressure from the War Refugee Board resulted in the Red Cross delivering 40,000 food parcels to concentration camp prisoners in 1944–45. Near war’s end, the Board itself acquired trucks and delivered additional parcels to prisoners—and even brought 1,400 women refugees back across the Swiss border to safety.

When it came to the feasibility of rescuing Jews from Europe, Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts” got it wrong. “Rescue through victory” was not a policy; it was an excuse. There were indeed ways to rescue Jews prior to victory. The problem is that in the White House, there was no will to do so.



The Jews were not the only minority group whose abandonment by President Franklin D. Roosevelt was misrepresented and minimized in “The Roosevelts.” Japanese-Americans, too, received short shrift in the PBS series. And there is a crucial connection between FDR’s response to the Holocaust and his mass internment of the Japanese.

In episode #6, Burns referred briefly to President Roosevelt’s decision to place more than 110,000 Japanese –most of them U.S. citizens– in internment camps during World War Two. But instead of examining the reasons for FDR’s actions, “The Roosevelts” quickly turned its attention to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who sympathized with the internees and visited one of the detention centers.

Burns used the same device in episode #5, when referring to the Roosevelt administration closing America’s doors to Jewish refugees who were trying to flee the Nazis. Instead of exploring the reasons for FDR’s attitudes toward immigration, Burns described the First Lady’s sympathy for Jewish refugees.

In effect, Burns used Mrs. Roosevelt as a cover for the president’s troubling actions. In doing so, Burns missed –or ducked?– an important aspect of FDR’s worldview, which had a direct impact on U.S. policy.

While living in Warm Springs, Georgia, in the 1920s, Roosevelt authored a number of overheated articles about Asian immigration to the United States. He warned against granting citizenship to “non-assimilable immigrants,” and opposed Japanese immigration on the grounds that “mingling Asiatic blood with European or American blood produces, in nine cases out of ten, the most unfortunate results.”

In another column, FDR said he favored the admission of some Europeans, so long as they had “blood of the right sort.” He argued that immigration should be restricted until the U.S. could thoroughly “digest” those foreigners who had already been admitted. He proposed limiting future immigration to those who could be most quickly and easily assimilated, including through dispersal around the country.

FDR viewed the Japanese, including Japanese-Americans, as having innate racial characteristics that made them unassimilable and untrustworthy. Prof. Greg Robinson (an American historian at the University of Quebec), who revealed Roosevelt’s articles in his 2001 book, By Order of the President, concluded that the president’s private views about the Japanese played a significant role in shaping his decision to intern them–a decision FDR reached even though no cases of treason or espionage by Japanese-Americans had been uncovered.

Roosevelt’s remarks about Jews bore a striking resemblance to what he said about Asians.

In a newspaper interview in 1920, when he was the Democratic candidate for vice president, FDR said that “the greater part of the foreign population of the City of New York” should have been “distributed to different localities upstate” so that they would feel pressured to “conform to the manners and the customs and the requirements of their new home.”

Roosevelt spoke privately, on numerous occasions, about the alleged racial characteristics of Jews, the danger of allowing Jews to concentrate in particular areas, and the pernicious Jewish influence on various economies.

In 1923, for example, as a member of the Harvard board of directors, Roosevelt helped institute a quota to limit the number of Jewish students admitted to the college. In a conversation with American Jewish leader Rabbi Stephen S. Wise in 1938, Roosevelt claimed that Jewish domination of the Polish economy was what caused antisemitism in Poland. In 1939, FDR told U.S. Senator Burton Wheeler he was glad that “there is no Jewish blood in our veins.” In 1941, the president remarked at a cabinet meeting that there were too many Jews among federal employees in Oregon.

Meeting with government officials in Allied-liberated North Africa in January 1943, FDR said that the number of local Jews practicing law, medicine, and other professions “should be definitely limited to the percentage that the Jewish population in North Africa bears to the whole of the North African population.” Otherwise, the president said, there would be a recurrence of “the specific and understandable complaints which the Germans bore toward the Jews in Germany” because of their alleged overrepresentation in various fields.

At a private White House luncheon later that year, President Roosevelt told Prime Minister Winston Churchill that “the best way to settle the Jewish question” was “essentially to spread the Jews thin all over the world.” Roosevelt said that this approach had been “tried out” in Meriwether County, Georgia, and in Hyde Park, New York “on the basis of adding four or five Jewish families at each place,” and “the local population would have no objection if there were no more than that.”

FDR also exhibited a fondness for ‘Jewish jokes.’ Racially-tinged humor, of course, sometimes reflects the speaker’s genuine feelings of disdain toward the target of the joke. At the 1945 Yalta conference, when asked by Stalin whether he would make any concessions in his upcoming meeting with the king of Saudi Arabia, Roosevelt joked “that there was only one concession he thought he might offer and that was to give him the six million Jews in the United States.”

Much of what we know about FDR’s unpleasant jokes about Jews actually comes from the same historian who wrote the script for the Ken Burns documentary–Geoffrey C. Ward.

In his 1989 book, A First Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt, Ward recounted a fishing trip that Roosevelt took with friends off the coast of Florida in 1923. One of his friends “hooked and landed a 42-pound Jewfish. ‘…I thought we left New York to get away from the Jews,’ [the friend’s] wife said, and Franklin thought the remark so good he included it in his log.”

Elsewhere in that log, according to Ward, FDR added a little Jewish joke of his own: “The tip end of Florida is where Jonah had his trying experience–he was a Hebrew and hence cast up.” Roosevelt’s friend and closest political adviser, Louis Howe, later presented FDR with an album of anecdotes, photos, and illustrations from the fishing trip, including a drawing of –as Ward describes it– “a Jewfish with a prominent nose and a sort of crest from which hung the triple balls of a pawnbroker’s sign.”

In the book, Ward also recounts (albeit in a footnote) a revealing interview that he conducted with Curtis Roosevelt, one of the president’s grandchildren. Curtis told Ward that he “recalled hearing the President tell mildly anti-Semitic stories in the White House.” According to Ward, “The protagonists [in FDR’s jokes] were always Lower East Side Jews with heavy accents…”

But Ward did not see fit to mention anything about FDR’s private remarks about Jews in his script for Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts.” That’s unfortunate, because it would have helped viewers better understand both Roosevelt’s refusal to open America’s doors to Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, and his internment of the Japanese.

Neither Jews nor Japanese had what FDR considered “blood of the right sort.” He believed both groups possessed innate racial characteristics that made them untrustworthy. Keeping out as many as possible, dispersing the others around the country, putting the Japanese in detention camps during the war–all this was consistent with Franklin Roosevelt’s vision of how America should look and how it should treat potentially dangerous minority groups.

Thus, once again, when it came to understanding President Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust, Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts” got it wrong.

September 2014