Sav­ing the Jews: Franklin D. Roo­sevelt and the Holocaust

Robert N. Rosen
  • Review
By – October 26, 2011

Robert N. Rosen — a lawyer who holds an M.A. in his­to­ry from Har­vard — has under­tak­en the for­mi­da­ble task of defend­ing Amer­i­ca (more specif­i­cal­ly, Franklin Roo­sevelt, his admin­is­tra­tion, and the Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty) against charges of indif­fer­ence to, and there­fore moral com­plic­i­ty in, the Holo­caust. On the whole he presents a con­vinc­ing legal argu­ment. He mar­shals his evi­dence ably, argues vig­or­ous­ly on behalf of his clients, and deliv­ers a resound­ing ver­dict: far from being indif­fer­ent, the pow­ers-that-were, act­ing on lim­it­ed knowl­edge and with­in very tight prac­ti­cal con­straints, did all they could to res­cue the vic­tims of the Holocaust 

At times, how­ev­er, Rosen seems to tie him­self in log­i­cal knots. Much of the book is giv­en over to an exam­i­na­tion of Amer­i­can immi­gra­tion laws, which pre­vent­ed the Roo­sevelt admin­is­tra­tion from admit­ting mean­ing­ful num­bers of Jew­ish refugees before the war broke out and escape became vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble. Rosen repeat­ed­ly argues that Roosevelt’s hands were tied. Much as he want­ed to, FDR sim­ply couldn’t over­ride laws on the books in order to save more Jews. Yet Rosen repeat­ed­ly prais­es FDR for ignor­ing the law in order to pro­vide aid to the British in their fight against Hitler in the years before Pearl Harbor. 

More dis­turbing­ly, while Rosen does a great deal to defend FDR against charges of anti-Semi­tism, he does this in large part by por­tray­ing him, con­vinc­ing­ly, as a supreme­ly prac­ti­cal politi­cian maneu­ver­ing in a domes­tic cul­ture (and gov­ern­ment bureau­cra­cy) that was over­whelm­ing­ly anti-Semit­ic and sim­ply wouldn’t have tol­er­at­ed a large influx of Jews from Europe. FDR him­self may come off as con­cerned and earnest, but the charge of col­lec­tive guilt that his crit­ics would lev­el against Amer­i­ca goes unre­butted (and per­haps bolstered). 

Ulti­mate­ly, how­ev­er, Rosen lim­its his own argu­ment by focus­ing so intent­ly on rebut­ting pure­ly fac­tu­al charges on pure­ly fac­tu­al grounds. The case against Amer­i­ca for its role in the Holo­caust (or lack there­of) aris­es not so much from fac­tu­al ques­tions as from eth­i­cal ones: To what extent is pas­siv­i­ty or indif­fer­ence moral­ly equiv­a­lent to guilt or com­plic­i­ty? In the face of enor­mous evil, is there’s noth­ing we could have done,” even when truth­ful, an ade­quate defense for not try­ing every­thing pos­si­ble, includ­ing mea­sures vir­tu­al­ly cer­tain to fail? Is fail­ure to behave in super­heroic fash­ion tan­ta­mount to cow­ardice? Rosen mere­ly glances at these eth­i­cal issues in a brief post­script. A more extend­ed treat­ment would have been welcome.

Bar­bara Bietz is a free­lance writer and children’s book review­er. She is cur­rent­ly a mem­ber of the Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Award Com­mit­tee. Bar­bara is the author of the mid­dle grade book, Like a Mac­cabee. She has a blog ded­i­cat­ed to Jew­ish books for chil­dren at www​.Bar​baraB​Book​Blog​.Blogspot​.com.

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