Major Project: FDR’S Jewish Problem (2016)

By October 31, 2016 November 19th, 2018 Bnei Mitzvah, Major Papers

The following essay about Jewish art was written by Jonah Edelman-Gold, a middle schooler, enrolled in City Congregation’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Students spend a year and a half researching their heritage, values and beliefs, and write on a Jewish subject of their choice, their major project; an example of this last component can be seen below. The process improves both the student’s writing and critical thinking skills, as well as his/her self confidence and overall maturity.


I originally chose President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to be my role model, not my final project, because I knew that he was the first disabled president, that he helped the United States recover from the Great Depression with his New Deal, and that he kept millions of older people from dying in poverty by pushing for Social Security.  I wanted to learn more about him. What I discovered through my research was that even though FDR was a strong leader, it isn’t that simple to call someone a role model. In particular, I discovered that he could have done more to help the Jews before and during World War II.  So instead of making FDR my role model, I decided to make him my final project to look further at his relations with the Jews.

FDR, who was born in 1882, grew up in Hyde Park, New York, in a famous and wealthy family. He would spend his summers at expensive camps around the world and went to Harvard University and Columbia Law School.

FDR looked up to his older cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, former president, which is why he went into politics. FDR’s first political role was as a New York senator.  He was named the Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913, and at age 31 was the youngest man ever to have this position. He even ran for vice-president of the United States in 1920, but lost.

In the summer of 1921, at age 39, FDR contracted polio and, as a result, was paralyzed from his waist down.  Polio is a very infectious disease that paralyzes the victim’s body, and even can be fatal. At that time it infected one in four infants. FDR was inspired to get better by his cousin Theodore, who had been a sick child but worked his way back to health and ended up as President of the United States. FDR fought his disability by exercising. Roosevelt wanted respect, not pity, and never used his disability to gain sympathy. 

At first, FDR thought that having been disabled by polio meant the end of his political career.  But, inspired by Al Smith, the Catholic New York governor who asked FDR to help him win the 1928 Democratic nomination for president, FDR ended up running for governor of New York State, and was elected in 1928. 

He decided to run for President of the United States in the 1932 election.  He knew voters would not think he was able to be president because of his polio, so he hid his disability. Over the course of his career, of the 35,000 pictures of FDR, only two showed him in a wheelchair. He was committed to having an image of strength, which meant hiding his disability whenever possible.  He was the first disabled person to become president.

FDR is best known for his presidency during the Great Depression. He had made his campaign all about it. The Great Depression started in 1929, when stock prices dropped, many businesses failed, and people wanted to take their money out of banks. The banks didn’t have enough cash available, so they couldn’t repay their customers.  This led to many bank failures, in which people lost all their money.  One author comments, “Bank failures were as contagious as the poliovirus” (Marrin, 2015).   Things got so bad during the Depression that in FDR’s first year as president the unemployment rate was almost 25%.

  FDR was famous for his “Fireside Chats,” when he would broadcast a speech on the radio for millions to hear. The people felt like he wasn’t addressing millions, but them alone. His first one was about the banking system in 1933 to help them understand it. Let’s hear a clip of the first few minutes of his first fireside chat.

FDR’S first fireside speech

In the first 100 days of his presidency, FDR created what he called The New Deal, which focused on the three R’s – Relief, Reform and Recovery. FDR also created many agencies, called the “Alphabet Soup” agencies because they were known by their initials, to open up industries and reduce unemployment. These included: the FHA, the Federal Housing Administration; the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps; and the WPA, the Works Progress Administration.

Alphabet Soup List

One of FDR’s greatest achievements was to create Social Security to protect senior citizens, which was revolutionary at the time but which many people now take for granted.

Around the time of FDR’s first term, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party were coming into power in Germany. Hitler blamed Germany’s loss of World War I on the Jews. There already was a lot of anti-Semitism in Germany, but he brought it out even more. Hitler’s original goal was to eliminate Jews from Germany, trying to get them to emigrate to other countries. To deal with what he called “The Jewish Problem,” he passed laws to separate the “Aryans” (Germans) from the Jews and make it more difficult for Jews to live in Germany.  Things really became bad on November 9, 1938, in what later became known as Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass. Nazis in Germany and Austria raided and destroyed thousands of Jewish businesses and homes. It was clear that there was no longer a home for any Jews in Germany.  Hitler ultimately developed a plan to kill all the Jews in the world.  In all, about six million Jews died in what is now known as the Holocaust.

A number of people have criticized FDR’s actions, or lack of action, in dealing with the situation of Jews in Europe before and during World War II. They think that Roosevelt should have allowed more Jews to immigrate to the United States during that period, and also that he should have bombed either the concentration camps or the railroads leading to them.  Is this criticism justified?

We should start with the political situation during FDR’s early years as president.  While millions of Eastern and Southern Europeans had immigrated to the United States during the late 1800s and early 1900s, bombings by radicals just after World War I led Congress to fear a Communist or anarchist takeover of the US, and Congress viewed Jews and Italians with the most suspicion.  As a result, they limited the number of people allowed into the United States each year, setting country by country quotas that favored the Western European countries, which had many fewer Jews. The law restricting immigration was also passed partly as a result of general anti-Semitism in the United States.  While Jews in the United States experienced much better conditions than they had in Europe, many people in the United States had unfavorable views of Jews, especially Eastern European Jews, and discriminated against them. One author comments:  “in 1937 two out of five Americans voiced anti-Jewish sentiment.  In March of 1938, 41% of Americans believed that Jews had too much power, and 50% believed that they were to blame for their own persecution.”

One thing that FDR definitely was not, however, was anti-Semitic.  He had many Jewish friends, and Jewish advisers like the law professor and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter; and the Zionist leader Rabbi Steven Wise, for which he was publicly criticized.  Unlike every president before him, he included many Jews in his administration, such as Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau; Benjamin Cohen; and Tennessee Valley Authority head David Lilienthal. In fact, there were so many Jews in the Roosevelt administration – about 15%, compared to 3% for the overall population — that some people called the “New Deal” the “Jew Deal,” and referred to Roosevelt as “Rosenfeld.”  He was criticized for being too sympathetic to the Jews.  So even though he was not anti-Semitic himself, in order to get elected and re-elected he had to take into account the overall feelings of the voters.

During the 1930’s, as more and more German Jews were trying to escape Germany, many people who wanted to move to the US were not able to do so because of the immigration quotas.  FDR wanted to allow more German Jews into the US, but he did not want to invite voter backlash for helping the Jews, and risk not getting re-elected.  As historians have noted, Public opinion in the United States, although ostensibly sympathetic to the plight of refugees and critical of Hitler’s policies, continued to favor immigration restrictions.” Probably just as important, FDR was still dealing with unemployment caused by the Great Depression and did not want to be accused of accepting refugees (Jewish or not) who might take the jobs from American citizens.  Finally, some people were worried that allowing German Jews into the US would allow Nazi Germany to put its own spies in the US, at a time when people suspected that there might be another war in the near future.

So FDR could not do a lot for the German Jews, although he did do certain things.  For example, he ordered his State Department to fill up its existing quotas for immigration. Unfortunately, FDR’s Department of State was heavily anti-Semitic, and disobeyed FDR’s orders and issued secret orders of its own to make it very hard for Jews to come to the US.  FDR also issued an order allowing German Jews who were in the US on temporary visas to stay indefinitely, and this alone saved thousands of Jews.

Because FDR could not do much to allow German Jews to enter the US, he spent a lot of time urging other countries to accept more Jews.  For example, he tried to get Britain to allow much more immigration to Palestine, which it was reluctant to do because it did not want to anger the Arabs living there.  He also tried to get South American and African countries to accept more German Jewish refugees.  He had some success in urging these countries to take German Jews wishing to emigrate, but he had to put a lot of pressure on them, because their response to FDR’s request was generally, “If you won’t take them, why should we?”

The most famous example of the issues concerning the emigration of the German Jews before World War II involved the ship St. Louis.  On May 13, 1939, 937 Jewish refugees sailed on the St. Louis from Hamburg, Germany, to Cuba. Cuba had been one of the countries that FDR had gotten to agree to take more Jewish refugees.  When the ship arrived, however, Cuba would only let 28 of the 937 into the country. The dictator Batista demanded large bribes to let the rest in, and negotiations fell apart.  The ship could not go back to Germany, so it sailed to Florida.  The situation of the St. Louis passengers got a lot of press around the world.  The US would not let them in, because it would violate the immigration law, but the State Department did try to get other countries to let the St. Louis passengers in.  Ultimately, the US got several European countries such as Belgium, Britain, France and the Netherlands to take the passengers.  Since World War II had not started yet, everyone thought that they were now safe.  However, about one third of them ended up dying in the Holocaust.

By 1944 FDR was so popular he didn’t have to worry about being reelected, so he could take more action to help the European Jews.  He created the War Refugee Board, which helped save at least 200,000 Jews in Europe. The Board worked with diplomats in neutral countries like Sweden and Spain to help Jews escape from Nazi-occupied areas. The most extensive rescue work sponsored by the War Refugee Board was done by Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat based in Budapest. He worked to prevent tens of thousands of Jews from going to the Auschwitz concentration camp by giving them Swedish passports. He also set up hospitals, nurseries and soup kitchens for them. Although the War Refugee Board saved over 200,000 lives, some people wonder how many more could have been saved if FDR had been comfortable enough in his position as president to create it earlier.

Near the end of World War II, several Jewish organizations recommended bombing the railways leading to the Auschwitz concentration camp.  They thought that bombing the railways would make it more difficult to transport Jews from Hungary to their deaths at Auschwitz.  They asked the War Department to bomb the railroads, but their request was denied.  However, there is no evidence that FDR knew about the request, and some people have argued that the railroads could easily be rebuilt, so bombing them would have been useless.

It seemed as if FDR didn’t care about the Jews, but he believed that the majority of Jews would be helped in the long run if the Allies’ first priority was to defeat Germany rather than focusing on saving the Jews. He wanted a military victory but eventually he realized that the situation involving the Jews was too serious and that he needed to actively help them.

FDR died on April 12th, 1945, just before Germany surrendered. People view him as one of America’s greatest presidents, but also criticize him for not doing anything to stop Hitler’s rise to power and not doing more to save the German and Eastern European Jews.  In the end he is only a human, and humans make mistakes. What FDR did was extraordinary. He brought America and the world out of the greatest depression in history, and helped the lives of millions of older Americans. As far as his treatment of the Jews, I agree with one book that argued, “FDR was neither a hero nor a bystander to the Nazis persecution.”(Breitman and Lichtman 2013) For example, before WWII FDR didn’t push to let Jews in because he didn’t want voter backlash. That certainly was not the action of a hero.  He did more at the end of the war, but was it enough?

Currently, many Americans believe that letting in refugees is a legacy that America should have. But a significant portion of the country disagrees, and that is one of the major issues going on now in the US in the election happening in two weeks.   In the 1930s and early 1940s, however, most Americans didn’t believe it was America’s responsibility to let in refugees, and as a president hoping to get re-elected FDR had to deal with these beliefs.

The authors of the recent book FDR and the Jews suggest that, while he was president, FDR went through four phases on Jewish issues.  In the first phase, mostly during his first term in office, FDR was too concerned about his political future and being re-elected to spend time on Jewish issues, especially when he had to deal with trying to get the US out of the Great Depression.  The authors point out that he “declined to meet with Jewish leaders until shortly before the 1936 election.”  But after he won a second term, FDR became more confident about dealing with Jewish issues, and in the late 1930s he pushed to resettle European Jews in other countries, including Palestine.  When World War II started, FDR felt that he had to stop helping the Jews in Europe, because the US was a neutral country prior to the end of 1941.  After the US entered the war, however, and FDR found out about the Nazis’ plan to exterminate the Jews, he established the War Refugee Board to help Jews escape Nazi persecution.

FDR had faults. But anybody who was in his position would have faults also.  He made some limited efforts to help German Jews before the war started, although he probably could have done more to save them.  He also helped to save many lives by creating the War Refugee Board, but how many more lives could he have saved if he acted earlier? It is difficult to only look at him in one way. He is a leader to admire, but took a very passive position on the Jewish refugees, which makes him controversial in history. I consider him a strong leader who had to make very difficult decisions in a difficult time, and he did the best he could under the circumstances.