Nearly seventy-five years after World War II, a contentious debate lingers over whether Franklin Delano Roosevelt turned his back on the Jews of Hitler’s Europe. Defenders claim that FDR saved millions of potential victims by defeating Nazi Germany. Others revile him as morally indifferent and indict him for keeping America’s gates closed to Jewish refugees and failing to bomb Auschwitz’s gas chambers.Considering the contentious question of what FDF did -- and did not do -- about the Holocaust, the following issue about whether the US turned back the ship The St. Louis, carrying Jewish refugees, seems to sum up that question.
In an extensive examination of this impassioned debate, Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman find that the president was neither savior nor bystander. In FDR and the Jews, they draw upon many new primary sources to offer an intriguing portrait of a consummate politician—compassionate but also pragmatic—struggling with opposing priorities under perilous conditions. For most of his presidency Roosevelt indeed did little to aid the imperiled Jews of Europe. He put domestic policy priorities ahead of helping Jews and deferred to others’ fears of an anti-Semitic backlash. Yet he also acted decisively at times to rescue Jews, often withstanding contrary pressures from his advisers and the American public. Even Jewish citizens who petitioned the president could not agree on how best to aid their co-religionists abroad.
Though his actions may seem inadequate in retrospect, the authors bring to light a concerned leader whose efforts on behalf of Jews were far greater than those of any other world figure. His moral position was tempered by the political realities of depression and war, a conflict all too familiar to American politicians in the twenty-first century.
The New York Times notes that the Book Tries for Balanced View on Roosevelt and Jews
They pointed in particular to the fate of the 937 German Jewish refugees on the ocean liner St. Louis, who were turned away from Cuba in May 1939 and sent back to other European countries, where 254 died after war broke out. The episode, made famous in the 1974 book “Voyage of the Damned” and a subsequent film, has come to seem emblematic of American callousness.Here is a press release from survivors of the St. Louis, challenging the book's claim:
There is simply no evidence, Mr. Breitman and Mr. Lichtman say, to support accounts that the United States Coast Guard was ordered to prevent the refugees from coming ashore in Florida. What’s more, they were turned away from Cuba, the authors argue, as part of a backlash against a previous influx of some 5,000 refugees to that country, who may have been admitted under the terms of a previously unknown deal between Roosevelt and the Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista, who got reduced tariffs for his nation’s sugar in return.
This new book is not likely to change people's minds, one way or the other.
St. Louis Refugee Ship Survivors Criticize New Book's Depiction of Their Experience:MIAMI - Survivors of the refugee ship St. Louis, the so-called "Voyage of the Damned," have strongly criticized a new book's claim that the U.S. Coast Guard was not sent to prevent their ship from reaching the United States in 1939.
The voyage of the St. Louis has come to symbolize the Roosevelt administration's refusal to admit any substantial number of Jewish refugees to the United States during the Hitler years. The ship was turned away from America's shore, and forced to return to Europe, where many of the St. Louis passengers were later murdered by the Nazis.
The full text of the survivors' statement follows below.
Statement by Passengers on the Refugee Ship St. Louis:
As passengers on the refugee ship St. Louis, we are outraged by the claim, in the book FDR and the Jews by Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman, that "There is no truth to the notion, found in some literature, that American officials ordered the coast guard to prevent any passengers from reaching American shores." (p.137)
We saw the Coast Guard planes that flew around the ship to follow its movements. We saw the Coast Guard cutter that trailed us and made sure the St.Louis did not come close to the Florida coast. We heard the cutter blaring its warning to the St. Louis to stay away.
Since the Coast Guard was carrying out its job of guarding the coast against anyone who tried to come close without permission, the Coast Guard planes and cutter had clearly been ordered to intercept the St. Louis and prevent any unauthorized landings of passengers. The Coast Guard planes and cutter were tragic symbols of a coldhearted government decision. It was President Franklin Roosevelt who decided our fate, who denied us and our family’s permission to land, forcing us to return to Europe, where many of the passengers were murdered by the Nazis. We categorically reject any and all attempts to distort these indisputable historical facts.
Herbert Karliner, Miami, FL
Professor Han Fisher, Boston, MA
Col. Phil Freund, Menomonie, WI
Fred Buff, Paramus, NJ
The mission of the SS St Louis Legacy Project is to promote greater awareness and dialogue on issues of human rights, immigration, and refugee policy. Through its proprietary education through drama program the Foundation produces events, educational presentations, and curricula that serve a worldwide student body.
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