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FDR had an option to save more Jews

A history professor responds to a debate in Ken Burns’ latest documentary about FDR’s inaction in face of Nazi atrocities

Re “Even American Jews ignored the Holocaust” by Nora Berman

To the editor: 

Nora Berman notes that a 1939 Congressional bill to permit 10,000 Jewish children per year to come to the U.S. died in committee without being brought to a vote. She then refers to Burns’ explanation of why President Roosevelt decided not to support the bill:Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, possibly the highest ranking Jewish American in government, privately told FDR that there was no possible way this vote would ever reach consensus among Congress, let alone among Jewish Americans.”

It is important to remember that President Roosevelt could have let the children (and other Jews seeking haven) go temporarily to the Virgin Islands, an unincorporated U.S. territory in the Caribbean. Its governor and legislative assembly had offered, following the November 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, to open their doors to Jews fleeing Hitler. Additionally, Secretary Morgenthau raised the idea of a haven in the Virgin Islands in his conversations with Secretary of State Cordell Hull. But the White House rejected the idea of letting the 930 Jews aboard the St. Louis in May 1939 go to the Virgin Islands, and the vessel had to return to European shores, where ultimately 254 of its passengers were later murdered in the Holocaust.

These particular failures, occurring before Germany invaded Poland and unleashed World War II, should not be simply laid at Congress’s feet. The first major obstacle to the rescue of the Jews was that FDR chose not to help them in their darkest hour.

— Monty Noam Penkower
Professor Emeritus of Modern Jewish History, Machon Lander Graduate School of Jewish Studies

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