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A First Look At Ken Burns’ ‘The US and the Holocaust’



Ken Burns’ documentary The US and the Holocaust in general is excellent, in telling the story of how the U.S. failed to rescue the Jews of Europe, and failed also to hinder the Nazi plan to carry out the “Final Solution” by destroying the rail lines taking Jews to Auschwitz and other death camps. The failure to admit Jewish refugees is correctly attributed mostly to certain members of the State Department, headed by the openly antisemitic Breckenridge Long, who blocked their entry. But FDR is given a pass in the documentary, even though it was he, in the end, who could have overruled Long and removed the strict limits on Jewish immigration.

The historian Rafael Madoff reminds us here that during most of the Hitler era, there was a quota for German Jews entering the U.S. of 26,000 a year, but only 25% of that quota was filled because “the Roosevelt administration piled on so many extra requirements for would-be immigrants. For example, starting in 1941, merely leaving behind a close relative in Europe would be enough to disqualify an applicant — on the absurd assumption that the Nazis could threaten the relative and thereby force the immigrant into spying for Hitler.”

Why did FDR’s administration actively seek to discourage and disqualify Jewish refugees from coming to the United States? Why didn’t FDR tell his State Department (which administered the immigration system) to fill the quotas for Germany and Axis-occupied countries to the legal limit? That alone could have saved 190,000 lives. It would not have required a fight with Congress or the anti-immigration forces; it would have involved minimal political risk to the president.

FDR had a distinctly cold heart when it came to Jews.

In 1923, as a member of the Harvard board of directors, Roosevelt decided there were too many Jewish students at the college and helped institute a quota to limit the number admitted. In 1938, he privately suggested that Jews in Poland were dominating the economy and were therefore to blame for provoking anti-Semitism there. In 1941, he remarked at a Cabinet meeting that there were too many Jews among federal employees in Oregon. In 1943, he told government officials in Allied-liberated North Africa that the number of local Jews in various professions “should be definitely limited” so as to “eliminate the specific and understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews in Germany.”

There is evidence of other troubling private remarks by FDR too, including dismissing pleas for Jewish refugees as “Jewish wailing” and “sob stuff”; expressing (to a senator) his pride that “there is no Jewish blood in our veins”; and characterizing a tax maneuver by a Jewish newspaper publisher as “a dirty Jewish trick.” But the most common theme in Roosevelt’s private statements about Jews has to do with his perception that they were “overcrowding” many professions and exercising undue influence.

FDR’s indifference to the plight of European Jewry leave one aghast. When the governor of the American Virgin Islands offered to take in Jewish refugees, FDR blocked that possibility. Similarly, when Jewish groups were urging that the US Air Force bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz, Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy refused to do so, claiming such bombing could endanger American planes and pilots, even though American planes and pilots were already bombing oil refineries just five miles from Auschwitz itself. FDR could have overruled McCloy, but did nothing. FDR’s failure to approve the Virgin Islands offer to take in Jewish refugees, his refusal to require the State Department to fill the “Jewish quota,” and his not overruling McCloy and giving the go-ahead for the bombing of rail lines to Auschwitz, deserved to be explained at length in the documentary, but were not.

In May 1943, Roosevelt met with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the White House. It was 17 months after Pearl Harbor and a little more than a year before D-Day. The two Allied leaders reviewed the war effort to date and exchanged thoughts on their plans for .....war era. At one point in the discussion, FDR offered what he called “the best way to settle the Jewish question.”

Vice President Henry Wallace, who noted the conversation in his diary, said Roosevelt spoke approvingly of a plan (recommended by geographer and Johns Hopkins University President Isaiah Bowman) “to spread the Jews thin all over the world.” In other words, FDR was indifferent to Palestine as the future Jewish national home; it seems never to have occurred to him that rather than be “spread thin all over the world,” the Jews who survived Hitler, and were suffering great trauma, should be allowed to settle among their fellow Jews in their ancestral homeland, the Land of Israel, which was then called Mandatory Palestine, set up by the League of Nations for that express purpose.

There is the scanting, too, in Burns’ documentary, of the role that Palestine could have played, but did not play, in the large-scale rescue of hundreds of thousands, or perhaps as many as a million Jews from Europe. Burns does not make clear that Mandatory Palestine was kept closed to Jewish refugees from Europe by the British, even though, according to the provisions of the Mandate for Palestine, Article 6, the British as holder of the Mandate had the solemn duty to “facilitate Jewish immigration” into the Mandate’s territory. The US put no political pressure on Great Britain, at any time, to open Palestine to desperate Jews fleeing Europe. And there was plenty of pressure the Americans could bring, given the vast amounts of weaponry – planes, ships, tanks, artillery, and much else, that were delivered to Great Britain under Lend-Lease.

To emphasize the role Mandatory Palestine could have played, as a refuge for hundreds of thousands of European Jews whose lives would thereby be saved, is to offer a justification for Zionism. Is that why it was left out?

Elder of Ziyon discusses Burns’ documentary and its curious treatment of Palestine here:

For the past five months, in interviews and press releases about his upcoming documentary, filmmaker Ken Burns has been claiming that the Roosevelt administration accepted more refugees than any other sovereign nation during the Nazi era.

The phrase “sovereign nation” struck us as odd. Ordinarily, one would say, “than any other country.” Why emphasize the word “sovereign?”

Now Burns has let the cat out of the bag. Apparently responding to criticism of his handling of the immigration statistics, Burns admitted to an interviewer from The Daily Beast on September 4 that he has been using the term ‘sovereign nation’ to distinguish [it] from the fact that people escaped to other places, like Palestine.

Why is Burns trying to disqualify Palestine from the conversation? Why resort to a technicality about sovereignty in order to try to push Palestine out of the discussion?

Even though Palestine was not sovereign, the ruling authorities there – the British – certainly were a sovereign power and they had to make a decision about how many Jews to admit either to the United Kingdom or to the territories under its control. Likewise, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had to make a decision about how many Jews he would admit either to the mainland United States or to the non-sovereign territories it controlled, such as the US Virgin Islands.

We know what the British did. They refused to honor their solemn commitment, as Mandatory, to “facilitate Jewish immigration,” as required by Article 6 of the Mandate for Palestine. Instead, the government adopted the White Paper of 1939, limiting Jewish immigrants to Palestine to 15,000 a year for five years, after which the Arabs would have a veto, and all further immigration by Jews would of course come to an end. That law constituted a clear violation of Great Britain’s duty as holder of the Mandate.

Sadly, Roosevelt chose to keep Jews out of the Virgin Islands, despite the offer by the governor and legislative assembly of that territory to open their doors to Jews fleeing Hitler. Treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. specifically raised the possibility of admitting the 930 refugees aboard the infamous ship, the St. Louis, to the Virgin Islands, in June 1939. But Roosevelt said No and the refugees were forced to return to Europe; many of them were murdered in the Holocaust.

Ken Burns does not make clear in his documentary that European Jews, refused entry everywhere in the world, by right should have been admitted to Mandatory Palestine in unlimited numbers. The U.K. is the villain of this piece, but the U.S. also deserves blame both for not admitting more refugees itself, and for not pressuring the U.K. to let more Jews into Palestine. Burns does what he can, as Elder of Ziyon notes, to keep Palestine out of his discussion, referring only to “sovereign nations” – which deliberately excluded Mandatory Palestine — that took in, or failed to, a handful of Jewish refugees.

What Ken Burns ought to have included in his documentary was a clear statement that while America had failed the Jews, giving refuge only to a few thousand a year, the one place on earth where Jews were not only supposed to be admitted, but that “facilitating” their admission was the solemn responsibility of Great Britain, was Mandatory Palestine. That was the place where Jews had been resurrecting their ancient commonwealth in their historic homeland. But access to that homeland was closed off to Jewish refugees by a pusillanimous British government that was more interested in not offending Arabs than in saving Jewish lives. Nor did the American government lift a finger to try to persuade the British to let Jewish refugees into Palestine. About Palestine as the Jewish National Home, that could have taken in hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees, who could have managed to make it safely there had there been no British blockade, Ken Burns has nothing to say. Burns was not eager to make the case for Mandatory Palestine as the one place where persecuted Jews, at their moment of maximum peril, ought to have been allowed to settle. That would have appeared to some as just a tad too favorable to Israel, and that would never do.