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Behind the Headlines: Fdr Memorial Revives Debate over U.S. Efforts in World War

May 7, 1997
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War II For “plucking the Jewish remnants from the fires and ovens of destruction” President Franklin D. Roosevelt “will forever have a special place in our hearts.”

With these words, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein closed the dedication of the FDR memorial here last week and opened a new chapter in the controversy over whether America did enough to stop the Holocaust.

Since the publication of World War II-era correspondence in the 1970s that details intimate American intelligence about the slaughter of Europe’s Jews, a debate has raged over FDR’s actions or non-actions during the war.

Many historians, citing David Wyman’s book, “The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust,” argue that the United States stood by and watched as Hitler’s troops killed 6 million Jews.

Others believe that FDR thought that the best way to help the Jews was to win the war as quickly as possible. And, of course, many believe that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

In the days after his invocation last Friday, Eckstein, the president of the Center for Jewish and Christian Values, apologized for a news release that declared his presence on the podium as a symbol of “Jewish support for FDR’s work on behalf of Jews during World War II.”

Instead the invocation was meant to support FDR for “his obsessive commitment to end the war,” Eckstein said in a telephone interview.

“As we say on Passover, `Had God not taken our forefathers out of Egypt, than we would still be slaves unto Pharaoh,'” Eckstein said. “Without FDR, many more would have died at Hitler’s hands.”

Eckstein, who has come down squarely on the side that FDR in no way abandoned the Jews, said he had “struggled” to come to that position.

But others continue to fault FDR, arguing that he should have ordered a bombing campaign of Auschwitz, eased immigration quotas and spoke out to signal Hitler that the United States cared about the fate of the Jews.

“Franklin Roosevelt’s indifference to so momentous an historical event as the systematic annihilation of European Jewry emerges as the worst failure of his presidency,” Wyman wrote in the preface to his book.

Elie Wiesel has joined the criticism of FDR.

“Proud as we are of the generosity that America showed in fighting against Nazi Germany, we are embarrassed and dismayed by its behavior toward Hitler’s Jewish victims,” the survivor and Nobel laureate wrote in an introduction to Wyman’s book.

“The destiny of persecuted Jews carried too little weight to tip the scales in their favor,” Wiesel wrote. “How else [to] explain the semi-indifference of an FDR faced with the agony of European Jewry?”

At last week’s event, a handful of protesters from the Florida-based Shalom International protested the monument’s opening.

“We’re not going to stand for this charade. FDR is the biggest phony,” said the group’s president, Robert Kunst.

But supporters of FDR lined up to defend his WWII policies.

“I deeply regret and even resent some of the careless language people use to talk about Roosevelt,” said Hyman Bookbinder, director emeritus of the American Jewish Committee’s Washington office.

“Roosevelt’s failure is a failure that we all share in. Monday morning quarterbacking is always easy,” said Bookbinder who, like 80 percent of American Jews, voted for FDR in his 1944 presidential re-election.

“All countries did not do enough; the Jewish community did not do enough; the Zionists did not do enough.”

Bookbinder, who lost all but one of his 80 Polish relatives in the Holocaust, planned to lead delegates from the AJCommittee’s annual meeting here through the monument this week.

“All of Roosevelt’s positives must not be and should not be contradicted by an easy, simplistic idea that he could have saved the Jews,” Bookbinder said he planned to tell the group.

Bookbinder, now a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Commission on Conscience, served in the Navy when, he said, “my commander and chief died.”

Visitors to the monument will know of no controversy over FDR and the Holocaust. The sprawling monument in the shadows of the cherry blossom trees that line the Tidal Basin makes no reference to the Holocaust.

That is why Bookbinder said he will point out to the AJCommittee group that the Holocaust museum lies only a few blocks from the monument.

“We need to recognize the connection between the two,” Bookbinder said.

“It was Roosevelt who made it possible to end the Holocaust and the conditions that the Jews were facing,” he said.

After a pause, he added, “That does not mean that we have nothing but praise.”

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