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Allan Lichtman & Richard Breitman say FDR deserves credit for rescuing hundreds of thousands of JewsHistorians in the News
For decades, it has been one of the most politically charged questions in American history: What did Franklin D. Roosevelt do — or, more to the point, not do — in response to the Holocaust?
The issue has spawned a large literary response, with books often bearing polemical titles like “The Abandonment of the Jews” or “Saving the Jews.” But in a new volume from Harvard University Press, two historians aim to set the matter straight with what they call both a neutral assessment of Roosevelt’s broader record on Jewish issues and a corrective to the popular view of it, which they say has become overly scathing.
In “FDR and the Jews,” Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman, professors at American University, contend that Roosevelt hardly did everything he could. But they maintain that his overall record — several hundred thousand Jews saved, some of them thanks to little-known initiatives — exceeds that of any subsequent president in responding to genocide in the midst of fierce domestic political opposition.
“The consensus among the public is that Roosevelt really failed,” Mr. Breitman said in a recent interview. “In fact, he had fairly limited options.”
Such statements, backed up by footnotes to hundreds of primary documents (some cited here for the first time), are unlikely to satisfy Roosevelt’s fiercest critics. Even before the book’s March 19 release, the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, a research organization in Washington, has circulated a detailed rebuttal, as well as a rival book, “FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith,” zeroing in on what it characterizes as Roosevelt’s personal desire to limit Jewish immigration to the United States.
But some leading Holocaust historians welcome “FDR and the Jews” for remaining dispassionate in a debate too often marked by anger and accusation.
“Ad hominem attacks don’t help uncover the historical truth, and this book really avoids that,” said Deborah Lipstadt, a professor at Emory University and a consultant on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s permanent exhibition about the American response to the Holocaust. “If people read it and don’t ascribe to the authors an agenda, it could be very important.”
“FDR and the Jews” offers no dramatic revelations of the sort Mr. Breitman provided in 2009, when he and two other colleagues drew headlines with evidence, discovered in the papers of a former refugee commissioner for the League of Nations, that Roosevelt had personally pushed for a 1938 plan to relocate millions of threatened European Jews to sparsely populated areas of Latin America and Africa. But it does, the authors say, provide important new detail and context to that episode, as well as others that have long loomed large in the popular imagination....
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