Don’t distort the past, even for a present good

Hindsight is 20/40 at best: another viewpoint on FDR

First thing and most important thing to remember about the Holocaust? The Nazis and their allies are the criminals. Second thing? Whatever the many manifestations of anti-Semitism that existed within their national leadership, it was the major Allies — Russia, America and Britain — who ended the Holocaust. 

In “FDR’s Failure to Save the Jews from the Holocaust,” Jerry Kasten promotes a very laudable message: “We should never forget; we are a nation of immigrants.” Truth. He and I are completely in agreement over our national obligation to welcome refugees and asylum seekers. It is part and parcel, if not the core, of American exceptionalism. Refusal to do so is an American shonda.

On the other hand, he goes on to misread what was and wasn’t possible for America, and American Jews, to do during the Holocaust. Was Roosevelt indifferent to the plight of European Jewry, and even anti-Semitic, at times? Yes. FDR’s callousness toward the Jews of Europe is well documented in “The Jews Should Keep Quiet.” But, had it been otherwise, could many more “Jewish refugees from the gas chamber” have been saved? Could we have bombed the camps? Could we have loaded Jews onto Liberty ships returning from Great Britain to safe American shores? Not really. This is, sadly, wishful thinking rather than plausible counter-history. It is premised on alternatives that wouldn’t have worked in the reality of 1939-1945. 

First, the idea that if Jews had become more vocal and politically assertive, they could have forced the Roosevelt administration to “do something.” The Jewish community now, for all its current political strength, is struggling to reverse anti-immigrant policy now! Could Jews then have better mobilized on behalf of European Jewry? Yes. Would that have changed U.S. policy? Hard to see how.

More important, the idea that the U.S. could have diverted the bombing campaign to strike Auschwitz and “save” Jews is a common but mistaken claim. The Army 8th Air Army didn’t just bomb Auschwitz (the western-most of the extermination camps) accidentally. The Buna factory adjacent to Auschwitz was bombed repeatedly — once Allied bombers were able to be based in continental Europe. Before D-Day, it was too far. After D-Day, most of the victims of the Nazi Genocide were already dead. Moreover, modern critics misunderstand the technical limitations of bombing in World War II. Optimistically named “precision bombing,” it was a shotgun affair; drop a plenitude of munitions and hope statistics will place one or two on the intended target. As for targets? It was phenomenally hard to hit railway tracks from 2 miles up (a low-level run), and if disrupted, tracks were simple and inexpensive to restore, a one-to-three day effort. Bombing the gas chambers? I’ve seen the four gas-chambers at Auschwitz II. Hitting such modest structures, again, would have required squadrons of bombers releasing hundreds of bombs to — perhaps — disable some of them. And how many prisoners would die in the effort? We can say now, “Well they were already doomed,” but that was hardly self-evident at the time. 

Even more misleading is the claim we could just load refugees into empty West-bound transport ships. Any merchant ship is a weapon in wartime. They were treated as such. Where and how and why were the Germans going to allow enemy ships to come to the coast of occupied Europe, load up tens, nay, hundreds of thousands of Central and East Jewish refugees (who got there, how?) and let them sail away, unmolested, until their next trip east, once again loaded with tanks, aircraft, and materials for the defeat of Germany? We can certainly imagine such an “agreement,” but to claim such was realistically possible at the time strains credulity. 

Again, I admire the effort to make us see a modern controversy through the lens of past Jewish experience. It is right to do so. But it is wrong to delude us into thinking that what is readily doable now was equally doable in the past. 

Geoffrey Dennis is rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami and an instructor at the University of North Texas.

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