Letters to the Editor

USHMM exhibit misses mark

According to your May 4 news report, “Exhibit shows ordinary Americans knew a lot about Shoah as it was happening,” the new “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibit at the United States. Holocaust Memorial Museum claims that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was unable to grant haven to Jewish refugees because of strong public and congressional opposition to more immigration in the 1930s.

But that assumption ignores the many ways in which President Roosevelt could have aided Jewish refugees without any public controversy or fight with Congress. For example, he could have permitted the existing immigration quotas to be filled — 190,000 quota places from German and Axis-occupied countries sat unused during the Holocaust years, because the administration suppressed immigration below the levels allowed by law.

Or FDR could have permitted Jewish refugees to enter a U.S. territory such as the Virgin Islands. In fact, after the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, the governor and legislative assembly of the Virgin Islands publicly offered to open their doors to Jews fleeing the Nazis. Another option would have been to make use of immigration categories that were not limited by the quota laws. For example, clergy (rabbis), professors, and students were allowed by law to immigrate in unlimited numbers. But the Roosevelt administration permitted only a handful of them to enter.

The curator of the aforementioned exhibit, Daniel Greene, was quoted as pointing out that polls in the 1930s consistently showed the public was strongly against admitting refugees. The article continued: “Even until after the war ended, the percentages opposing refugee intake consistently hover in the low 70s — a substantial majority. ‘Public opinion doesn’t move,’ Greene said…”

Yet the fact is that it DID move. By the spring of 1944 — once the tide of the war had turned, and once Americans learned more about the mass killings — there was a significant shift in public opinion. An April 1944 Gallup poll — commissioned by the White House itself — found 70 percent of Americans supported giving “temporary protection and refuge” in the United States to “those people in Europe who have been persecuted by the Nazis.”

That poll was taken more than a year before the end of the war. It was late, but it was not too late, to rescue a significant number of Jewish refugees by granting them temporary haven in the United States or its territories. There was ample public backing for such humanitarian action. Sadly, President Roosevelt agreed to admit just one token group of 982 refugees.

Making excuses for FDR’s abandonment of the Jews should not be the mission of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

— Rafael Medoff, Ph.D., director,
The David S. Wyman Institute for
Holocaust Studies, Washington, D.C.