FDR and the Jews

GUEST: Elie Wiesel
AIR DATE: 09/07/2013
VTR: 06/21/13

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And once again today my guest is teacher, author, historian, witness and survivor, Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel.

And I owe my guest so much for joining me so often at this table…and now, of course, for giving in the Fall of 2013 the first of Rutgers University’s annual Richard Heffner Open Mind Lecture series.

Some years ago Mr. Wiesel and I did a little book of essays drawn from our many Open Mind conversations. I noted then that “his breadth of humanistic understanding, his profound wisdom, his always reassuring presence – together with the warmth of our personal relationship, have all combined to make him [The Open Mind's] quintessential guest.”

“And the very degree to which Elie’s beliefs are so deeply rooted in and reflect his Judaic tenets and traditions – while mine are quite so secular – has, I hope, added an important and provocative dimension to the quality of our exchanges as together we embrace John Milton’s singular query: ‘Who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?’”

Today, however, I wonder if we two friends can agree on Truth.

For this Open Mind conversation relates to a Belknap book recently published by the Harvard University Press titled, very simply, FDR And The Jews, written by Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman, both Distinguished Professors of History at American University.

And its subject can’t help but be approached so differently by the one of us who as a Jewish child in Europe in the 1940s survived the Holocaust, but suffered so outrageously in Auschwitz, his family murdered by the Nazis — and by the other who then as a Jewish adolescent in America already appreciated the limitations of American politics and social attitudes.

So that perhaps I can best begin today’s conversation about FDR and the Jews by referring to the conclusion of the impressive book that has occasioned it and by asking my guest for his reactions.

Its authors write “Roosevelt lived during the war and the Holocaust, but he inhabited a pre-Holocaust world. Few of his contemporaries recognized the political or moral significance of the events we now scrutinize carefully.

“Ironically, our work suggests that American Jews of Roosevelt’s own time came close to a balanced and accurate assessment of their President.

“Although most American Jews — both leaders and ordinary folk — revered the President, they were not blind to his limitations or the constraints under which he operated. Even Jewish advocates close to FDR recognized that he often failed to turn humanitarian principles into action to benefit Jewish victims of Nazism … they also knew [however] that without his leadership, the resistance to Nazi aggression would have been much weaker than it was, perhaps even fatally so. For Jews, he posed a far better choice than the political opponents of his era, not just in his response to Jewish peril, but also in his domestic and foreign policies, and his integration of Jews into American government.”

Now, Elie, I know you’ve never hesitated to speak truth to power.

And in 1985, when Ronald Reagan planned not to visit a concentration camp site with West Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Kohl, but rather the Bitburg Military Cemetery containing the remains of 49 members of the Waffen SS – at the White House where you were to receive a Congressional medal! – you didn’t hesitate to say, “Mr. President, that place is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.”

And in 1999, at a Clinton White House Millennium Dinner on “The Perils of Indifference” you paid your respects to FDR as a great leader, but with what you called “some anguish and pain”, you also noted to the President and Hillary Clinton “… nevertheless, his image in Jewish history – I must say it – his image in Jewish history is flawed”

And I wonder if you have modified your thinking at all now, perhaps noting Felix Frankfurter’s prescient words just weeks after FDR’s death, when he said: “It has been wisely said that if the judgment of the time must be corrected by that of posterity, it is no less true that the judgment of posterity must be corrected by that of the time.” How do you react, what’s your feeling now, so many years later.

WIESEL: Well, the difference between, between us is that you were here and I was not (laugh). You know American history better than I do. But I studied, naturally, and I’m a great admirer of, of all the people that you admire, including FDR.

After all, he was a father figure to European Jewry. We heard about Churchill, sometimes we listened to his speeches on the radio or clandestinely … but nevertheless, for us the father image was, again, it was he. Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

We knew that whatever happens, happens only because he wants it to happen … if it’s good. And then when we learned later on … much, much later, of course … during the War we didn’t have these questions. I was too young, didn’t have access to material. All we knew was from press reports.

But after the war, when I realized that he knew so much … remember we in Eastern Europe, in occupied Eastern Europe … in the ghettoes and the camps … we were convinced first of all that nobody knew what was happening. That somehow that Auschwitz was placed in, in … somewhere in a nonexistent universe … hidden from culture, hidden from humanity, hidden from the world.

That the concentration camp was a universe in itself, but far away, unreachable. Only afterwards we found out and that’s our great shock, that they knew, they all knew what Auschwitz meant. It’s a shock. Roosevelt knew.

HEFFNER: Elie, what would you have had Roosevelt and the Administration do?

WIESEL: Again … I, I didn’t have access to all, all the sources of information then and not even now. The what …

First of all, Roosevelt was known as a great humanist and a great friend of, of all the victims of Hitler and therefore the Jews. He knew that … that was our hope.

First off … on his speech, he was known for his speeches. He should have given one, one address, but a powerful address … simply saying to Hitler … “Hey, hey, hey … you are now crossing the limit. We know that war is cruel, all wars are cruel. And you know what anti-Semitism means … that it dominated the Jews in some activities and policies and so forth. They knew all that.

But there are limits even there. Don’t cross those limits. They knew what they were preparing, especially now when we read all the secrets that were known through Enigma. We knew everything.

The Enigma Project we know now for instance, of course, later, much later then they heard the discussions between the tank commanders, between those who went to Auschwitz … they knew everything. Since they knew, how come that they didn’t speak about it?

Where was Roosevelt who was known, really, for … not only for his acts, but for his words.

HEFFNER: You ask why didn’t they speak … why didn’t he … let us narrow it down to FDR. Because certainly we know enough about the people who surrounded him, I’m not now talking about Morgenthau or …

WIESEL: Yeah, yeah …

HEFFNER: … Rosenman or his Jewish advisors. But the State Department, we know that they would not have urged him to make such a speech because we know that the background of the State Department was basically anti-Semitic …

WIESEL: But he was the President.

HEFFNER: He was the President, but I wonder if you appreciate … here is where the difference is … you were doing the suffering … you were in a concentration camp … I was an adolescent who was becoming more and more aware of what American politics was like and of what American social attitudes were like.

More and more aware of anti-Semitism in America. Had Roosevelt spoken out as specifically as you wished he had … spoken out at all, really for what was going on in Europe … do you think that he would have been able to maintain his political power?

WIESEL: My friend … now I know, of course, all that. Had he spoken up … he was afraid actually that it would be taken as a war … a Jewish war.

HEFFNER: And we wouldn’t have fought it.

WIESEL: And that’s the whole … I, I understand it. I’m … no …the more I learn, of course, the less condemning I am (laugh). I understand now. He was afraid of being interpreted by his adversaries surely that he was waging a Jewish war.

And I read now the sources in the newspapers and so forth, it was a legitimate fear. He wanted the war to be a real war, not only for Jews, but for whatever is decent, whatever is noble, whatever is human in humanity. Of course he wanted that.

But he was afraid and therefore he did, probably advised by his … even Jewish friends … sure … so now I am much less critical than before. Knowing what I know now I am much less critical … I’m still critical because a leader should know how to overcome all the other arguments and say, “Hey, I know you are right, but nevertheless, morally speaking, we must speak up.”

HEFFNER: Do you make that distinction between morally speaking and what I guess I must call politically or realistically speaking?

WIESEL: Oh, there is a distinction. But a leader must go beyond that. But who is a leader … really there’s not only a leader who comes out with ideas, but also with words. Churchill won the war with his words. As smart as with his decisions … with words.

And Roosevelt’s words were listened to. Especially in Berlin. Roosevelt gave in 1942, I remember, all kinds of declarations … great statements … never mentioned the word “Jew”. A December speech I remember he made somewhere … never mentioned … so what do you think in Berlin the reaction was?

In Berlin they said to themselves “They don’t care, we can do with our Jews whatever we want, because even in America … they don’t care. The fact is they weren’t even mentioned. Not really.”

Of course in hindsight, I know all that. In hindsight. But in hindsight we have the right to ask questions. Not to judge, but to ask questions.

HEFFNER: Yes, but one asks questions in a way this book FDR and the Jews is in a very real sense a counter-point against the growing anti-FDR sentiment among a number of Jews. Is, is that not true?

WIESEL: Yes that’s … up and down … (laugh)

HEFFNER: Up and down?

WIESEL: Yeah … sometimes … again …when we studied the history of the Second World War from the Jewish viewpoint, no matter what … we cannot not thank God for giving us FDR.

We used to say prayers for him in my little town … in the Carpathian Mountains … we said prayers for FDR. And I still think it was justified. Because he was a friend of humanity, even a friend of the Jewish victims … he was a friend.

Now we want … I wanted him to be more and, and, and become the big leader, you know, and make big speeches and, and lead the world, really, against Hitler for what he was doing … mainly, mainly to the Jewish people.

Hitler did not want to exterminate any other nation except the Jewish people, that was his goal. So, I expected, really from FDR to be such a leader, the kind of Moses-like … Moses-like orator and Moses was a very poor orator … (laugh) … but he was a great leader.

HEFFNER: But Moses was speaking to his own people. And FDR’s people and I remember that so well, I remember as a kid … even in New York, even New York where I was protected by so many fellow Jews … even in New York being terribly much aware of what … how much of a contribution anti-Semitism was making to the America First attitude.

WIESEL: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: And I was aware of every step that FDR made in trying to educate Americans … you very wisely and … such an important point that you make … what would have been thought in Berlin if FDR had spoken out about the Jews and the persecution of the Jews early on. And I do appreciate what you’re saying … they must have thought “He doesn’t care, he’s not talking about …

WIESEL: Exactly what I said. Because look the Germans … for the Germans the killing of the Jews was a major, a major objective … if not the most important objective in all of their programs … was the killing of the Jews, the extermination of the Jewish people.

But they didn’t do it immediately to the end. Slowly. First one thing and then the next … first let’s say the yellow star and then the ghettoes and then Auschwitz … slowly and each time they said, “What was the reaction?”

You read the diaries of Goebbels and he says it … he says it … slowly … they were watching … what was the reaction in the free world. And the reaction was zero … so they said, “Ha, if they don’t care, why should we?” And that’s how it went.

HEFFNER: The Final Solution wasn’t really so long arrived at, was it? Was … your own feeling, I know, must be that Hitler, for Hitler it was the Final Solution all along.

WIESEL: Absolutely … in the beginning … he wanted, really … oh, he had all kinds of ideas … even to send … let’s say to, to create … to create a Palestine for the Jews from Europe. In the late thirties, early forties even. So that was that. Then he said, “If nobody wants them, why should we?”

It’s a very sad statement on the world … but Hitler used the world to justify his own crimes.

HEFFNER: You said a “very sad statement”. How do we account for it, Elie? You and I have talked about this many times and I still don’t understand …

WIESEL: I …

HEFFNER: … maybe you do.

WIESEL: I don’t really. I don’t. Because I’m still an idealist and still naïve and I really believe that culture means a different attitude, a more noble attitude … that no matter what, the nobility of the human being prevails. No matter where and when … it prevails. I still believe that.

HEFFNER: How much more of a culture … cultured people would you find than the Germans?

WIESEL: (Sigh) You know, normally, I should have given up on culture. I should have said “Go to hell”. If those who were the killers in the Einsatzkommandos … they were the worst all … Einsatzkommandos had Ph.D.s
… Richard, a Ph.D. in Germany was not like a Ph.D. in America now. It wasn’t easy to obtain … not … it’s not easy here either, but not like there.

HEFFNER: I know what you mean.

WIESEL: (Sigh) Come on … they all have Ph.D.’s … doctor this and doctor that … and they were the killers, they gave the orders and some of them were even the head of, of all kinds of Einsatzkommandos … how could they? How could they study Hegel and Heiner … Heiner they didn’t, he was too Jewish. But how could they in the morning and, and in the afternoon go and kill?

HEFFNER: Okay, Elie, I put the question to you. How could they …

WIESEL: Oh …

HEFFNER: … you’ve considered this for so long. What is your final conclusion?

WIESEL: Not the final conclusion … it’s a kind of attempted conclusion. They forgot …

HEFFNER: A different god …

WIESEL: No … they forgot …

HEFFNER: They forgot …

WIESEL: … they forgot …

HEFFNER: What?

WIESEL: … that ultimately … ultimately it is the human being that justifies all our quests … the human being. They believed in turning humanity into an inhuman experiment. When, when you study what the Germans have done to the Jewish people and to their victims in general … the oppressed nations, is to transform history.

The metaphysical aspect … that they can take human beings and turn them into objects … never happened before … into objects … children and grandparents … into objects …

HEFFNER: Now I go back to what you say you should have said “Go to hell” … to culture. Because they were so cultured. If that culture could have led …

WIESEL: True. But I believe in the (laugh) … in spite of … normally I should have given up on culture. But how can I give up on culture? When culture is not only what the Germans have done …

HEFFNER: You didn’t give up on God …

WIESEL: I don’t give up on God either. Oh, I have questions. I have questions. And I argue with God … a lot … more than you think … and I pray … and I believe in prayer …

HEFFNER: To … God?

WIESEL: Even to God. But I pray to God almost against God. What has he done to his creation? What did he allow this creation to become? Certainly. That’s in our religion, in our tradition … we may argue with God.

You mentioned Moses before … Moses was a stutterer … he was the poorest orator in history (laugh) and nevertheless he was the great Moses, but he also knew how to speak to God and the people.

HEFFNER: You wanted … to go back to FDR … you wanted him to be more … Mosaic?

WIESEL: I wanted him to be more visionary … more prophetic because he wasn’t the Number One leader in the world to fight and defeat Hitler.

HEFFNER: When you said to Reagan, “Mr. President, your place is not at Bitberg …

WIESEL: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … your place is with the victims.

WIESEL: All the time. Absolutely. I believe in it … if, if I have a certain credo, it’s part of my credo … I must always be with the victims.

HEFFNER: What … what is this saying … to you … Reagan had to be told this. In a sense, the Clinton’s had to be reminded in ’99 about FDR’s limitation. FDR’s limitations and what he didn’t do … so … what does it lead you to think about America and Americans?

WIESEL: Despite all that … I believe in America. You know the day I got the American citizenship … the first thing I did I took out my passport … never had a passport in my life … I always carry it with me … to this day … first time in my life I had a passport … I was always unwelcomed as a stateless person. When I think of my American citizenship I am so proud … more … almost as proud when I got the Nobel Prize. Just to be an American citizen … to have citizenship … a country that wants me, that will protect me.

That’s something. Remember I came here as a refugee, as a stateless refugee … so therefore when I think of America … when I go … I went once to West Point just to thank the American army. What they have done.

I remember when they came to Buchenwald … I remember a Black Sargent, I think, who wept … who began weeping when he saw us … he didn’t stop weeping. Listen to me … therefore to me Americanism is a, an ideal … a great ideal. I’m grateful to America. I know all its shortcomings … remember … I, I lived here all my life now … I know … and I took part in so many battles for … I hope good causes. Even against the Administration, whatever it was. Of course I did.

But nevertheless, ultimately … what I feel about America is always gratitude.

HEFFNER: And America and Israel? Now, where are you?

WIESEL: Two democracies … big and small. Look, I don’t think there is any country in the world that Israel has a closer relations than America. America and Israel somehow are together, have been together all the time. Sometimes there are quarrels …it’s normal. Always details. But whoever the President is … it’s always details. The fact is that Israel would not have, I think, become a state had it not been for the help that it got from, from America in 1947, then ’48. The vote … the first vote of Russia and America. So, I, I believe in memory … we should remember all that.

HEFFNER: Going back to FDR and the Jews … does your memory permit you now, as you suggest, to have a more benign relationship between yourself and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

WIESEL: No benign. No. (Laugh) I’d say more qualified and even there … with all the criticism I had … and some of which I still hold to … I think of, of FDR with great admiration for what he has done to America and the world and therefore to the Jewish people as well. And to Jewish history. I, I, I repeat …when I saw an American soldier who came to Buchenwald and he began weeping … weeping like a child because he saw what he saw … the truth. And for me America is still the ideal, the very ideal that so many nations in the world would like to imitate … and should.

HEFFNER: Elie … last question before we, we conclude. Would you have bombed the concentration camps … we know that if they had bombed … the railroads they would have been rebuilt immediately. But the camps …

WIESEL: The camps I don’t know because their argument is “If we had bombed the camps we would have killed the very inmates, and so forth”. It’s an argument.

I can say, as one who was there … whenever we saw the … at night … we heard the planes over … flying over Auschwitz and so forth. We wanted them to bomb us. We thought we were going to die anyway, so why not bomb it … I’d rather die in the bombs. But, at the same time, it’s a decision the military decision … I don’t know how … but they could have done it so well … they could have bombed the railways, yes … absolutely.

Yes, three days later they would have rebuilt them. And bombed them again. But at least the Germans would have known that they care … that the world cares by bombing them … that they care … I repeat what we have said in our conversations over these many, many times. The fact is we thought that nobody cared. That the world knew and did nothing.

HEFFNER: Elie I always know that you care … and I care and I respect so much your judgment and thank you again for coming on The Open Mind.

WIESEL: Oh, thank you, as always.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

And do visit the Open Mind Website at thirteen.org/openmind to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our Archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s thirteen.org/openmind.

  • Nancy Schadt

    Thank you for the opportunity to see and hear Elie Wiesel, one of the world’s greatest humanitarians.His dedication to not letting the world forget The Holocaust is a powerful gift to the world’s history and consciousness. His willingness, within reason, to moderate of his view of Franklin Roosevelt’s silence on Germany’s treatment of the Jews is generous and admirable. As a third generation child of German decent who grew up in a home where Roosevelt was venerated almost as much as God, I was ashamed of my heritage but proud of the President who “won” the war. As an adult, I first believed in Roosevelt’s ignorance, then denied the revelations, and later was horrified that apparently he did or said nothing about Hitler’s systematic destruction of the Jews. I was too much a idealist to realize the” practicalities of politics” in the face of such atrocities, especially after reading Mr. Wiesel’s “Night” in a graduate course on “Great American Literature since 1948″. In time, I learned I could still admire Roosevelt’s achievements while acknowledging his failures.

    As an American, I am so moved by Elie Wiesel’s comments on his becoming an American citizen and cherishing his passport. As an American, I cherish Mr. Wiesel’s choosing America as his home,

  • Arie Cohen

    A great lesson for Israel. Let Elie Wiesel be idealistic but rest of us, Jews, should be realistic about the world.

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