Eleanor Roosevelt talks about her husband and the Holocaust

See also: Franklin Roosevelt, Ibn Saud, and American Jews

April 19 will mark the70th anniversary of the uprising of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. That date always reminds me of 1958 when Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, told me about her husband and the Holocaust.

We were both NGO (Non-governmental Organization) representatives to the United Nations and to the US Mission to the United Nations. She represented the American Association for the United Nations and I represented the American Jewish Congress. 

Because she was the most distinguished member, she also chaired the NGO umbrella group. During one of our luncheons, around the time of the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, we discussed the Holocaust. When my turn came to pose a question, I asked her why her husband -- whom Jews revered then as much as they lionize President Barack Obama now -- never ordered Allied pilots to bomb the railroad tracks leading to and from the Nazi death camps. I speculated that had he done so, he would have slowed the slaughter. 

I wasn't sure that Mrs. Roosevelt would reply to an implied criticism of her husband, but she did, and here is what she said:

"I constantly raised the matter with the President, as did British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, both in his cables from London and when he was our guest at the White House. 

"My husband's answer was always the same: 'Later." He would always give us the same lecture: 'Winning the war comes first, of course, and bombing those railroad tracks are not a top air force priority. But the war is not the only thing on my mind. I also have to deal with domestic affairs. To get things done, I must have the support of the committee chairmen in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

"'Most of these men are Southerners and many of them are anti-Semites. They do not like Jews and have made it clear that they don't want any more of them let into this country. That's the reason I haven't pushed for the admission of larger numbers of Jews.

"The only Jewish member of Congress who is fighting me is Brooklyn's Representative Emanuel Celler. Representative Sol Bloom, who is Jewish and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, goes along with me on this.

"'But I promise you, Eleanor, I promise you, Winston, that when the House and Senate pass the legislation that I want and need, and the war is closer to a victorious end, I shall order the bombing of those railway tracks. You have my word on it."

As Mrs. Roosevelt spoke, two memories entered my mind. The first was what FDR told a prominent Jewish Democrat who urged him to ease the restrictions on Jews trying to flee Europe: 

"The Jews in America should know that they are tolerated here, but not more than that. American issues come first." 

My second memory was of a memo that Treasury officials, in an effort to counter the endemic anti-Semitism of the State Department, wrote in 1943. Entitled "The Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews," it said that "Unless remedial steps of a drastic nature are taken, and taken immediately, no effective action will be taken by this government to prevent the complete extermination of the Jews in German controlled Europe, and that this Government will have to share for all time responsibility for this extermination."

Mrs. Roosevelt concluded her explanation of FDR's behavior with: "Ever since I learned of Hitler's systematic murder of the Jews, I pressed my husband to bomb the railroad tracks. So, too, did Mr. Churchill. But we were not successful.

"Sadly, he died in 1945 as the war was ending and his 'later' never came."

Edward Bernard Glick is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Temple University

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