Expelled German Jews, temporarily in Zbaszyn on the Polish-German border, 1938

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Could Roosevelt Have Saved Millions?

Ken Burns and others exaggerate American antisemitism—and U.S. responsibility for the Holocaust

Marjorie Perloff
June 22, 2023
Expelled German Jews, temporarily in Zbaszyn on the Polish-German border, 1938

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Image

The U.S. and the Holocaust, the PBS documentary series directed by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein, has received much attention and largely positive reviews since its first showing in September 2022. Now, in an essay for the New York Review of Books called “The Millions We Failed to Save” (June 22, 2023), Ruth Franklin follows and enlarges upon the material in the film, arguing, as did the Burns team, that the Roosevelt administration failed to do what was necessary—and, she believes, possible—to save the European Jews who were to perish in the death camps of World War II. Her Exhibit A is the well-known family of Anne Frank, all of whom, except Anne’s father, Otto, who lived to tell her story, died at Belsen. It’s a compelling narrative—and the Burns film has some unforgettable footage of pro-Nazi activities in America—but I think it is also curiously misleading. As myself a Jewish refugee from the Nazis—now, at 91, one of a dying breed—let me attempt some clarification.

First and foremost, the refugee problem was not just a matter of getting into the U.S., as Franklin and Burns would have it, but of getting out of Austria (or Germany or the Netherlands, etc.). In 1933, when Hitler came to power in Germany, the Nazis were at first eager to have as many Jews leave as possible. In 1934 or ’35, the Frank family could have obtained a visa to the U.S., especially with the sponsorship of the wealthy and prominent Nathan Straus Jr. But the Catch-22, even in these early years, is that no one was allowed to take money or material goods out of Germany or the nations it controlled. Whatever his reason—America probably seemed too remote, too alien, or perhaps he had hopes of recovering his business—Otto Frank took his family to the Netherlands, which soon fell into German hands. By July 1941, Nazi Germany ordered U.S. consulates in all Nazi-occupied territories to close. After this, until the end of the war in 1945, legal immigration—not just to the U.S. but to any country—was all but impossible. The Otto Frank case is thus something of a red herring.

I was 6 1/2 when I left Vienna on March 13, 1938. I was one of the lucky ones. But it wasn’t only luck. In Vienna, my paternal grandfather had had the foresight to put a little money into a Swiss bank account. My family of four, together with my father’s sister and her family, as well as Grandfather Mintz—nine people in all—left secretly a day after the Nazi Anschluss of March 12. By March 13, the only border still open was the Swiss one: The Hungarian border had just shut down. We left on the night train to Zurich with four suitcases, leaving behind an apartment full of furniture, books, clothing, family photographs—everything. We never saw any of it again. At the Innsbruck border, we were taken off the train and the adults body-searched; all the cash at hand was confiscated.

Once in Zurich, application for a visa could begin, and it is true, as Franklin tells it, that we had to have a sponsor, in our case a second cousin from Mannheim, who had left Germany a few years earlier. The wait for the visa took about three months: We lived frugally in a little pensione and then in Rome with my aunt Susi, who had married an Italian. We sailed on the Veendam to Hoboken in August 1938. The scariest part, as I remember it, was the cross country train ride from Rome to Rotterdam. At every border crossing, we had to get off the train and go to the police station to get a permit to continue. At any point, we might have been sent back to Vienna.

Within the next month or two, almost all my parents’ friends and our relatives made it out of Vienna because they applied for visas immediately. True, these refugees were middle class, primarily from the professional classes—economists, art historians, psychoanalysts—including our family doctor, Otto Gersuny, who later settled in Queens but came all the way to Riverdale to treat us. But most were by no means wealthy and had to scramble to get by in the New World.

Even for this subset of refugees, getting out of Austria took much ingenuity. My other grandfather, Richard Schuller, a leading Austrian civil servant and diplomat for 30 years, had originally stayed behind, hoping to recuperate some of his lifelong pension which was his only income He was 70. Within a few months of the Anschluss, the opposite happened: The Nazis were about to seize his apartment as well as his pension and all other assets. Grandfather escaped, Sound of Music style, hiking over the Alps into Italy—a harrowing trip! The English then offered him a short-term visa, but after 1939, he would have been interned in a camp, as were all “enemy aliens.” Instead, a great thing happened. Alvin Johnson, the political scientist from Nebraska, who became the president of the New School in Manhattan, founded the University in Exile and brought over, on academic visas, hundreds of professors and intellectuals, my grandfather, an economist, included. He taught at the New School till 1947 as did the philosophers Felix Kaufmann and Alfred Schütz. Hannah Arendt was also a colleague.

As for Roosevelt, for all his flaws, he was, in these war years, a family hero.

Certainly, Alvin Johnson deserves to be remembered, along with Varian Fry, whom Franklin writes about, as a savior of the Jews. Once war began, however, the Germans and Austrians no longer permitted Jews to leave. Systematic mass deportations from Vienna, as elsewhere in greater Germany, began in October 1941. Of the 190,000 Jews who were living in Vienna in 1938, about 35,000, a little over one-fifth, were still there in 1941. Most of these were soon deported from Vienna to ghettos in Eastern Europe. Those sent to, say, Minsk and Riga were shot by detachments of the Einsatzgruppen shortly after arrival. Those left behind were doomed. Over 15,000 Austrian Jews were deported to Theresienstadt (the Austrian concentration camp), and from there to Auschwitz or Dachau. In France the port of entry was Drancy, right outside Paris. The poet Max Jacob, once Picasso’s best friend, died in Drancy and Georges Perec’s parents were imprisoned there.

Ken Burns rightly exposes the virulent antisemitism of the Charles Lindbergh/Father Coughlin faction of the American 1930s. Burns provides heartbreaking footage of the turning back, in the Cuban harbor, of the refugee ship St. Louis, followed by the U.S. refusal to allow the ship into our own waters. Surely Roosevelt erred in permitting someone like the proto-fascist Breckinridge Long to become assistant secretary in the State Department; even worse was the appointment of Joseph Kennedy, an avowed Nazi sympathizer, who fully expected—and hoped—Germany to win the war, to the post of ambassador to Britain. But Roosevelt was operating in a post-Depression isolationist USA where the American Jews themselves, the children of the immigrants of the early 1900s, did little. The prominent and largely Jewish Partisan Review group, for example, actively opposed all talk of going to war with Germany, this being in their estimate, just another war between two capitalist nations. It took the cynical Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact of 1939 to change their minds.

In this climate, it is not clear to me what Roosevelt could have done. True, the 27,370 visas made available to German nationals each year between 1939 and 1941 were not sufficient: Perhaps a more zealous president could have done more, but once war broke out, his hands were, in any case, tied. Thus Roosevelt’s policy was to win the war as quickly as possible so as to rescue its victims as soon as possible. It has been suggested that we could have bombed the train tracks or trains that took the Jews to the camps, but it’s not clear how many lives this would have really saved in the end. Not to mention that the camps in question were almost all in the East, and our armed forces were nowhere near them: It was the Russian zone.

I find shocking, in any case, the argument, made both by Burns and by Franklin, that, just as the Roosevelt administration didn’t do enough to save the Jews, so we are not doing enough now to help the immigrants on our Southern border. The Holocaust, in Burns’ scheme of things, was not unique: It must be understood as one of many holocausts. “The similarities between the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust,” writes Franklin, “and the contemporary treatment of undocumented immigrants in the United States are discomfiting.”

Discomfiting indeed but for whom? The Jews of Europe were not just oppressed or persecuted: They were systematically and openly murdered, not for anything they said or did–on the contrary, many tried to please their new would-be mastersbut simply because their ethnicity of origin was Jewish. Period. And bear in mind that although Germany lost the war, Hitler was largely successful in his aim of getting rid of Europe’s Jews. In most of Europe today, Jews are almost extinct. In Germany, for example, the population is .03% Jewish as compared to 5.8% Muslim. Indeed, in today’s Europe, antisemitism flourishes without the actual presence of any Jews.

Let me end on a personal note. Lest readers and Ken Burns’ viewers conclude that antisemitic conduct à la Father Coughlin was the norm in prewar and wartime America, I will describe my own experience. At P.S. 7 in the Bronx, in what was a lower-middle-class neighborhood consisting primarily of Irish and Italian Americans, I was treated with kindness and generosity by teachers and students alike. True, my classmates wondered why I didn’t wear wooden shoes like the little Dutch girls in their picture books, but in my second-grade class, I quickly made friends and learned English overnight. For years, my family was poor: My father, who, sadly enough, could not practice law (his profession) in America, became a CPA within a year and in his first job made $27 a week—about $340 in today’s currency. We thought that was pretty good for a recently arrived refugee. My mother, later a professor of economics at Columbia, spent her days cleaning, cooking, and doing laundry: There were no washing machines in those days, no dishwashers.

As for Roosevelt, for all his flaws (my parents took him to be much too pro-Stalin!), he was, in these war years, a family hero. It was the last time any president was to qualify for that role in my parents’ minds. Incidentally, Joseph Kennedy’s son John, the future president, spent the summer of 1937, when he was a 20-year-old Harvard student, touring Germany and reported to his family that Hitler must be doing something right because the country seemed so orderly, so disciplined and prosperous. The rest is history—or should I say, the history of the 20th century from the Russian Revolution through the two world wars—a subject all but untaught in our schools today.

Marjorie Perloff is Professor Emerita of English at Stanford University and Florence R. Scott Professor of English Emerita at the University of Southern California.