Dr. Rafael Medoff
Dr. Rafael Medoffצילום: INN:RM

Dr. Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of more than 20 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust.

This week’s mail brought two particularly interesting items. One was an announcement that a Jewish organization plans to honor two filmmakers for their recent Holocaust documentary. The other was a scholarly Holocaust journal that includes information which shatters one of the major claims of that very film.

The honorees, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, co-directed the recent Ken Burns documentary, “The U.S. and the Holocaust.” In the opening minutes of the film, the narrator asserts that from 1933 to 1945, the Roosevelt administration admitted “some 225,000 refugees from Nazi terror, more than any other sovereign nation took in.”

Burns, Novick and Botstein have repeated that claim, word for word, in numerous interviews during the past year. It’s not just a statistic. It’s an attempt to defend FDR’s reputation. It’s a way of saying “Sure, President Roosevelt didn’t save everybody, but he didn’t abandon the Jews—he took in more than anybody else.”

Even if that statement were true, it’s a strange argument to make. Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust should not be minimized or excused just because other world leaders also did much less than they could have. It’s not exactly impressive if the president of a country claiming to represent high ideals of humanitarianism had been slightly more generous in admitting refugees than various despots and dictators around the world.

But what makes the Burns-Novick-Botstein claim about FDR and refugees all the more troubling is that it’s not even true.

The first clue that there’s something suspicious about the Burns-Novick-Bostein claim is its awkward wording. The phrase “any other sovereign nation” sticks out like a sore thumb. Ordinarily, one would say, “any other country.” Why insert the word “sovereign”?

In an interview with The Daily Beast last year, Burns explained the strange choice of words. Responding to criticism of his handling of the immigration statistics, Burns admitted he uses the term “sovereign nation” in order to distinguish Jewish refugee immigration to America from the fact that “people escaped to other places, like Palestine.”

But why would Burns want to disqualify Palestine from the conversation? Why resort to a technicality about sovereignty, in order to push Palestine out of the discussion? Why does sovereignty matter?

Even though Palestine was not sovereign, the ruling authorities there—the British—certainly were a sovereign power, and they had to decide how many Jews to admit either to the United Kingdom or to the territories under its control. Likewise, President Roosevelt had to decide how many Jews he would admit either to the mainland U.S. (the quotas were almost never filled) or to the non-sovereign territories America controlled, such as the U.S. Virgin Islands.

While FDR chose to keep Jews out of the Virgin Islands, the British admitted many Jewish refugees to Palestine during the early Nazi years, before slamming the doors almost completely shut during the mass murder period.

From 1933 to 1945, the British admitted a total of more than 250,000 Jews to Palestine. Additional thousands were granted haven in other British colonial possessions.

Tens of thousands were also admitted to the United Kingdom itself. In the wake of the Kristallnacht pogrom, the British took in 10,000 German Jewish children on the famous kindertransports, and an additional 15,000 young Jewish women as nannies and housekeepers.

By contrast, FDR’s response to Kristallnacht was to temporarily extend the visitor visas of 5,000 German tourists in the United States (the president’s initial claim that it was 12,000-15,000 was a considerable exaggeration).

This doesn’t mean the British government was some great rescuer of the Jews. It could have admitted many more Jewish refugees to Palestine and elsewhere, especially during the years when Jews needed it most. But it admitted more than President Roosevelt did.

Even if Palestine is arbitrarily removed from the equation, the Roosevelt administration still doesn’t qualify as having accepted more Jewish refugees “than any other sovereign nation.” That distinction actually belongs to the Soviet Union.

And that bring us to the second interesting item in this week’s mail—the latest issue of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, the official journal of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Writing in this issue, a University of Pennsylvania scholar refers to “the Polish Jews who took refuge in the USSR” following the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939.

Just how many Polish Jews took refuge there? There were “the 300,000 Jews who fled eastward” to the Soviet Union in 1939, and then another “100,000 Jews that fled or were evacuated” to the USSR in the summer of 1941, the author notes.

This is not new or controversial information. The number 300,000 has also been posted on the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s own website for many years.

It’s remarkable that the filmmakers who are now being honored by a Jewish organization did not bother to check the numbers before deciding to make their erroneous claim about refugees one of the major themes of their film. It’s equally remarkable that they have kept repeating that misinformation in interviews since then, even though their error has been pointed out by many critics. But acknowledging the facts would contradict their predetermined narrative about FDR and the Holocaust.

Published in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.