Maybe Roosevelt Couldn't Have Saved the Jews From the Nazis After All

Leading Holocaust historian Professor Yehuda Bauer finds himself at odds with the historiographic establishment.

In the late 1960s, historical studies published in the United States began to condemn President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for abandoning Europe's Jews in World War II. Similarly, the historians censured American Jewish leaders for not speaking out on behalf of their brethren during the Holocaust. The studies and declarations were a means by which the scholars, many of whom were young Jews, added their voices to those who were then lauding Israel's victory in the Six-Day War: No longer were they little Jews ingratiating themselves before others, but proud patriots. The theory that it had been possible to save the Jews reflected, paradoxically enough, a very American optimism.

American historiography is characterized by trends, and like historical research in Israel, it is also to a large degree tainted by politics. Promoting the assumption that the Roosevelt administration had abandoned the Jews of Europe, partly out of anti-Semitic motives, was seen as a way to serve the Zionist interest. Teddy Kollek, director general of the Prime Minister's Office in the 1950s and '60s, wrote in his memoirs how he pushed for publication of a book by journalist Arthur D. Morse, "While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy," which was considered the first work to be written in that spirit.

Furthermore, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mentioned, in a recent speech before the American Jewish lobby AIPAC, the Roosevelt administration's refusal to bomb Auschwitz, in an allusion to the Obama administration's refusal to allow Israel to take action against Iran.

In the 1960s, Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer was also inclined to believe that information about the murder of European Jews, made public in London by the Polish government in exile in 1942, should have been sufficient proof to the world that a holocaust was under way. Now, at age 87, the Hebrew University emeritus professor feels differently: The United States knew the real story of the Holocaust only much later, and to a lesser degree than is commonly thought, Bauer says now. There may have been some sporadic opportunities to save a few thousand Jews, but essentially, only the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany could end the annihilation of the millions.

Bauer finds himself at odds not only with the historiographic establishment, but also with himself. In an article now appearing in the quarterly of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, he writes: "Had I stuck to the same positions for 44 years, after having scoured archives all over the world, learning a few languages and writing 14 books on the Holocaust - I should have been dismissed from the university. Just as every responsible historian does, I change my views in accordance with the evidence that I find."

The shift in Bauer's views began to crystallize four or five years ago, he told me last week. In his article, he disagrees with an American historian named Rafael Medoff. At this stage, the difference of opinion is very specific: It is over who knew what, and when, about the Holocaust and whether, if a person had known something, he could have acted accordingly. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Bauer states that there was no possibility of saving a significant number of Jews by bringing them into the Land of Israel, because there was no way of extracting them from occupied Europe.

Further examination led Bauer to conclude also that there was no real opportunity to destroy Nazi annihilation mechanisms by aerial bombings, except at the cost of the lives of many Jews. The Jewish Agency objected at the time to bombing Auschwitz - a detail that Netanyahu did not bother to tell the AIPAC delegates. It may have been possible to bomb the railroad tracks leading to the camps, but the Germans would have rebuilt them.

Similarly, had the Allies bombed the gas chambers, the annihilation would have continued via other means, including the "death marches." In this context, Bauer notes that some 50 percent of Jewish war victims were not murdered in the death camps.

In 1943-44, anti-Semitism was on the rise in America. There were those who dismissed the notion that the United States was obligated to protect the Jews of Europe as they were not American citizens. Bauer does not accept this stand, but writes: "One may rightly ask why the United States did not intervene along with its British allies when some two million Indians died of starvation in 1943, and why it did not even make any statements about it."

Which leads him to a question that he and many of his colleagues have posed with respect to the Holocaust: "Was Jewish blood any redder than the blood of others?" Bauer asks. His answer is that the Jews were an unusual case, deserving of special attention and recognition, because the crime committed against them was unique and few people had understood that in real time. The term "genocide" only came into use after the war. Bauer writes that he and other Jewish historians plead the case of the Jews simply because they are writing about their own people.

Scholars who believe that FDR and the U.S. Jewish establishment missed the chance to stop the annihilation of the Jews often express admiration for Hillel Kook, an activist affiliated with the Etzel prestate underground organization, who spent the war years in the United States. Kook adopted the name Peter Bergson and worked in America on behalf of the European Jews. Eventually, following Israel's establishment, Kook became a Herut party member of Knesset. Bauer's opinion concerning the impact of the "Bergsonites," as historians call Kook and his colleagues: "Sadly, it was zero."

This, too, reflects a very political argument, between "Zionist uprightness" and "Jewish weakness." Unlike some American Jews, Bauer does not need to resort to Holocaust studies to provide evidence of his own Zionist devotion. As an Israel Prize laureate of worldwide stature who is held in high esteem at Yad Vashem, among other places, he can also allow himself a measure of self-irony: "In this dispute, I am playing the role of Satan," he said last week.

Getty Images