Friday, November 20, 2009

28. Roosevelt and the Holocaust by Robert L. Beir
with Brian Josepher

I saw this book on the new non-fiction shelf at the library, read the book jacket, and was sold. Like many people, I find the subject of the Holocaust to be endlessly fascinating. I think it's due in part to the psychology of it; the state of the German people after World War I and the way that Hitler played into their fears and lost sense of pride, what it would mean to be discriminated against to the extent that the Jewish people were, what kind of courage it would take to join resistance fighters, how confusing it would be as a child to grow up in that environment. Also, I really didn't know very much about Roosevelt during the war. I remember learning more about him and the Depression in school, not about how he handled international affairs of state.

Here is the book jacket copy that caught my attention:

"The year was 1932. At age fourteen Robert Beir's journey through life changed irrevocably when a classmate called him a 'dirty Jew.' The classmate put up his fists. Suddenly Beir encountered the belligerent poison of anti-Semitism. The safe confines of his upbringing had been violated. The pain that he felt at that moment was far more hurtful than any blow. Its memory would last a lifetime.

Beir's experiences with anti-Semitism served as a microcosm for the anti-Semitism in the country at large. Opinion polls showed that 15 percent of the population thirsted for a large-scale anti-Jewish campaign and 35 to 40 percent of all Americans would have gone along with one. That year, a politician named Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved into the White House. Over the next twelve years, he instilled optimism and new confidence in a nation that had been mired in fear and deeply depressed. His presidency saved the capitalist system. His strong leadership helped to defeat Hitler. The Jews of America revered President Roosevelt. In the election of 1940, 90 percent of all Jewish Americans who voted, voted for Roosevelt.

To Robert Beir, Roosevelt was a hero. At an early age the author became a 'Rooseveltian.' In mid-life however, Beir experienced a conflict. New research was questioning Roosevelt's record regarding the Holocaust. The author felt compelled to undertake a historian's quest. How much did President Roosevelt know about the Holocaust? What could Roosevelt have done? Why wasn't there an urgent rescue effort? In answering these questions, Robert Beir has done a masterful job. This book is graphically written, well-researched and provocative. The kaleidoscopic portrait it depicts is truly unforgettable."

Roosevelt and the Holocaust is part memoir, part non-fiction. This is due to the author's personal connection to his subject; Roosevelt being one of his heroes naturally intertwines the two. Beir spends a few chapters writing about his early life up through World War II and serving in the Navy (far from any actual conflicts). His experiences with anti-Semitism are occasional but damaging nonetheless. He spends much of his life after the war as a businessman, and upon retiring has an idea for what to do next. Beir had amassed an impressive library of material on Roosevelt and began teaching mini-courses about him at a local college. His image of Roosevelt remained intact until a student raised a question about a group of Jewish refugees who were denied entry to the United States. The questions raised by his class and the publication of David Wyman's The Abandonment of the Jews, a scathing account of Roosevelt's actions during WWII, compelled Beir to research his hero's role in saving Jews from the Holocaust. Did Roosevelt do enough? Were his actions justifiable? Did the man that he had revered for his entire life deserve it? Although Beir was in his 80s at the time of writing, he felt that he could not rest until he had answered these questions for himself.

Beir gives a thorough history of Roosevelt's policies leading up to and during the war. There is a lot of information provided and I hope that you won't judge the book by the lame recap that I'm attempting. Basically, although America was represented by an isolationist Congress, Roosevelt did his best to assist friendly European nations before America entered the war. He comes across as someone who feels a responsibility to help but has to respect the wishes of his nation. After America declares war, Roosevelt is still faced with impossible choices. The stories of the treatment of Jews seem inconceivable to most Americans, who resist acceptance of Jewish refugees. Roosevelt decides on an approach: in order to save the Jews, he must win the war. He focuses all of his efforts on the military aspect, rather than on specific rescue attempts. He steadfastly sticks to this approach, although he does eventually form a board to address the refugee crisis after secretly meeting with someone who had escaped from Auschwitz and could describe the conditions there. Beir concludes his history by explaining that he remained a staunch Rooseveltian, having satisfied his questions about his hero.

I read this book in one sitting, which I definitely wasn't expecting. Beir inundates you with information, but it never felt overwhelming to me. He has to describe unspeakable acts by the Nazis, but his writing swiftly moves you on to the next paragraph without getting mired down. I really appreciated how accessible Beir's writing was. Although I'm familiar with many of the events that were covered, I wanted to keep reading to see how Roosevelt handled them and how Beir would analyze those actions. Reading about the war from this particular angle was very interesting and I did enjoy it.

This is the kind of book that I could go on and on about, but I'd rather not. If you have any interest in the subject, I absolutely recommend this book as food for thought. While I found myself agreeing with Beir's conclusions, maybe you won't. The fact of the matter is that there's no one right answer and people may still be debating Roosevelt's policies and actions for years to come.

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