Election Day 2018 served as a fitting time to host the 25th Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Distinguished Lecture, presented by Roosevelt’s Center for New Deal Studies.
The lecture, titled The Roosevelts and the Holocaust, was delivered by Dr. Daniel Greene, professor of history at Northwestern University and curator of Americans and the Holocaust, an exhibition that opened April 2018 at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
In her opening comments, Margaret Rung, Roosevelt professor of history, stated, “We can’t help but feel the weight of history. On a day when the nation is casting votes to determine its political direction amid an atmosphere of racism, misogyny, xenophobia and classism, it’s not hard to glance back at the 1930s and wonder what Americans were thinking when they witnessed the rise of fascism in Europe and Asia.”
Indeed, Greene detailed the tumult faced by America and the world during World War II, in which millions of European Jewish people were systematically murdered by Nazi Germany. The lecture was a well-delivered companion piece to the physical exhibit Greene has curated in Washington, as it captured in so many words how America reacted to the insidious actions of the emerging world power.
Weeks after the widely reported Kristallnacht, in which thousands of Jewish businesses and synagogues were destroyed and nearly 100 Jews were murdered, Nazis warned they would “wipe out” Jews unless evacuated by democracies. In response, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt denounces Nazis, but maintains his firm stance on the country’s restrictive immigration quota.
Roosevelt’s initial complicated views of the refugee and immigration process were “difficult to wrestle with,” according to Greene, especially considered in 2018. Americans’ views on the issue, as reflected in Gallup polls from the time, shared Roosevelt’s sentiments: those polled showed remorse for Jews persecuted, but were unwilling to open up borders to those exiled.
This might sound familiar to anyone who views the country’s current administration’s actions toward immigrants through the same lens. Economic insecurity and fearful isolationist sentiment prevail across much of the U.S., just as they may have in the 1930s and ’40s. Yet Eleanor Roosevelt showed up somewhat unexpectedly to speak out in public ways about pending legislation, helping to soften Americans’ views on persecuted Jews.
“We cannot progress if we look down upon any group of people among us because of race or religion,” Roosevelt said. “Every citizen in this country has a right to our basic freedoms, to justice and to equality of opportunity, and we retain the right to lead our individual lives as we please, but we can only do so if we grant to others the freedoms that we wish for ourselves.”
Despite learning the full scope of the horrific events of the Holocaust after World War II concludes, American people continue to oppose increased immigration. Congress eventually passes limited legislation to aid displaced European survivors, but as Greene pointed out, winning the war doesn’t solve the problems for Europe’s Jews, most of whom become displaced.
On her return to the U.S. after touring concentration camps, Eleanor Roosevelt said, “I have the feeling that we let our consciences realize too late the need of standing up against something that we knew was wrong. We have therefore had to avenge it — but we did nothing to prevent it. I hope that in the future, we are going to remember that there can be no compromise at any point with the things that we know are wrong.”
To Greene, the opportunity to recite her words in her eponymous institution was momentous. As he said, “It really is such an honor to speak about her and her role in this history in a place that I know was so important to her.”