When I interviewed Samuel G. Freedman back in 1996 about his bookThe Inheritance: How Three Families and America Moved From Roosevelt to Reagan and Beyond, he relayed an anecdote that has stayed with me. He spoke of his Uncle Seymour's Bar Mitzvah ceremony, and how family lore had it that, as his uncle carried the Torah around the synagogue sanctuary, the rabbi carried a picture of then-president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Freedman admitted that the story might be apocryphal, but that the details always stressed for him "the almost religious devotion" that Jewish Americans had for FDR.
I thought about that image as I read Robert Shogan's Prelude to Catastrophe: FDR's Jews and the Menace of Nazism, released by the ever-estimable Chicago publishing house of Ivan R. Dee. I wondered how the Jews of that time would react to the mass of de-mythologizing works that have appeared over the last 50 years about Roosevelt, especially concerning his behavior and decision-making during the 1930s and '40s, when the Nazis were bent on destroying Europe's Jews.
As is true of many other books on the subject, Roosevelt emerges from Shogan's brief but potent survey as a highly skillful politician, but an intellectual lightweight. He was all surface, a man who did his best to avoid tackling any problem "head-on"; and yet that surface, when paired with his inimitable charm and wit and the sheer force of his personality, could make many things happen.
It's something of a pitiable portrait that arises from these pages, considering the earth-shaking events that challenged the man — and how many lives were at stake around the world. His vision may have pulled Americans through the Depression — and that's hardly a minor achievement — but when it came to the Jews and the ever-pressing refugee problem, his failure proved monumental.
But Roosevelt is only one part of the multilevel portrait that Shogan constructs here. A former prize-winning national correspondent for Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times, and the author of other books on topics related to World War II era, the author also examines five men, close advisers or friends (or both) of the president — so close to him, in fact, that they have come to be dubbed "FDR's Jews." (Shogan gives full credit to Professor Gulie Néeman of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, whose book America, Its Jews, and the Rise of Nazism introduced the term the "President's Jews.")
Shogan's impressive cast of characters includes Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis; Felix Frankfurter, the Harvard law professor who hand-picked some of the brightest lights in the New Deal bureaucratic firmament; Sam Rosenman, FDR's principal speech writer; Benjamin Cohen, the attorney who worked with the president to reform Wall Street; and Henry Morgenthau Jr., FDR's treasury secretary and a longtime neighbor in New York's Duchess County.
Failure and Inactivity
The author also looks at the actions of Rabbi Stephen Wise, one of the most powerful and forceful personalities among American Jews of the period, and his interactions with the president.
This is a stellar crew with Roosevelt at its center — the sun in that firmament; but despite all the intelligence and political savvy on display throughout the text, Shogan's book is pretty consistently a depiction of failure and inactivity on these men's parts.
There were many factors, Shogan argues, that made the 1930s a "prelude to catastrophe." He retells an old Jewish joke which helps sum up the mood among American Jews of the period. Abe and Irving face a firing squad. The Nazi in charge comes over and offers the men blindfolds and cigarettes. Abe tears the blindfold off and spits in the officer's face.
"Please, Abe," Irving begs, "don't make any trouble."
Many Jews in America were like Irving, known as "sha" Jews — "Sha, stay quiet, don't make waves." Writes the author: " … this attitude was simply the latest representation of the quandary that had haunted American Jews for all their time in the golden medine: the conflict between their urge to assimilate, to submerge their special identity in the American melting pot and not 'make trouble,' even as the Holocaust loomed abroad, and the call of conscience that inclined some to spit in the executioner's eye."
Shogan shows that some of that same "sha" mentality was at work among the group of important and talented men who oftentimes had the president's ear.
And yet it was far more complex than a matter of attitudes. Considering how much power the "President's Jews" had singly and collectively, these men had the potential to influence the fortunes of America's Jews, as well as the fate of their co-religionists. Writes the historian: "On the face of things they seemed to offer a tactical advantage to the beleaguered Jewish community, a sympathetic and knowledgeable route to the president, who was himself believed to be sensitive to their circumstances. But the notion led to tragic disappointment. The President's Jews, specifically the three reputedly most influential — Brandeis, Frankfurter and Rosenman — were not what the Jews outside government wanted them to be. Instead of serving the Jews as conduits, they served the president as buffers, shielding him from the importunings of the increasingly desperate Jews."
The explanation for these men's conduct, states Shogan, rests in their shared experiences of growing up Jewish in the precarious late 19th- and early 20th-century America, and from certain traits of their personalities and intellects.
"Brandeis was a man most of whose impulses were subsumed by an all-encompassing intellectual vision," writes the author. "Even his fervor for Zionism seems to have been driven not only by the need for a Jewish homeland as a refuge for persecuted Jewry but also as a laboratory to prove out his theories of progressivism. Frankfurter was gripped by a mixture of apprehension and ambition that matched, and sometimes exceeded, even his considerable intellectual gifts. Determined to protect his precious relationship with Roosevelt and his reputation in the worlds of academe and politics, not to mention his prospects for a seat on the Supreme Court, he concluded that vigorously championing the cause of European Jewry with the man in the Oval Office involved too much risk. Sam Rosenman, equally determined to protect his status with the president, dedicated himself to telling FDR what he believed he most wanted to hear, and which in most cases was what Rosenman himself happened to believe. Rosenman did not merely avoid the refugee cause, he actively sought to obstruct it."
Cohen, called a "brilliant, otherworldly young counsel" by Fortune magazine, decided that there was nothing to be accomplished by pleading the refugees' case. Instead, he took up the cause of aiding the British during the Blitz. Rabbi Wise, says Shogan, was, just like these other men, "controlled by his own ego and ambition." Wise reasoned that to help the Jews, he had to stay on Roosevelt's good side.
Only Morgenthau comes out of this as something of a hero. He took up the refugee cause late in the game, but once he took it up, he fought what Shogan calls the battle of his life. This man, the historian states flatly, "provided a striking contrast to the hypocrisy and pusillanimousness that undermined the hopes held by the Jewish community for the President's Jews."
But readers must keep one overriding point in mind. There's lots of blame to go around, but the buck stopped with Roosevelt. Only he could have saved the Jews, especially if he'd banded together with other Western leaders (Churchill to begin with). But there is nothing in the literature that leads you to believe that the president ever cared to assist Jews. And that, of course, merely hastened one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century.