Historian: Ken Burns Holocaust Documentary on PBS Whitewashes FDR

President Franklin D. Roosevelt speaks at his Inauguration for the 4th time January 20, 19
National Archive/Getty

Historian and Holocaust scholar Rafael Medoff told the Times of Israel that Ken Burns’s new documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust, which airs on PBS this week, whitewashes President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s wartime record on saving Jews.

Specifically, Medoff claims that Burns exaggerates the role FDR played in rescuing Jewish refugees from Europe, falsely claiming that the U.S. took in more refugees than any other country. Quotas that Roosevelt directly controlled were partly responsible for the death of Anne Frank and tens of thousands of other Jews, he said, who were denied asylum from Europe.
Medoff also says that FDR declined to bomb the railways leading to Auschwitz because of a doctrine of not using the military for humanitarian purposes, and not because of the risk to the inmates or because doing so would divert military resources.

He adds that Burns omitted the role of James G. McDonald, the first ambassador of the US to Israel, who resigned from the FDR administration in 1935 in protest because the administration would not do enough to help Jews in Europe.

Medoff also told the Times of Israel that FDR refused to allow Jewish refugees to escape to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

He added that while FDR’s defenders claim that he deferred to public opinion that it would be bad to devote so much attention to rescuing the Jews of Europe, that argument wrongly excuses FDR’s policy on immigration, over which he had control:

Public opinion was not in charge of US immigration policy; President Roosevelt was. It was the Roosevelt administration, not the public, that decided to suppress immigration below what the existing law permitted, by searching high and low for reasons to disqualify visa applicants. One of the main reasons the waiting list was long was because the German quota was kept unfilled in 11 of Roosevelt’s 12 years as president. More than 190,000 quota places that could have been used for Jewish refugees instead sat unused. The year that the Frank family tried to immigrate, 1941, the quota was only 47% filled; there was plenty of room for Anne and her family — if the administration had not been trying so hard to keep Jews out.

Will some future filmmaker try to blame “public opinion” for the Clinton administration ignoring the Rwanda genocide, or for the Bush and Obama administrations doing so little to stop the Darfur genocide? I hope not.

Documentarians have an obligation to present the facts of history, even if those facts reflect badly on their favorite president.

Medoff said that Burns based his documentary on a flawed 2018 exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Museum that omitted McDonald’s diaries — which implicated FDR — from its displays on the role of U.S. policy during the Holocaust.

Burns drew criticism last week for comparing the sending of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard to the actions of the Nazis.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News and the host of Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot on Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT). He is the author of the recent e-book, Neither Free nor Fair: The 2020 U.S. Presidential Election. His recent book, RED NOVEMBER, tells the story of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary from a conservative perspective. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.


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