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Jay Winik's '1944': Did FDR let down Europe's Jews?

Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill

Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met in Tehran, Iran, on November 29, 1943. Credit: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library

1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History, by Jay Winik. Simon & Schuster, 639 pp., $35.

It has been 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, and a flood of fall books take on the meanings and legacy of the Holocaust. Though you wouldn't know from its title, Jay Winik's ambitious new book addresses the destruction of the Jews during the Second World War by leveling a powerful if overwrought indictment against the Allies for failing to rescue Jews as the Final Solution unfolded.

Winik is not subtle -- this is less a work of judicious history than one of moral outrage -- but the celebrated popular historian ("April 1865," "The Great Upheaval") wants us to ponder the blind spots of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the ostensible subject of "1944: FDR and the Year that Changed History."

A mishmash of presidential and military history -- ranging from the Oval Office to Berlin, the battlefields of North Africa to the ghastly precincts of the death camps -- and far too cursory to be of much use as either, Winik's account is preoccupied by what and when the Allies knew of Hitler's plans to murder Europe's Jews.

Winik details the futile efforts of Jewish groups and refugee advocates as they implored Roosevelt to do more to put the fate of the Jews front and center. He recounts the story of German industrialist Eduard Schulte, who tried, at great risk to himself, to get word to the West about Heinrich Himmler's plan to implement the Final Solution. In one of the book's best sections, Winik describes Rudolf Vrba's miraculous 1944 escape from Auschwitz, and Vrba's desperate attempt to warn the Allies about German plans to annihilate Hungary's Jews, one of the last remnants of Europe's Jewish population.

In official circles, reports about Nazi plans were treated with skepticism and outright indifference; the outline of industrial murder on such a vast scale was simply too incredible for many to fathom. In a covering letter attached to Schulte's allegations, one U.S. official dismissed the findings "as war rumors inspired by fear." Writes Winik, "It was as though the men in Washington had covered their eyes and ears and were simply waiting for the whole mess to disappear."

How complicit was Roosevelt in the tragedy? Winik admires FDR, but he tempers his respect with stern criticisms of a president famed for his humanitarianism who nevertheless failed to act decisively when presented with incontrovertible facts. The president met only once with Jewish leaders to discuss the Holocaust (in late 1942). Though deeply sympathetic to the Jewish plight, Winik says Roosevelt shied away from a firm commitment to turn a fight to liberate Europe into a crusade to save the Jews.

"Unwilling to detract from the war effort or to risk political capital," Winik writes, "he neither offered to make a speech personally denouncing the Final Solution nor offered to make it the topic of a fireside chat, as he did with such wartime issues as rationing and rubber." Still, FDR spoke out against the dire threat posed by Hitler and held the Allies together even while contending with grave health issues.

Millions of Jews would perish by 1944. Winik's fury mounts as he examines the debate over bombing Auschwitz. The Allies possessed detailed reconnaissance photos of the extermination camp, but no mission was undertaken to bomb it. In this instance, Winik comes close to outright accusation: "There is little doubt that the refusal to directly bomb Auschwitz was the president's decision or at least reflected his wishes. He had access to as much information as anyone else in Washington but tragically chose never to dwell on the issue -- or to make it his."

Winik's often florid account will not settle matters. He is not the first to examine the issue of FDR and the Jews, and he draws considerably on the work of other historians. His account proceeds by a series of confusing time shifts, opening in 1943, then doubling back to trace Roosevelt's rise, then moving forward, and back again.

Why 1944 was "the year that changed history" remains unclear. The signal event of that year, of course, was the D-Day landings. The Allied thrust into occupied Europe would ultimately bring about the end of Nazi rule, which had put murdering Jews at the center of its war aims. Winik is too dismissive of FDR's wartime strategy -- for Roosevelt, the best way to save the Jews was to first destroy Hitler's regime.

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