Books: Reassessing Roosevelt

April 2014 Home Column List 1

Books: Reassessing Roosevelt


FDR and the Jews by Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman. (Harvard University Press, 433 pp. $29.95)

One of the more contentious issues in Holocaust historiography is the role President Franklin D. Roosevelt played in confronting the Nazi extermination of European Jewry. Critics such as David Wyman contend the president abandoned the Jews by not demanding that the State Department eliminate the “paper walls” that prevented large numbers of Jewish refugees from entering the United States and for not taking a stronger stand against the Nazi annihilation of the Jews. On the other hand, historians such as Henry Feingold point to the many constraints on Roosevelt to engage in a policy of rescue because of racially based immigration laws, an isolationist Congress, neutrality laws, growing anti-Semitism, the lack of a unified American Jewish community and high unemployment as a result of the Great Depression.

The authors, Richard Breitman (a Holocaust historian) and Allan Lichtman (professor of American history), admit the debate is politically charged, passionate and unforgiving. Nevertheless, their work, which includes formerly unpublished primary sources, attempts to present an objective account as well as correctives to a number of well-known criticisms. For examples, the failed Evian Conference of July 6 to 15, 1938, where the president brought together several countries to solve the refugee crisis precipitated by Germany’s annexation of Austria, is often cited as a cynical political ploy by Roosevelt to shore up the Jewish vote. The authors reject this view, hailing the event as an “extraordinary” undertaking that displayed the president’s humanitarian concern; the conference was organized when the president was under fire from conservatives in his party, engaged in an ongoing struggle with Congress over recovery measures and amid growing isolationist sentiment and an increase in anti-Semitism.

The book also disputes the charge that American officials callously ordered the Coast Guard to prevent the passengers on the St. Louis from reaching American shores in the summer of 1939. Rather, the decision was made in accordance with American immigration laws, which meant that the passengers could not enter legally by “jumping ahead of other Jews on the waiting list.” Had the president attempted to circumvent the law, Congress would have exploited his directive to reduce his chances of revising the Neutrality Acts. According to the authors, of the 620 passengers on the St. Louis who returned to Continental Europe, 365 survived, as did the 288 passengers who landed in Great Britain.

On the matter of bombing Auschwitz, the authors note that the president played no role in the decision not to bomb Auschwitz. Nor was there pressure on him to do so by leaders of the Jewish community. They do argue that even if the bombing request had reached his desk, he would not have contravened the advice of his military. And despite the contrary claims of Roosevelt’s critics, the bombing of Auschwitz would not have forced the Nazis to cease and desist or reassess the Final Solution.

FDR and the Jews, however, is not a defense of the president. The authors note that Roosevelt’s primary objective, especially during his first term, was economic recovery, not confronting Congress to revise restrictive immigration law. Nevertheless, the American Jewish community trusted him and understood that he was the first president to intervene somewhat on behalf of their oppressed brethren abroad.

The authors observe that Roosevelt was neither a savior nor an indifferent bystander, yet his efforts on behalf of the Jews was far greater than those of any other world leader.  —Jack Fischel

Jews and Words by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger. (Yale University Press, 232 pp. $14.75)

This slender volume is companion to Yale University Press’s projected 10-part Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, underwritten by Felix Posen, longtime promoter of secular (cultural) Judaism. Jews and Words is written in tandem by Israeli novelist Amos Oz and his daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, a professor of history at Haifa University and member of the general advisory board of the Posen project.

This is a very unorthodox work: It is written in English by native Hebrew speakers. Each of the four essays is presented as having been written by both authors together, accounting perhaps for the occasional sense that one is reading a dialectical give-and-take. The point stressed throughout is the assertion, if not the demonstration, that the permanence of Jewish civilization can be attributed to the transmission of texts—the “words” of the title—from one generation to the next.

In the first chapter, “Continuity,” the authors dwell on the Judaic educational pairing of father and son, rabbi and student. More fascinating is the retelling of several talmudic stories, including the charming tale of “Achnai’s Oven,” from which we learn that once the Torah was given to man, Jewish law is no longer to be found in heaven. We know from Oz’s fiction that he is obsessed with Hebrew word origins and it is probably he who offers as a source of the Hebrew word hutzpa the talmudic expression beit din hatzuf, a Jewish court that has the nerve to judge a case with only two judges, instead of the required three. The suggestion that the words horeh (parent) and moreh (teacher) derive from the same root is a bit fanciful but, if so, it is a nifty piece of fancy.

“Vocal Women” is a 50-page heaping up of vignettes on Jewish women who were important to the development of Jewish civilization. We encounter biblical Tamar, talmudic Bruria and Martha bat Boethius, Rashi’s daughters, the women of the Cairo Geniza and, rewardingly, Glückel of Hameln, who flourished at the end of the 17th and early-18th centuries. This chapter leaves the reader thirsty for more and one hopes a historian or novelist will publish their fleshed-out profiles.

The third chapter, “Time and Timelessness,” is firmly in the world of Jewish thought. The language of this essay is less casual than the others, as befits a weighty subject. The fourth chapter, “Each Person Has a Name; or, Do Jews Need Judaism,” alludes to the writings of Yehuda Amichai, who wrestled in his poetry with his religious upbringing in ways that endeared him to readers on all points on the religious spectrum. In this chapter, father and daughter wrestle with the words that have been used to describe the Jewish experience: Judaism, Jewishness, Judentum, Hebraism, yahadut, Yiddishkeit, tarbut yisrael, and they make the case that Jewish civilization encompasses much more than the Jewish religion.

Perhaps the most revealing section is “Sources,” notes presented without referring numerically back to the main text, thus masking the scholarly apparatus. It encourages us to read this fascinating section from beginning to end, reinforcing the idea that we are in the presence of a work of unconventional—and artful—Jewish writing. —Joseph Lowin

Read Barbara Trainin Blank's interview with James E. Young, editor in chief of the Posen Library.

Into the Light: The Healing Art of Kalman Aron by Susan Beilby Magee. (Hard Press Editions and Posterity Press, 122 illustrations, 220 pp. $50)

Susan Beilby Magee first met Kalman Aron when she was 6; her mother had asked him to draw her portrait. Fifty years later, Aron, who had never wanted to talk about his Holocaust experiences, asked Magee to write his story. Into the Light thus reflects Magee’s compassionate voice and Aron’s earliest memories, even before the Germans occupied his home in Riga, Latvia, in 1941.

Drawing since age 3, at 13 he was chosen to paint the official portrait of the Latvian president. His art stood him in good stead in the ghetto and concentration camps, where drawing a portrait of a guard would net him extra food. After liberation, at age 22, he studied in the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts on scholarship. In 1949, he received a visa to start life anew in Los Angeles.

Aron has memorialized his Holocaust experiences—a self-portrait (gouache on paper) shows Aron sleeping next to a rock, his pillow in Buchenwald; the Cubist Gathering of Women depicts mothers with eyes closed or devoid of emotion; the charcoal Mother and Child’s figures are bonded intimately, seamlessly. But, writes Magee, an economist-turned-healer, the artist reached for “signs of a life, texture, color, perhaps safety.”

Much in demand as a portraitist—his work has been described as psychological realism—he also painted natural landscapes with vibrant greens and blues and experimented with patterned, linear, abstract and semi-abstract styles using oils and acrylics.
Aron’s intense, lush and mesmerizing art work can be viewed at —Zelda Shluker


One Last Thing Before I Go: A Novel by Jonathan Tropper. (Dutton Adult, 336 pp. $26.95)

Drew Silver is a sad sack on all accounts: His ex-wife, Denise, is getting married in three weeks, his 18-year-old daughter can barely stand him, he is stuck playing at weddings because his one-hit-wonder band failed. And he lives in a converted efficiency hotel with other forty-something divorced men whose lives are also passing them by like a train steaming recklessly into a dark, dead-end tunnel.

If this sounds depressing, it is much worse than that. Author Jonathan Tropper—a Jewish American Nick Hornby, if you will—has decided to begin his fifth novel at rock bottom. That way, when Silver has a stroke at the abortion clinic he’s taken his daughter Casey to (because she doesn’t want her mother, Denise, to find out), we can understand why he does not want to have the emergency operation that would save his life. It is not because the cardiologist is Rich, Denise’s fiancé; no, Silver cannot find it in his heart to hate the man who is the father he could never be. Silver simply cannot find a compelling reason to live. Instead, he decides to use the time to: 1. Be a Better Father; 2. Be a Better Man; 3. Fall in Love; 4. Die.

Enter Ruben Silver, rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel and Drew’s father. Ruben decides to take Drew to every Jewish life-cycle ritual: a brit, a bar or bat mitzva, a wedding and a funeral. His hope is that witnessing these powerful moments will persuade Drew to get the operation—if not become a believer again.

Drew believed in God as a kid. “When you grow up in a rabbi’s house, God is part of the package, an amiable resident ghost, floating about in corners, sitting in the empty dinner chair, peering in through your curtains after you get tucked into bed.” But as a teen, he realized God was gone—and had been for some time. “It was like hearing about the death of a great uncle you hadn’t thought about in years. You attempt to mourn, settle for nostalgia, and then move on, willfully ignoring the vague sense of unsettlement that lingers....”

Silver hasn’t grown up, but he is older, with more of a life than most of Tropper’s leading men. Tropper’s protagonists—usually Jewish and always male—are emo-guys narcissistically sensitive to their own temperamental vicissitudes—and tone deaf to the damage they inflict on loved ones. But they are believers in the redeeming powers of true love.

With the glut of chick lit out there, it takes a nice Jewish guy from Westchester, New York, to turn those tables around. —Amy Klein

Read Amy Klein’s interview with Jonathan Tropperr.

Isaac: A Modern Fable by Ivan G. Goldman. (The Permanent Press, 222 pp. $28)

This is a knockout of a novel—original, provocative, memorable. The jacket cover shows a detail from Caravaggio’s 1603 painting The Sacrifice of Isaac—Abraham, knife in hand, holding his son’s head down—under a blended-in shot of the Santa Monica Hills with its iconic Hollywood sign, an intriguing reference to the book’s subtitle, “A Modern Fable.” What is amazing is how easily Goldman gets the reader to suspend disbelief that Isaac, who lived on thanks to the intercession of an angel, is now 4,000 years old and inhabiting the body of “Lenny.”

In a Los Angeles coffee shop, Lenny spots beautiful, feisty but troubled Ruth. In short order, they exchange smart-alecky remarks, go to bed, fall in love, part, but keep yearning for one other.

Ruth, a brilliant but hitherto unsuccessful academic, becomes a revered scholar and media star. Lenny, a k a Yitzhak ben Avraham, runs away from her, as he has been doing to women for centuries, fearing their response if he tells them who he is and fearing as well a mysterious creature dogging him whom he calls The Beast.

The novel is constructed as a series of observations, many of them witty, sardonic comments on societal mores. The chapters alternate between Ruth, Lenny and a third major character, Anton Borges—handsome, charismatic, as intellectually dazzling as he is sexy.

A malevolent manipulator, Borges can see into souls. Ruth interests him, Lenny more, and against Borges’s Mephistophelean presence, it would seem Ruth and Lenny have no chance. But if Borges is the devil incarnate, then whom does Borges serve if not the Supreme Being? Lenny ruminates, “Surely countless theologians have pondered what lessons can be learned from a deity who rewards a father for his willingness to slay his son”—and from the son who has been spared but does not know why.

Isaac taps into one of the most controversial stories in the Bible and merges it with Faustian legend to explore eternal themes about good and evil, free will and fate and love and sacrifice. It sets these in persuasively realized historical and contemporary contexts, as the lovers confront various seductions and risks. By choosing Ruth as his ultimate soul mate, Lenny ensures he will die—but hasn’t he been doomed to a living death for centuries?

Watching Goldman ease his emerging existential lovers into dreadful freedom is to watch a master literary talent take on the Big Questions as he provides a moving modern-day love story. —Joan Baum

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