BOOK REVIEW: David Wyman, "The Abandonment of the Jews"

(Author's Note: The following is a book report I completed some time last year and thought it would be interesting to post it!)

David Wyman’s The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945, is an eye-opening, rather startling look at the Roosevelt Administration’s, the United States’, and various Jewish and world organizations’ responses to the atrocity of the Holocaust. Wyman argues that a combination of factors, including the prevalent nativism, anti-Semitism, ignorance and apathy present in the government and the nation as a whole at the time and the failure of Jewish organizations to cooperate and organize properly into a strong presence whose pressure and presence could have precipitated Roosevelt to take necessary action, comprised the serious failure of America to act to save the imperiled Jews. However, while Wyman presents his case in an informational manner, the tone of his footnotes and especially his afterword reveal his bias and his true opinions on the matter which somewhat lessen the impact of the body of the book.

Throughout the course of the book, Wyman presents a long series of the many failures of the Roosevelt Administration to respond adequately and justly to the reports of the Jewish massacre in Europe. The government (Wyman cites the State and War Departments in particular), essentially tried to ignore the problem by, among other methods, trying to block reports of the atrocities “from Jewish sources in Switzerland” (314); by refusing to loosen restriction on immigration, even that of refugees, even though the immigration quotas were almost completely unfilled, due to strong nativist sentiment within the country and government; by deferring all “rescue plans…submitted to the State Department…to the moribund Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees…or…[strangling them with] intentional delays” (314); and by attempting to save face by hosting the Bermuda Conference with the British in 1943, a “ruse” to lessen public pressure on the government to take action (122). The government also failed by ignoring several significant opportunities to rescue Jews, including a “Rumanian offer to free 70,000 Jews” in 1942 by citing inadequate funds and transport, claims which Wyman reveals to be almost entirely fallacious (314); and by restricting the rescue abilities of the War Refugee Board, created in 1944 by President Roosevelt in response to much pressure, by failing to properly fund and cooperate with the board. The charges against the Roosevelt administration are grave and rather startling. The accounts of the repeated complete and utter failures of the government to respond to the crisis and their seeming apathy and coldness towards the plight of the Jews are shocking, especially in the light of the popularly positive view of the Roosevelt Administration.

Wyman also attributes much blame for the failure of the United States to act on several prominent Jewish organizations whose conflicting goals prevented them from becoming a unified body that could have done much good. The friction between such groups as the Bergsonites and the Zionists, who seemed bent of hindering the other’s influence and who disagreed ideologically, restricted the influence of Jewish organizations. This issue of Jewish statehood in the area known as Palestine, controlled by the British who denied Jews access via “White Paper restrictions…issued…in May 1939”, served to weaken the efforts of the Jewish groups. The Zionists pushed for a Jewish state, a highly controversial move that dissenters feared would never gain Congressional support, while those who weren’t Zionists wanted to focus solely on rescue since it was the more pressing immediate issue. Wyman also attributes blame to several Christian organizations for failing to exhibit a desire to help those in need and by failing to report the Holocaust in their widely read publications, which could have increased popular support of government action.

Wyman makes a very compelling argument with his assertions against the various institutions working in America during this time period. However, what is presented as fact in the body of the work is somewhat undermined by the rather opinionated tone that the work increasingly takes on, evident in the footnotes and in several blanket statements made in the conclusion. While earlier in the work, Wyman attributes the failure of the State Department to act to factors other than anti-Semitism, in the conclusion he plainly states that “it is clear that the State Department was not interested in rescuing Jews” (314). His personal outrage at the failure of the government to act is also increasingly evident later in the book, likely because the repeated failures compounded his own frustration at the situation. In another example, in the body of the text Wyman refers to the Turkish government’s “reluctance to serve as an escape channel” to Palestine, and their worries that any Jewish refugees they might take in might include German spies (216). However, in a linked footnote, Wyman reveals his opinion that “the argument was preposterous. Refugees could have been detained and carefully checked…No Axis government would have been so stupid as to send its agents into such a trap” (216). The subjectivity in the footnote undermines the objectivity of the information contained, as a book on such a sensitive subject of historical importance should be as unbiased and as objective and factual as possible. At best his bias should have been made clearer earlier on in the text so that the reader could interpret his conclusions accordingly.

In addition, the afterword to the work also reveals the self-perceived infallibility of the author that, when considered in conjunction with the rest of the book, dulls the sharpness of some of his claims against the Roosevelt Administration. While Roosevelt’s response is presented in the body of the text as apathy or lack of interest in the fate of the Jews, Wyman admits that in truth Roosevelt did have an awful lot on his plate at the time and that his failure to act stemmed more from ignorance. Wyman devotes most of the afterword to deconstructing and to an extent attacking those reviewers who viewed The Abandonment of the Jews negatively and those authors whose conclusions are not in conjunction with Wyman’s own. He comes across as extremely self-important and defensive, convinced that conclusions that do not agree with his are less correct. He attacks Harvey Weingold’s The Politics of Rescue as too lenient on the Roosevelt administration. While Wyman may be in the right on this issue, at least in comparison, his presenting of his own work as fact while attacking the conclusions of other authors does not seem to be in the best interest of finding the truth.

True, the United States should have done more to save the Jews. However, in order to accurately judge the actions of the government, all sides of the issue should be considered. While ignorance of the issue is reprehensible, it is still not on par with the nativist, Anti-Semitic tendencies Wyman endows the officials of the time with. The American government should have tried to rescue the Jews. They failed time and time again to hear the voices crying out for help. However, there are two sides to every issue, and Wyman elaborates on one point of view without really addressing the other side of the problem. His book provides an eye-opening reveal of what the Roosevelt Administration could have and ought to have done, and attributes the failure to save the Jews to a number of other factors. In the interest of complete truth, however, one cannot paint the picture in shades of black and white. One must allow in the gray.

Comments

  1. I have not read this work, but after reading your review I think I should. You have done a good job of both summarizing the book itself and verbalizing your opinion of the author's bias. Whether you agree or disagree with the author, the book made you consider the fact that authors write from their own perspectives and biases, even when they are writing about historical events. It is sometimes easy to document that something happened; the tough part is explaining why. Thanks for a thought provoking book review.

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  2. Brilliant!

    You are right about there being shades of gray, especially when it comes to history. That's what makes it so interesting. Your interpretation of the footnotes as part of your analysis of the author's biases shows that you studied the book with some deep thought and didn't just read it on a surface level. I love that.

    I especially liked when you said that perhaps the author should have been more upfront early on with his angle- because every writer has an angle.

    Keep the posts coming!!

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