by Diana Castro-Vazquez
Every year, Greensboro College presents the Schleunes Lecture on the Holocaust and Genocide, this year being the 14th. This time the speaker was Dr. Richard Breitman whose presentation was titled “FDR’s Holocaust-Related Press Conference of March 1944.” This lecture was held live at Finch Chapel on March 28. If you missed it, it was also live-streamed and uploaded on the Greensboro College Campus Religious Life YouTube channel.
According to the flyer posted regarding this lecture, the Schleunes Lecture is presented annually thanks to the generosity of Richard and Jane Lavey of Greensboro. It is held in honor of the late Holocaust scholar Dr. Karl Schleunes of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This series is dedicated to providing opportunities for area residents and students to hear nationally – and internationally – recognized experts present their research on the Holocaust and on issues related to genocide.
Richard Breitman is the author or co-author of 13 books and many articles on German history, U.S. history and the Holocaust. “FDR and the Jews,” written by Breitman and co-authored by Allan J. Lichtman, won the 2013 National Jewish Book Award in American Jewish Studies and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in History.
Breitman is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at American University. He received his B.A. from Yale, his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard and an honorary doctorate from Hebrew Union College. For 25 years he served as editor of the scholarly journal “Holocaust and Genocide Studies,” owned by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Breitman’s 14th book, tentatively titled “What They Knew: Allied Leaders and the Holocaust,” is under contract with Harvard University Press.
Greensboro College President, Dr. Lawrence Czarda, opened the lecture.
“I have the honor and the privilege of serving as the 18th resident of Greensboro College in our 185th year,” Czarda said. “I use that opening fairly often for significant events on campus to send a couple of messages, but the main one being that we have been doing what we have been doing for a very long time and opening our minds and our hearts and our souls to all matters of inquiry is critically important to us.” This opening statement serves as a reflection of GC’s opinion on the importance of education and distribution of knowledge, particularly related to the Holocaust in this case.
Breitman talked about many things during his lecture. One of the points that he started with was about what most people think of American policy in response to the Holocaust. He said most people focus on two main events, one being the MS St. Louis ship that sailed from Germany to Cuba and was unable to deposit the passengers in the U.S. He mentioned that there are many misconceptions in this story.
Then he mentioned the second event many focus on – an event that did not happen. A historian named David Wyman established the fact that the U.S. and Great Britain could have bombed the gas chambers and Auschwitz-Birkenau and they did not. Breitman explained that for some people, that is where they draw the line on American policy: What they did and did not do in response to the Holocaust. Breitman informed listeners that he reviewed the speeches of the Allied leaders to get a little more understanding of what was going on historically at the time.
He mentioned that Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin did not speak much publicly about the Holocaust, and found that to be interesting. Breitman reflected on how he looked at what these leaders said and why they said it.
In his lecture, Breitman largely discussed the details concerning Roosevelt and the speech he gave that came as a press conference. It came relatively late into the Holocaust, a year and a half before the war and the Holocaust even ended. On January 22, 1944, Roosevelt issued an executive order establishing a new organization called “The War Refugee Board.” It followed a long battle behind closed doors for the most part between the Treasury Department and the State Department. The Treasury Department favored a more active American policy of assisting the victims of Nazi Germany and the State Department opposed this idea.
The board was a small, new government agency which was instructed not to accept military resources to aid the victims of the Nazis. The director of this board wanted to use publicity as a weapon, since he could not use military aid. He aimed to put pressure on Germany, but if not on Germany, then on Germany’s small allies in Eastern Europe. The hope was that these countries seeing Allied progress on the battlefield might be amenable to changing their course out of pragmatic calculations. The War Refugee Board wrote up a hard-hitting denunciation of Nazi Germany’s policy of killing all the Jews in Europe.
After informing us of this history, Breitmen went on to read the opening section of their denunciation draft, reciting, “One of the blackest crimes in history, the systematic
murder of the Jews of Europe continues unabated because Americans are fighting for a world based on freedom, equality and justice. It is fitting that we again proclaim our
determination that none who participate in such acts of savagery shall go unpunished. All who knowingly take part in the deportation of Jews to their death in Poland is equally
guilty with the Executioner.”
The draft was blunt. Breitman said that they knew what was happening; they said it forcefully and they threatened to punish war criminals in any country where Holocaust crimes were taking place. This went well beyond their actual mandate or their power within the government, but still this draft was approved by the three cabinet-level members of the supervisors.
Breitman further explained the events of Roosevelt’s speech and the impact it had around the world and the U.S. You can find his books and articles by a quick Google search, where you can read further into different events regarding the Holocaust.