At UF, author offers different take on FDR and Holocaust

Published: Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 11:01 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 11:01 p.m.

A distinguished professor from American University told a room full of locals and University of Florida students Thursday evening that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wanted to save Jews from the Nazi genocide as early as 1938, even though the extent of his efforts have been highly scrutinized.

In the Grand Reading Room in Smathers Library on campus, Professor Richard Breitman said his latest book, "FDR and the Jews," draws upon declassified records from 2009 and explores four distinct phases that may explain the president's drastic foreign policy shifts.

"I am going to focus on the question of when did FDR learn about the Holocaust," said Breitman, who's written more than 10 books on the ethnic cleansing, "and what did he do about it in the short run."

The Norman and Irma Braman Chair in Holocaust Studies, who sponsored Breiman's speech, brought the author in before the official March 19 release date of the book.

Breitman spoke to a roughly 100-person crowd about the content of the book, which he co-authored with Allan J. Lichtman.

Breitman said he obtained access to declassified records that showed a conversation from 1938 between FDR and Arthur Sweetser, a high-level staff member at the League of Nations.

FDR told Sweetser he wanted to get the Jews out of Europe because of the threats to them, according to Breitman.

That is what Breitman called "the second side" of FDR.

However, a nationwide disdain -- and fear -- of immigrants helped shape a more conservative FDR whose policy during the 1940s shied away from rescuing Holocaust victims.

"The idea of taking in immigrants was very unpopular," Breitman said. "He himself (FDR) said it was a danger."

Breitman said that he did not originally discover FDR's early 1938 sympathies. But this is the first time the information has been corroborated, he said.

Darrell Mayberry, who lives in St. Louis but spends winters in Newberry with his wife, said he enjoyed the speech.

As a former history teacher, Mayberry said we can all still learn valuable lessons from the past.

"Never stop learning. Be watchful. I think that's a very, very solid idea," Mayberry said.

After Breitman's speech, the 68-year-old shook his hand.

"Thank you, thank you," Mayberry said. "That was a wonderful speech. The subject is constantly evolving."

Breitman just smiled.

"You can learn new things, can't you?"

Once everyone had cleared out, Breitman sat in a near-empty room and discussed the importance of having a complete history to share with the public.

"If we're going to learn from history, we need to have as much of that history as possible."

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