December 30, 1942 – President Franklin Roosevelt Receives Detailed Dossier About the Holocaust from the Polish Underground

On this date, President Franklin Roosevelt and Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles received a dossier reinforcing and expanding on information about the Holocaust they had already learned from other sources.

The 130-page document titled “Reports on Poland and Lithuania” contained details about the Belzec concentration camp in southeastern Poland:

Inside and outside the fence Ukrainian sentries are posted. Executions are carried out in the following manner: a train carrying Jews arrives at the station and is moved up to the wire fence where the guards are changed. Now the train is brought to the unloading place by German personnel. The men are taken into barracks on the left, where they have to take their clothes off, ostensibly for a bath.”

It went on to describe how men and women were herded into a building and killed, their bodies buried in a ditch that had been dug by “Jews who, after they have finished the job, are executed.”

The dossier also revealed the existence of mobile extermination trucks in which poison gas was used to murder Jews, described the Auschwitz concentration camp, liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, and atrocities in Lithuania. An appendix containing photographs of corpses stacked like firewood and other horrors made it difficult even for anti-Semites in the State Department to doubt the authenticity of the information. (Source, Steven Usdin, Bureau of Spies, pp. 185-186, citing documents available at the FDR Library)

Though the level of detail was new, the fact that the Holocaust was taking place was not news to FDR. Beginning with the Kristallnacht attacks in Germany on Jews in November 1938, Roosevelt had expressed his shock “that such things could occur in a 20th century civilization.” But letting in Jewish refugees was another thing entirely.

Both the Americans and the British maintained that the best way to stop the Nazis’ “systematic, mechanized killing” was to defeat Hitler’s Germany in war. (Henry L. Feingold, The Politics of Rescue: The Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust, 1938-1945, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1970, excerpt online at the FDR Library, here)

Meanwhile, after Germany annexed Austria (“The Anschluss”) in March 1938, tens of thousands of desperate Jews added their names to the waiting lists for entrance to the United States. Nevertheless, shortly after the Anschluss, Roosevelt merged the German and Austrian immigration quotas, so that a maximum of 27,370 quota immigrants born in “Greater Germany” could immigrate to the United States each year. By June 1939, more than 300,000 Germans were on the waiting list for American immigrant visas, and anticipated a wait of up to ten years. (Source: Holocaust Museum Encyclopedia)

As the Holocaust Museum Encyclopedia also reports:

FDR . . . called an international conference, which opened in Évian-les-Bains, France, in July 1938, to discuss the refugee problem. Roosevelt hoped that the thirty-two participating countries would pledge to admit significant numbers of refugees, but that did not occur at Évian.”

Despite a building refugee crisis in Europe, FDR did not ask Congress to consider expanding the immigration quotas, even though First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt spoke out in favor of it.

FDR’s public justification was bad enough. At a press conference on June 5, 1940, FDR stated:

Now, of course, the refugee has got to be checked because, unfortunately, among the refugees there are some spies, as has been found in other countries. And not all of them are voluntary spies—it is rather a horrible story but in some of the other countries that refugees out of Germany have gone to, especially Jewish refugees, they found a number of definitely proven spies.”

What he thought privately was even worse.

In July, 1942, FDR gave the green light to “the M Project,” which was “a secret study of options for post-war migration (hence ‘M’) of the millions of Europeans expected to be displaced by the war.” (Usdin, p. 196)

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, September 1942

As early as 1925, FDR, in an editorial for the Macon Telegraph, voiced his opinion that:

It goes without saying that no sensible American wants this country to be made a dumping ground for foreigners of any nation, but it is equally true that there are a great many foreigners who, if they came here, would make exceedingly desirable citizens. It becomes, therefore, in the first place, a question of selection.”

Ah, there’s the rub.

What he was in favor of, just as Trump is today, is “the right stock,” like this example FDR gave:

A few years later some other families came in from Northern Italy, the right type of emigrant — they, too, have borne and are bearing their share in the general improvement of conditions.”

Thus for his “M Project,” FDR commissioned an advisory committee to be led by Aleš Hrdlička, an Austro-Hungarian anthropologist who came to the United States with his family in 1881. At the outset of WWII, Hrdlička was curator of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

Aleš Hrdlička

As Usdin observes:

Roosevelt, the scion of two families that considered themselves American aristocrats, was especially attracted to Hrdlička’s notions of human racial ‘stock.’”

In fact, Hrdlička was convinced of the superiority of the white race and obsessed with racial identity. . . .

FDR used a go-between, John Franklin Carter, to convey his goals for the committee to Hrdlička. In particular, FDR wanted them to study South America and Central Africa as possibilities for post-war settlement. The committee should ascertain what percentage of “base stock of their own” should be mixed with immigrant stock for the best effect.

Roosevelt pointed out, Carter informed Hrdlička, “that while most South American countries would be glad to admit Jewish immigration, it was on the condition that the Jewish group were not localized in the cities, they want no ‘Jewish colonies,’ ‘Italian colonies,’ etc.” Keeping with this theme, the president also tasked the committee with determining how to ‘resettle the Jews on the land and keep them there.’” (Usdin, p. 199. You can also see the actual correspondence online via the FDR library, here.

Usdin notes that Hrdlička ultimately refused to participate in the M Project because Roosevelt wouldn’t give him absolute control. His replacement wasn’t much better: Isaiah Bowman, president of John Hopkins University, was a known anti-Semite. (Even after WWII, when most Americans were at least trying to feign sympathy for Jews, The Johns Hopkins University under Bowman’s leadership implemented a Jewish admissions quota while other American universities were terminating their discriminatory policies. It should also be noted that during the presidency of Isaiah Bowman (1935-48) not a single African-American student was admitted. (See “Dark Places Around the University: The Johns Hopkins University Admissions Quota and the Jewish Community, 1945-1951” by Jason Kalman, Hebrew Union College Annual, Vol. 81 (2010), pp. 233-279 online here.)

TIME Magazine Cover: Isaiah Bowman — Mar. 23, 1936

American Jews knew none of this, but they did know FDR was refusing to take action. According to “The Nation,” in early 1943, at the height of the Holocaust, Freda Kirchwey, a staunch New Dealer, Roosevelt supporter and editor in chief of “The Nation” denounced President Roosevelt’s response to the Nazi genocide in harsh terms:

‘You and I and the President and the Congress and the State Department are accessories to the crime and share Hitler’s guilt,’ she wrote. ‘If we had behaved like humane and generous people instead of complacent, cowardly ones, the two million Jews lying today in the earth of Poland and Hitler’s other crowded graveyards would be alive and safe…. We had it in our power to rescue this doomed people and we did not lift a hand to do it—or perhaps it would be fairer to say that we lifted just one cautious hand, encased in a tight-fitting glove of quotas and visas and affidavits, and a thick layer of prejudice.’”

Finally, on January 22, 1944, responding to both public pressure and pressure within his administration, FDR issued an executive order establishing a War Refugee Board (WRB), an independent agency tasked with carrying out a new American policy to rescue and provide relief for Jews and other groups being persecuted by Nazi Germany and Axis collaborators.

By that time, however, most European Jews had already been murdered. For example, a diary entry on January 25, 1944 by Hans Frank, Gauleiter of Poland, concerning the fate of 2.5 million Jews originally under his jurisdiction read “At the present time we still have in the General Government perhaps 100,000 Jews.”

As for the M Project, Usdin writes:

The M Project expanded far beyond Roosevelt’s original charge, producing thousands of pages of reports, maps, and charts analyzing the suitability of locations around the globe for settlement by Europeans who were expected to be displaced by the war, analyzing the characteristics of myriad racial and ethnic groups, and theorizing about optimal proportions in which to combine them in their new homelands.” (Usdin, p. 199)

Usdin also writes that few knew about the reports, and they had no discernable impact on policy decisions. He does opine:

In retrospect, the M Project’s principal accomplishment was to shed light on FDR’s thinking about race and immigration….”

After Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945, John Franklin Carter wrote to Truman explaining the project, offering to continue it, and urging that it still be funded (which it had been at the enormous rate at that time of $10,000 per month, translating in 2018 dollars to over $140,000 per month).

Truman decided it cost too much, and terminated the project.


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