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Ken Burns documentary misses that Franklin D. Roosevelt could have easily saved 190,000 Jews during his 12 year term

Head shot of Dr. Rafael Medoff

Dr. Rafael Medoff is a good friend of our website and was very helpful in developing the approach of A Journey into the Holocaust. He has a leading expert on why America did not help the Jews of Europe more during his four election terms. Some of his articles on this subject are in the Resource section of our website. He is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and author of 15 books about the Holocaust and Jewish history.

Most recently Dr. Medoff has addressed the accuracy of a seven episode documentary on the Roosevelts:

For seven consecutive nights in September, PBS aired the latest Ken Burns documentary, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.” Millions of Americans watched the latest compelling Burns production, which masterfully interspersed old film footage with the actual words of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt, spoken, in character, by Edward Herrmann, Meryl Streep, and other outstanding actors. It was great entertainment. But when it came to the topic of FDR’s response to the Nazi persecution of Europe’s Jews, “The Roosevelts” was fatally flawed.

The fifth and sixth episodes, covering the 1930s, briefly referred to the question of German Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler and seeking to immigrate to the United States. A Gallup poll found more than 80% of Americans “opposed offering sanctuary to European refugees,” the narrator reported.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt “battled on behalf of admitting Jewish refugees to the United States for as long as the Nazis were willing to grant them exit visas,” the narrator asserted. “Restrictive immigration laws frustrated her.”

Missing from this discussion of America’s immigration policy was any mention of the man who was actually responsible for America’s immigration policy–the president.

Yes, the existing immigration laws were “restrictive.” But the manner in which the Roosevelt administration chose to implement them made things much worse. The administration went above and beyond the law, imposing extra requirements and burdensome regulations, in order to discourage and disqualify would-be immigrants.

The annual quota of immigrants from Germany was 25,957, but in 1933, Hitler’s first year in power, barely five percent of that German quota was filled. The following year, less than 14 percent of those spaces were filled. FDR permitted the German quota to be filled in only one year of his twelve years in the White House. In most of those years, it was less than 25% filled. As a result, some 190,000 quota places from Germany and Axis-occupied countries sat unused during the Hitler years.

Since opponents of immigration constantly claimed that newcomers would take jobs away from American citizens, refugee advocates proposed legislation, known as the Wagner-Rogers bill, to admit 20,000 German Jewish children outside the quota system. Nine year-olds would not take away jobs. Laura Delano Houghteling, a cousin of President Roosevelt and wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration, said she was against the bill bcause “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.”

FDR himself took no position on Wagner-Rogers. An inquiry by a congresswoman as to the president’s stance was returned to Roosevelt’s secretary marked “File No action FDR.” Without presidential backing, the bill went nowhere.

Anne Frank, the teenage Holocaust diarist, was one of those who had hoped to immigrate to the United States (and could have qualified under Wagner-Rogers). After the Franks fled from Germany to Holland in 1934, Anne’s father, Otto, repeatedly sought permission to bring the family to America.

Otto Frank had already lived in the U.S. from 1909 to 1911, working as intern at Macy’s Department Store, in New York City. Yet that was not enough to qualify them for immigration visas. Two of Anne’s uncles lived in Massachusetts, giving the Frank family a support network should they fall on hard times. Yet that, too, was not enough. Their application was denied in 1941–a year when less than half of the quota for German-born immigrants was used. Refused asylum, the Franks ultimately secreted themselves in a cramped attic in Amsterdam; the rest of that tragic story is well known.

Anne’s mother, Edith, wrote to a friend: “I believe that all Germany’s Jews are looking around the world, but can find nowhere to go.”

When it came to FDR and the issue of Jewish refugee immigration, Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts” got it wrong. Public opposition to increased immigration was not the main problem. President Roosevelt could have admitted many more refugees–within the existing law–without igniting any substantial public controversy. All he had to do was quietly instruct the State Department (which administered immigration) to permit immigrants to enter the United States up to the maximum number allowed by law. But he did not.


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