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Winik's book '1944': excruciating but brilliant

March 1, 2016
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@dcn.davis.ca.us

"1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History" by Jay Winik (Simon & Schuster, 2016) is a difficult book to read. Essentially it is a book about how America failed to act to save the Jews in Europe even as the truth about the concentration camps and Hitler's Final Solution became known, not just rumored. Although "1944" is hard to read, it is fascinating and well-written.

But I guarantee there will be times, particularly near the end of the book, when you will feel like throwing it against the wall in frustration. Why didn't President Roosevelt act sooner? What was wrong with the U.S. State Department? Why didn't the Allies bomb Auschwitz? Why weren't eye witnesses to the horrors believed?

Winik is generous in describing all the wartime burdens carried by President Franklin Roosevelt. He was planning the D-Day invasion and focusing on the liberation of Paris, the Battle of the Bulge, unrest at home and international conferences with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. And FDR was slowly dying of heart disease.

Eleanor Roosevelt tried to influence her husband when she could (she had to tread carefully, he was no pushover) and later told her son that her inability to admit more refugees into the United States was the "deepest regret" of her life.

In turn, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis held FDR and his verbal and written warnings in contempt. And when it looked like the Allies would win the war, the gas chambers and crematoriums at Auschwitz were worked harder and faster. Had Roosevelt responded decisively earlier, he could, perhaps, have saved the life of Anne Frank who with her family was put on one of the last concentration-camp-bound trains out of the Netherlands. Anne survived heavy labor at Auschwiz, but died at Bergen-Belsen.

It seems that Roosevelt believed he could save the Jews by winning the war. But it was a deadly race against time. As one observer asked: "Will there be any Jews left to celebrate victory?"

In the acknowledgements section at the back of the book, Winik describes a bizarre dinner party he attended a few years before "1944" was published. The guests included Martha Stewart, Frank McCourt and Elie Wiesel. At one point Winik asked Wiesel if FDR did the right thing by not bombing Auschwitz (the Allies knew what was going on at the camp -- they had aerial photos of people lining up at the gas chambers).

"This is too important to discuss now," said Wiesel. Winik never followed up on Wiesel's remark. Would it have saved lives to have bombed the crematoriums and gas chambers and in the process killed both innocent Jews and guilty Germans? As it was, other strategic areas were bombed and the railroads continued delivering Jews to Auschwitz. We will never know what the right decision was, but I wish Wiesel had answered the question.

Winik also opened my eyes to a catastrophic event at Slapton Sands that took place in the run-up to the Normandy invasion. This was a live military exercise on the southwest coast of England with 30,000 men and 337 ships participating. The Germans intercepted radio chatter and learned of the top-secret event. Nine German torpedo boats entered Lyme Bay. An unbelievable scene of death and destruction took place with many Allied ships destroyed, men trapped in burning wreckage and lost in the freezing water. The exercise was a disaster and so was the rescue.

"More men were lost (749) in this mock assault than in the actual battle of Utah Beach," writes Winik.

Winik also suggests that the halting and tentative measures taken by the United States -- its ambivalence in dealing with refugees during WWII -- have echoed to this day. American presidents have failed to act time and again to intervene in international crises from the Prague spring and Hungarian uprising to Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia and the tragedy of Rwanda. He suggests that maybe if FDR had been strong and had acted on his humanitarian instincts with no regard to politics other American presidents following him might have had the courage to do the same.

He concludes his book with this:

"Seventy years later, around the globe, we are still struggling to answer the question whispered through the Nazi camps: When will the Allies come? When will the Americans come?"

For More Information, Visit These Links:
Visit Jay Winik's official web site at: www.jaywinik.com
Purchase 1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History at: Amazon.com

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