NEW YORK — David S. Wyman, a leading scholar of the U.S. response to the Holocaust whose “The Abandonment of the Jews” was a provocative, best-selling critique of everyone from religious leaders to President Franklin Roosevelt, died Wednesday at age 89.
The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies announced that Wyman died at his home in Amherst, Massachusetts, after a lengthy illness. Wyman was a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
The grandson of Protestant ministers, Wyman was in graduate school when he began a long-term quest to learn what was done on behalf of the millions of Jews rounded up and murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II.
He was best known for “The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-45,” which came out in 1984 and sharply intensified a debate that began during the war. Drawing upon private and government records and contemporary media accounts, Wyman found widespread indifference and hostility to the Jews in Europe, even as their systematic extermination was conclusively documented. He faulted religious organizations, Jewish and non-Jewish; mainstream newspapers and movies; and the anti-Jewish feelings of the general public.
The federal government was slow to act, enforcing strict immigration quotas and refusing to bomb the concentration camps; waiting until well after the Holocaust had begun to establish a War Refugee Board, then forcing the agency to rely mostly on private funding. The blame rose right to the top, with Roosevelt, who Wyman alleged was more concerned about angering anti-Semites than about helping the Jews.
“If he had wanted to, he could have aroused substantial public backing for a vital rescue effort by speaking out on the issue,” Wyman wrote, calling Roosevelt’s inaction the low mark of his presidency. “It appears that Roosevelt’s overall response to the Holocaust was deeply affected by political expediency. Most Jews supported him unwaveringly, so an active rescue policy offered little political advantage. A pro-Jewish stance, however, could lose votes.”
Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor, praised Wyman for his “courageous, lucid, painful book.” And “The Abandonment of the Jews” received several honors, including the National Jewish Book Award, and a nomination from the National Book Critics Circle.
Most scholars accepted his general argument that the U.S had done too little, but some disagreed with individual aspects, such as whether the U.S. could have disrupted or destroyed the Nazi camps. Roosevelt defenders, meanwhile, believed Wyman had failed to appreciate that the president’s options were limited.
“FDR well understood that it would be fatal to let the war be defined as a war to save the Jews,” historian and Roosevelt biographer Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote in Newsweek in 1994, around the time a television documentary based on Wyman’s book aired. “He knew that he must emphasize the large and vital interest all Americans had in stopping Hitler, and that is what he did. And he knew that winning the war was the only way to save the people in the concentration camps.”
Wyman’s book was credited with helping to inspire the American rescue of hundreds of Ethiopian Jews stranded in Sudan in 1985. John R. Miller, a congressman and later an ambassador for combatting human trafficking, told a Wyman Institute conference that he had given copies of the book to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and his top aides. According to Miller, Bush called “Abandonment of the Jews” a major factor in the U.S. decision to airlift the Jews and eventually bring them to Israel.
Bush later sent the author a handwritten note of gratitude.
Wyman continued his investigations with “The World Reacts to the Holocaust” and “America and the Holocaust,” a 13-volume compilation of documents used for “Abandonment of the Jews.” He would often invoke the Holocaust as a defense of Israel. “I’d come here and die for Israel if I were ever of any use,” he said in 2012 while speaking at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.
A book released in 2013, “FDR and the Jews,” by Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman, contended that Roosevelt had been judged too harshly and that his actions compared favorably to those of future presidents responding to genocide.
In response, the Wyman Institute published Rafael Medoff’s “FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith,” which alleged that Roosevelt had a long history of anti-Jewish actions and opinions. (Ironically, Roosevelt was often the target of anti-Semitic attacks in his lifetime, with some opponents labeling the New Deal programs of the Depression the “Jew Deal”).
Wyman was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, in 1929 and recalled his parents imparting “not just tolerance, but a high degree of respect for all different people.” He studied history as an undergraduate at Boston University and received a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1962. He had intended to focus on the Progressive era of the early 20th century until he had an epiphany while walking in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Harvard is located.
“Out of nowhere comes this question: What did the United States do while the Jews were being persecuted and mass-murdered?” he would recall.
Wyman taught elementary school and high school in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and was a history lecturer at Clark University and Northeastern University before joining Amherst in 1966 and remaining for 25 years.
In 1950, Wyman married Mildred Smith, with whom he had two children, Jim and Teresa. Mildred Wyman, often called Midge, died in 2003.