Return to the Reich: A Holocaust Refugee’s Secret Mission to Defeat the Nazis by Eric Lichtblau

In May of 1933, two months into his presidency, Franklin D. Roosevelt sent an appeal for world peace to 54 heads of state. In the wake of Adolf Hitler’s ascent in Germany, Roosevelt proposed that Europe’s rival powers pursue disarmament and sign non-aggression pacts with each other. “I think I have averted a war,” F.D.R. told one adviser. “Sending that message to Hitler had a good effect.” Some of the president’s supporters were less sanguine. Not only had Roosevelt effectively called for accommodation with Hitler, but his administration was also refusing to admit more Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. “He has saved Germany from France. He has saved the world from war,” said Rabbi Stephen Wise, the country’s most influential Jewish leader. “In heaven’s name, why can’t he be moved to save the Jews of Germany?”

During Roosevelt’s first term, some two-thirds of the roughly 97,000 Germans (many of them Jews) who sought to immigrate to the U.S. were denied entry. Not until after F.D.R.’s re-election in 1936 did America’s doors begin to creak open. About 11,000 German refugees were admitted the next year. “It was only a tiny fraction of those seeking to escape,” Eric Lichtblau writes in his brisk, Netflix-ready new book, Return to the Reich,“but it was something.” Lichtblau’s narrative traces the arc of one of the lucky ones, Friedrich “Freddy” Mayer, a strapping 16-year-old who arrived in the U.S. in 1938 and became, as West Virginia senator Jay Rockefeller said more than 70 years later, “one of the great unsung heroes of World War II.”