Readers of the January 25, 1944 edition of The New York Times would have been hard pressed to ignore the full-page ad whose headline declared, ‘The First Great Realistic Step Has Been Taken.’ The ad continues, ‘President Roosevelt has answered the call of millions of defenseless men, women and children…. The President has appointed a special War Refugee Board to deal with, we quote, “this difficult and important task.”’
The creation of the War Refugee Board (WRB) on January 22, 1944, tasked with “the immediate rescue and relief of the Jews of Europe and other victims of enemy persecution,” seemingly happened in just a matter of days. Just over a week before its establishment, President Roosevelt met with Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. (father of Museum Chairman Emeritus Robert Morgenthau z”l) and two other Treasury Department employees, John Pehle and Randolph Paul, to discuss how to save European Jews from the Nazi slaughter. But the inception of the War Refugee Board was over a year in the making.
On November 25, 1942, several American newspapers published reports that 2 million Jews had been murdered. The press had been informed of this statistic a full three months after the information had been sent to the US State Department with a request to transmit the message to World Jewish Congress president Rabbi Stephen Wise. Instead, the State Department asked Wise not to act on the information until they had verified it, as the State Department staff initially dismissed the account that 2 million Jews had been murdered by the Nazi regime as “war rumors.” After their three-month investigation verified the information, Rabbi Wise released the news in a press conference on November 24, 1942.The next day, The New York Times ran the story – on page 10.
Though the article was not front-page news, an increasing number of stories about the mass murder of Jews and other groups in Nazi Europe were reported in 1943. As awareness of the Third Reich’s atrocities grew, so too did pressure on President Roosevelt and the United States government to act.
But there was disagreement between the US State Department and the US Treasury Department about what action, if any, should be taken. An April 1943 plan sent to the State Department by the World Jewish Congress in Geneva proposed sending supplies to Jews in Romania and moving Jewish children from the region to Palestine with funding raised by American Jewish organizations. The State Department sat on the plan for weeks. It did not share the proposal with the Treasury Department, which oversaw issuing licenses to transfer funds overseas during wartime, until late June of that year.
President Roosevelt learned of the plan a week later and approved the license, which the Treasury Department acted on. But the State Department stalled again, not alerting their American Minister (ambassador) in Switzerland about the license until late October, at which time the British authorities weighed in with their objections. Britain advised against the plan due to their concern that they would have to handle the placement of thousands of Jewish refugees in Palestine, which was at the time under British colonial rule. The exact words from the British Foreign Office: “The Foreign Office are concerned with the difficulties of disposing of any considerable number of Jews should they be rescued from enemy -occupied territory…. For this reason they are reluctant to agree to any approval being expressed even of the preliminary financial arrangements.”
Staff at the Treasury Department, incensed by the months-long lack of action, immediately authorized an initial transfer of money—and then documented the situation for Treasury Secretary Morgenthau in a report titled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews.” Upon receiving the report on January 13, 1944, Morgenthau requested a meeting with President Roosevelt—the meeting that would lead to the establishment of the War Refugee Board nine days later.
Group pressure, particularly from Jewish activists, was also responsible for creating that change. One such group, the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, took out full-page ads in various American newspapers to inform the public of the situation in Europe as well as to push for immediate action to save as many Jews as possible.
The Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, also called the Bergsonites, was an activist Zionist group that shifted its focus to the rescue of Jews in Europe. This shift put the organization at odds with the American Jewish Committee and other assimilationist and establishment groups. The Bergsonites were named for Peter Bergson, the alias that Hillel Kook chose to avoid upsetting his family over his activism. One of the Bergsonites’ tactics was to use a variety of group names during the period to appear to represent numerous voices in the effort to rescue Europe’s Jews.
Even after the creation of the War Refugee Board, community action was necessary to keep informing the public and encouraging more work from the Board and others. Eight months later, the urgency of the situation was made clear in another New York Times ad placed by the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe on August 5, 1944. This ad announces the Emergency Committee’s Second National Conference held on August 7-8, 1944, at the Hotel Commodore, to follow the original Emergency Conference at the same location the previous year. The Conference’s aim was to find ways to speed up the rescue efforts finally undertaken by the War Refugee Board in cooperation with other governments, and to make plans for post-war relief and rehabilitation.
The War Refugee Board was a major triumph of community action and buy-in from powerful players in government like Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. From its establishment in January 1944 to its dissolution in September 1945, The War Refugee Board staff worked with organizations, resistance groups, and diplomats from other countries—such as Swedish envoy Raoul Wallenberg—to rescue European Jews, provide relief to Jews in hiding and in concentration camps, open a refugee camp in upstate New York, and release the first details of mass murder at Auschwitz to the American people.
Though the WRB is credited with saving thousands of Jewish lives, its first director John Pehle—one of the three Treasury Department employees who was in the meeting with President Roosevelt that led to the establishment of the War Refugee Board—described the Board’s work as “too little and too late.”
We will never know how exactly how many more lives might have been saved had the United States government taken an earlier ‘First Great Realistic Step’ to rescue European Jews, but the slow response of the US government to help Jews in Nazi Europe will be remembered as one caused in part by internal disagreements leading to fatal consequences.