David K. Niles (1892-1952), the son of Polish Jewish immigrants (their family name was Neyhaus), came to Washington as the personal assistant of White House aide Harry Hopkins.
In 1942, Niles was appointed to serve as President Franklin Roosevelt’s liaison to labor groups and ethnic minorities. Niles took extra care to stay out of the limelight, prompting colleagues to dub him “the back stair boy at the White House.” A major part of Niles’s job was to advise the president as to which Jewish leaders he should meet, and which ones to avoid because they might “create some political damage.”
Niles had been closely acquainted with Rabbi Stephen S. Wise since the 1930s as a result of his unrequited affection for Wise’s daughter, Justine. It was Niles to whom Wise invariably turned when seeking an audience with the president, but those requests were granted only rarely.
Because of objections by Niles and other aides, the White House turned down a request from impresario Billy Rose to send a message of greeting to be read at the opening of the Bergson Group’s “We Will Never Die” event in March 1943.
After Allied foreign ministers at the November 1943 Moscow conference failed to include Jews in a list of the Nazis’ victims, Niles expressed concern to the president about the political impact of criticism from the Jewish community over the issue. A full-page newspaper ad by the Bergson Group about the Moscow declaration had stirred considerable comment. As a result, Secretary of State Cordell Hull briefly mentioned the Jews when he summarized the conference proceedings in a subsequent address to Congress.
It was Niles who proposed undertaking a public opinion poll, in April 1944, to gauge support for granting temporary haven to Jewish refugees, as the War Refugee Board was urging. The poll found 70% of Americans in favor of refuge. As a result, Niles showed sympathetic interest in the Board’s initiative, although in the end, President Roosevelt agreed to admit only a single group of 982 refugees.