The work of the War Refugee Board in 1944-1945 represented the only official effort by the United States government to help rescue Jews from the Holocaust.
The Board was handicapped from the outset because the Roosevelt administration had never wanted it to come into existence in the first place. Testimony by Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long nearly buried the 1943 congressional resolution calling for creation of a government rescue agency. It was only after mounting pressure from Congress and Jewish activists, and behind the scenes lobbying by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and his aides, that compelled President Franklin Roosevelt to elude a potential election-year scandal over the refugees, by establishing the Board via executive order.
Regarding the Board as little more than a political gesture–and one that was made reluctantly, at that–the White House gave the new agency only token financial support. Private Jewish organizations, primarily the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the World Jewish Congress, contributed more than ninety percent of its budget. Moreover, although the Secretary of State, of War, and of Treasury were officially in charge of the Board, only Morgenthau made a serious effort on behalf of rescue.
The Board’s agent in Istanbul, Ira Hirschmann, noted that the agency was created “at five minutes to twelve [midnight].” Fourteen months had elapsed since the Roosevelt administration had verified the news of the Nazi genocide, and more than four million Jews had already been slaughtered.
Fortunately, however, the Board’s staff, led by executive director John Pehle, included some of the same Treasury Department officials who helped lobby for the agency’s creation in the first place. Their strong personal commitment to the cause helped overcome some of the administrative and other obstacles they encountered. War Refugee Board representatives in Turkey, Switzerland, North Africa, Portugal and Italy energetically employed unorthodox means of rescue, including bribery of border officials and the production of forged identification papers and other documents to protect refugees from the Nazis.
The Board’s agents arranged for approximately 48,000 Jews to be moved from Transnistria, where they would have been in the path of the retreating German army, to safe areas in Rumania. About 15,000 Jewish refugees, as well as 20,000 non-Jewish refugees, were evacuated from Axis-occupied territory, and at least 10,000 more were protected through the Board’s initiatives.
As the German deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz began in the spring of 1944, the War Refugee Board launched a campaign of psychological warfare aimed at the Hungarian authorities, whose cooperation was crucial to the success of the deportations. The Board engineered a series of threats of postwar Allied retribution against collaborators, including public statements to that effect by President Roosevelt, Congressional leaders, and other prominent Americans. The warnings were conveyed to Hungary through diplomatic channels, radio broadcasts, the European press, and the dropping of leaflets by Allied planes. The Board’s efforts also helped elicit pleas to the Hungarian leadership from the Vatican, the International Red Cross, and the king of Sweden. When the Hungarians finally succumbed to these pressures, about 120,000 Jews remained alive in Budapest.
Thousands of Jews were sheltered in Budapest by the Swedish rescue activist Raoul Wallenberg. It was the War Refugee Board that initially made contact with Wallenberg in Sweden, persuaded him to go to Hungary, and helped arrange for him to be accredited as a Swedish diplomat to facilitate his work. The Board also provided Wallenberg with significant financial and logistical assistance.
The Board took action in other areas, as well. It arranged for the shipment of tens of thousands of food parcels to concentration camp inmates during the final months of the war. The Board also helped Herbert Pell, the U.S. representative to the Allied War Crimes Commission, put pressure on the State Department to take a stronger stand on the postwar prosecution of Nazi war criminals.
Some of the War Refugee Board’s efforts met with less success. For months, it sought to persuade President Roosevelt to establish temporary shelters for refugees in the United States, but in the end he agreed to just one token shelter for a group of 982 refugees in Oswego, New York. The Board repeatedly asked the War Department to bomb the railroad lines leading to Auschwitz or the gas chambers and crematoria, but the requests were rejected. The State Department, too, often refused or delayed cooperating with the Board’s requests for assistance, despite the fact that the president’s executive order creating the WRB specifically required such cooperation. The British government likewise responded coldly to the Board’s efforts and sometimes even impeded them.
Board director John Pehle was correct in his later assessment of the Board’s accomplishments as “late and little.” Still, the Board deserves credit for playing a major role in the rescue of more than 200,000 refugees during the final fifteen months of the war despite numerous significant obstacles.