People & Events
Establishment of the War Refugee Board
On January 22, 1944, more than 17 months after news of Hitler's plan to annihilate Europe's Jews reached the U.S., President Roosevelt issued an executive order that established the War Refugee Board (WRB). It was charged with rescuing "the victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death and otherwise to afford such victims all possible relief and assistance consistent with the successful prosecution of the war." This was the first concrete step the U.S. had taken to help the Jews who were being killed in Germany's "Final Solution" of the "Jewish Question." And it would make a real difference.
At least two separate chains of events helped lead to the establishment of the WRB. The first began months earlier when the Treasury Department unexpectedly became involved in saving European Jews. In April of 1943, Gerhart Riegner, the representative of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, sent a message to the U.S. with details of a new rescue plan. According to Riegner, if American Jewish organizations made funds available, supplies could be sent to the Rumanian Jews in Transnistria. Additionally, Jewish children in the region could be moved to Palestine. He also said that American Jewish money could make a drastic difference in helping to hide Jews in France and aiding young people in the region to escape to Spain.
The State Department hesitated over making any decision on the plan for eleven weeks, with staffers variously declaring that it was "vaguely phrased" or that it might encourage a flood of requests from other organizations wanting to send relief funds to Europe. Even though under wartime regulations the Treasury Department was the agency in charge of issuing licenses to transfer funds overseas, State Department officials failed even to mention the proposal to the Treasury Department until late June. At a meeting to discuss the proposal three weeks later, State Department officials told their Treasury counterparts that the plan was unrealistic. Nonetheless the Treasury Department announced the very next day that it would issue the license.
A week later President Roosevelt endorsed the plan afterRabbi Stephen Wise brought it to his attention. He gave his consent for the license to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., but the president's approval and the Treasury Department's desire to act swiftly did little to help the Jews of Rumania. The State Department continued to procrastinate until the end of October before sending the U.S. legation in Switzerland permission to issue the license.
Then it was the legation's turn to stall. The American Minister in Switzerland, Leland Harrison, did nothing for 17 days during which time the British registered official objections to the license. The Treasury Department staffers were astonished to learn the license still had not been issued. They urged the British to clear the way immediately for this simple transfer of funds. Nothing happened for two more weeks. When the British finally responded in mid-December, the staffers at Treasury were horrified. Morgenthau called London's message "a satanic combination of British chill and diplomatic double-talk, cold and correct and adding up to a sentence of death." In essence, Britain objected to the plan because it might work. They wrote: "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."
When it became apparent that the Treasury Department had finally uncovered the real reason for the endless procrastination (i.e., fear that tens of thousands of Jews might actually be released from territories under German control), the State Department hurriedly authorized the transfer of the first $25,000. But the whole series of events had so incensed Treasury staffers they drew up an 18-page indictment of the State Department called "Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews." The document went so far as to accuse the State Department of using government machinery to actually "prevent the rescue of Jews." It ended by highlighting Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long's role in the Department's policy, saying, "If men of the temperament and philosophy of Long continue in control of immigration administration, we may as well take down that plaque from the Statue of Liberty and black out the 'lamp beside the golden door.' " Within two days of receiving the report on January 13, 1944, Morgenthau urged President Roosevelt to set up an independent rescue agency. Roosevelt quickly agreed.
Another series of events was also a crucial factor in persuading Roosevelt to take the step that he did. In the late fall of 1943, a group of senators led by Guy Gillette responding to a proposal from Jewish activists (Peter Bergson and other members of the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe). The senators introduced a resolution that called for a government rescue agency. At the same time, Will Rogers, Jr. introduced an identical resolution into the House. Although the proposal got caught up in protracted and controversial House hearings, a vote in the Senate, scheduled to take place on January 24, 1944, seemed almost guaranteed to approve the measure. By mid-January a poll indicated the resolution would also pass in the House. Two days before the Senate ballot was to take place, Roosevelt set up the War Refugee Board. The President had seized the initiative.
All in all, the War Refugee Board probably helped save the lives of about 200,000 Jews. Its rescue efforts included evacuating 15,000 from areas controlled by Germany and its allies and ensuring the transfer of 48,000 Jews in Transnistria to safe areas in Rumania. Another 10,000 Jews (and probably thousands more) were protected within other parts of Axis Europe by WRB-financed underground activities. Additionally, the WRB was instrumental in building the pressures that ended the deportations from Hungary in July of 1944. Ultimately, about 120,000 Jews survived in Budapest. But the Board suffered under inadequate funding and lack of cooperation from other government agencies. Additionally, it didn't come into existence until more than a year after the State Department knew of Hitler's plan to kill all the Jews of Europe. And in the opinion of many of those who worked for the WRB, its greatest failing was that it was set up too late. Even John Pehle, who headed its rescue operations, spoke of the Board's achievements in modest terms: "What we did was little enough. It was late.... Late and little, I would say."