Bergson’s seminal role
The title given to your article about Dr. Rebecca Erbelding’s research into the War Refugee Board (“Holocaust historian details Roosevelt’s efforts to save Jews,” Oct. 18) was incorrect and misleading. President Franklin D. Roosevelt repeatedly stated that the sole objective of his administration was to win the war against the Nazis. The issue of European Jewry, he said, could only be dealt with once the war was won.
He knew what was happening in Europe and he could have, at the very least, bombed the railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz. Had it not been for the determination of a young Jew from Palestine named Peter Bergson (his given name was Hillel Kook), who moved heaven and earth to alert Americans once he learned in November 1942 that 2 million Jews had been murdered, Josiah DuBois — admittedly a hero — might not have understood the enormity of the situation.
The Bergson group lobbied members of Congress, put ads in major newspapers, and created plays read and seen by hundreds of thousands, and was responsible for the rabbis’ march on Washington in 1943. Empowered by Roosevelt’s position, the State Department and a key official, Breckinridge Long, not only obfuscated the breadth of killings, but created major impediments for those desperately seeking asylum. Bergson’s efforts resulted in the introduction of a resolution asking for the creation of an agency that would help those Jews still alive.
DuBois, spurred on by knowledge and conscience, wrote his scathing report and threatened Henry Morgenthau that he would go public with it if Morgenthau didn’t get Roosevelt to act. DuBois was willing to risk his career and for this he will always be remembered as a hero. It is rather surprising to note that despite her decade-long research Erbelding missed Bergson’s seminal role in the creation of the War Refugee Board.
Dr. Rebecca Erbelding responds:
In my book, “Rescue Board,” I detail the convergence of a number of forces: the activism of Peter Bergson and the Emergency Committee, the “Rescue Resolution” pending in Congress (sponsored by Emergency Committee supporters), and the intra-administration conflict between the State and Treasury Departments, as detailed by Josiah DuBois and the Treasury Department staff in the “The Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews” memo. Pres. Roosevelt was undoubtedly responding to the combination of these forces when he issued the Executive Order creating the War Refugee Board (WRB). Although the letter writer is correct that it was the consistent policy of Roosevelt and the U.S. government not to divert any resources away from winning the war, it is also true that without Roosevelt’s order, the WRB would not have been created. In that sense, the title of the article, “Holocaust historian details Roosevelt’s efforts to save Jews,” is factually accurate.
Still Roosevelt was only involved in the board’s activities when they needed his approval on a particular project or funding; for the most part, the WRB (staffed largely by Treasury Department employees) operated within the executive office, but independently from Roosevelt’s direct oversight. Understandably, this nuance is impossible to convey in an article about a talk I gave, so I appreciate the writer allowing me to clarify this important history.