Despite popular belief that the American government abandoned European Jewry during the Holocaust, the U.S. had a complete reversal of policy near the war’s end that saved “tens of thousands,” according to a Holocaust historian.
Dr. Rebecca Erbelding, a curator and historian of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum exhibition, “Americans and the Holocaust,” uncovered the War Refugee Board’s (WRB) efforts to rescue European Jews.
Her decade-long research, including combing through archived government documents and communications, unearthed tales of money laundering, tricking of high-level Nazi leaders, leaking information to the press, bribery, psychological warfare, espionage, and the recruitment of emissaries and relief workers to save those — most of them Jewish — threatened by the Nazis.
The WRB’s representative in Stockholm had asked a committee of prominent Swedish Jews for candidates to lead a rescue mission in Budapest and selected Raoul Wallenberg. He saved nearly 100,000 Hungarian Jews in 1944, only to disappear after the Russians liberated Budapest.
Speaking Oct. 9 at the annual Raoul Wallenberg program of Rutgers University’s Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life, Erbelding said the U.S. acted for humanitarian reasons, “not for prestige or power or because any of those rescued had any value to America.”
“This is the first time the United States had a policy about the Holocaust and it was dedicated to saving Jews,” she said.
Her book, “Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe” (Doubleday, April), lays out the subterfuge that allowed WRB, an agency of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, to circumvent the State Department — which refused to authorize relief funds for the victims — and harsh U.S. immigration policies that severely limited the number of refugees allowed into the country.
When Roosevelt created the WRB in January 1944, there was a “toxic” atmosphere toward refugees in Congress, Erbelding told the 200 gathered at the Douglass College Center in New Brunswick. Yet over the next 20 months WRB provided guns to the French Resistance, managed to get food into concentration camps, dropped leaflets in areas where exterminations were being conducted, and funneled money to individuals assisting the relief effort.
American political leaders were aware the Holocaust was unfolding, according to Erbelding. In 1942 Gerhart Riegner, secretary of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), sent proof of the Nazi’s plan to exterminate Europe’s Jews, yet the State Department sat on the information. However, Gerhart succeeded in getting a telegram through to the WJC offices in London and New York later that year.
As word leaked out, Erbelding said, there were rallies and newspaper ads urging an American response, including a group of 400 Orthodox rabbis who marched on Washington three days before Yom Kippur in 1943.
However, it wasn’t until Josiah DuBois, a Camden native and lawyer in the Treasury Department’s budget office, became so outraged at the State Department’s repression of news and deliberate obstruction of aid and rescue attempts that he wrote a report in January 1944, “The Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews.”
That report was sent to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau “and his staff convinced Morgenthau to go to FDR and demand a new deal,” Erbelding said. The Treasury Department oversaw the WRB.
Her research showed that contrary to popular belief, the board was neither understaffed nor underfunded.
“One of the best things Henry Morgenthau did was record all his conversations, which were later transcribed,” she said.
She added, “The board tried so many things in so many countries,” such as streamlining the licensing procedure for humanitarian organizations looking to send aid to victims of World War II. It released $11 million — the equivalent in today’s dollars of $154 million — for a variety of efforts throughout the world.
Among the WRB’s most creative escapades was paying the Goodyear company to launder $50,000 through Swedish banks to pay smugglers to sneak Jews into neutral Sweden.
It also engaged in maneuvers to fool Nazis.
With the approval of Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler, Kurt Becher, the commissar for all German concentration camps, met with Saly Mayer of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Roswell McClelland of WRB on Nov. 4, 1944.
Meyer and Roswell tricked the Nazi elite into believing they would receive ransom money for the release of approximately 1,400 Jews from Bergen-Belsen. The Jews were freed, but the U.S. “does not pay ransom,” Erbelding said.
When a group of escapees from
Auschwitz made it to freedom in November 1944, the WRB released to the press — without approval from any government agency — the graphic report of the atrocities they saw being committed. As a result, “the Washington Post introduced the word ‘genocide,’” she said, the first time that term had ever been used to apply to the mass killing of an ethnic group.
Although disbanded in 1945, the WRB’s mission of rescuing refugees is relevant today with the media spotlight on U.S. immigration policies. Erbelding said officials might take a cue from their actions in 1944 “and how policy turned, and see if we can take that turn again to resolve a humanitarian crisis.”
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