Book details efforts by U.S. officials to rescue Jewish refugees.
A handful of U.S. government officials defied President Franklin D. Roosevelt and helped rescue Jewish refugees in the final months of the Holocaust, according to “Too Little, and Almost Too Late: The War Refugee Board and America’s Response to the Holocaust,” a new book by local author and historian Dr. Rafael Medoff.
Kol HaBirah: You and other historians have written a lot about how the Roosevelt administration abandoned Europe’s Jews during the Holocaust. But in this book, you focus on the other side — the few U.S. government officials who tried to help the Jews.
Medoff: Yes, this book is about the War Refugee Board, which was a little-known government agency that was established very late in the war, but still managed to save many lives.
For most of the Holocaust period, the Roosevelt administration was opposed to taking any action to rescue Jews. Why?
Because rescuing a lot of Jews meant having to find some place to put them. President Roosevelt didn’t want to let more Jews into the United States, and the British did not want to let them into Mandatory Palestine, because of Arab opposition. In their private memos, Roosevelt administration officials referred to Jewish refugees as “a curse” and “a burden.” British officials were worried about what they called “the difficulties of disposing of any considerable number of Jews should they be rescued from enemy-occupied territory.”
If the administration was opposed to rescue, how did the War Refugee Board come into being?
It happened because of an amazing combination of circumstances in late 1943, starting with a group of Jewish activists, known as the Bergson Group, who began putting full-page ads in newspapers and organizing rallies, calling on FDR to rescue Jews. They got members of Congress to introduce a resolution urging President Roosevelt to create an agency to rescue Jewish refugees. The administration fought tooth-and-nail against the resolution, but the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed it anyway. Meanwhile, a handful of Treasury Department officials had discovered, by accident, that the State Department was sabotaging opportunities to rescue refugees and suppressing news about the mass murder.
Did the Treasury Department go public with that information?
No — they came up with a different strategy. The Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., went to President Roosevelt and warned him that the truth about the State Department would soon come out, so he would be better off creating a rescue agency before Congress forced him to do it. And that’s what the president did.
So in other words, after opposing the Congressional resolution on rescue, FDR turned around and established the rescue agency that Congress was demanding.
That’s the irony. Roosevelt was against rescue, until the political pressure became too much, and then he was for it. And so the War Refugee Board was born.
What kind of actions did the Board undertake?
It sent money to Europe to bribe Nazis, worked with underground groups in Europe to hide Jewish refugees, and even facilitated secret negotiations with several Nazi officials in order to ransom Jews.
“Too Little, and Almost Too Late”also reveals a remarkable connection between the War Refugee Board and the famous rescue hero, Raoul Wallenberg.
Yes, it was the board’s emissary in Sweden who persuaded Wallenberg to go to Nazi-occupied Budapest, and it was the board which gave him the funds to carry out his life-saving work.
In the end, how many Jews did the Board save?
It played a major role in the rescue of about 200,000 Jews. But much more could have been done if the board had been established earlier, and if it received appropriate funding from the Roosevelt administration. The board’s director, John Pehle, and its general counsel, Josiah DuBois, described their work as “too little” and “very late” — hence the title of my book.
“Too Little, and Almost Too Late” is available on Amazon.