The American response to Jewish refugees during the Holocaust has evoked its share of harsh descriptions: Anti-Semitic, lame, cold-hearted, self-centered and indifferent being among some of the most prevalent.
The most infamous story happened before the war itself, in May 1939, when 900 Jews on board the St. Louis — a ship fleeing Nazi Europe — were turned back across the Atlantic.
Refused entry first in Havana, Cuba, and then in Miami, some of the luckier Jewish refugees aboard the ship eventually found refuge in Britain. But 254 passengers later got sent back to Nazi occupied countries, eventually perishing in the Holocaust.
Fifth-column paranoia about wartime Nazi spies arriving from Germany to the United States during this historical epoch meant immigration policy was severely curtailed. A toxic wave of anti-Semitism sweeping across the United States following the Great Depression didn’t help matters either.
There is, however, another side to this story. Filling in some of history’s missing blanks is Rebecca Erbelding’s latest book, “Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe.”
The book recalls how in January 1944, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. persuaded US president Franklin D. Roosevelt to establish the War Refugee Board (WRB). Its main function — until it disbanded in September 1945 — was to rescue and provide relief for Jews and other groups persecuted by Nazi Germany and its collaborators.
“We have this very fixed idea that during the Holocaust the US government could have saved all of the Jews [of Europe], but chose not to because of anti-Semitism,” says the American archivist, curator, and historian from her office at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
“But if we believe that, we miss out on what the US government did right when it created the WRB,” Erbelding adds.
Erbelding then quotes Israeli Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer, who once remarked that what made the WRB such a unique body is “that it was officially permitted to break practically every important law of a nation at war in the name of outraged humanity.”
Erbelding’s book spends considerable time looking at the history of the WRB itself. The board’s roots were sown in the Jewish resistance movement in pre-state Israel.
Public pressure put on Roosevelt by the Bergson Group — political action committees in the US during the 1940s that were headed by Hillel Kook (who went by the name Peter H. Bergson) — was largely responsible for the WRB’s formation.
The nucleus of the Bergson Group was closely associated with the Palestine Jewish underground militia, the Irgun.
“The [Bergson Group] convinced the American public and Congress that more needed to be done for Jews who were [suffering in Europe] under Nazi occupation,” Erbelding says.
“And so in the Fall of 1943 the ‘rescue resolutions’ passed in the US Congress, calling on FDR to come up with ways in which the United States could provide relief and ways of rescuing people,” says Erbelding.
Much of the WRB’s work was intangible, full of dead ends, administrative black holes, and secret diplomatic meetings — many of which yielded little results in return.
This was primarily because the WRB was usually twice-removed from any work in Nazi occupied territory, where money was funneled through private relief agencies to the workers underground.
It’s impossible to calculate the exact number of Jews the WRB saved during the Holocaust. A rough estimate puts the number at 126,000.
But Erbelding admits that in the broad view of Holocaust history, the WRB had little impact on the vast majority of Jews in Europe at the time, with many historians using the phrase “too little too late” to describe the board’s rescue efforts.
Indeed, this same phrased was used by John Pehle during a 1978 interview that discussed the effect the WRB had on the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust.
Pehle, a Treasury Department lawyer, was also the executive director of the WRB.
His despondency more than three decades after the Holocaust may have arisen from a sense of personal guilt over an ambitious rescue plan for Hungarian Jews that never came to fruition.
A daring, doomed rescue plan
Erbelding’s book dedicates an entire chapter documenting how Pehle had prepared a daring diplomatic maneuver which aimed to save all the remaining Jews of Hungary in July 1944.
Between late April and early July 1944, approximately 440,000 Hungarian Jews were deported out of Hungary by the Nazis on around 145 trains.
426,000 of these Jews were sent directly to Auschwitz, where they were murdered in the gas chambers. However, a significant amount of Jews still remained in Budapest during this time.
Pehle’s ambitious plan to save these remaining Hungarian Jews began following an article published in the New York Times on 19 July, 1944.
It detailed how Admiral Nicholas Horthy — Hungary’s wartime leader — had promised the International Red Cross Committee that no more Jews would be forcibly transported out of Hungary. Horthy had also stated that any Hungarian Jews possessing a visa would be free to travel to Palestine, and that Jewish children left in Hungary would be evacuated to countries willing to receive them.
On July 29 1944, Pehle wrote to the State Department officially responding to the new Hungarian offer — or the Horthy offer, as it eventually became known. Pehle explained how the WRB wanted to “accept completely the Hungarian proposal without any limitation to the numbers.”
The WRB executive director then cabled the Red Cross in Switzerland to inform the Hungarian government that “the United States will arrange for the care of all Jews permitted to leave Hungary who reach neutral territory and will find for such people havens of refuge when they may live in safety.”
Erbelding stresses just how significant Pehle’s communiqué was at this pivotal moment of history: It claimed that the United States was willing to take responsibility for all of the Hungarian Jews if Horthy would release them. Pehle had promised to figure out various destinations, in due course, to house all Jewish refugees remaining in Hungary, with possible safe locations including Fedala in Morocco.
“The offer didn’t work, though, because Horthy was only in charge of Hungary nominally,” Erbelding points out. “The Nazis were actually in charge. And so there was never any realistic discussion of releasing the Jews of Hungary.”
“By the time the offer came in, we’re really talking about the Jews of Budapest, “ Erbelding adds. “Because most of the Jews in the Hungarian countryside had already been sent to Auschwitz, where they were murdered.”
Despite the mass deportations of Hungarian Jews to Poland in the summer of 1944, the Jews of Budapest still lived in relative safety from July to October that same year.
However, that changed on October 15 when Horthy announced he was going to make peace with the Allies. The Nazis simply toppled Horthy’s government, handing power directly to the anti-Semitic Arrow Cross party.
The Arrow Cross was led by the ruthless Hungarian fascist, Ferenc Szálasi, who became prime minister of the Kingdom of Hungary’s Government of National Unity in the war’s last six months. Szálasi immediately introduced a reign of terror for Jews in Budapest.
By the time Hungary was liberated by the Soviet army in April 1945, 568,000 Hungarian Jews had been liquidated in the Holocaust. Nearly 80,000 Jews were killed in Budapest itself, shot on the banks of the Danube and then thrown into the river.
Thousands of others were forced on death marches to the Austrian border, while numerous other Jews died in a closed Budapest ghetto of cold, disease, and starvation.
How much was really known?
Was the outside world — and more specifically the American public — aware of these atrocities that were happening to Jews in central Europe at the time?
Erbelding says there is a widespread misconception that due to lack of information, there was no knowledge in the global media about the Holocaust until the Soviets liberated Auschwitz in January 1945.
“The idea the press didn’t report on the Holocaust is incorrect,” says Erbelding. “There were reports throughout 1943 and 1944 about mass atrocities.”
There were reports throughout 1943 and 1944 about mass atrocities
“The Warsaw Ghetto, for example, was reported in real time,” Erbelding says. “But in terms of what people know about the inner workings of the concentration camps, any reports usually stopped at the gates.”
That changed, however, in November 1944, when the American media published articles across 70 newspapers which documented the horrific details of Auschwitz — including maps, and the process of prisoner arrival, selection, and gassing.
This information became available thanks to Ross McClelland, a Quaker worker based in Switzerland. He liaised closely with the WRB on the details he gleaned from two testimonies written by escapees from Auschwitz. The first was by two Slovak Jews, and the second by a non-Jewish Polish major.
“In the summer of 1944 McClelland got the Auschwitz report, and eventually got a copy to the WRB in November,” Erbelding explains.
However, the [US government] decided not to print it, believing the report was “too Semitic,” the historian explains, “So the [WRB] decided to leak it to the press. They didn’t ask anyone else in the US government before doing so. And they later got their wrists slapped for this.”
The report also inserted a little-used term into the American vernacular.
“When the story hit the newspapers that Thanksgiving, it was the first time any American paper had used the word genocide,” Erbelding adds, “with The Washington Post using the word in its editorial.”
Battles won, and mostly lost
The historian also notes how during its 19 months of existence the WRB sent a plethora of cables back and forth to Europe. Many of these classified information exchanges give us close insights into the various tactics the board discussed for possible ways of saving more Jews in Europe.
Erbelding recalls one particular cable sent on June 2, 1944, from Isaac Sternbuch to the Union of Orthodox Rabbis offices in New York.
It contained a request to bomb Munkács, Kaschau and Prešov — areas that connected the rail lines which led the way to Auschwitz. Ever since, this topic has come to dominate any discussion concerning the United States and the Holocaust.
The historian explains how this plan developed within the board during the summer of 1944.
“The recommendation the WRB made to the War Department in the fall of 1944 was not to hit the rail lines or to destroy the gas chambers, it was to destroy the death camp [at Auschwitz] entirely — to wipe it off the face of the earth,” Erbelding says.
“Now, that would have killed a lot of people. There were about 100,000 people in Auschwitz [at this time]. And so if the [Allies] had carpet bombed the camp, most of the camp would have died,” she says.
“Had the [Allies] bombed the rail lines, they certainly could have stopped the gassing for a day or two,” the historian adds. “But prison labor was repairing train lines fairly quickly. So it would have had to be a continuous bombing of rail lines for it to be successful.”
“I’m extremely cautious about saying that bombing the gas chambers would have saved a lot of lives,” Erbelding stresses.
Erbelding concludes her book by asking the reader to try and remember that the lessons of history are important for dealing with political issues in our own age.
“If we forget the War Refugee Board existed, we lose the ability to learn from its work,” Erbelding writes in the book’s closing pages.
Currently Israel is in the process of trying to legally deport approximately half of the 38,000 African migrants, many of whom are fleeing war or conflict zones.
Can the Jewish state learn anything from the WRB’s stance towards asylum seekers?
“We never go wrong when we learn that other human beings have lives that are as complex as our own,” says Erbelding. “A lot of that tends to get lost in rhetoric around refugees — we forget to be sympathetic.”
“History judges you more kindly for putting in the effort to do the right thing,” says Erbelding. “And so just throwing up our hands and saying, ‘this is the way the world is, we cannot do anything,’ is not productive, and it doesn’t help anything.”
“It’s not something our grandchildren will look back on with any sort of pride,” the historian concludes.