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Sommerburg Behind the Fence

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Americans and the Holocaust

US Government Rescue Efforts

The American public had a great deal of information about the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany, the refugee crisis of the late 1930s, and, after 1942, the Nazi plan to murder all European Jews. But four years into World War II, the US government had not prioritized the rescue of European Jews. That changed in 1944 with the creation of the War Refugee Board (WRB), an organization tasked with carrying out rescue and relief. This collection explores the WRB's initiatives, obstacles to its objectives, and the mixed impact of US attempts at rescue.

Though Americans knew Nazi Germany had long posed a particular threat to Jews, they were not aware of the mass murder campaign when it first began. Historians trace the arrival of the news that Nazi Germany planned to murder all the Jews of Europe to the Riegner telegram, a memo composed by World Jewish Congress representative Gerhart Riegner on August 8, 1942.1 Allied intelligence reports and newspaper articles had provided some information about mass murder earlier, but Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the World Jewish Congress, announced Riegner's message to the American press in late November 1942.2 The US State Department played a dual role in this announcement—initially attempting to suppress Riegner's information, but also investigating and confirming the news for Wise. Beginning in November 1942, the press and politicians accepted the campaign of mass murder itself as fact, though not all Americans believed that the death toll reached into the millions.

Throughout 1943, as more reports of Nazi atrocities against Jews reached American newspapers,3 public pressure rose for some sort of official governmental response. Activist Peter Bergson and his Emergency Committee rallied Americans through newspaper ads and pageants which called for rescue and condemned Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration for perceived inaction. The State Department tried to dismiss the Bergson group's efforts by calling the Bermuda Conference, an April 1943 meeting between British and US representatives to discuss aid to Jews. When the conference resulted in no immediate or visible rescue program, activists grew even more frustrated. In November, members of Congress who supported Bergson’s cause introduced a "Rescue Resolution" into the House of Representatives and the Senate, calling on Roosevelt to support a rescue commission.4

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Lawyers in the Treasury Department also grew frustrated at the seeming indifference of their State Department colleagues. While investigating lengthy delays in relief funds the World Jewish Congress wished to send to Europe, the Treasury Department discovered that Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long had tried to suppress information about the atrocities from reaching the American public, and misled Congress about "refugee"5 arrival statistics.6 On January 16, 1944, Treasury staff presented their findings to President Roosevelt, who agreed to form the War Refugee Board (WRB), removing refugee matters from the State Department.

The WRB, nominally headed by the Secretaries of State, War, and Treasury, was staffed largely out of the Treasury Department. It streamlined the work of humanitarian aid organizations, allowing relief money to be sent into Europe, including into Nazi-occupied territory. The WRB appointed representatives in most of the neutral nations (Switzerland, Portugal, Sweden, and Turkey) as well as in Great Britain and North Africa. It opened a refugee camp in Oswego, New York;7 hired Swedish businessman Raoul Wallenberg to travel to Budapest to assist Hungarian Jews;8 began an elaborate propaganda campaign warning would-be perpetrators of postwar punishment; purchased speedboats and guns to help anti-Nazi citizens escape the Baltic states;9 sent 300,000 food packages into concentration camps; and participated in ransom negotiations with the Nazi represetentatives for the lives of the remaining Jews of Europe.10 At the end of the war, the WRB estimated that they had saved tens of thousands of lives, and assisted hundreds of thousands more.11

When examining US wartime rescue efforts, it is important to remember that military defeat of the Nazi regime was always the priority. Sixteen million Americans served in World War II, and more than 400,000 were killed. Though this collection presents documents related to targeted rescue efforts to assist the victims of what we now call the Holocaust, the effect of the military war cannot be understated, both as a barrier and as an aid to relief work. For most of the war, the Allied armies were thousands of miles from the death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland, and mass rescue was an impossibility. In the spring of 1945, mass killing ended when the Allies won World War II, capturing Nazi-occupied territories and liberating the camps they found there. The Allied military undoubtedly undertook the largest rescue effort, though ending the Holocaust was never a stated goal of the war.

The items in this collection reveal the public and private debate over whether the US should attempt rescue, proposals for what such an effort might entail, and the work of the WRB itself. The board's establishment in early 1944 signaled a new US policy advocating for the relief and rescue of Jews and other persecuted peoples in Hitler's Europe. Although it faced many bureaucratic challenges as well as the difficulties of humanitarian aid during wartime, it saved tens of thousands of Jewish lives prior to the Allied liberation of the concentration camps. By examining the activities of the WRB and US government-led rescue efforts, we can better understand the ways in which the complex landscape of American politics, the war effort, and the Holocaust intersected.

Richard Breitman and Walter Laqueur, Breaking the Silence: The German who Exposed the Final Solution (Hanover: Brandeis University Press, 1994).

For more on Riegner and his activities, see the related item in this collection Undelivered Telegram from Gerhart Riegner to Rabbi Stephen Wise.

Explore History Unfolded, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum's citizen history project, to learn more about American newspaper coverage of events in Europe during the Holocaust.

David S. Wyman and Rafael Medoff, A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America, and the Holocaust (New York: New Press, 2002). David S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: The United States and the Holocaust 1942-1945 (New York: Pantheon, 1984).

"Refugee" was a term used at the time for European Jews threatened by Nazi persecution. It carried little legal weight.

Rebecca Erbelding, Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe (New York: Doubleday, 2018).

All 16 Items in the US Government Rescue Efforts Collection

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