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Sommerburg Behind the Fence

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Americans and the Holocaust

US Government Rescue Efforts

The American public was relatively well informed about the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany, the refugee crisis of the 1930s, and—after 1942—the Nazi regime's plan to murder all European Jews. But four years into World War II, the US government had not attempted to rescue European Jews. The creation of the War Refugee Board (WRB) in 1944 changed that. This collection explores the WRB's mission of rescue and relief, the obstacles it faced, and the mixed impact it had during the Holocaust.

US Government Rescue Efforts

Though Americans knew that Nazi Germany posed a unique threat to Jewish people, they were not aware of the regime's campaign of mass murder when it first began. For most Americans, awareness that Nazi Germany planned to murder all European Jews came from 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 the message was announced to the American press in late November 1942.2

The US State Department played a complicated dual role in this announcement. After initially attempting to suppress Riegner's information, they also investigated and confirmed the news. Beginning in November 1942, the press and politicians accepted the campaign of mass murder itself as fact, though not all Americans could believe that the death toll reached into the millions.

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Throughout 1943, 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 that called for rescue, and they condemned Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration for not doing more. The State Department responded to the Bergson group's efforts by calling the Bermuda Conference, an April 1943 meeting between British and US representatives to discuss aid to Jewish people in Europe. But when the conference resulted in no immediate rescue program, activists grew even more frustrated. In November 1943, members of Congress who supported Bergson’s cause called on Roosevelt to support the creation of a special rescue commission.4

Lawyers in the Treasury Department also grew frustrated at the seeming indifference of their State Department colleagues. While investigating delays in relief funds for Jews in 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. He had also 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). This decision removed responsibility for refugee matters from the State Department.

The WRB was staffed largely out of the Treasury Department. It streamlined the work of humanitarian aid organizations, helping American relief money get to Europe. 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 The Board hired Swedish businessman Raoul Wallenberg to travel to Budapest to assist Hungarian Jews.8 It began an elaborate propaganda campaign warning would-be perpetrators of postwar punishment. It purchased speedboats and guns to help anti-Nazi citizens escape the Baltic states.9 The group sent 300,000 food packages into concentration camps and participated in ransom negotiations with Nazi representatives for the lives of Jews still living in German-dominated Europe.10 By the end of the war, the WRB estimated that they had saved tens of thousands of lives, and assisted hundreds of thousands more.11

For the United States Government, the military defeat of the Nazi regime was always the most important aim of the war in Europe—and many believed that winning the war was the most effective way to aid those targeted by the Nazi regime. 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 killing centers in Nazi-occupied Poland, and mass rescue was impossible. Mass killings only ended when the Allies defeated Nazi Germany in spring 1945, capturing German-occupied territories and liberating the camps they found there. The Allied military undoubtedly undertook the largest rescue effort, but ending the Holocaust was never a stated goal of the war.

The items in this collection give a glimpse into the various debates about whether the US should attempt rescue, the different proposals for rescue efforts, and the work of the WRB itself. The board's creation in early 1944 signaled a new US policy for the relief and rescue of Jews and other persecuted peoples in German-dominated Europe. Although it faced many bureaucratic challenges—as well as the difficulties of humanitarian aid during wartime—the WRB saved tens of thousands of Jewish lives before liberation. Through their focus on the work of the WRB, the primary sources collected here can help us understand how US government rescue efforts were shaped by a combination of American politics, humanitarian principles, and the military campaigns of World War II.

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

Rabbi Stephen Wise announced the news as president of the World Jewish Congress. 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.

For more, see David S. Wyman and Rafael Medoff, A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America, and the Holocaust (New York: New Press, 2002); and 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.

See the related Experiencing History item, Engraving Miriam Sommerburg: "Behind the Fence."

See the related Experiencing History item, War Refugee Board Instructions for Raoul Wallenberg.

See the related Experiencing History item, Herschel Johnson Telegram on the "Goodyear Tire Plan."

See the related Experiencing History item, Ira Hirschmann Interview with Joel Brand.

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

All 17 Items in the US Government Rescue Efforts Collection

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