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US Government Rescue Efforts

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War Refugee Board Director William O'Dwyer to President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library
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tags: food & hunger relief & rescue

type: Letter

In the spring of 1945, Allied armies crossed into Nazi Germany from both east and west. Fleeing German soldiers and civilians crowded the roads while British and American bombers attempted to destroy supply lines leading into Germany in order to speed the defeat of the Nazi regime. Meanwhile, the director of the War Refugee Board (WRB), William O'Dwyer,1 was attempting to organize shipments of food packages to concentration camp prisoners. As this memo from O’Dwyer demonstrates, the chaos of the final weeks of the war complicated this effort. The WRB was forced to rely on cooperation with international aid organizations.

In the summer of 1944, WRB staff successfully negotiated with the British government to permit 300,000 food packages to reach Europe through their blockade of Nazi Germany. The WRB purchased and packaged six-pound boxes of meat, cheese, vitamins, soap, crackers, sugar, and cigarettes, including some kosher boxes for observant Jews. But even after these boxes arrived in the neutral countries of Switzerland and Sweden, O'Dwyer writes that they had not been delivered "because of disrupted transportation conditions inside Germany."

By the time O'Dwyer wrote this memo on March 27, 1945, most of the concentration camps and killing centers in Europe had already been abandoned by Nazi Germany or liberated by the Soviet Red Army. Nazi officials ordered hundreds of thousands of concentration camp prisoners moved on foot and by train to central Germany. Disease spread quickly to starving prisoners in these overcrowded camps. With the Allies nearing these locations, WRB staff coordinated with the International Red Cross to deliver the packages, attempting to keep the prisoners alive long enough to be liberated. O'Dwyer's memo also lists 12 wood-burning trucks acquired from Switzerland and notes that General Eisenhower would turn over gasoline, tires, and additional trucks. Even though Allied victory was imminent, the WRB's ability to provide humanitarian aid was weakened by military realities. The WRB coordinated with multiple organizations to distribute food packages to many very ill and undernourished prisoners.2

Brigadier General William O'Dwyer replaced John Pehle as director of the War Refugee Board on January 27, 1945. He served until September 15, 1945, when the WRB closed.

For a detailed description of the food package project, see Rebecca Erbelding, Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe (New York: Doubleday, 2018), chapter 22.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library
Accession Number War Refugee Board papers, Box 33, Folder "War Refugee Board, vol. 3, Folder 1 of 4
Date Created
March 27, 1945
Author / Creator
William O'Dwyer
Washington, DC, USA
Document Type Letter
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