Heather Voight’s well researched book outlines the developments that led to the War Refugee Board (WRB) in America.

As the Second World War raged in Europe and Hitler implemented his “Final Solution” to eliminate Jewry in Europe the United States Government, amongst other Allied Powers, seemed unsympathetic to the fate of the Jews.

American immigration had been restricted generally during the Depression because of the fear that foreign workers might take American jobs. President Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR) had said that immigration to the United States should be limited to those who had the right blood. It is obvious that Jews did not have the right blood. Even so there were immigration quotas that would have allowed more Jews to have escaped Europe. Immigration policy, however, was the responsibility of the State Department which was strongly Anti-Semitic.

Sabotage by the State Department

Assistant Secretary of State, Breckinridge Long, a close friend of FDR, advised consuls to “put every obstacle in the way…which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of visas”. From late 1942 until early 1945, just 10% of the already tiny quotas from Axis-controlled countries were filled.

The State Department also initially limited the flow of information about the persecution of the Jews, claiming the reports of such terrible acts were unreliable.

Early in the war it would have been possible to negotiate the legal immigration of Jews from Axis-controlled countries to the United States but because of incompetence — or more likely the deliberate sabotage by the State Department — these attempts came to nothing.

Establishment of the War Refugee Board

By 1944 however things began to change. Anti- Semitism in America began to wane and sympathy for the plight of the Jews in Europe began to rise. Officials in the Treasury Department including the Secretary, Henry Morganthau, a Jew, familiar with the intrigue within the State Department, approached FDR presenting him with a report outlining the State Department’s deliberate failure to assist the Jews. The report further highlighted the possibility of a public scandal because of this inaction and recommended the establishment of a separate agency outside the State Department responsible for the rescue of Jews.

FDR, recognising the political danger, 1944 indeed being an election year, agreed to the formation of the US WRB. The executive order establishing the Board stated that the functions of the Board “shall include without limitation the development of plans and programs and the inauguration of effective measures for (a) the rescue, transportation, maintenance and relief of the victims of enemy oppression and (b) the establishments of havens of temporary refuge for such victims”.

The work of the WRB

The remainder of the book then outlines the work of the WRB in ending the cycle of indifference that the government and the American public had shown to the victims of the Holocaust. In the words of Henry Morganthau, from 1944–1945, “crusaders, passionately persuaded of the need for speed and action” risked their reputations and sometimes their lives.

One of those passionate crusaders was Raoul Wallenberg, whose efforts on behalf of the Board are legendary. While Wallenberg was not an official member of the Board, the Board furnished him with detailed plans of action, funds and a list of Hungarian officials who accepted bribes. The Swedish Foreign Office assigned Wallenberg as an attaché to its Legation in Budapest. It was Wallenberg’s task to initiate relief for Hungarian Jews. He and his employees printed and distributed Swedish protective passports to Jews. These passports appeared official and were signed by the foreign minister of Sweden. The WRB estimates that 20,000 Jews received the safety of Swedish protection in Hungary, but that Wallenberg likely saved thousands more indirectly by providing soup kitchens, medical care and, in some cases, giving hope to people who had given up on survival. An estimated 70,000 Jews survived the Budapest ghetto. Wallenberg helped many of them stay alive by providing them with the necessities of life.

The Board’s longest serving director John Pehl said, “What we [the Board members] did was little enough. It was late…late and little I would say”. Certainly if FDR had established the Board earlier much more could have been achieved; but the WRB deserves credit for what it did achieve in a short time during 1944 to early 1945. Its accomplishments included gaining time; rescuing some Jews via negotiations with Nazis and Axis government officials; stopping Hungarian deportations with psychological warfare; opening travel routes; saving Hungary’s remaining Jews; establishing a food parcel program and a refugee camp at Fort Ontario.

This book will be of interest to Bible students with an interest in the Holocaust. It is available from online book stores.