War Refugee Board

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WAR REFUGEE BOARD , a United States government agency established to assist refugees during World War ii. In the autumn of 1943, at the initiative of the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe (the Bergson group), members of Congress introduced a resolution urging the creation of a government agency to rescue refugees from Hitler. At the same time, aides to Treasury Secretary Henry *Morgenthau, Jr., discovered that the State Department had been obstructing opportunities to rescue Jewish refugees and blocking the transmission to the U.S. of information about German atrocities. With pressure building in Congress and the press, Morgenthau, armed with a report from his staff about the State Department's actions, brought the issue to President Roosevelt in January 1944. fdr pre-empted Congressional action by establishing the War Refugee Board.

The wrb was handicapped from the outset. By the time it was established, more than four million Jews had already been slaughtered. As its agent in Istanbul, Ira Hirschmann, put it, the agency was created "at five minutes to twelve [midnight]." Moreover, Roosevelt had established the wrb primarily as a political gesture, and gave the new agency little financial or other support. Private Jewish organizations contributed more than 90 percent of its budget. Fortunately, the board, led by executive director John Pehle, was staffed largely by the same Treasury Department officials who helped lobby for the agency's creation in the first place. Their creativity, determination, and zeal helped overcome some of the administrative and other obstacles they encountered. The wrb's representatives in Turkey, Switzerland, North Africa, Portugal, and Italy energetically employed unorthodox means of rescue, including bribery of border officials and the production of forged identification papers and other documents needed to protect refugees from the Nazis.

The wrb's agents arranged for some 48,000 Jews to be moved from Transnistria, where they would have been in the path of the retreating German army, to safe areas in Romania. About 15,000 Jewish refugees, and about 20,000 non-Jewish refugees, were evacuated from Axis-occupied territory, and at least 10,000 more were protected through various wrb-sponsored activities.

As the German deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz got underway in the spring of 1944, the wrb launched a campaign of psychological warfare aimed at the Hungarian authorities, whose cooperation was crucial to the success of the deportations. The wrb engineered a series of threats of post-war Allied retribution against collaborators, including public statements to that effect by President Roosevelt, Congressional leaders, and other prominent Americans. Their warnings were conveyed to Hungary through diplomatic channels, radio broadcasts, the European press, and the dropping of leaflets by Allied planes. The wrb's efforts also helped elicit pleas to the Hungarian leadership from the Vatican, the International Red Cross, and the king of Sweden. When the Hungarians finally succumbed to these pressures, about 120,000 Jews remained alive in Budapest. Many had been sheltered by the Swedish diplomat Raoul *Wallenberg, who, with financial and logistical backing from the wrb, organized a network of safe houses in the city.

The wrb took action in other areas, as well. It arranged for the shipment of tens of thousands of food parcels to concentration camp inmates during the final months of the war. The board also helped Herbert Pell, the U.S. representative to the Allied War Crimes Commission, put pressure on the State Department to take a stronger stand on the postwar prosecution of Nazi war criminals.

Some of the board's efforts met with less success. For months, it sought to persuade President Roosevelt to establish temporary shelters for refugees in the United States, but in the end he agreed to just one token shelter for a group of 982 refugees in Oswego, New York. The board repeatedly asked the War Department to bomb the railroad lines leading to Auschwitz or the gas chambers and crematoria, but the requests were rejected. The State Department, too, often refused, or delayed, cooperating with the board's requests for assistance, despite the fact that the president's executive order creating the wrb specifically required such cooperation. The British government likewise responded coldly to the board's efforts and sometimes even impeded them.

Given the magnitude of the Nazi genocide, wrb director John Pehle was correct in his later assessment of the board's accomplishments as "late and little." Still, the wrb deserves credit for playing a major role in the rescue of more than 200,000 refugees during the final 15 months of the war despite numerous and daunting obstacles.


D.S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews (1984); I.A. Hirschmann, Lifeline to a Promised Land (1946); D. Halasz, "The War Refugee Board and the Destruction of Hungarian Jewry" (Ph.D. dissertation, Texas Christian University, 2000).

[Rafael Medoff (2nd ed.)]