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The War Refugee Board: Background & Overview

It was not until late in World War II that the United States first attempted in earnest to rescue Jews from the Holocaust. In January 1944, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to establish the War Refugee Board (WRB)

Through Executive Order 9417 on January 22, 1944, President Roosevelt established the WRB, tasked with the “immediate rescue and relief of the Jews of Europe and other victims of enemy persecution.” An independent government agency under the Executive branch, the WRB operated until its abolition by President Harry S. Truman's Executive Order 9614 of September 15, 1945.

After World War II, the WRB's first director, John Pehle, described the board as “little and late.” The board's work has, however, been credited with saving as many as 200,000 lives during the Holocaust.

In the United States, increased public knowledge about Nazi atrocities against Jews in Europe prompted various groups-both in the government and in the public sphere-to devise rescue proposals. Public pressure rose in thanks in part to the agitation of a group of Palestinian Jews led by Peter Bergson (pseudonym for Hillel Kook). The group was working in the United States to gain support for the formation of an independent Jewish Army under Allied command. In the summer of 1943, however, the group formed the Emergency Committee to Save the Jews of Europe. The Bergson group (as it became known) took out full-page advertisements in major newspapers and sponsored elaborate public programs to raise awareness of the ongoing mass murder of the Jews of Europe.

In advertisements and petitions using the names of prominent people in the entertainment, religious, intellectual, business, and political communities, the Bergson group condemned what its members perceived to be the inaction of the United States, particularly the State Department. The group's stark language and brash tactics awakened public awareness and garnered support. They also irked many in Congress, in the mainstream Jewish community leadership, and, in the Roosevelt administration.

Members of Congress who supported the recommendations of the Emergency Committee sponsored identical bills in the House of Representatives and the Senate in November 1943. The bill, which became known as the “Rescue Resolution,” challenged Roosevelt to establish an agency specifically for the purpose of devising and enacting plans to rescue the Jews of Europe. Though the non-binding resolution passed in the Senate, it had not passed the House of Representatives by the time the War Refugee Board was created.

As public pressure increased, in summer and fall 1943, internal pressures developed within the Roosevelt administration. Tensions flared between the State Department, under Cordell Hull, and the Treasury Department, under Henry Morgenthau. A proposal from the World Jewish Congress to fund relief for Jews in France and Romania and the evacuation of Jews from Romanian-occupied Transnistria resulted in a long series of discussions and cables. While the Treasury Department officials eventually supported issuing a license to fund the relief, they believed the State Department was deliberately delaying and obstructing the plan. In reality, the State Department did delay issuing the license due to a mixture of motives, including bureaucratic inertia, concerns about setting a precedent necessitating the approval of similar requests, and continuing reservations that the money might fall into the hands of the enemy.

By the end of 1943, staff at the Treasury Department, led by general counsel Randolph Paul and the head of Foreign Funds Control, John Pehle (who would later become the WRB's first director), gathered enough information to present to Secretary Henry Morgenthau. Weeks of meetings and numerous reports reinforced perceptions of Treasury staff that the State Department was not only preventing attempts at rescue like the World Jewish Congress plan, but had actively suppressed information about atrocities in Europe.

Treasury officials believed the situation sufficiently grave that they spent weeks crafting a scathing 17-page memo entitled “The Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews.” Laying out their allegations of obstruction by the State Department, Treasury officials warned in their introduction that “Unless remedial steps of a drastic nature are taken, and taken immediately, I am certain that no effective action will be taken by this government to prevent the complete extermination of the Jews in German controlled Europe, and that this Government will have to share for all time responsibility for this extermination.”

On January 16, 1944, Secretary Henry Morgenthau, John Pehle, and Randolph Paul met with President Roosevelt. Pehle described the facts the Treasury staff had uncovered. They presented Roosevelt with a draft executive order to establish a War Refugee Board tasked with the “immediate rescue and relief of the Jews of Europe and other victims of enemy persecution.” Oscar Cox, who for several months had been contemplating the idea of a relief agency supported by Lend-Lease funds, assisted with drafting the Executive Order.

Roosevelt approved the order with minor changes. Executive Order 9417 establishing the War Refugee Board was issued on January 22, 1944.

The Executive Order establishing the War Refugee Board stated that “It is the policy of this government to take all measures within its power to rescue the victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death and otherwise to afford such victims all possible relief and assistance consistent with the successful prosecution of the war.” The WRB was nominally headed by the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson; the Secretary of State, Cordell Hull (after November 1944, Edward Stettinius); and the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau. In actuality, the WRB was largely a Treasury operation: the majority of the staff came from the Treasury Department, and the WRB offices were located in the Treasury building.

John Pehle was appointed to act as the WRB's first director. He immediately gathered a staff (never more than 30 people) to help run the office in Washington. General William O'Dwyer served as the director of the WRB from January 1945 until the dissolution of the board in September 1945. The board's administrative funding came from the President's Emergency fund. Funding for relief and rescue projects came largely out of donations from private aid organizations, most of them Jewish organizations.

Sources: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum