The British, for their part, were not interested
in the prospect of Jewish refugees from Europe finding their way to Palestine
(present day Israel), which was then a British mandate. In 1939, British
authorities issued a White Paper placing a restriction on Jewish immigration
to Palestine. The presence of additional Jews in Palestine would place
immense pressure on the British policy of placating the Arab population
of the region. It is of note that after the Second World War the British
tried to thwart Jewish emigration to Palestine, leading to the incarceration
in British camps of Jews who had survived Hitler's camps.
THE WAR REFUGEE BOARD
Fourteen months after the State Department confirmed
the Nazi extermination of the Jews, the Roosevelt established the War Refugee
Board, a government agency whose purpose was to rescue Jews still alive
The Roosevelt administration was reluctant to be
seen as friendly to Jews even at this late date. The War Refugee Board
was formed only begrudgingly. Public pressure had been growing, and it
had become evident that the government, particularly the State Department,
was avoiding the task of Jewish rescue altogether. The U. S. Treasury Department,
under Secretary Morgenthau, realized that the State Department was actually
obstructing efforts to rescue Jews. Indeed, the State Department (led by
Breckenridge Long) had issued secret instructions to suppress information
about atrocities on Jews and to postpone issuing visas to Jews trying to
escape the Nazis. Disgusted, Morgenthau had his subordinates at Treasury
prepared a report detailing the State Department's actions, or lack of
actions, regarding the Jewish question. The report, titled "On the Acquiescence
of this Government in the Murder of Jews," was sent to the president on
January 15, 1944. David Wyman has written, "Roosevelt was finally cornered
into the position that he had to do something or a scandal was going to
On January 22, 1944, the president established the
War Refugee Board. The executive order the president signed establishing
the War Refugee Board (known as the WRB) specified that it would have the
support of every government agency, specifically the support of the State
Department, Treasury Department, and the War Department (today's Pentagon).
The most notable achievement of the War Refugee Board
was the successful transport of 982 refugees (89% of them Jewish) from
unoccupied territories in Europe to the small community of Oswego in upstate
In order to assuage that part of the American public
that was against the admission of refugees, President Roosevelt pledged
that the 982 refugees bound for Oswego would return to Europe after the
war's end. In fact, the refugees were required to sign a document promising
to do just that, although the overwhelming majority of the refugees had
lost their entire families to the Nazis. Despite the pledge, the refugees
were met by hostility on the part of many residents of Oswego. After the
war, President Truman (who became president when FDR died in April 1945)
issued an executive order permitting the Oswego refugees were permitted
to remain in the U.S.
The journalist I. F. Stone remarked that Oswego
was "a kind of token payment of decency, a bargain counter flourish in
John Pehle, a Treasury Department official who lent
his full energies to Jewish rescue, said this to say about the War Refugee
Board: "What we did was little enough. It was late...late and little."
THE BOMBING OF AUSCHWITZ
In the spring of 1944, the Jewish population of Hungary,
over half a million people, remained untouched by the Holocaust that had
swept through neighboring countries. Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany,
but in March 1944 the Germans violated the alliance by occupying the country.
Led by SS officer Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi expert on deportations, the
machinery of death went to work. In less than two months, 439,000 Jews
were deported from Hungary to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland.
It was an unparalleled act of Nazi destruction, the high point of Eichmann's
During the period when the Hungarian Jews were deported
to their death, the Germans were trying to stop the Soviet offense in the
east. However, Hitler ordered that trains carrying Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau
have priority over trains carrying supplies to the eastern front. The destruction
of Jews was more important than the rescue of the German soldier.
The Jews of Hungary went to their death completely
unaware of what lay ahead. As Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner
Elie Wiesel has said, "The diplomats in the western capitals knew about
the Holocaust, but the Jews of Hungary did not." Wiesel's village was deported
to Auschwitz-Birkenau in May 1944.
In the summer of 1944, while the deportations from
Hungary to Auschwitz-Birkenau were underway, Jewish underground leaders
in Europe forwarded information about the destruction of Hungarian Jewry
to London and Washington. They requested that the U.S. air force bomb the
railroad lines to the death camp, and bomb the death camp itself. The request
was received by the War Refugee Board in Washington and was forwarded to
the War Department, which rejected it on the grounds that the aircraft
could not be diverted to a target that was not "military related." The
War Department also insisted that bombers flying from Britain did not have
the ability to attack a site in distant Poland.
In fact, U. S. and British bombers stationed in Italy
were already flying missions to Poland. This was because Auschwitz-Birkenau
was not only a death camp but a vast labor camp utilizing both Jewish and
non-Jewish slave labor. In the immediate vicinity of Auschwitz-Birkenau,
the Germans had established numerous synthetic oil refineries. In the effort
to destroy those refineries, and cripple the German war effort, the U.
S. air force, flying from Italy, repeatedly bombed the region around Auschwitz-Birkenau
precisely at the time when the Hungarian Jews were being deported there.
On two occasions, the camp itself was accidentally bombed and both Jewish
slaves and their SS masters were killed. Once the railroad line leading
into the death camp was struck, forcing the destruction process to come
to a temporary halt.
The War Department, when it received the request
to bomb Auschwitz-Birkenau, did not investigate the possibility of doing
so, despite President Roosevelt's executive order legally obliged the War
Department to assist the War Refugee Board. The War Department rejected
the request without investigating the possibility of assistance.
Once, while bombing the nearby synthetic oil refineries,
a squadron of U.S. bombers flew directly over one of the crematoriums at
the death camp and photographed it. No intelligence officer analyzing the
photograph, however, determined the deadly nature of the facility.
In conclusion, Wyman had this to say about President
Roosevelt's reaction to the Jewish catastrophe in Nazi-occupied Europe:
"One of the key reasons Roosevelt didn't act, I'm convinced, and definitely
the key reason the State Department wouldn't act, was the fear of the anti-Semites
in Congress, and the hell they'd raise if any moves were made in that direction.
The anti-Semitism in congress was reflective of the anti-Semitism in American
society." Evidently, FDR did not lose his political touch.
In January 1943, when Polish Jewry had been destroyed
and the rest of European Jewry was on the verge of destruction, a Roper
poll asked Americans a simple question: "Would it be a good idea, or a
bad idea to admit more refugees (ie Jews) after the war?"
Seventy-eight percent of the respondents answered
it would be "a bad idea." In 1944, a survey of Americans identified "the
most dangerous group to the USA" as 1. Jews (24%) 2. Japanese (16%) 3.
AMERICA AND THE HOLOCAUST: QUESTIONS
1. In what ways did the 1929 world depression influence American public
opinion regarding Jewish refugees from Europe? Explain.
America and the Holocaust
2. "It is a fantastic commentary on the inhumanity of our times that
for thousands and thousands of people a piece of paper with a stamp on
it is the difference between life and death."
Who made this statement? What was this person's connection with the
refugees? What does the term "a piece of paper with a stamp" mean? Explain
3. What was Anschluss? When did it occur? How did Anschluss impact the
refugee situation? What impact did Anschluss have on American refugee policy?
4. What was the Evian Conference and what was the State Department's
purpose in calling it? What was the result of the conference?
5. The statement "None is too many" was made by whom? Explain the meaning
of the statement.
6. What was Kristallnacht and when did it occur? Jewish men taken into
custody were released under what conditions? Give examples.
7. What was the quota? During the pre-war period, organizations working
on behalf of Jewish refugees did not raise the subject of enlarging the
8. What was the Wagner-Roger's Bill? When was it proposed? What did
it propose? What happened to it?
How did the fate of the Wagner-Roger's Bill compare with U. S. legislation
in 1940 concerning British child refugees? What was the difference?
9. What was the St. Louis? What was its fate? Explain.
10. Where was the one place in the world where Jews could land without
11. Who was Eduard Schulte? What was his role and significance in the
history of the Holocaust?
12. What was the Reigner telegram? What was its importance? What was
the response of the U. S. State Department to this telegram?
13. Who was Jan Karski? What was his role and significance during the
14. According to polls conducted before and during the war, what was
the attitude of the American public towards the Jewish refugees in Europe?
15. What was the stated purpose of the Bermuda conference? Why did the
State Department call for the conference? Why was the conference held on
the island of Bermuda?
Compare and contrast the Bermuda conference with the Evian conference?
What happened in Warsaw on the first day of the Bermuda conference?
16. What was the U.S. War Refugee Board? When was it created? Why did
President Roosevelt create it? What were its accomplishments?
17. Why were the railroad tracks leading to the death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau
not bombed by the Allies? What was the U. S. military's policy in regard
to refugees? Explain.
18. The historian David Wyman has said, "To kill the Jews, the Nazis
were willing to weaken their capacity to fight the war. The U.S. and its
allies, however, were willing to attempt almost nothing to save them."
Explain and give examples.
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