The forgotten whistle-blowers who saved Jewish lives

tags: Holocaust

Amanda J. Rothschild is a research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Her current research project is “‘Courage First:’ Dissent, Debate, and the Origins of U.S. Responsiveness to Mass Killing.”

The global refugee crisis is the worst since World War II. Today’s refugees, like many before them, are often targeted for who they are and for what they believe. Now, as during the Second World War, the United States offers hope to such persecuted people, but hope doesn’t always translate into open doors.

Indeed, it was a missed opportunity to save tens of thousands of lives from Hitler’s archipelago of death that eventually led to a radical, albeit temporary, rethink of US refugee policy. And it was only thanks to a brave band of government whistle-blowers that Washington’s deadly foot-dragging was exposed. The story is a reminder of the high stakes involved in two seemingly unrelated fields: whistle-blowing and refugee policy.

In January of 1944, the US approach to those fleeing Hitler underwent dramatic change with the creation of an independent government agency charged solely with rescuing victims of enemy oppression, primarily European Jews. The War Refugee Board, established through Executive Order 9417, saved approximately 200,000 potential victims of the Nazis.

The creation of the board was the direct result of the courageous efforts of a small group of public servants. While conducting their normal duties to process a license request, the Treasury men discovered that officials in the State Department were not only failing to implement specific refugee rescue proposals favored by President Franklin D. Roosevelt but were also actively using their power to prevent Jews from escaping to the United States. They had suppressed information about the Holocaust, delayed the processing of rescue initiatives, and refused visas to Jews. Further, they had hidden or altered documents to cover their actions.

State Department officials cited varied reasons for their obstruction, including at times fears that rescue proposals would benefit the enemy financially, that the Jews would not have anywhere to go once rescued, and that Jewish immigrants could be used as spies by enemy nations. Treasury officials determined that such justifications were unfounded or immaterial and speculated that State suppressed information about the Holocaust in order to dampen public pressure to assist refugees.

Treasury’s six-month effort to document and expose State Department malfeasance culminated in a meeting with Roosevelt on Jan. 16, 1944. In the 20-minute discussion, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. presented the president with a detailed report of Treasury’s findings, urging him to create a new government commission responsible for refugee issues. Roosevelt agreed. In less than one week, he issued the executive order establishing the War Refugee Board....

Read entire article at The Boston Globe

comments powered by Disqus