Review of Rebecca Erbelding’s “Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts To Save The Jews of Europe”

tags: book review, Rebecca Erbelding, Rescue Board

Barry Trachtenberg is the Rubin Presidential Chair of Jewish History at Wake Forest University and the author of The United States and the Nazi Holocaust: Race, Refuge, and Remembrance.

Over the course of his presidency, Jewish Americans overwhelmingly supported Franklin Roosevelt, voting for him with wide majorities of over 80% in each of his four elections. They turned to him, as did most Americans, to pull the country out of the Great Depression, to keep America safe, and after December 1941, to fight the war against Germany and Japan. They also supported Roosevelt, in part, because he was the only major Presidential candidate who was friendly with prominent American Jews and who (at least occasionally) responded to the concerns of those worried about the rising threat of Nazism in Germany. After the start of the war and with the rise of atrocity stories, many looked to him to stop the murder of Europe’s Jews. Support for Roosevelt stayed strong as most Jews believed that stopping Hitler was the key to ending the slaughter. In spite of regular entreaties to the administration to do somethingto save Jewish lives or to declare publicly that that mass murderers would face severe consequences after the war, Jewish American support for the President never wavered while he was alive.

Admiration for Roosevelt began to shift only in the late 1960s and 1970s, as new historical works appeared that challenged the view of the President—and by extension, the United States—as defenders of Jews during the war. Books by historians such as David Wyman, (who passed away in March of this year), Monty Noam Penkower, and Arthur Morse pressed the case that as much as American Jews may have loved their President, his administration not only left European Jews to their fate, but went even so far in its disregard for Jewish suffering as to have been in part responsible for the Nazi genocide. Some of these early works, most notably Wyman’s Paper Walls, correctly pointed to the US immigration laws that Congress passed in the early 1920s in order to maintain white racial supremacy as the primary obstacles that prevented German Jews in the 1930s from finding shelter in the United States. Following the Depression, the new quotas that were put in place were heavily policed by employees of the State Department who, acting out of isolationist motivations, kept immigration quotas unfilled and cut the number of new migrants to levels far below (often to just 10%) even what the new restrictive legislation would allow. These practices began under President Hoover and were maintained by Roosevelt for much of his presidency.

This narrative, of an indifferent or complicit America, found receptive audiences across the ideological spectrum. Some on the political left were attracted to this history on account of its implied attack on the Democratic party, whose stance as a defender of freedom and liberty was severely compromised by Johnson’s war in Vietnam and the failures of the Great Society program, which had been modeled on Roosevelt’s New Deal. Others found in this narrative a way to bolster US support for the state of Israel, which wasn’t as unwavering as it would become in subsequent decades. These histories produced a boogey man in the figure of Breckinridge Long, the State Department official in the late 1930s who was primarily responsible for keeping the number of refugees entering the United States at a minimum. They also gave us a new symbol of Jewish suffering in the doomed voyage of the M.S. St. Louis. (In fact, between 1938 and the US entry into the war, more than 100,000 European Jews found sanctuary in the US, despite the fate of the passengers aboard the St. Louis.) By the mid-1980s, this version of history held sway, largely in part because of Wyman’s 1984 book, The Abandonment of the Jews: American and the Holocaust 1941-1945, which ruled as the standard work in the field for decades. It told a tale of America’s refusal to come to the aid of European Jews, even in light of overwhelming evidence of wholesale mass murder and many opportunities to intervene, including the ransoming of Hungarian Jewry and the bombing of Auschwitz. Wyman’s view became the new orthodoxy and helped to build support for and to shape the permanent exhibition of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, DC. Decades later, this view of the American response still holds sway in popular Jewish American opinion. Critics of President Trump’s 2017 attempt to establish a “Muslim Ban,” for example, evoked the story of the St. Louisas a reminder of “Never Again.” 

Scholars who suggest that the United States’ response was not so one sided have faced attacks on their integrity and professionalism from steadfast defenders. In 2015, for example, Rafael Medoff, head of “The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies” along with Bar-Ilan historian Bat-Ami Zucker published a 34-page pamphlet attacking the scholars Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman, who had in 2013 published FDR and the Jews, an award-winning study that offers a nuanced view of Roosevelt and the US response to Nazism. More recently, Medoff has publicly criticizedState Department historian Melissa Jane Taylor for demonstrating that the State Department’s role in the refugee crisis was more complicated than Wyman suggested, and that some US consulate officials sought to help Jews seeking to escape Nazi Europe.

A new book by Rebecca Erbelding, Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts To Save The Jews of Europe(Doubleday, 2018), poses the most significant challenge to this orthodoxy yet. A historian, curator, and archivist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Erbelding spent ten years scouring through more than 43,000 sources to write a history of the War Refugee Board(WRB), an executive agency authorized by President Roosevelt in January 1944 to save European Jews from destruction. Typically, discussions of the WRB are dismissed as “too little, and too late” as if the WRB activities were a half-hearted attempt by Roosevelt to save face in light of ever-increasing atrocity reports stemming from Europe. As Erbelding convincingly demonstrates, however, the WRB is more accurately understood as a highly admirable and often successful effort by a small coterie of (mostly) Treasury Department officials who were willing to go to extremes in order to save as many lives as they possibly could. 

The WRB was established by Presidential Executive Order in January 1944. Such an agency could likely have not been created much sooner. Despite of a regular stream of classified reports from Europe—as early as the summer 1942—that Germany was engaged in the mass murder of Jews, the ability of the United States to actively intervene was nearly non-existent. The US only landed troops on the continent in September 1943. That was in Italy, and Allied forces were only halfway up the peninsula by the time of the WRB’s founding four months later. By that time, reports of the murder of European Jews were widespread and advocates on their behalf—both from within the Jewish community and from aid groups such as the American Friends Service Committee—clamored for a governmental response. Increasingly, officials in the Treasury Department came to realize that there were ways in which they would be able to intervene, not militarily, of course, but by issuing licenses to allow the transfer of funds by refugee organizations, such as the Jewish Joint Distribution committee, to refugees within Axis-controlled territories. Such transfers were being blocked by the State Department, primarily out of concern that the money would fall into enemy hands and behind that, a fear of not wanting to be responsible for any refugees who the US did manage to assist. With the creation of a new agency to oversee such transfers, however, the likelihood was greater that the monies could get to their intended recipients.

Convincing the President of the need for the WRB wasn’t easy and took several months of back and forth dealings with the State Department and the White House with Treasury officials in between. Pressure from Jewish groups convinced some members of Congress to begin agitating for such a body and hearings were held in November 1943. Eventually, it was the office of the Foreign Funds Control who convinced Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau of the need for a special agency to oversee refugee assistance. Frustrated, Pehle and his colleagues wrote a report entitled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews,” which gave Morgenthau the arguments he needed to bring his report to Roosevelt, who eventually approved the plan in late January 1944.

The hero of Rescue Board is unquestionably Treasury official John Pehle. Pehle serves as a useful foil to Breckinridge Long, who by the time of the WRB’s creation, had been reassigned (demoted really) away from overseeing immigration matters on account of false testimony that he gave to Congress during the November hearings in which he wildly inflated the number of immigrants who had entered the country in the past decade. At the time of the Board’s creation, Pehle was 35 years old. An attorney from South Dakota and born of a German immigrant father, Pehle had been the director of Foreign Funds Control, responsible for billions of dollars’ worth of frozen assets. His position allowed him to realize that by facilitating the transfer of funds from the United States to refugee groups working within neutral and Axis countries, the US government might make a significant impact and save Jewish lives. 

Upon agreeing to establish the WRB, Roosevelt funded it with an initial allocation from his executive funds of one million dollars. Pehle cobbled together a team, primarily made up of Treasury officials, and for the next year and a half, until the end of the war, the WRB dedicated itself to finding and exploiting every opportunity to rescue European Jews. When describing their activities, Erbelding’s book reads like a spy thriller, replete with crash landings, nighttime rescues, and espionage. WRB representatives sought to purchase ships to ferry refugees from Europe to safe harbors. While this was unsuccessful, they were able to break the “Bulgarian bottleneck” and allow refugees from Romania to reach Palestine through Turkey. It funded much of Raoul Wallenberg’s efforts to issue certificates of protection to thousands of Jews. It was instrumental in establishing the refugee camp at Fort Ontario in Oswego, NY that housed nearly 1,000 Jews (most of whom became US citizens after the war). It strung along Nazi officials who sought to trade goods, including military vehicles, for Jewish lives. Without ever engaging in such trades, they managed to keep Jewish prisoners alive for months, many until they could be liberated or could receive aid. It even convinced the Goodyear Tire corporation to launder $50,000 so that the WRB could transfer the equivalent amount in Swedish kronor to a WRB agent to help facilitate the rescue of refugees from the Baltic states just ahead of the Soviet invasion (leading Swedish Communists to accuse American diplomats of aiding the flight of Nazi collaborators). Its last major project involved organizing the purchase and delivery of hundreds of thousands of care packages to prisoners in German concentration camps in the last months of the war.

Erbelding’s study doesn’t whitewash the obstacles faced by the WRB, both from the State Department, which had suppressed information about the murder of Jews from becoming public, and the military, which wanted no distractions from the war effort. Most uncompromising were the British, who regularly refused to even consider aiding Jewish refugees. Nor does it recast Roosevelt in the light in which he was held by Jewish Americans during the war years. Rather, like the best of the new scholarship on this period, Rescue Board demonstrates that the response of the United States government to the Holocaust was a mixed one, and the country should neither be viewed as the heroic defender of European Jews or as complicit in their destruction. Rather, the response was defined by the intersection of contingencies of the war, pressure from refugee advocacy organizations, and by tensions within the Roosevelt administration between those who thought only in terms of military strategy and immigration restrictions and those who, like Pehle and the WRB, were motivated by humanitarian concerns to save as many civilian lives as possible.

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