It was not until late in the war that the United States attempted to rescue Jews from the Holocaust. In January 1944, the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to establish the War Refugee Board.
Although confirmed reports of the mass murders of Jews had reached the US State Department in 1942, officials had remained silent. During the war the State Department had insisted that the best way to save victims of Nazi Germany’s policies was to win the war as quickly as possible.
The War Refugee Board worked with Jewish organizations, diplomats from neutral countries, and resistance groups in Europe to rescue Jews from occupied territories and provide relief to inmates of Nazi concentration camps. Its most extensive rescue efforts were led by Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat based in Budapest, Hungary. Wallenberg helped protect tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from being deported to Auschwitz by distributing protective Swedish passports. Because Sweden was a neutral country, Germany could not easily harm Swedish citizens. Wallenberg also set up hospitals, nurseries, and soup kitchens for the Jews of Budapest.
The War Refugee Board played a crucial role in the rescue of as many as 200,000 Jews. However, some people still wonder how many more Jews might have been saved if the rescue missions had begun sooner. Raoul Wallenberg disappeared during the Soviet liberation of Budapest. He was seen for the last time in the company of Soviet troops on January 17, 1945. Ten years later, the Soviet Union admitted that he had been arrested and claimed that he died in prison in 1947.
JANUARY 13, 1944
UNITED STATES TAKES ACTION
As more and more reports of mass killings of Europe’s Jews are publicized in 1943 and early 1944, the United States government comes under increasing pressure to heighten rescue efforts in Europe. On January 13, 1944, a memo from the Treasury Department rebukes the State Department for its relative inaction regarding rescue efforts. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt is urged to establish a government commission to coordinate the rescue of Europe’s Jews. On January 22, 1944, Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9417, establishing the War Refugee Board. The Board is committed to enforcing the policies of the US government regarding the rescue and relief of victims of persecution. This includes the establishment of safe havens, evacuation of endangered people from Nazi-occupied territories, and delivery of relief supplies into concentration camps. American diplomats in Europe are instructed to enforce all policies set forth in the Executive Order. By the end of the war, the Board will have aided in the rescue of about 200,000 Jews.
JUNE 9, 1944
TOKEN HAVEN FOR REFUGEES IN UNITED STATES
In a press conference, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt announces the opening of an Emergency Refugee Camp at Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York. The establishment of this "free port" in the United States does not indicate a major change in the US immigration policy. The refugees at the camp include many non-Jews and are not from Nazi-occupied areas (instead, they are mainly from liberated southern Italy). Close to 1,000 refugees arrive at Fort Ontario in August 1944. They are considered guests of the United States and are technically required to return to Europe after the war. The refugees live in the camp under security restrictions and are not allowed to work outside the camp. Despite considerable opposition, on December 22, 1945, President Harry Truman will announce that the refugees held in Fort Ontario are eligible for immigration visas and permitted to enter the United States. Fort Ontario was the only attempt of the United States to provide a haven for refugees on US territory during World War II.
JULY 9, 1944
RAOUL WALLENBERG IN BUDAPEST
Raoul Wallenberg, a diplomat from neutral Sweden, arrives in Budapest on assignment from the Swedish legation and the War Refugee Board to aid in the rescue and relief of Jews in Budapest. By the time Wallenberg arrives, the Germans have deported nearly 440,000 Jews from Hungary. Nearly 200,000 Jews remain in Budapest, and they too face deportation. Wallenberg issues Swedish protective passes and moves Jews into houses under Swedish protection. In November 1944, when the Germans begin a death march of Jews from Budapest to labor camps in Austria, Wallenberg pursues the march and removes Jews with protective papers and returns them to safe houses in Budapest. Near the end of 1944, over 70,000 Jews are gathered in a ghetto in Budapest. Wallenberg successfully wards off threats from German and Hungarian authorities to destroy the ghetto and its inhabitants. Diplomats from other neutral countries join Wallenberg’s rescue efforts. In January 1945, Raoul Wallenberg leaves Budapest, in Soviet custody, and is never heard from again.