During World War II, the United States failed to act decisively and specifically with regard to victims of the Holocaust. In general, US officials justified such inaction with the argument that military victory over Germany offered the best prospects of halting the killing.
Responding to pressure generated by the public revelation of the “Final Solution” in late 1942, US and British representatives met in Bermuda on April 19, 1943, to find solutions to wartime refugee problems. Neither government initiated rescue programs and no significant proposals emerged from the conference. On July 28, 1943, Polish underground courier Jan Karski informed President Roosevelt about reports of mass murder that he had received from Jewish leaders in the Warsaw ghetto and in the Izbica transit ghetto.
Under increasing domestic popular pressure as well as pressure from within his own cabinet, particularly from Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and his staff, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9417 on January 22, 1944. The order established a War Refugee Board (WRB) directly under the authority of the President and financed by discretionary funds from the President's emergency fund. Its purpose was to take all measures within the framework of US policy “to rescue victims of enemy oppression in imminent danger of death” and to “provide relief and assistance consistent with the successful prosecution of the war.” Roosevelt instructed the departments of State, Treasury, and War to “execute the plans, programs and measures formulated by the board as well as to supply the board with information and assistance.”
In the summer of 1944, the WRB established the Fort Ontario Refugee Center at Oswego, New York, to facilitate rescue of imperiled refugees. The facility served as a haven for 983 refugees from the former Yugoslavia who had managed to reach Italy. In August, these refugees, 918 of whom were Jewish, arrived at the center. The most notable success of the WRB, however, was its work through the neutral diplomatic legations in German-occupied Hungary during the summer and autumn of 1944. WRB funding supported the efforts of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, Swiss diplomat Charles Lutz, and others in their efforts to rescue tens of thousands of Budapest Jews from deportation.
American authorities did not initiate any action aimed at rescuing or providing safe haven for refugees before the establishment of the War Refugee Board in 1944. By the time the WRB was established, four-fifths of the Jews who would be killed in the Holocaust were already dead.
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