During World War II, it became increasingly clear to American citizens that Nazi Germany and the other Axis powers were murdering European Jews. In January 1944, Treasury Department staff, led by Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to establish the War Refugee Board.
Roosevelt tasked this organization, nominally headed by the Secretaries of State, War, and Treasury, with carrying out an official American policy of rescue and relief. The War Refugee Board staff worked with Jewish organizations, diplomats from neutral countries, and resistance groups in Europe to rescue Jews from occupied territories and provide relief to Jews in hiding and in concentration camps. They organized a psychological warfare campaign to deter potential perpetrators, opened a refugee camp in upstate New York, and released the first details of mass murder at Auschwitz to the American people.
The War Refugee Board, along with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, also sponsored the work of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish businessman sent to Budapest as a diplomat to assist Hungarian Jews. Wallenberg helped save thousands of Hungarian Jews by distributing protective Swedish documents. Because Sweden was a neutral country, Germany could not easily harm those under Swedish protection. Wallenberg also set up homes, hospitals, nurseries, and soup kitchens for the Jews of Budapest.
The War Refugee Board played a crucial role in the rescue of tens of thousands Jews. After the war, the War Refugee Board's first director, John Pehle, called their work “little and late” in comparison with the enormity of the Holocaust.
JANUARY 22, 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 US government comes under increasing pressure to heighten rescue efforts in Europe. On January 16, 1944, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and two members of his staff met with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, urging him to establish a government agency 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 responsible for devising and carrying out programs for the rescue and relief of victims of Nazi persecution. American diplomats worldwide are instructed to enforce all policies set forth in the Executive Order.
JUNE 9, 1944
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. Nearly 1,000 refugees, representing many countries, are transported from Allied-occupied Italy to Fort Ontario in August 1944. The establishment of this "free port" in the United States does not indicate a major change in the US immigration policy. The refugees are considered guests of the United States and sign documents agreeing to return to Europe after the war. They live in the camp under security restrictions and are not allowed to work outside the camp, though children attend local public schools. Despite considerable opposition, on December 22, 1945, President Harry Truman announces 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 businessman from neutral Sweden, arrives in Budapest on diplomatic 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 already deported nearly 440,000 Jews from Hungary. Nearly 200,000 Jews remain in Budapest, and might soon 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 and his staff successfully ward 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 is arrested by Soviet officials. He is held in prison for at least two years; the circumstances of his death are unknown.