Winning the war was the foremost priority for US and other Allied governments between 1942 and 1945. Very few people or organizations suggested diverting resources from the war effort to try to save Jewish victims of Nazism. For most of the war, any major rescue efforts seemed impossible, and winning the war the best way to end Nazi atrocities.
Responding to pressure generated by the public revelation of the “Final Solution” in late 1942, British and American representatives held a conference in Bermuda in April 1943, but only achieved minor results. The United States would not have a policy or take any decisive action to save the victims of Nazism until 1944, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board.
On January 22, 1944, President Roosevelt, responding to pressure from American Jews and from the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau Jr., and his staff, issued Executive Order 9417. 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. The WRB was responsible for carrying out a new American 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.”
The War Refugee Board took significant yet limited measures to rescue Jews trapped in Nazi-occupied Europe. The Board, headed by John Pehle and staffed by a team of Treasury Department lawyers, used psychological warfare tactics, sending radio broadcasts into Europe and dropping leaflets on occupied territory warning would-be perpetrators of postwar punishment. The WRB negotiated with neutral countries to allow refugees to cross their borders, assisted Jews escaping from Romania and Bulgaria to enter Palestine, and selected Raoul Wallenberg for a mission into Budapest.
WRB staff also successfully convinced Roosevelt to open a refugee camp in upstate New York, Fort Ontario, which housed nearly 1,000 people, mainly Jews, from Allied-occupied Italy. In November 1944, the WRB released a report written by escapees from the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, alerting Americans to the details of Nazi mass murder using gas chambers.
With the assistance of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the World Jewish Congress, as well as many other relief groups in the United States, the WRB helped to save the lives of tens of thousands of Jews in Hungary, Romania, and elsewhere in Europe.
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