- Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe by Rebecca Erbelding
Rebecca Erbelding’s Rescue Board is a detailed history of the War Refugee Board, a small government agency created by the Roosevelt administration in January 1944. Cobbled out of Henry Morgenthau Jr.’s Treasury Department, it was the most important and sustained effort by the United States to rescue Jews and other victims of Nazism during the Holocaust. The book is in many ways an impressive achievement. Erbelding explores every facet of the Board’s initiatives during the short period of its existence, and remains clear-eyed and realistic about its successes and failures. She brings to life the oddball group of WRB overseas representatives such as Ira Hirschmann in Istanbul, Roswell McClelland in Geneva, and Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest.
The hero of Erbelding’s story is the dedicated, innovative, and somewhat enigmatic director of the agency, John Pehle, who against great odds managed to explore every possibility for rescue in Europe, and facilitated initiatives that—among many other efforts—evacuated Romanian Jews to Palestine, smuggled children from France to Switzerland, and provided life-saving protective documents to Jews in Budapest.
The War Refugee Board had to deal with almost constant obstruction by the State and War Departments, the confusion created by the often overlapping functions and conflicting priorities of various Jewish and international aid agencies, the duplicity and balancing acts of neutral governments, the opposition of the British to any proposal that would have allowed Jews into Palestine, and Allied opposition to ransom proposals—and all this amid the constantly changing geography and politics of the war. There were also problems posed by the Allied “Rescue Through Victory” policy (a fine slogan that amounted to a death sentence for Europe’s Jews), and the reluctance to refer to “Jews” in Allied propaganda. Whatever the rationales, the collective effect made the WRB’s work more difficult, and may have sent the wrong message to Berlin about how much saving Jews was (or was not) an Allied priority. Erbelding persuasively argues that in the face of all this, the achievements of the Board were impressive.
The question inevitably arises: why did it take so long? That becomes part of the broader question regarding the Roosevelt administration’s policies during the persecution and mass murder of the Jews in the years 1933–1945, a conversation that sometimes leads to extreme conclusions. To some, FDR was a heartless antisemite who cared little about what happened to the Jews. At the other extreme stand those who argue that Roosevelt did everything he could, especially considering the problems of the Depression and the war that he had on his plate, and, later, increasing illness.
FDR was no antisemite by the standards of his day and prior to the war supported all sorts of mostly unsuccessful schemes to resettle Jews. He pressured the State Department to fill the existing German-Austrian quota in 1939. He established the President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees under James G. McDonald that managed to bring several thousand refugees to the United States, many of them prominent artists and intellectuals, others affiliated with Orthodox institutions. FDR sponsored conferences and made reassuring speeches, what Henry Feingold called “the politics of gestures.”1 To do more he would have had to internalize and fully understand the extent and uniqueness of an unprecedented catastrophe (and not merely ethnic pleading), and to be willing to lean on the State Department, the British, neutral countries, and those Latin American countries dependent on the United States. This would not have been easy and would have called for [End Page 438] focus, dedication, and the expenditure of political capital. Above all, a sense of urgency would have been required. For a variety of reasons FDR was unwilling or unable to go that far. The fact that American Jews were already besotted with admiration (and votes) for him did not help.