The War Refugee Board, established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in January 1944, was a U.S. executive agency created to aid civilian victims of the Nazi and Axis powers. Created largely at the behest of Roosevelt's Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Roosevelt "stressed that it was urgent that action be taken at once to forestall the plan of the Nazis to exterminate all the Jews and other persecuted minorities in Europe". The board was created when a young treasury lawyer, Josiah E. DuBois, Jr., learned about the State Department's blocking of Jewish refugees; the policy had been written in 1940 by Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, and disseminated to staff members directly involved with immigration.
When DuBois learned how the United States was hindering the efforts of refugees from entering the country, he wrote a report entitled Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of this Government to the Murder of the Jews, which he sent to Morgenthau and then directly to the President. The result was the establishment of the War Refugee Board. Subsequently credited with rescuing as many as 200,000 Jews from Nazi-occupied countries, through the efforts of Raoul Wallenberg and others, the commission has nevertheless received mixed praise because of the failure of the United States to act sooner despite evidence of ongoing atrocities in Europe.
The immediate cause for Roosevelt’s action was pressure from the staff of the Treasury Department’s office of Foreign Funds Control and its chief, John W. Pehle. Pehle’s office had authorized a number of charitable groups to use funds in the U.S. regulated under the Trading with the Enemy Act to pay for food, medicine, and other aid to refugees and other civilian victims of the war in Europe. Those efforts were systematically blocked by some officials in the U.S. State Department. Specifically, in July 1943, the Treasury Department issued a license to the World Jewish Congress to use funds in the United States to pay some of the costs of evacuating Jews from Romania. (This should not be confused with another initiative, by the Romanian government, to “sell” Jews for approximately $50 a head, with which it had no connection.) Various State Department officials delayed the license for the next five months. Treasury officials, led by a staff lawyer, Josiah E. DuBois, Jr., investigated how and why the license had been held up. In their research, which was aided by some officials in the State Department, they discovered that in addition to blocking licenses for use of money to aid refugees, the State Department had also sent foreign missions orders not to forward information about Nazi atrocities—specifically about the Holocaust—to Washington. At the end of 1944, DuBois wrote a memorandum, “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews”, which said the State Department was “guilty not only of gross procrastination and willful failure to act, but even of willful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler".
DuBois took his memorandum to Treasury General Counsel Randolph E. Paul, who agreed to put his signature on it and forward it to Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., who resisted Paul’s insistence that he forward it to President Roosevelt. According to a leading source, David Wyman, “There is even some evidence that Morgenthau finally agreed to press Roosevelt because Josiah DuBois threatened that if he did not do so he, DuBois, would resign from the Treasury, call a press conference in Washington, and rip the lid off the entire State Department refugee scandal". Morgenthau agreed to take DuBois’s memorandum to the President, but insisted on changing the title to: “Personal Report to the President”, and he, Paul, and Pehle took a copy with them when they met with President Roosevelt in the Oval Office on Sunday, January 16, 1944. Roosevelt got an oral briefing on the facts and conclusions in the DuBois memorandum, and immediately agreed to deal with the issues by creating a War Refugee Board, consisting of three cabinet members, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Secretary Morgenthau, and Secretary of War Henry Stimson (Morgenthau had suggested that instead of Stimson, Leo Crowley, Director of the Foreign Economic Administration be appointed, but Roosevelt decided to appoint Stimson instead.) On January 22, Roosevelt signed the Executive Order creating the Board.
Of course, the Treasury Department did not act in a vacuum. By the end of 1943, Roosevelt was also getting intense pressure to act on the issue from members of Congress, including Sol Bloom, Emanuel Celler, etc., and from Jewish organizations, most notably Stephen Wise and the American Jewish Congress.
John W. Pehle, the assistant to the secretary of treasury, was appointed executive director of the board, which was directly responsible to the president. Its members included the secretary of state, the secretary of the treasury, the secretary of war, and a staff of approximately thirty people. Brigadier General William O'Dwyer later succeeded Pehle as executive director until its dissolution at the end of the war. The war refugee board worked from the United States and helped the Jews that suffered in the war.
The board was represented internationally in Turkey, Switzerland, Sweden, Portugal, Great Britain, Italy, and North Africa.
The board developed and implemented various plans and programs for:
- Rescuing, transporting, and relieving victims of enemy oppression
- Establishing of havens of temporary refuge for such victims
The board enlisted the cooperation of foreign governments and international refugee and rescue organizations in carrying out these functions. Such neutral countries as Switzerland, Sweden, and Turkey were of particular importance, serving as bases of operation for the rescue and relief program. The Vatican rendered some assistance, mostly towards the very end of the war, primarily as a channel of communication to enemy regimes, such as the fascist government of Slovakia. The board obtained the cooperation of the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, and the International Committee of the Red Cross in rehabilitating and resettling refugees, finding temporary shelters for rescued victims, transporting these victims to the shelters and providing for their maintenance in transit, and making relief deliveries inside enemy territory.
The board worked closely with private U.S. relief agencies in formulating, financing, and executing plans and projects. A Treasury Department licensing policy that permitted established private agencies to transfer funds from the United States to their representatives in neutral countries aided in financing the rescue of persecuted peoples living under Nazi control. Under this licensing policy, it was possible to communicate with persons in enemy territory and to finance rescue operations with certain controls designed to bring no financial benefit to the enemy. Approximately $20 million in private funds was made available in this way. The board obtained blockade clearances for food shipments of private relief agencies for distribution by the International Red Cross to detainees in German concentration camps and supplemented these private projects with a food-parcel program of its own financed from the emergency funds of the president.
Through the efforts of the board, refugee camps were prepared in North Africa and safe haven was arranged in Palestine, Switzerland, and Sweden. The Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter in Oswego, New York, housed one thousand refugees permitted to enter the United States outside the immigration laws.
By attracting international attention to the Hungarian government and putting pressure on them, the WRB was able to stop—for a while—the deportations of Jews from Hungary, saving some Jews of Budapest. The board sent the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, and others to protect the Jews of Budapest. The WRB funded Wallenberg's rescue work there.
In August 1944 the WRB brought 982 Jewish refugees from Italy to Fort Ontario in New York. The board intended to create other such places of asylum, and thus also influence other countries to provide sanctuary for World War II victims. President Roosevelt, however, disabled one of the board's most important rescue programs by refusing to establish any other havens. The board lobbied Roosevelt to publicly condemn the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis. This, however, was never done.
By the end of the war in 1945 perhaps as many as 200,000 Jews had been rescued by the War Refugee Board. About 15,000 Jews and more than 20,000 non-Jews had been evacuated from Nazi domain. At the very least, about 10,000 Jews were protected within Nazi-controlled territory by underground programs funded by the WRB. The board removed 48,000 Jews in Transnistria to safe areas of Romania. About 120,000 Jews from Budapest also survived due in part to the WRB's activities. However, near the end of his life, WRB director Pehle described the work as "too little, too late".
With the close of the war in Europe, the work of the board was at an end. By the terms of Executive Order No. 9614 the board was abolished on September 15, 1945.
Primary sources and research databases
- Yad Vashem Shoah Research Center
- Executive Order Creating War Refugee Board at the Jewish Virtual Library
Media reports and study guides
- Yad Vashem Chronology of the Holocaust (1942-1945)
- Jewish Virtual Library Entry on War Refugee Board
- PBS America and the Holocaust
- PBS Establishment of the War Refugee Board
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