In response to:
The Millions We Failed to Save from the June 22, 2023 issue
To the Editors:
In “The Millions We Failed to Save” [NYR, June 22], Ruth Franklin’s otherwise excellent review of the documentary The US and the Holocaust, the author neglected to mention the American government’s official response to the Holocaust: the War Refugee Board (WRB). Following public pressure and urging from parts of his administration, Roosevelt signed an executive order in January 1944 announcing a new policy of the rescue and relief of Jews and other persecuted minorities and creating a new government agency tasked with this responsibility. Over the next seventeen months, the WRB staff—almost all young Treasury Department lawyers encouraged by Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr.—saved tens of thousands and aided hundreds of thousands more. They streamlined humanitarian aid to Europe; launched a propaganda warfare campaign to call attention to the mass murder of European Jews; sent Swedish businessman Raoul Wallenberg to Budapest; launched ransom negotiations with Nazi officials; pressured neutral nations to protest the Nazis; opened a refugee camp in Oswego, New York; sent 300,000 food packages into concentration camps; and much, much more. Yehuda Bauer, historian emeritus at Yad Vashem, once wrote, “What made the WRB such a unique body is that it was officially permitted to break practically every important law of a nation at war in the name of outraged humanity.”
I commented in The US and the Holocaust that the War Refugee Board is often ignored because its existence complicates a too-simple narrative of American antisemitism and indifference. We must, of course, reflect upon the racist and antisemitic immigration laws and restrictions in place at the time, lament the nativism and xenophobia spouted by prominent Americans, and recognize how much more the United States could have done, particularly in the 1930s, when the threat was clear and mass escape was still possible. We must learn this history so we can do better, recognizing that today, as Franklin writes, the United States’ treatment of migrants is still often characterized by “unconscionable inhumanity.”
But we can simultaneously honor the activists who pushed for a commitment to rescue, the dedication of the WRB staff, and the unceasing work of Jewish and non-Jewish aid organizations, made up of thousands of Americans nationwide. The lifesaving work of the War Refugee Board can serve as a model and inspire humanitarian efforts today—but only if we heed that history, too.
University Park, Maryland
To the Editors:
Ruth Franklin claims that during the Roosevelt era, “antisemitic, xenophobic, and racist” groups “used their political power to keep out immigrants perceived as undesirable, including Jews.” There were indeed many racist and antisemitic organizations in those days, but Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, not Father Charles Coughlin. It was FDR who decided immigration policy.
FDR inherited a restrictive immigration system and made it much harsher by suppressing refugee immigration far below what the law permitted. Extra requirements and bureaucratic obstacles were used to discourage and disqualify visa applicants. The annual quota for immigrants from Germany was approximately 26,000. But that quota was filled in only one year out of Roosevelt’s twelve years in office, and in most of those years it was less than 25 percent filled.
Even during the one year the German quota was filled, 1939, there were ways Roosevelt could have aided Jewish refugees. The governor and legislative assembly of the US Virgin Islands offered to take in Jewish refugees; when the infamous refugee ship St. Louis sought haven in May 1939, Roosevelt could have let the passengers stay temporarily in the Virgin Islands. Instead, he chose to turn them away.
To make matters worse, in June 1941 the Roosevelt administration adopted a policy of rejecting all visa applicants who had close relatives in German-occupied territory. The new edict affected significant numbers of European Jews.
Altogether, more than 190,000 quota places from Germany (and, later, Axis-occupied countries) were never used. That’s 190,000 lives that could have been saved—quietly, within the existing quota laws, without any public controversy or quarrels with Congress.
It is also important to distinguish between public opinion in the 1930s and the 1940s. In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, most Americans opposed admitting refugees. But public opinion shifted dramatically once it was clear the Allies would win the war. An April 1944 Gallup poll—commissioned by the White House—found 70 percent of Americans supported giving “temporary protection and refuge” in the US to “those people in Europe who have been persecuted by the Nazis.”
That poll was taken more than a year before the end of the war. It was late, but not too late, to rescue a significant number of Jewish refugees by granting them temporary haven. Sadly, President Roosevelt accepted just one token group of 982 refugees. The president who presented himself as the champion of “the forgotten man” chose to turn away from one of history’s most compelling moral challenges.
David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies