On November 9, 1943, members of both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives introduced identical resolutions in their respective bodies calling on their government to establish a commission that would be charged with taking “immediate action to save the surviving Jewish people of Europe from extinction at the hands of Nazi Germany.”
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It had been nearly a year since the State Department had confirmed, and allowed publication of, information received from World Jewish Congress official Gerhard Riegner about German plans for the Final Solution. In the interim, numerous reports about the systematic murder of the Jews had emerged from Nazi-occupied Europe. Little was being done, however, by the same Allies who were fighting a war against those Nazis to adopt humanitarian measures that could have rescued even small numbers of Jews from extermination.
The principal sponsors of the “Rescue Resolution,” as the jointly proposed bill was dubbed, were, in the House, Will Rogers, Jr. (Democrat, California, and son of the famed humorist), and Joseph B. Baldwin (Republican, New York), and Sen. Guy Gillette (Rep., Iowa). At a press conference in which they presented their proposal to the public, the sponsors described their desire to see refugee camps set up in neutral states – Turkey, Switzerland, Sweden, Morocco, Spain, and Portugal – for the temporary absorption of Jews. And, referring to the October 1943 operation that spirited nearly the entire Jewish population of Denmark to safety in nearby Sweden, they suggested, “Tens of thousands of French, Bulgarian and Romanian Jews, now facing death, could be immediately rescued this way, as has been proven by the recent action of Sweden.”
But there were significant forces in the United States and Britain that were opposed to rescue, fearing, as a memo prepared by the British Foreign Office earlier in the year warned, that the Germans might move from their “policy of extermination to one of extrusion, and aim, as they did before the war, at embarrassing other countries by flooding them with alien immigrants.” You read that right: The British were concerned that if the Allies offered to take in Jews, Hitler might call their bluff and take up the offer.
In Washington, Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Rescue Resolution was “an unwarranted duplication of effort,” referring to the conclusions of the Bermuda Conference of the preceding April, even though that closed-door international conclave had agreed on basically no concrete actions that could save lives.
Both House and Senate were scheduled to vote on the Rescue Resolution on January 24, 1944, but two days prior to the roll-call, President Franklin D. Roosevelt preempted Congress by establishing the War Refugee Board, which was precisely what the resolution was requesting. The mission statement of the WRB charged it with rescuing “the victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death and otherwise to afford such victims all possible relief and assistance consistent with the successful prosecution of the war.”
FDR acted after he was confronted by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., whose aides had supplied him with a 17-page internal document they titled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews,” which mainly outlined the repeated steps undertaken by the State Department to stymie any genuine relief effort on behalf of European Jews.
There’s no doubt the War Refugee Board was effective in saving lives: Historians estimate that it found refuge for some 200,000 Jews – from Romania and Hungary, among other places. But it is no less true that had it been established, say, a year earlier, when millions more Jews were still alive, many more might have had the opportunity to survive the war.