This Day in Jewish History

1944: Aides Warn U.S.: State Dept. Stymieing Rescue of Jews

Propelled beyond wariness of seeming to prioritize Jewish interests over America's, the treasury secretary met with Roosevelt and a belated rescue began.

Morgenthau, President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt and another man at Little White House, Warm Springs, Georgia, November 30, 1932.
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On January 13, 1944, a historic meeting took place between U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., and three of his aides. The aides presented him with a report alleging that officials in the State Department were deliberately preventing efforts by their own government to save Jews trapped in Europe.

The three – Josiah DuBois, Randolph Paul and John Pehle – all non-Jews, demanded that their boss take up their findings with the president.

Morgenthau was the only Jewish member of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cabinet, and he was also a close friend of the president. He was reluctant to jeopardize his relationship with his boss, and he was sensitive to the possibility of being accused of representing “Jewish interests” over those of the United States, which had just entered its third year in World War II.

But the charges summarized in the 18-page report, which had been written by the 30-year-old DuBois, special assistant to Secretary Morgenthau, infuriated him to the point of taking action.

Three days later, a Sunday, Morgenthau met with the president. He presented the findings, and at the same time offered FDR a way to refute the claim that his administration was anti-Jewish.

Six days later, Roosevelt announced the establishment of the War Refugee Board, which during the final year of the war was instrumental in saving the lives of an estimated 220,000 people, most of them Jews.

Morgenthau addressing delegates on the opening day of the Bretton Woods Conference, at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, United States, 1944.
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Withholding information

The DuBois report enumerates a long list of charges against the State Department, and singles out then-Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long for having gone to great lengths to withhold information about the extent of the Nazi genocide of the Jews from the government, for acting to foil a variety of rescue efforts, and even for taking measures to prevent the U.S. from accepting even the small number of refugees for whom a quota existed during the most critical years of the Holocaust.

The most prominent example of negligence related to a 1943 plan raised by the World Jewish Congress for the ransom of some 70,000 Romanian and French Jews.

Because it was wartime, any transfer of money from the U.S. to enemy territory required approval from both the Treasury and State departments. Randolph Paul in the Treasury’s foreign funds control unit had signed off on the transaction, and the paperwork was sent along to State, where it just sat. That's when DuBois learned about it.

On Christmas Day

DuBois spent his Christmas Day writing up his memorandum, which he titled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews.” Its bottom line was that State Department officials, led by Breckinridge Long, “have been 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.

Morgenthau was energized by the report, and acceded to his young aides' demand that he take the case to the president. Morgenthau, presidential historian Michael Beschloss has written, underwent a “transformation," and it constituted "the supreme moment of his career. If going to Roosevelt made the President think of him as a special petitioner for his fellow Jews, so it would have to be. If his boldness jeopardized his treasured presidential friendship, so be that too."

Morgenthau met with Roosevelt three days later. As he prepared to head over to the White House, Josiah DuBois said to him, according to Beschloss,"If it means anything, and if you want to, you can tell the President that he if he doesn’t take any action on this report, I’m going to resign and release the report to the press.”

Morgenthau's cause was also helped by the fact that in both the House and the Senate, there were already accusations being heard about the State Department's foot-dragging. He could reasonably tell the president that if he didn't act, Congress would – and this during an election year. The War Refugee Board was not a new idea, and once Roosevelt decided to go ahead, it was a matter of implementing an existing plan.