Having finished and seen published my biography of Breckinridge Long, the controversial State Department Assistant Secretary blamed for his strenuous efforts to keep refugees – especially Jewish refugees – from coming to the United States and escaping the Holocaust during World War II, it is fitting to talk about a sequel to this book that I plan. Long was even accused of keeping the news of the gas chambers and the Holocaust from reaching the United States.
In December 1943, the pressure to relieve Long of his power of granting or not granting visas was beginning to bear fruit. An effort had been mounted in Congress to create a rescue agency that would devote itself to saving the remnants of the Jewish people in Europe from the Nazi killing operations. All Jews under Nazi control throughout the continent had been condemned to death and mostly wiped out for the mere fact of their being Jewish, but populations of them still existed in Axis satellite countries like Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria.
President Roosevelt at a White House meeting on January 16, 1944 with his good friend and Hyde Park neighbor Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. and several of his Treasury assistants was persuaded to issue an Executive Order creating a U.S. governmental entity known as the War Refugee Board. Breckinridge Long would thereby be relieved of his responsibilities for refugees and WRB would get to work immediately to save people trapped by the Nazis.
The full history of this organization has not really been told. Thus I have begun work on what is essentially a sequel to the biography of Breckinridge Long. The amount of primary research for this book is overwhelming and contained in collections at the U.S. Holocaust Museum Library in Washington, D.C. and the FDR Library in Hyde Park, New York. I have already started going through this material.
The War Refugee Board is not well known. Few Americans have even heard of it. But in its short life span from January 1944 to VE Day in May 1945, this small group saved approximately 200,000 people who would otherwise have been slaughtered by the minions of the Third Reich. The most famous of its daring agents was Raoul Wallenberg, a Swede who went to Hungary and is credited with single-handedly save 100,000 Hungarian Jews only to perish himself post-war when imprisoned by the Soviets. The squares at the Holocaust Museum in D.C. and at the U.N. in Manhattan are named for him.
Other War Refugee Board agents – Americans – worked out of U.S. diplomatic posts in Switzerland, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Turkey and French North Africa. Their efforts have been called “Too little, too late.” Yet their unsung struggles to rescue otherwise doomed victims of Hitler have to be deemed “heroic.” The working title of this full-scale history of the War Refugee Board is “A Tear Drop In The Ocean.” It is taken in part from a novel “Journey Without End,” by the Polish author and essayist Manes Sperber, writing about the dawn of resistance of Polish Jews to their German tormentors. An unforgettable character is a young rabbi who refuses to join the fight against the Nazis. To him, any effort is of no more consequence than “a tear in the ocean.” But by the end of the story, he has joined the uprising.
The War Refugee Board’s brave exertions may not have amounted to a great deal – 200,000 lives spared out of millions killed – too little, too late. Yet those 200,000 escaped certain death and those who labored to help achieve this result have earned a place for themselves in the annals of humanity.
It is this complex story that I intend to tell.