Rescuing Jews On Christmas Day

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

A young Treasury Department lawyer would probably rather have spent Christmas Day with his family in 1943.  Instead, Josiah E. DuBois, Jr. spent December 25, 1943, trying to rescue Jews from the Holocaust.

DuBois, 30, was chief counsel for the Foreign Funds Control Division of the Treasury Department.  In the autumn of 1943, DuBois heard rumors that the State Department was intentionally impeding the rescue of Europe’s Jews from the Nazi slaughterhouse.

DuBois was told that State was holding up a request from Jewish organizations to obtain a government license needed for them to send funds to Europe to help save Jews from Hitler’s “Final Solution.”  Poring over documents surreptitiously provided to him by a friend within the State Department, DuBois and several of his colleagues –all of them Christians– discovered the shocking truth about the State Department and the Holocaust.  Senior State Department officials had been deliberately obstructing opportunities to rescue Jews, blocking the transmission of Holocaust-related information to the United States, and trying to cover up evidence of their actions.  DuBois was stunned by the realization that a major U.S. government agency was engaged in such outrageous behavior.

The State Department did not want large numbers of Jews to be saved because that would have put pressure on the United States to take them in. As one State Department official privately explained:  “There was always the danger that the German government might agree to turn over the United States and to Great Britain a large number of Jewish refugees.  In the event of our admission of inability to take care of these people, the onus for their continued persecution would have been largely transferred from the German government to the Allied nations.”

DuBois brought the information to his boss, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., and urged him to go directly to President Roosevelt and expose the State Department’s actions.  But Morgenthau, who was FDR’s closest Jewish friend, felt uncomfortable about pressing the president on matters of specifically Jewish concern.  So DuBois decided to force Morgenthau’s hand.

On Christmas Day, 1943, DuBois sat down at his desk and spent hour after hour compiling an 18-page report titled “Report to the Secretary  on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews.”  In careful, detailed, lawyerly language, DuBois exposed the State Department’s obstruction of rescue. His searing conclusion: State Department officials “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 … Unless remedial steps of a drastic nature are taken, and taken immediately … to prevent the complete extermination of the Jews [in Hitler Europe], this Government will have to share for all time responsibility for this extermination.”

DuBois delivered the report to Morgenthau together with a warning: if Morgenthau did not go to the president, DuBois would resign from the Treasury Department in protest and hold a press conference at which he would expose the State Department.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had just approved a resolution initiated by the Bergson group, a Jewish activist lobby, urging creation of a U.S. government agency to rescue Jewish refugees.  In the House of Representatives, hearings on the resolution had turned into an embarrassment for the administration when State Department official Breckinridge Long gave wildly misleading testimony about Jewish immigration.

The Senators who sponsored the rescue resolution, like DuBois and his Treasury Department colleagues, were Christians, and they viewed the ongoing Holocaust from a Christian perspective:  “It is not a Jewish problem alone,” they wrote in the preamble to the resolution.  “It is a Christian problem and problem for enlightened civilization.  We have talked; we have sympathized; we have expressed our horror; the time to act is long past due.”

The combination of Dubois’s report and the pressure from Congress gave Morgenthau the leverage he needed.  Morgenthau went to FDR in January 1944, to convince him that “you have either got to move very fast, or the Congress of the United States will do it for you.”  Ten months before election day, the last thing FDR wanted was a public scandal over the refugee issue.  He quickly issued an executive order to create the War Refugee Board.

During the final fifteen months of the war, the Board helped move Jews out of dangerous zones in Axis-controlled territory, pressured the Hungarian authorities to end deportations to Auschwitz, and sheltered Jews in places such as Budapest.  The Board financed and assisted the life-saving work of the famous Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.  Ultimately, the WRB’s efforts played a major role in saving about 200,000 Jews and 20,000 non-Jews.

The report DuBois composed on that fateful Christmas Day played a central role in saving those lives.  In an interview with filmmaker Lawrence Jarvik years later, Dubois expressed deep frustration over the fact that FDR did not establish the War Refugee Board until 1944, near the end of the war, because “by that time it was too damned late to do too much.”  Of course DuBois was right.  But if not for how he spent that Christmas Day, the Board might never have come into existence at all–and those 220,000 human beings would never have been saved.

December 2004