Excerpts from “Heroes of the Holocaust, or How One Person with the Courage to Care Can make a Difference,” the Hinckley Fellow Address at the University of Utah, January 23, 2007, by Dr. Kay A. King, Senior Aide to U.S. Representative Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), chair, House Foreign Relations Comitttee:
I want to talk about three people — people whose lives were affected by the Holocaust — the Nazi genocide of the Jews in World War II. These three men were Elbert Thomas, Raoul Wallenberg, and Tom Lantos …
Let me tell you about the first of the[se] three men that indirectly influenced my life. Elbert Thomas grew up in Salt Lake City, was a devout Mormon who served a mission in Japan, and then taught political science and history here at the University of Utah. He ran for the US Senate in 1932 and defeated Sen. Reed Smoot, also LDS. He served in the Senate until 1950 when he was defeated by Republican Wallace F. Bennett, who is the father of the current Senator, Bob Bennett.
Thomas was a loyal Democrat. He strongly supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But he began fighting the Roosevelt administration over the bureaucratic regulations that kept refugees out. Even after it was clear that Hitler was involved in mass murders of Jews, the administration refused to take in more refugees. The State Department’s policy toward Jews was basically — don’t let them come into the US!
Thomas advocated loudly and very publicly for the allied powers to take more vigorous efforts to rescue Jews. In a November 1942 speech in New York City he saidthat this is the first time in history that a powerful, aggressive nation had declared a major policy of extermination of a whole people — the Jewish people. He noted that rescuing the Jews and establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine should be “the last question on which we can afford to be silent or evasive.”
He emphasized that the plight of the Jews is not just a Jewish problem alone. It is a Christian problem and a problem for enlightened civilization. He thought the entire international community was morally obligated to address this problem, which is essentially a humanitarian one.
But Senator Thomas didn’t just talk, He went into action.
He pressed the State Department to establish a U.S. government agency to rescue refugees, but he was not successful. So in October of 1943 he and his Democratic Senate colleague from Iowa — Guy Gillette — introduced a resolution to do just that.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee overwhelmingly supported the resolution. But the committee chair — Senator Tom Connally of Texas — opposed it out of deference to the administration. But in December — two months after the resolutions’ introduction — Connally became ill and was absent from a committee meeting. Thomas became acting chair, and so he quickly brought up the resolution. It passed unanimously.
The rescue resolution saw no further congressional action. But what Thomas did by getting it through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was enough to get the attention of the Roosevelt administration.
The timing was good. Some mid-level aides to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. had just discovered that State Department officials in Europe had been blocking information about the magnitude of the Holocaust from reaching Washington. They had been intentionally obstructing opportunities to rescue Jews. Thus, the Jewish rescue issue was heating up on Capitol Hill and in the press.
Morgenthau took this news to President Roosevelt in January 1944. He told him that he had to move very fast to do something, — or the Congress of the United States would do it for him.
This was ten months before election day, and as you can imagine, the last thing FDR wanted was a public scandal over the refugee issue. So he quickly did what the Congressional resolution required. He issued an executive order to create the War Refugee Board. This board helped finance rescue of Jews, as well as other things.
Thomas had been successful. This is one way Members of Congress — with the courage to care and taking action — can make a difference.
Senator Thomas did not receive the recognition he deserved until two years ago when a friend of mine — Dr. Rafael Medoff, the director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies — brought attention to his story.
April 8, 2005, was designated “Elbert Thomas Day” in Utah to honor Thomas’ efforts to promote U.S. rescue of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust.
Medoff’s tribute to Elbert Thomas at that time summed up Thomas’ great contribution:
He said, “At a time when too many people and governments turned their backs on Hitler’s Jewish victims, Senator Elbert D. Thomas was a voice of courage and humanitarianism on Capitol Hill. He played a major role in the campaign leading to the creation of the War Refugee Board, a U.S. government agency that helped rescue over 200,000 Jews from the Holocaust. Every resident of Utah can take special pride in the knowledge that their Senator spoke out when others were silent.” (…)