Churchill and the Holocaust

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Two new books, Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship, by Martin Gilbert, and Churchill’s Promised Land, by Michael Makovsky, portray Winston Churchill as a devoted friend of the Jewish people and claim he did his best to save Jews from the Holocaust.

But in 1943, some U.S. officials had a very different view of Churchill’s response to the Holocaust. They blamed his government for preventing European Jewish refugees from reaching Palestine, thus trapping them in Hitler’s inferno.

Josiah E. DuBois, Jr., a young attorney on the staff of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., was the first to expose the British effort, in collaboration with the U.S. State Department, to obstruct rescue of refugees.

In the early summer of 1943, DuBois and his colleagues approved a license for Jewish organizations to transfer funds to Nazi-occupied Europe to ransom French and Rumanian Jews. But for the next six months, the State Department stalled the license, claiming it had to make sure the British had no objections.

The State Department knew London would object to the rescue plan. At a White House meeting earlier that year with Churchill’s foreign minister, Anthony Eden, U.S. officials had raised the idea of helping 60,000 Jews in Bulgaria. Eden replied “that the whole problem of the Jews in Europe is very difficult and that we should move very cautiously about offering to take all Jews out of a country like Bulgaria. If we do that, then the Jews of the world will be wanting us to make similar offers in Poland and Germany.”

The heart of the problem was Churchill’s Palestine policy. A prewar White Paper had almost completely closed the doors of Palestine to Jewish refugees. Churchill, after becoming prime minister in 1940, insisted on maintaining that harsh policy, because of Arab opposition to Jewish immigration.

Churchill refused to even discuss the issue. He instructed his staff to forward all appeals about Jewish refugees to the Foreign Office. When his ally, MP Eleanor Rathbone, asked for just “a few minutes” to talk about the refugees, he told an aide: “I cannot do this, so get me out of it with the utmost civility.”

In December 1943, British officials formally replied to the license request: they told the U.S. they were “concerned with the difficulties of disposing of any considerable number of Jews should they be rescued from enemy occupied territory.” A furious Secretary Morgenthau characterized the Churchill government’s position as “a satanic combination of British chill and diplomatic double-talk, cold and correct and adding up to a sentence of death.”

“In simple terms,” DuBois said at a Treasury Department staff meeting, “the British point of view … is that they are apparently prepared to accept the possible –even probable– death of thousands of Jews in enemy territory …”

Morgenthau said the attitude expressed by the Churchill administration and some State Department and Army officials “is no different from Hitler’s attitude.” His aide Herbert Gaston replied: “You are unfair. We don’t shoot them. We let other people shoot them, and let them starve.” Staffer Ansel Luxford added: “The British, by doing nothing, are condemning these people to death.”

The answer, DuBois told Morgenthau, was to “take the bull by the horns” and “get this thing out of the State Department into some agency’s hands that is willing to deal with it frontally… ” He urged Morgenthau to ask President Franklin Roosevelt to create a government agency that would focus on rescuing Jews.

On Christmas Day, 1943, DuBois composed a devastating 18-page report titled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews.” It detailed how the Churchill government and the State Department had suppressed news of the Holocaust and obstructed rescue opportunities.

DuBois’s report, together with pressure from Congress and Jewish activists, convinced Morgenthau to go to the president. With election day just ten months away, the last thing FDR needed was a scandal over the refugees. He issued an executive order establishing the War Refugee Board.

Officials of the Churchill administration repeatedly interfered with the Board’s work. DuBois himself finally flew to London in 1944 to break this rescue logjam, only to be told by Undersecretary George Hall: “What are we going to do with them, Mr. DuBois, if they are released?”

Despite these and other obstacles, the Board played a major role in rescuing over 200,000 Jews and 20,000 non-Jews, during the final fifteen months of the war. Its efforts included financing the life-saving work of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest.

The work of Josiah DuBois, the War Refugee Board, and Raoul Wallenberg represented the heights of moral courage in responding to the Holocaust. Sadly, the response of Winston Churchill and his government represented the opposite.

December 2007