by Rafael Medoff
The Roosevelt administration’s abandonment of European Jewry during the Holocaust has been well documented. Yet the one meaningful action the U.S. did take to help the Jews has received surprisingly little attention. A recent Yad Vashem symposium on Holocaust rescuer Raoul Wallenberg presented a golden opportunity to correct that omission.
August 4 will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Wallenberg, the courageous young Swede who helped rescue tens of thousands of Jews in German-occupied Budapest in 1944-45. At the Yad Vashem symposium earlier this summer, speaker after speaker –historians, diplomats, Wallenberg relatives– appropriately lauded his heroism. But the important question of how Wallenberg ended up in Budapest was barely even mentioned.
The reason the information is important is that it sheds light on how a handful of rescue advocates in the United States managed to bring about the reversal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s no-rescue policy. And surely the greatest tribute to Wallenberg would be if young people today were to become inspired by the activists of the 1940s to undertake their own efforts against contemporary genocide.
In 1943, Jewish activists led by future Knesset Member Hillel Kook (using the pseudonym “Peter Bergson”) established the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe. They sponsored protest rallies and more than 200 full-page newspaper ads, mobilized 400 rabbis to march to the White House, and lobbied vigorously on Capitol Hill for U.S. action to rescue Europe’s Jews. These efforts, combined with behind the scenes pressure by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and his staff, convinced President Roosevelt to establish a U.S. government rescue agency, called the War Refugee Board (WRB).
At the time, editorials in the Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor explicitly credited the Bergson Group for the creation of the WRB. And Secretary Morgenthau, in a private staff meeting, said Bergson’s pressure campaign in Congress was “the thing that made it possible to get the President really to act on this thing” and “to appoint [the Board].”
It was the WRB’s representative in Sweden who persuaded Wallenberg to go to German-occupied Budapest and helped pay for his rescue mission there. The courageous and resourceful Wallenberg designed a Swedish protective passport and distributed thousands of them to Jews in Budapest, to prevent the Germans from deporting them. He used bribery, threats, and blackmail to interfere with the deportations. In one instance, he leaped atop a departing train and frantically handed protective documents to the Jews inside as German bullets whizzed around him. Historians estimate that Wallenberg’s efforts saved tens of thousands of lives–including those of future U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos and his wife Annette.
Fifteen of the 18 speakers at the Yad Vashem symposium did not even mention that the War Refugee Board sent Wallenberg to Budapest. It was as if Wallenberg just dropped from the sky one day. The other three speakers did mention the Board, but only very briefly. Remarkably, not one of those three acknowledged the role of the Bergson Group in bringing about the Board’s creation. One explained the establishment of the WRB in these terms: “The War Refugee Board was established in response to President Roosevelt’s desire to save the lives of innocent Jews in Europe.” The truth, however, is that the Roosevelt administration staunchly opposed creating a rescue agency, and did so only under tremendous pressure.
Speaking at the Center for Jewish History in New York City last year, Prof. Richard Breitman, editor of the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s scholarly journal, remarked that it is “probably accurate” to say “that Wallenberg would not have been able to do what he did in Budapest if Bergson had not done what he did in Washington.” Certainly Bergson’s efforts were not the only reason the WRB was created, and the WRB’s support was not the only factor that made Wallenberg’s mission possible. But when all is said and done, the fact is that if there had been no WRB, there would have been no Wallenberg; and if there had been no Bergson, there would have been no WRB.
That a handful of activists with few resources could have such a profound effect on the course of history is inspiring. That their story has not received the attention it deserves –even at academic conferences focusing precisely on that period– is sorely disappointing.