Washington, D.C. · January 22, 1944

On this date in 1944 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9417, which created the War Refugee Board (WRB). The president said that “it was urgent that action be taken at once to fore­stall the plan of the Nazis to exterminate all the Jews and other per­se­cuted minor­i­ties in Europe.” Board com­mis­sioners, among them three cabi­net members, were charged with aiding and res­cuing per­se­cuted racial, relig­ious, or poli­tical “minor­i­ties” who were “civil­ian vic­tims of enemy sav­agery.” Leading the WRB was the Assis­tant Treas­ury Secre­tary, who reported directly to the presi­dent. The imme­di­ate cause for Roose­velt’s execu­tive action was pres­sure from the Treas­ury Depart­ment, which had been sty­mied by some State Depart­ment per­son­nel who objected to chari­table groups like the World Jewish Con­gress using funds regu­lated under the Trading with the Enemy Act to pay for food, medi­cine, trans­por­ta­tion, and other aid to refu­gees and other vic­tims of the war in Europe, in­cluding de­tainees in Ger­man con­cen­tra­tion camps. The WRB en­listed the help of for­eign govern­ments and inter­na­tional refu­gee and res­cue organ­i­za­tions like the Inter­na­tional Red Cross and the United Nations Relief and Reha­bil­i­ta­tion Admin­is­tra­tion in carrying out its functions. Through the board’s efforts, refugee camps were set up in North Africa, and safe havens were arranged in Pales­tine, Swit­zer­land, and Swe­den. By the end of the war in 1945 per­haps as many as 200,000 Jews had been res­cued by the WRB. About 15,000 Jews and more than 20,000 non-Jews had been evac­u­ated from Nazi do­mains. At the very least, about 10,000 Jews were pro­tected with­in Nazi-con­trolled terri­tory by resis­tance groups funded by the WRB. The board removed 48,000 Jews living in the border­lands of Ukraine and Ro­mania to safety inside Ro­mania. About 120,000 Hun­ga­rian Jews also sur­vived owing in part to WRB’s acti­vi­ties, which funded the efforts of Raoul Wallen­berg, Swe­den’s fear­less spe­cial envoy to Budapest, among others. At the con­clusion of the war the board was abol­ished, its work, in the words of its first execu­tive director, being “too little, too late” to save the 37–54 mil­lion civilians who perished due to military action or crimes against humanity.

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Two Principals in the Attempt to Save European Jewry from Nazi Extermination

Portrait of Henry Morgenthau, Jr.Passport photo of Rauol Wallenberg, 1944

Left: As U.S. Secretary of the Treasury during the Roosevelt administration, Henry Morgenthau, Jr. (1891–1967) played a major role in designing and financing the New Deal. He was a central figure in financing U.S. participation in World War II, shaping foreign policy (for example, Lend-Lease and support for China), and helping Jewish refugees escape Nazi extermination. Created largely at the behest of Morgenthau, the U.S. War Refugee Board was the first major attempt by the United States to deal with the annihilation of European Jews, and it sponsored Raoul Wallenberg’s mission to Budapest.

Right: Swedish businessman, diplomat, and humanitarian Raoul Wallenberg (1912–1947?) is widely honored for his successful efforts to rescue tens of thou­sands to as many as one hundred thousand Jews from Hungarian Fascists and the Nazis in German-occupied Hungary during the later stages of the war. While serving as a special envoy in Sweden’s Budapest embassy between July and December 1944, Wallenberg issued protective passports that identified their owners as Swedish citizens. Incredibly, they were recognized as legitimate documents by Hungarian and German authorities. More incredibly, Wallenberg managed to shelter and feed Jews in safe houses in Budapest’s Jewish ghetto (buildings identified as Swedish territory right down to Swedish flags affixed to the outside walls!), thereby saving tens of thousands of Jews from certain death. At the height of the Soviet siege of Budapest on January 17, 1945, Wallenberg disappeared during a visit to Red Army headquarters.

Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park, Dohány Street Synagogue, BudapestRaoul Wallenberg Memorial, Wallenberg St., Tel Aviv

Left: Hungary named Wallenberg as an honorary citizen in 2003. Several sites honor him, including this one in the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park at the Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest.

Right: The Raoul Wallenberg Memorial, Wallenberg St., Tel Aviv. Israel granted Wallenberg honorary citizenship in 1986 and honored him at the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, a designation that recognizes Gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust. The U.S. Congress made Wallenberg an Honorary Citizen of the United States in 1981, the second person after Winston Churchill to be so honored.

Tribute to Raoul Wallenberg, 1912–1947?