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), an inde­pend­ent govern­ment agency. 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 War Refugee Board 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. Occa­sionally it laundered money to aid the rescue efforts of agencies in neutral and enemy-held coun­tries. Through the board’s efforts, prisoner exchanges and delivery of relief pack­ages were arranged, refugee camps in North Africa were set up, and safe havens 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. (The precise number rescued is an edu­cated guess because the WRB’s exis­tence was neither widely known by the public nor by Jews whose lives were saved owing to its efforts.) 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.

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

U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr.: Champion of War Refugee Board1944 passport photo of Swedish diplomatic envoy Rauol Wallenberg

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 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?