By Dr. Rafael Medoff [Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies]
How did a 30-year-old attorney in the U.S. Treasury Department, a Protestant with no particular interest in Jewish affairs, come to play a central role in the rescue of more than 200,000 Jews from the Holocaust? Why was his heroism for so many years omitted from most Holocaust-related museums and history books? Why is he to this day virtually unknown to the American public?
These are some of the questions that confronted me as I worked on the manuscript that became Blowing the Whistle on Genocide: Josiah E. DuBois, Jr. and the Struggle for a U.S. Response to the Holocaust, which will be published… by Purdue University Press.
A native of Camden, New Jersey and a graduate of Penn Law School, DuBois began working at the Treasury Department’s Foreign Funds Control Division in the 1930s and it was there, quite by accident, that DuBois came face to face with the Holocaust. That happened because once World War II began, it was illegal for a U.S. citizen to send funds into enemy territory without special permission. Thus when the World Jewish Congress, in early 1943, sought to send funds to Europe to ransom Jewish refugees in France and Romania, it requested authorization from the State Department and the Treasury Department.
At Treasury, the request came to DuBois’s desk. He immediately approved it and sent it over to the State Department. That’s when the trouble began. Weeks turned into months as State Department officials claimed to be examining the request, and the chances for the ransom plan to succeed quickly vanished.
A Shocking Discovery
DuBois, furious over the delays, began investigating the State Department’s actions. Documents surreptitiously provided to him by a friend in that governmental arm revealed the shocking truth about the State Department and the Holocaust.
It turned out that senior State Department officials had been deliberately obstructing opportunities to rescue Jews, blocking the transmission of Holocaust-related information to the United States and trying to cover up evidence of their actions. DuBois was stunned by the realization that a major U.S. government agency was actively preventing aid to Hitler’s victims.
The State Department was afraid that the rescue of large numbers of Jews would put pressure on the United States to take them in. As one State Department official privately explained: “There was always the danger that the German government might agree to turn over to the United States and to Great Britain a large number of Jewish refugees. In the event of our admission of inability to take care of these people, the onus for their continued persecution would have been largely transferred from the German government to the Allied nations.”
The more DuBois pressed for answers, the more enemies he made. He received anonymous threatening phone calls. Rumors spread that DuBois was secretly Jewish.
DuBois understood that going head-to-head with the State Department on such a sensitive issue could potentially even jeopardize his career. Despite the risks, he decided to blow the whistle.
On Christmas Day 1943, DuBois sat down at his desk and proceeded to spend hour upon hour compiling an 18-page report to which he gave the explosive title “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews.” In careful, detailed, lawyerly language, the report exposed the State Department’s obstruction of rescue.
DuBois’s searing conclusion: State Department officials, led by Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, “have been guilty not only of gross procrastination and willful failure to act, but even of willful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler. Unless remedial steps of a drastic nature are taken, and taken immediately… to prevent the complete extermination of the Jews [in Hitler Europe], this Government will have to share for all time responsibility for this extermination.”
DuBois delivered the report to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., together with a warning: if Morgenthau did not bring this scandal directly to the attention of President Roosevelt, DuBois would resign from the Treasury Department in protest and hold a press conference at which he would publicly expose the State Department’s deeds.
Fortuitously, Congressional pressure for the rescue of refugees had been steadily building just at that time. The Emergency Committee to save the Jewish People of Europe (better known as the Bergson group) persuaded members of Congress to introduce a resolution urging creation of a U.S. government agency to rescue Jewish refugees. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously adopted the resolution. In the House of Representatives, hearings on the resolution turned into an embarrassment for the administration when Assistant Secretary of State Long gave wildly misleading testimony about Jewish refugee immigration to the United States.
A Challenge to the President
DuBois’s report, combined with the pressure from Congress, convinced Morgenthau to take the matter to President Roosevelt. FDR may not have been aware of the details of the State Department’s actions, but he certainly knew of and approved the general thrust of the department’s actions, which were motivated by a desire to keep most Jewish refugees away from America’s shores. That was FDR’s desire, too.
But the report gave Morgenthau the leverage to convince the president that “you have either got to move very fast, or the Congress of the United States will do it for you.” With a presidential election just ten months away, the last thing FDR wanted was a public scandal over the refugee issue. He pre-empted Congress by quickly issuing an executive order establishing the War Refugee Board (WRB).
DuBois was named general counsel of the WRB, and his Treasury colleague John Pehle became its executive director. Despite receiving little government funding, DuBois and his colleagues advanced the cause of rescue with determination and creativity. They energetically employed unorthodox means of rescue, including bribery of border officials and the production of forged identification papers and other documents to protect refugees from the Nazis.
The WRB’s agents arranged for 48,000 Jews to be moved from Transnistria, where they would have been in the path of the retreating German army, to safe areas in Romania. About 15,000 Jewish refugees, and about 20,000 non-Jewish refugees, were evacuated from Axis-occupied territory, and at least 10,000 more were protected through various WRB-sponsored activities.
In response to the German deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, the WRB engineered a series of threats by world leaders which eventually succeeded in pressuring Hungary’s leaders to halt the deportations. As a result, some 120,000 Jews remained alive in Budapest. Many were sheltered by the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who, with financial and logistical backing from the WRB, organized a network of safe houses in the city.
Some of the WRB’s efforts were less successful. It sought to persuade Roosevelt to establish temporary shelters for refugees in the United States, but he agreed to just one token shelter for a group of 982 refugees in Oswego, New York.
The WRB repeatedly asked the War Department to bomb the railroad lines leading to Auschwitz or the gas chambers and crematoria, but the requests were rejected. The State Department often refused or delayed cooperating with the WRB’s requests for assistance, and the British government likewise responded coldly to the Board’s efforts and sometimes even impeded them.
In one sense, the WRB’s efforts may be regarded as too little, too late, given the magnitude of the Nazi genocide. On the other hand, there can be no gainsaying the fact that DuBois and his colleagues played a major role in the rescue of more than 200,000 refugees during the final fifteen months of the war, despite numerous and daunting obstacles.
Bringing the Killers to Justice
Even after the war ended, DuBois’s work was not finished.
In 1946, the Truman administration asked him to head the prosecution in one of the Nuremberg Trials: the case of twenty-four directors of I. G. Farben, the German chemical manufacturing conglomerate that used hundreds of thousands of Jewish slave laborers in its factories and supplied the Nazis with Zyklon B, the poison gas used in the gas chambers at the death camps.
The man who had helped bring about the rescue of an estimated 200,000 Jews from the Holocaust would now confront those who had helped murder the millions he was unable to rescue.
Over the course of nearly a year, DuBois and his team of prosecutors presented a strong case against the accused. But when the final verdict was handed down, in July 1948, it proved to be a bitter disappointment. Only thirteen of the defendants were convicted on any of the counts; the others were acquitted of all charges.
To make matters worse, the sentences meted out to the guilty were, as DuBois put it, “light enough to please a chicken thief, or a driver who had irresponsibly run down a pedestrian.” The I.G. Farben directors received prison terms of between one and a half to eight years, five of them just two years or less.
Meanwhile, in the name of encouraging Germany to help the U.S. in the Cold War, the Truman administration was retreating from its original plan for a de-Nazification program in postwar Germany that would have included appropriate punishment for all Nazi war criminals. Instead, clemency became the order of the day.
One of the officials who played a key role in this new U.S. policy was John J. McCloy. As assistant secretary of war, McCloy supervised the relocation and internment of Japanese-Americans, a policy he defended to his dying day. It was McCloy who, in 1944, authored the rejection letters in response to requests by the War Refugee Board and Jewish organizations to bomb Auschwitz or the railway lines leading to it. He claimed bombing Auschwitz “might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans” (he did not explain what could be “more vindictive” than gassing to death 12,000 people each day).
Appointed U.S. high commissioner for Germany in 1949, McCloy proceeded to grant clemency to numerous German industrialists convicted of war crimes. Of the thirteen I.G. Farben directors whom DuBois had put behind bars, eight had already completed their meager sentences; McCloy freed the remaining five. The McCloy pardons provided a cruel and ironic conclusion to DuBois’ work.
The Crumbling Of The Roosevelt Myth
For many years after World War II, the assumption of most Americans—and most American Jews—was that President Roosevelt must have done whatever was possible to help the Jews in Nazi Europe. He had been known as a humanitarian and a champion of “the little guy.” He had led America out of the Depression and then led the nation to victory in a world war.
Biographies of FDR that appeared during the 1950s and 1960s typically reflected the perspective that with regard to the Jews, FDR did no wrong. It took a long time for that myth to crumble.
In those years, nobody could imagine that Roosevelt knowingly averted his eyes from the European Jewish tragedy, or that an unknown Treasury Department lawyer exposed the scandal of U.S. indifference and forced the president to change America’s wartime refugee policy.
It was not until 1968 that the first books critical of FDR’s response to Nazism and the Holocaust finally appeared. That year, David Wyman, a young Harvard-trained historian, authored Paper Walls, which examined America’s refusal to accept more than a handful of Jewish refugees during the 1930s. That same year, Arthur Morse an investigative journalist for CBS-TV, wrote While Six Million Died, which explored Roosevelt’s failure to rescue Jews from the Holocaust. Morse was the first to identify DuBois by name and credit him for writing “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews.“
It was only with the publication, in 1984, of David Wyman’s bestseller The Abandonment of the Jews that the accomplishments of the War Refugee Board finally received appropriate attention. Offered the opportunity, late in his career, to name his professorship at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Prof. Wyman appropriately chose to be known as the Josiah E. DuBois Jr. Professor of History.
Yet to this day, most Holocaust museums still do not mention DuBois. Nor do the textbooks that are typically used to teach American and world history to the nation’s high school students.
The names of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swede, and Oskar Schindler, a German, are familiar to large numbers of Americans, especially to students in states that have mandatory Holocaust education. Yet the name of a genuine American hero of the Holocaust is almost completely unknown.
Wallenberg became well known because the mystery surrounding his disappearance galvanized journalists, activists, and members of Congress to bring his story to international attention. Schindler’s name became a household word thanks to filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
DuBois, of course, did not risk his life, as Schindler did; nor did he lose his life, as Wallenberg evidently did. But DuBois did risk his career, and he did play a crucial role in bringing about the rescue of many Jews from the Nazi inferno.
For DuBois, taking action to help save lives was simply what he had to do. In an unpublished interview on which my book is partly based, DuBois recalled: “We felt very strongly that this was a terrible thing that was happening and we felt it our duty to do what we could.”
As an official of the United States government, DuBois embodied the noblest principles of his country and in particular its tradition of helping the oppressed. As a human being, DuBois recognized his moral obligation to help others. His life and achievements deserve the widest possible attention.