Rebecca Erbelding. Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America's Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe. New York: Doubleday, 2018. Illustrations. 368 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-385-54251-7; $17.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-525-43374-3.
Reviewed by Laurel Leff (Northeastern University)
Published on H-Diplo (July, 2019)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
In the words of its subtitle, Rebecca Erbelding’s Rescue Board promises to deliver “the untold story of America’s efforts to save the Jews of Europe.” But the story of the establishment of a government agency within the Franklin Roosevelt administration to save European Jews and of the work it did in the last sixteen months of World War II has been told many times. The War Refugee Board (WRB) has been featured in numerous history books that have analyzed the American response to the Holocaust. For instance, the last of four parts of David S. Wyman’s The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945 (1984) is entirely dedicated to the WRB, 102 pages in all, not including footnotes. More recently, Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman’s FDR and the Jews (2013) includes two full chapters on the board’s activities. The authors of eighteen other books do something similar. Although with different emphases and different conclusions on certain issues, each scholar chronicles the fissures within the administration, as Treasury Department officials struggled to wrestle the refugee issue away from the State Department, and each tackles the pressures from the outside, as Jewish groups and some congressmen held protests and sponsored resolutions demanding creation of a government agency. This substantial literature also describes the WRB’s valiant, though mostly failed, efforts to save Europe’s remaining Jews.
It is not clear why Erbelding, an exceptional researcher and archivist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, discounts this previous work and implies that she is the first to relate this compelling tale. This is not simply a case of literary license in a title. The text contains no mention of any other books, and the endnotes do not add many either. Nor is it because the author’s deep archival dive has uncovered startling new information about the board’s creation, operation, or outcomes. The explanation for what Erbelding describes as her “almost exclusive reliance on archival research” can be found both in the way she tells the story and in the larger issues she sees as emerging from America’s efforts to save European Jewry (p. 286).
Rescue Board does not read like a work of fusty scholarship. Erbelding deploys many of narrative nonfiction’s tools throughout the book. She figures out the weather on critical dates: the WRB was established on a “drizzly Sunday in the middle of January”; D-Day took place “on a lovely early summer day” in DC (pp. 7, 130). She invokes locations. Treasury officials met with Roosevelt in his “Oval Study,” a “cream colored” room with “bright red carpet and cluttered with personality” (p. 56). She describes key players: WRB director John Pehle was “a tall midwesterner with a deep voice and light brown hair that had already started to recede” (p. 8). The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Saly Mayer “was a formal man, very precise and ponderous” (p. 118). She puts us inside the heads of important characters as they confront difficult situations. Pehle comes to understand the true nature of German atrocities as he mulls cables from France, smoking a pipe and sipping a scotch and soda late at night.
There is something to be said for storytelling unimpeded by academic back and forth. In the prologue, Erbelding takes us to the dusty courtyard of a tile factory outside Aix en Provence on August 10, 1942. Along with aid worker and future WRB staffer Roswell McClelland, the reader watches helplessly as buses arrive to take first the children and then another 1,500 foreign Jews from the misery of the Les Milles concentration camp to the terror of the Drancy transit center to the horror of German-occupied Poland. McClelland may not have known exactly where the Jews were going (we do), but he knew it would be awful and he knew he could not stop it. The sights, sounds, smells, and small gestures (parents “grasping tiny faces and stroking hair” [p. 1]) are rendered perfectly. It is an excruciating scene. Erbelding provides other heart-stopping moments. After D-Day, she cues us into what was at stake for so many of the US government officials we have encountered; they had sons and brothers fighting, and some dying, in the ongoing war. A few characters come to life, particularly Ira Hirschmann, the department store executive-cum-overly-enthusiastic-rescuer whom Erbelding judges harshly, seemingly for good reason. Her first words about him after “vice president” and “Bloomingdale’s” are “pathological narcissist” (p. 86). Other lesser-known figures emerge, such as Florence Hodel, a female WRB lawyer almost alone among all the government and aid agency men. But nothing that follows in Rescue Board works quite as well as the book’s prologue.
It is easier to explain how the WRB was created than what it did once it was. Too many people were doing too many deals involving too many options in too many countries for a clear narrative to emerge. Rather than a strict chronological approach, Erbelding builds chapters around the various schemes the board pursued to save Jews: the “blood for goods” (“trucks” in some accounts) deal that would have ransomed the lives of Jews for supplies the Germans needed; the “free ports” plan that ultimately allowed into the United States about one thousand Jews who had been in Italy on the condition they go back at war’s end; or the attempt to move thousands of Jews out of harm’s way in hard-to-obtain, often unsafe boats, or allow them to shelter-in-place by dispensing protective papers of neutral countries. Erbelding spends little time on one of the WRB’s most notable successes, Swedish diplomat Raul Wallenberg’s shielding of Budapest Jews in fall 1944, perhaps because it is even better known than the others.
The deal-by-deal approach makes sense, yet it also makes it hard to sustain narrative energy, especially because there is so much circling back. For example, one of the book’s best chapters describes a lesser-known aspect of the board’s work, its efforts to send food packages into concentration camps. Yet chapter 22 arrives after chapters in which the WRB is winding down in April 1945, and yanks the reader back to the board’s beginnings in March 1944. Such jumping back and forth would be disorienting in any narrative, but it is particularly confusing in the story of an agency with a sixteen-month lifespan. Despite strong writing, several intriguing characters, and a few dramatic scenes, Rescue Board does not wholly succeed as a narrative. It is just too hard to follow.
Although the book barely mentions, let alone engages, with other scholars, there is a clear agenda. The depiction of the WRB seems designed to dispel the idea that it was “too little and too late”—the phrase Pehle himself applied to his wartime endeavors. In this vein, the book describes the agency, which was small, as having all it needed to fight the good fight. Although a “name” with independent clout was initially sought for WRB director, the failure to land one, in Erbelding’s telling, did no damage since the agency ended up with the best possible choice in the thirty-five-year-old Treasury insider Pehle. (There is no explanation for why the higher-profile candidates turned down the job or were rejected.) The staff of twenty-five is not described as too small because thirty-five government employees on other payrolls, including Pehle, were detailed to the WRB. Rescue Board even argues that the one million dollars allocated from the President’s Fund, which Erbelding concedes “would not be nearly enough to fund the relief and rescue projects,” would be enough to provide money for clandestine operations and pay the administrative costs of supporting private agencies already engaged in rescue work (p. 77). As proof of the strength of this approach, Erbelding offers that, upon closing shop, the agency returned over six hundred thousand dollars to the federal government and “the documents show the staff ... never once, in any records, complaining about a lack of financial resources” (p. 287).
Unfortunately, Erbelding does not confront those who might doubt whether a sixty-person staff was enough to handle the job nor does she show that the government “could help the most by making sure nothing got in the way” of the private groups (p. 77). On their face, however, claims that the board did not suffer from a lack of resources are not persuasive. It is hard to imagine any organization could not accomplish more with more money and more staff. The WRB staff may never have complained in the documents about being underfunded, but the private organizations that shouldered the burden certainly did. They desperately wanted additional resources and knew they would not be forthcoming from American Jews already stretched to the breaking point.
Erbelding is clear in insisting that the WRB was not understaffed or underfunded. She is far murkier about her position on the degree to which battles with other government agencies impeded the board’s mission. Erbelding relates the WRB’s ongoing struggles to convince the State Department, the War Department, the Office of War Information (OWI), and even the president to get on board, but the fights never take center stage. Pehle could not convince US ambassadors in the key countries of Spain and Portugal to accept WRB representatives or help out in any way, nor were their higher ups in the State Department willing to order them to do so. The State Department itself continued to refuse to send cables overseas that the board wanted sent and routinely objected to various WRB schemes. The OWI, the government’s chief propaganda agency, was not much better. After an initial show of support in broadcasting to occupied countries Roosevelt’s March 1944 statement condemning atrocities, the OWI balked at other attempts at publicity and even tried, unsuccessfully, to stand in the way of the board’s release of a detailed report on Auschwitz. The War Department played a peripheral, though decidedly unhelpful, role. On the key military issue, bombing Auschwitz, Erbelding ducks. She documents Pehle’s initial reluctance to support the demands for bombing from Jewish organizations in the summer of 1944. Pehle seemed to accept a War Department official’s claim that the military had studied the issue and decided it was not feasible. He changed his mind in the fall, but by then Auschwitz’s gas chambers, after murdering thousands more Jews, had been shut down. (Despite what Pehle was told, we now know the War Department never bothered to study bombing Auschwitz—important information Erbelding does not include.)
Pehle played a good bureaucratic game and got some of what he asked for from other agencies, but why was it so hard if “America” was now determined to save Jews? Rescue Board never directly addresses that question. The answer may be found in the president’s attitude. Roosevelt agreed to the WRB’s creation without much fuss. Yet he did not read the memo Treasury prepared to convince him to establish the board. Is that because he did not need convincing or is it because he did not care much either way? Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau fretted it was the latter. He continued to worry when Roosevelt continued to delay in announcing Pehle’s appointment, in putting out a statement on atrocities signed off on by the relevant cabinet officials, and in allowing immigrants into the United States under the free ports plan. Given the president’s lackadaisical attitude, his weakened physical state (which Erbelding implies may explain his lack of interest), and his general preference for underlings resolving their own disputes, it is not surprising that the parts of the US government that did not want to help refugees before the WRB existed did not feel obligated to listen to the new agency once it did.
Framing her story as one of America’s efforts to save the Jews of Europe, and not just one agency’s efforts, Rescue Board does not analyze these differences. The book praises the United States for taking on a humanitarian mission but fails to emphasize the continued resistance to the undertaking. In the afterword, the only place besides the notes where these larger issues are addressed, Erbelding argues that the WRB’s story has been left untold or downplayed deliberately. “Most people have never heard of the War Refugee Board,” she writes accusingly and accurately, if also nonsensically. “Most people” have not heard of the Blitz, the Maginot Line, the Battle of Stalingrad, or much else about World War II beyond the fact that the US fought the Nazis and won. It is certainly not because the WRB’s “efforts are glossed over or written out of many histories of the United States and the Holocaust.” By ignoring the existing literature, she can more easily assert: “Perhaps this is because the sheer existence of the WRB disrupts the popular narrative that the United States was indifferent or even callous toward the fate of the Jews.” The existence of the WRB no more disrupts a narrative of the United States’ indifference to the Holocaust than the existence of the abolitionist movement casts doubt on US support for slavery. The afterword almost seems at cross purposes with much of the rest of Rescue Board. “Some even claim that Roosevelt and his administration were complicit in [European Jews’] murders,” she writes without citation. “This is of course preposterous” (p. 274). This is an odd statement given that the bulk of Rescue Board lauds the agency whose founding document was titled “A Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews.”
This obfuscating and overreaching is unfortunate because Erbelding’s book does have a scholarly contribution to make. More than previous accounts, the details of the WRB’s efforts, which she provides, demonstrate that its staff tried very hard to save Jews and saving Jews was very hard. WRB Swedish representative Iver Olsen’s doomed plan to rescue refugees from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia is one example. Or consider a minor rescue attempt that says a great deal about the staff’s dedication. WRB representative David Blickenstaff had arranged for a boat to transport 575 refugees out of Spain, when, at the last minute, twenty-two of them were found to have lice. The boat captain refused to sail with the lice-infected passengers on board. So Blickenstaff stayed behind in Cadiz and arranged to delouse the twenty-two refugees. He then rode fourteen hours with the refugees to a different port to meet another boat, only to be turned away by the town’s mayor who would not let the refugees stay overnight. They all returned to Cadiz, waited another week, and again traveled the fourteen hours to board the boat, and finally left.
Rescue Board demonstrates that the WRB staff “tried everything ... to prevent atrocities, provide relief, and rescue potential victims.” One can even cheer Erbelding’s small prayer that in confronting contemporary and future humanitarian crises, we should “come to resemble them” (p. 278). Yet we also can condemn the “American apathy, indifference or complicity” that preceded the WRB’s founding and continued to hamper its success (p. 277).
. Shlomo Aronson, Hitler, the Allies, and the Jews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 197-297, 304-21 (not all these pages deal with the WRB specifically, but they all deal with rescue options the WRB was involved in); Robert L. Beir with Brian Josepher, Roosevelt and the Holocaust: A Rooseveltian Examines the Policies and Remembers the Times (Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, 2006), 225-56; Yehuda S. Bauer, American Jewry and the Holocaust: The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, 1939-1945 (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1981), 185, 395-448, 543; Richard Breitman and Alan M. Kraut, American Refugee Policy and European Jewry, 1933-1945 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 145, 182-221, 247-49; Henry L. Feingold, The Politics of Rescue: The Roosevelt Administration and the Politics of Rescue (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1970), 183-84, 223-94; Michael Fleming, Auschwitz, the Allies and Censorship of the Holocaust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 68, 91, 208-13, 229-32, 242, 247-50, 263, 275-76; Saul S. Friedman: No Haven for the Oppressed: United States Policy toward Jewish Refugees, 1938-1945 (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1973), chap. 9; Martin Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981), 172-78, 199, 209, 228-314; Alexander J. Groth, Accomplices: Churchill, Roosevelt, and the Holocaust (New York: Peter Lang, 2011); Theodore S. Hamerow, Why We Watched: Europe, America, and the Holocaust (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008), 335-37, 377-79, 406-8, 416-17; Laurel Leff, Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 236-37, 258-74, 279-80, 286-93, 297, 307-8, 351-54; Deborah E. Lipstadt, Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945 (New York: Basic Books, 1986), 227-34, 263-77; Rafael Medoff, FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith (Washington, DC: The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, 2013), 86-107, 110-27, 141, 169-71, 183-84, 212, 220-21; Arthur D. Morse, While 6 Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy (New York: Ace Publishing Corp., 1967), 84-86, 253-302, 304, 307-9; Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999), 52-59 (Novick’s treatment is the most cursory but is included because of the book’s popularity); Monty Noam Penkover, The Jews Were Expendable: Free World Diplomacy and the Holocaust (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1988), 122-289; Robert N. Rosen, Saving the Jews: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006), 337-64, 381-406, 461-79; and Robert Shogun, Prelude to Catastrophe: FDR’s Jews and the Menace of Nazism (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2010), 195-218, 226-27.
. Only in a three-page concluding “A Note on Sources” section (which follows the acknowledgments) does Erbelding describe “two categories” of literature on America and the Holocaust. Henry Feingold and Richard Breitman (whose names though not their books are supplied) are on one side, David Wyman and Rafael Medoff (again names but no books) are on the other. According to Erbelding, Feingold and Breitman recognize “limited possibilities for wartime rescue efforts,” while Wyman and Medoff argue more could have been done. She then asserts that historians generally have treated the board as an “afterword in longer works” and “no one had studied it in depth” (p. 285). She is correct that discussions of the WRB do tend to appear toward the end of books on America and the Holocaust, but that is a function of chronology not a judgment on importance. The WRB was created eleven years after Adolf Hitler became chancellor; five years after Kristallnacht; four and half years after World War II, deportations, and ghettoization started; two and a half years after the mass murders began in earnest; and just sixteen months before the war ended. Although there has not been a full-length treatment, previous scholarship has seriously and substantively considered the WRB’s role.
. Erbelding echoes the WRB’s view of the often contentious relations among relief organizations, at times disparaging the Orthodox rescue organization Vaad Hatzalah and, to a lesser extent, the World Jewish Congress. Their archives and secondary sources on their role might have allowed for a more balanced view.
. Joseph W. Bendersky, The “Jewish Threat”: Anti-Semitic Politics of the U.S. Army (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 337-44.
. This is not the only point at which Erbelding describes what most people believed, even when she has absolutely no way to know. “Most Americans stopped paying attention” to the news of Nazi persecution, she writes (p. 11). “To most Americans, only one explanation” for the easy fall of France in 1940 “made sense”—“a fifth column of spies and saboteurs” (p. 16).
. Erbelding’s discussion of immigration also does not seem to be in sync. The Treasury Department’s memo calls “the administrative restrictions” placed on visas “the most glaring example of the use of the machinery of this Government to actually prevent the rescue of Jews” (memo cited in Medoff, FDR and the Holocaust, 115). Yet Erbelding minimizes the State Department’s use of administrative measures to keep immigration well below what the quotas allowed. She even excuses Assistant Secretary Breckenridge Long’s execrable memo urging consular officials to delay issuing visas once the deportations to Poland had started. In other places, Erbelding does not seem to have a good handle on the immigration process. Her description of what it took to qualify under the non-quota visa provision is so general as to be meaningless. The Immigration Act’s 4D provision allowed ministers and professors in certain higher education institutions who planned to carry on their vocations in the United States to qualify for non-quota visas, “not religious leaders, teachers ... intellectuals” (p. 291n9). The State Department’s interpretation of this provision substantially limited those who qualified. The President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees from 1940 to 1942 prepared a list of prominent individuals who qualified for emergency visitor visas to the United States; it did not grant “preferential State Department consideration for immigration” to those on a list beginning in 1938 (p. 302n37); those with visitor visas were not immigrants. The State Department objected to both the existence of such a list and many of the names on it. Far fewer received the emergency visas than originally planned.
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Laurel Leff. Review of Erbelding, Rebecca, Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America's Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe.
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