Due to extensive documentation in all manner of media, World War II is an enduring object of fascination. Just when we think we’ve heard everything, the inexhaustible well comes up with something new.
In my favored stories of resistance, espionage, politicking, and propaganda, the Holocaust—Nazi Germany’s systematic genocide of Jews in occupied Europe—is impossible to avoid. (Yes, other minority groups were targeted, too. This book is not about them.) It’s a favorite pastime among WWII buffs to finger people, besides the Germans, who ought to share the blame for the most famous war crimes of all time. Maybe the worst could have been averted if the United States and Canada had raised their immigration quotas. Maybe Britain should have trashed the White Paper and opened up Palestine. Maybe the American public should have spent less time worrying about Japan so they could push for policies of active rescue in Europe. Maybe the Allies should have intervened earlier—bombed the tracks to Auschwitz, maybe. (Or maybe the Nazis shouldn’t have been mass murdering f*ckheads!)
Enter Rebecca Erbelding, a historian, archivist, and curator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Washington, DC). She spent a decade scouring mountains of paperwork and conducting interviews to write the definitive history of the War Refugee Board (WRB), the United States’ official response to Germany’s mass murder of the Jews.
President Roosevelt established the WRB with Executive Order 9417 in January 1944. With a modest budget and tiny but idealistic young staff, the WRB had tacit permission to break any law if doing so would save lives. Imagine hurtling over roadblocks placed by the slow and secretive Departments of State and War. Imagine bribes, chartered ships, prisoner exchanges, and triangulated discussions with Nazi officials willing to trade people for war matériel. Imagine working in concert with the dodgiest of contacts, all behind the backs of our most important allies (Britain, Russia), in an attempt to get food packages to concentration camps. Imagine synthesizing eyewitness testimonies from escaped Auschwitz prisoners to release the biggest media bombshell of the war. It’s unbelievable, and it’s all true, and it all happened in about 18 months.
How many people did the WRB save? It’s impossible to say. Some people were saved once by protective papers, only to get shipped off in a cattle car when those same papers were revoked. Some people were saved multiple times, whether on a midnight passenger ship to Turkey or a train ride to Palestine. What’s clear is that the people of the WRB exhausted every option to save who was left—but at that point, few people were.
The takeaway? The common belief that America didn’t know or care about the Holocaust is false. Here are the receipts.
Recommended if you like comprehensive histories of World War II and the Holocaust, with pages and pages of footnotes. Lots of bureaucratic red tape—the sabotage of WRB cables will drive you to distraction. Very little graphic content (such as photos or descriptions of the death camps).