“It is the policy of this Government to take all measures within its power to rescue the victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death and otherwise to afford such victims all possible relief and assistance consistent with the successful prosecution of the war.” – President Roosevelt, 22 January 1944

Belle Jarniewski – Canadian IHRA delegate and Chair at the Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre – reviewed the educational resource on the establishment of the U.S. War Refugee Board. You can find this resource on the website of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

By Belle Jarniewski

When exploring the story of the creation of the U.S. War Refugee Board (WRB) in 1944-45, one cannot help but be reminded that the world has been responding to the current crises in Syria and Iraq with a similar approach.

Particularly pertinent is Roosevelt’s letter of June 12, 1944 – quoted above – noting the US government’s dedication to “rescue the victims of enemy oppression in imminent danger of death”. Then as now, rescue had been ignored for many years while so many had already been displaced and murdered.

This educational resource is supported by many primary source materials: correspondence between the key players and reports and memos on the results of the WRB.

The educational resource covers the following topics:

  • Refugee relief and rescue
  • Creation of the U.S. War Refugee Board
  • Advocating on behalf of a group facing danger, oppression and in danger of death
Jews traveling by train to Palestine from Slivengrad (Bulgaria) via Istanbul (Turkey) through the efforts of JDC and the U.S. War Refugee Board (c. 1947). Source: JDC archives

The War Refugee Board (WRB) was established in January 1944 by U.S. President Roosevelt and was the formal response of the U.S. to the persecution of millions of people in Nazi-occupied Europe.

“The Joint Distribution Committee desires to advise the Department of State that it is prepared to support […] any projects which our Government may devise and undertake […] looking toward the rescue or the relief of distressed Jews in Axis-occupied territories.
Furthermore, we believe that such an objective may be achieved partially and indirectly by measures undertaken for the benefit of refugees in neutral countries who have already escaped from occupied areas. The Joint Distribution Committee is currently expending substantial sums in relief of such refugees, particularly in Spain and Switzerland.”

– Letter from Paul Baerwald (Honorary Chairman JDC) to Mr. Sumner Welles (US Under Secretary of State), 28 May 1943.

One of the WRB’s most important functions was to enable private agencies to send funds into enemy territory. These funds helped finance the rescue of Jews in Nazi- and Axis-occupied territories. Efforts included the evacuation of about 7,000 Romanian Jews to Palestine via Turkey between 1944 and 1945. When the war in Europe ended, so did the assignment of the War Refugee Board. In the Board’s nearly two years of service, almost 200,000 Jews were rescued through its efforts.

The first children’s transport arrives from Romania through the efforts of JDC and the U.S. War Refugee Board (1944). Source: JDC archives
The first transport of Romanian children arriving in Palestine through the efforts of JDC and the U.S. War Refugee Board (1944). Source: JDC archives

We would like to hear from you! What are your thoughts on the resource we present here? Would you use it as an educator when talking about refugees today? Do you see similarities with today’s responses towards the situation of refugees? We look forward to your feedback. You can share your thoughts by leaving a reply.