See more of the story

Opinion editor's note: Star Tribune Opinion publishes a mix of national and local commentaries online and in print each day. To contribute, click here.


On Jan. 27, Minnesotans will gather at Plymouth Congregational Church to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Joined by Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan, we will honor the 6 million Jews and millions of others murdered by the Nazis and raise awareness of pending legislation to educate Minnesota students about the Holocaust and other genocides.

Remembering the Holocaust requires us to grapple with history — including our own. How did Americans and our government respond to the greatest humanitarian crisis of the 20th century?

Rebecca Erbelding — an archivist, curator and historian for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum — will address that question with me at Plymouth Congregational Church by telling the story of the War Refugee Board (WRB), the single American governmental entity explicitly tasked with saving Jews from the Holocaust.

Erbelding's book "Rescue Board" chronicles how the WRB struggled throughout Europe, North Africa and Asia — in Spain, Portugal, Vichy France, Romania, Turkey, mandatory Palestine, Switzerland, Sweden and Hungary — to open potential portals to freedom in the periphery of Nazi-occupied Europe or the corridors of refuge through neutral countries.

Most famously, the WRB partnered with Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg to audaciously save thousands of Jews living in Budapest, the tenuous enclave of the last surviving large Jewish community in Nazi-occupied Europe.

But the heroic efforts of the WRB, which estimated it saved "tens of thousands," must be understood within the broader context of American antisemitism.

Anti-Jewish prejudices effectively delayed any significant American rescue from 1933, when Hitler rose to power, until the majority of European Jews had already been murdered by Nazi Germany and its collaborators.

The State Department, before and during the war, continually interfered with rescuing Jews — German Jews at first, then Austrian Jews and eventually all Jews trapped within Nazi-occupied Europe.

Personifying this obstruction was Assistant Secretary of State Samuel Breckinridge Long who, according to Andrew Meier's book "Morgenthau," wrote in a 1938 diary comment regarding "Mein Kampf": "[It] is worth reading … [and] eloquent in opposition to Jewry and to Jews as exponents of Communism and chaos. My estimate of Hitler as a man rises with the reading of the book."

Americans in large numbers possessed similar antisemitic attitudes.

During World War ll, Roper polling revealed that 56% of Americans believed Jews had "too much power in the United States." Between 35% and 40% would have approved an antisemitic campaign against Jews in the United States. Half of Americans saw Jews as greedy and dishonest.

The reality and perception of American antisemitism was critical in shaping the United States' response to the Holocaust. Within the government, there was great sensitivity to the canard that the fight against fascism was a "Jewish war."

Standing up against such widespread antisemitism was the Treasury Department, which documented the State Department's obstruction. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, President Franklin Roosevelt's closest friend in the cabinet, personally demanded in January 1944 that the president either act or his department would go public with its findings. Within days, the WRB was created by executive order.

Still, the climate of American antisemitism weighed heavily on the WRB's work. For example, by the middle of 1944, with the war turning sharply against Germany, WRB staff suggested the Allies issue an explicit warning to Nazis: "None who participate in such acts of savagery [against Jews] shall go unpunished."

Opposition to the Jewish-centric nature of the warning included Roosevelt's White House counselor and speech writer, Samuel Rosenman. He argued American antisemitism would worsen "if Americans got the idea that the war was being fought on behalf of Jews."

Despite the obstacles, the WRB energetically pursued its mission of saving Jews until it was dissolved in September 1945.

Minneapolis-born John Pehle, along with other Treasury Department lawyers, was instrumental in the creation of the WRB and served as its executive director through January 1945. In later years — looking back at the WRB — he was melancholy. Pehle, as Erbelding cites, lamented "too little and too late."

The diametrically opposite responses of America's State and Treasury Departments is evidence that, as Pehle observed shortly after Roosevelt appointed him acting director of the WRB, "Jews and other persecuted minorities can be saved if those charged with the task think they can be saved and are determined to that end."

Today, these lessons still resonate. That is why we are working on legislation to ensure that this history is taught in our schools and our educators are provided the resources they require to properly honor both the survivors and the victims for whom help came too late.

Steve Hunegs is the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.