It seems truly remarkable that it has taken 74 years to write the first history of the important work that President Franklin Roosevelt’s War Refugee Board undertook to save the Jews of Europe in the waning years of World War II. But that is what Rebecca Erbelding has done in her new book.
Erbelding, who works as an archivist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, spent 10 years writing and researching the book and sifting through an amazing 43,000 documentary sources. In the process she has created a history of how officials in the U.S. Department of Treasury succeeded in doing a better job than they are usually credited with.
The WRB was created by executive order in January 1944, less than 1 ½ years before the end of the war in Europe. During its short history it became a tireless advocate for those Jews who could still be saved. In a thrilling, detailed narrative, Erbelding outlines how a small group of government bureaucrats in Washington used daring, imagination, cunning, ingenuity and a very limited budget to sometimes create miracles.
The WRB was behind the heroic work done by the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg on behalf of the Jews in Budapest. It was instrumental in helping escaping Jews from Romania make it safely to Palestine, despite a strong British effort to stop them, and in the final months of the war, it created hundreds of thousands of relief packages that were delivered to prisoners in German concentration camps.
In short, the book chronicles, in greater detail than previously attempted, the effort America made on behalf of Jews during the Holocaust. And while it may be seen by some as too little too late, it is a challenge to those who, in recent decades, have insisted that America’s response to the Holocaust was half-hearted and ineffective.
Perhaps, as many have argued, America could have done more, but as Erbelding’s book persuasively argues, the work of the WRB was an important humanitarian effort during a decidedly dark time in human history.
Rebecca Erbelding will present “Rescue Board” at the Book Festival 12 p.m. Nov. 4.