The majority of letters were sent by the public in June (54%). Approximately a fifth (21%) came in May.
In April 1944, the idea of “free ports,” a term usually applied to a port area where goods in transit are exempt from customs’ duties, was re-purposed by New York Post columnist Samuel Grafton, who applied this “free ports” concept to refugees. WRB staff members, Josiah Du Bois and Joseph Friedman, were likely his collaborators. Grafton’s article appeared in 41 newspapers with a combined circulation of over 4 million. Only a few days after Grafton’s article was published, a Gallup Poll revealed that 70 percent of respondents were in favor of the creation of refugee camps in the U.S. which would provide temporary refuge. These refugees would arrive outside of the regular immigration procedure, as "prisoners of war," with no rights and no possibility of citizenship unless they applied and went through the official channels to do so (2).
Pehle was questioned at a press conference on April 19, 1944 about whether the WRB was considering bringing more people into the U.S. Pehle replied that “it was being talked about” and used Samuel Grafton’s articles about “free ports” as examples. Then a reporter asked if the WRB was considering free ports, to which Pehle was non-committal, saying instead that “all sorts of things were under consideration.” However, Pehle’s response was mis-interpreted by New York papers to mean that the WRB was for “free ports.” HMJ sent one such article to FDR on April 19, 1944. The article stated clearly: “The War Refugee Board is considering… a plan to establish free ports of temporary residence in the United States for refugees from Nazi Europe… disclosed today by John W. Pehle, executive director of the board." (3)
In early May, an official proposal was created by the Board for the President (based on earlier drafts from March) suggesting that action be taken to create “temporary havens of refuge” within the United States. However, there were debates whether this step should be taken immediately by Executive action or submitted to Congress for approval. On May 4, 1944 in the New York Times, an editorial appeared arguing that prisoners of war were permitted entry into the US (“our captive enemies”) so why not refugees (“our luckless friends”)? The editorial articulated that the WRB would be a “logical agency” to carry out the “‘free port’ plan” and added that army camps could be used. While some of the refugees might return to their homes after the war, others would find homes in countries where “immigrants might be needed and welcomed” and then some could be “admitted regularly into the United States.” The author articulated that the plan had “nothing to do with unrestricted and uncontrolled immigration. It is simply a proposal to save the lives of innocent people.” (4)
Over 3,000 letters of support came from citizens all over the United States once the idea was publicized nationwide, which helped the War Refugee Board push to establish one such camp.
President Roosevelt was “sympathetic” to the proposal to establish a refugee camp in the U.S. and “pleased” at the “favorable publicity” the “free port” proposal had received, but he disliked the name “free port” because he wanted it to be clear that the refugees would only stay in the U.S. temporarily until the end of the war. He was reluctant to issue an announcement that large numbers of refugees were coming to the US without Congressional approval. However, if a specific emergency situation arose, he would be willing to bring 1000 refugees to the U.S. and then write to Congress after the fact explaining what he had done and why (5).
Meanwhile, in Italy, that exact type of situation was brewing: there were limited facilities for refugees in Allied controlled Italy, the Allied militaries had not been able to encourage the escape of refugees from enemy territory into Italy, and the refugees that managed to escape created a considerable burden to the military, causing them to discourage the escape of more refugees. Pehle informed the President that this situation prevented the rescue of people in Yugoslavia, and Hungary through Yugoslavia, and authorities in Italy were demanding that refugees be taken elsewhere. Pehle believed that this was the type of emergency that warranted FDR to bypass Congress and proceed with establishing a refugee shelter in the United States (6).
At the cabinet meeting May 24, Morgenthau did not get much support for the idea of setting up a refugee camp in the U.S. except the President agreed that the refugees could not be turned back. Harold Ickes (Department of the Interior) was the only one who favored the idea of the camp being set up in the U.S. The President seemed set on housing the refugees in Termini, Sicily. Stimson (Secretary of War) wanted the British to do something, Francis Biddle (Attorney General) attacked Morgenthau and Cordell Hull (Secretary of State) was a “mumble-jumble.” It is important to note that Ickes was the Honorary Chairman of Peter Bergson's Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe. On May 25, Alfred E. Smith, the former Governor of NY called a press conference at which he announced that 72 important Americans (non-Jews) signed a petition that asked the President to establish a temporary haven in the U.S. The signers had responded to a telegram from Smith the day after Pehle distributed his new proposal for evacuating 1000 refugees from Italy. Right before this cabinet meeting, the President met with Guy Gillette and a bipartisan group from both houses of Congress. On May 29, Gillette introduced a resolution which urged the President to set up centers for “temporary detention and care” for Jews and other Nazi victims. The Washington Post ran an ad the same day from Bergson’s Emergency Committee supporting the Gillette resolution. Gillette, an ally of Peter Bergson, had developed a resolution in the fall of 1943 for what became the War Refugee Board. Gillette was the President of another Bergson organization, the American League for a Free Palestine (1945-48). (7)
Roosevelt decided that under no circumstances were the refugees in Yugoslavia to be turned back. He liked the idea of a camp in the U.S. for the refugees from Italy, but wanted it to be clear that provisions were being made for refugees in other places as well. The President was persistently pressed about the camp by Pehle and Morgenthau. FDR asked if they had a camp to use, and Pehle said he could get one quickly. The President selected the name “Emergency Refugee Shelter” out of a list of potential names provided to him because of its “temporary” nature as well as the “honest” tone of the word “shelter” (8).
On June 2nd, the War Department informed the War Refugee Board that a vacant United States Army camp, Fort Ontario at Oswego, New York, would be made available to hold refugees nearly immediately. Roosevelt notified cabinet members, representatives in Algiers and Italy as well as Congress (on the 8th and 12th respectively) that the United States would host up to one thousand refugees from Southern Italy in order to relieve the burden placed on the war effort in Europe and to further help victims fleeing from enemy persecution (9).
A few weeks later, in mid-July, Ruth Gruber was chosen to represent the Department of the Interior in Italy and was tasked with accompanying and gathering information about the refugees. This information allowed the War Relocation Authority to better prepare for their arrival in Oswego. Toward the end of the month, the refugees set sail aboard the Henry Gibbons from Southern Italy to their haven in the United States. Upon their early August arrival, the refugees were given health examinations and had their belongings disinfected, and they began their journey from New York City to Hoboken, New Jersey, and on to Oswego by train (10).
(2) Rebecca L. Erbelding, “About Time: The History of the War Refugee Board” (PhD diss., George Mason University, 2015), 291. Arthur G. Klein, “Free Ports for Refugees: Extension of Remarks of Hon. Arthur G. Klein of New York in the House of Representatives,” USA Congressional Record, Proceedings and Debates of the 78th Congress, Second Session, Appendix 90, 9 (May 11, 1944): A2331-2. Sharon Lowenstein, “A New Deal for Refugees: The Promise and Reality of Oswego,” American Jewish History 71, no. 3 (March 1982): 328-329, 334, n. 35. No author, “Report to the War Refugee Board,” MD Vol. 707 (March 8, 1944): 235-240. John Pehle, “Memorandum for the President, draft given to Secretary Morgenthau,” MD Vol. 716 (March 24, 1944): 172-173.
(3) Virginia Mannon, “Treasury Department Inter-office communication to John Pehle,” MD Vol. 722 (April 19, 1944): 340. “Free U.S. Ports to Aid Refugees are Considered: War Refugee Board Studies Setting Up Places Where They Could Await Rescue,” New York Herald Tribune, April 18, 1944, in MD Vol. 722 (April 19, 1944): 343-344.
(4) John Pehle, “Memorandum for the President,” MD Vol. 726 (May 1, 1944): 40-47. John Pehle, “Report to the War Refugee Board,” MD Vol. 707 (March 8, 1944): 235-240. John Pehle, “Memorandum for the President,” MD Vol. 716 (March 24, 1944): 171-174. Arthur G. Klein, “Free Ports for Refugees: Extension of Remarks of Hon. Arthur G. Klein of New York in the House of Representatives,” USA Congressional Record, Proceedings and Debates of the 78th Congress, Second Session, Appendix 90, 9 (May 11, 1944): A2331-2.
(5) John Pehle, “Memorandum to Secretary Hull, Secretary Morgenthau and Secretary Stimson” MD Vol. 734 (May 20, 1944): 12-13.
(6) John Pehle, “Memorandum to the President,” MD Vol. 734 (May 18, 1944): 20-27.
(7) Henry Morgenthau Jr., “Meeting transcript to discuss Cabinet meeting held May 24, 1944,” MD Vol. 736 (May 26, 1944): 67-70. Lowenstein, “A New Deal for Refugees,” 336, 337, n. 42, 43. Rebecca Erbelding, Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe (New York: Doubleday, 2018), 44-45, 299. “Gillette, Guy Mark (1879-1973),” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-Present, accessed September 1, 2020, https://bioguideretro.congress.gov/Home/MemberDetails?memIndex=G000205
(8) John Pehle, “Memorandum for the Files,” MD Vol. 738 (June 1, 1944): 39-41.
(9) FDR, “Memorandum for: Secretary of War, Secretary of Navy, Secretary of Interior, Director of Budget, Executive Director of the War Refugee Board” and “Cable from the President to Ambassador Robert Murphy, Algiers,” MD Vol. 741 (June 8, 1944): 49-50. FDR, “To the Congress of the United States,” MD Vol. 742 (June 12, 1944): 296-298.
(10) Cordell Hull, "Untitled telegram," Morgenthau Diaries Vol. 755 (July 18, 1944): 281. Rebecca L. Erbelding, “About Time: The History of the War Refugee Board” (PhD diss., George Mason University, 2015), 375. Dillon Myer, "Report on Emergency Refugee Shelter," Morgenthau Diaries Vol. 779 (September 19, 1944): 162-170.
Where did the letters come from?
By clicking on Graph 6 within Tableau Public (and selecting "view full data"), you are able to see the following table which reveals all the senders who were female and explicitly mentioned Jews in their letters. Mrs. W. Gordon is the only case in which a female who was representing a Jewish organization explicitly mentioned Jews (in this sample of folders A-F). Mrs. Gordon was the President of the North Side District Women's Division of the American Jewish Congress (in Chicago).
You can do the same for any aspect of the data in Tableau Public. You can find the original data that contributes to any trend that you are interested in.
Her letter can be found in the War Refugee Board Papers, Series 4, Box 73, Folder: General-A, letter no. 1122, order no. 19 in the file.
This is the letter signed by Mrs. W. Gordon, President of the North Side District Women's Division of the American Jewish Congress. This is a classic example of a "for" letter that mentions Jews explicitly. Jews are mentioned twice: the Jewish people in the U.S. support the War Refugee Board's efforts on behalf of the "persecuted Jews of Europe."
Mrs. W. Gordon, Letter No. 1122 addressed to John Pehle of the WRB, June 1944, War Refugee Board Papers, Series 4, Box 73, Folder: General A, order no. 19 in the folder.
This is Pehle's reply message to Mrs. Gordon. Pehle used a template to write reply messages and this one is very common for the "for" type of letter. This is a classic example of the reply letter sent in June 1944 once the camp at Oswego had been established. This type of reply letter informed the sender of the creation of the Emergency Refugee Shelter and enclosed copies of FDR's messages to Congress, the Ambassador in North Africa, and his memo to agency heads. The final sentence was extremely common: "The concern of your organization for the fate of refugees and your interest in the problem of providing places of asylum for them are greatly appreciated."
John Pehle, "Reply letter to Mrs. Gordon, Letter no. 1122," War Refugee Board Papers, Series 4, Box 73, Folder: General-A, Order no. 19.
By clicking on Graph 7b within Tableau Public, for Jewish women's organizations which expressed the "for, but" response (and then clicking "view data"), you are able to see this table, which reproduces the data from the excel database. You can do the same for any aspect of the data in Tableau Public. You can find the original data that contributes to any trend that you are interested in.
This is the only letter from a Jewish women's organization that expressed a "for, but" response within folders A-F (which is the data that is explored in these visualizations). This letter and resolution came from the Business and Professional Women's Chapter of the Jersey City Women's Division of the American Jewish Congress in Jersey City, NJ. It was sent on June 15, 1944 by Miss R.E. Carlin, Chairman of the Legislative Action Committee.
This is the cover letter for the resolution from the Jersey City Women's Division of the American Jewish Congress, from Jersey City, NJ. This letter and resolution came from the Business and Professional Women's Chapter and was sent to the War Refugee Board on June 15, 1944. It was signed by Miss R.E. Carlin, Chairman of the Legislative Action Committee.
Miss R.E. Carlin, "Cover letter to resolution from the Jersey City Women's Division of the American Jewish Congress," June 15, 1944, War Refugee Board Papers, Series 4, Box 73, Folder: General A, letter no. 1446, order no. 21 in file, FDR Library and Museum, Hyde Park, NY.
This is the resolution from the Business and Professional Women's Chapter of the Jersey City Women's Division of the American Jewish Congress. It was signed by Dorothy Altbuch (President) and Muriel Schwartz (Secretary). This resolution is a perfect example of the "for, but" response because of the following wording "the failure of the USA to take adequate and sufficient measures of rescue would constitute guilt almost equal to that of history's most tyrannic [sic] oppressors" and later the writers ask that FDR expand and extend the stand he has taken so that "as large a number of refugees as can possibly reach our shores" are able to do so and "that our country may then take its rightful place as liberator."
Dorothy Altbuch and Muriel Schwartz, "Resolution from the Jersey City Women's Division of the American Jewish Congress," June 14, 1944, War Refugee Board Papers, Series 4, Box 73, Folder: General A, letter no. 1446, order no. 21 in file, FDR Library and Museum, Hyde Park, NY.
Reply letter from John Pehle, dated July 29, 1944 and addressed to Miss Carlin. Pehle's reply letters were created based on a template that changed slightly based on the passage of time (as the details for the camp at Oswego became clearer) as well as on the content of the letter from the member of the public. "For, but" types of letters typically got a response that included a reference to the War Refugee Board's overall efforts: "I assure you that the War Refugee Board is doing everything in its power to rescue the victims of enemy persecution and to find havens of refuge for them where they can remain in safety and be cared for until they can be returned to their own countries at the end of the war." The emphasis was always on making sure that the refugees returned to their homelands after the war.
John Pehle, "Reply letter to resolution from the Jersey City Women's Division of the American Jewish Congress," July 29, 1944, War Refugee Board Papers, Series 4, Box 73, Folder: General A, letter no. 1446, order no. 21 in file, FDR Library and Museum, Hyde Park, NY.