In your editorial appreciation of the posthumous award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Jan Karski, the extraordinary Polish reporter of Nazi atrocities against Polish Jews (“Jan Karski, A Medal Well-Deserved,” Editorial, June 1), you write: “Perhaps the attention Karski received this week will prompt people to read his works and reflect on how one young Polish Catholic risked his life repeatedly to call attention to the horrific plight of European Jewry. Who knows what the world would be like if those in power had acted on his pleas?”
One person in power in Washington in 1944 did act to help Jewish refugees who managed to escape the Nazis’ grasp. That person was Henry Morgenthau, Jr., then President Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of the treasury. Ironically, Morgenthau was the one important person in Washington, whom the Polish ambassador, Jan Ciechanowski, failed to invite to listen to Karski, whose trip was sponsored by the Polish government-in-exile in London.
The omission was rectified by the intervention of Rabbi Stephen Wise, a Reform rabbi and Jewish leader who was the recipient of the first information coming out of Europe revealing the Nazi plan for the genocidal murder of European Jews. Rabbi Wise knew Morgenthau and met with him, providing details of the Nazi atrocities.
Morgenthau was sufficiently disturbed that he mentioned the matter to his staff members, primarily gentile, who convinced him he had to speak to Roosevelt. To understand Morgenthau’s reluctance, one must appreciate that he was putting at risk the friendship he had nurtured for over 20 years and the status and power that came with his position. Roosevelt could have easily concluded he was focusing entirely too much on private, sectarian matters and his usefulness to Roosevelt was over.
But in January 1944, Morgenthau met with the president and presented a proposed executive order setting up the War Refugee Board. With a minor change, it became Executive Order 9417. Funding came primarily from private Jewish philanthropies.
Morgenthau was also instrumental in the U.S. allowing 982 refugees (89 percent of them Jewish) to be given refuge on American soil. His son, Henry III, commented, “In the end, some 200,000 lives had been saved — a not insignificant, yet heartrendingly disappointing number.”
Editor’s Note: The writer is the author of “Henry Morgenthau, Jr., The Remarkable Life of FDR’s Secretary of the Treasury.”