The Legacy of the M.S. Saint Louis

Hannah Rosenthal
Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism 
George Marshall Conference Center, Department of State
Washington, DC
September 24, 2012

Good morning. I want to welcome you all to today’s historic program. The State Department especially welcomes the fourteen survivors of the MS St Louis who were able to join us.

I want to begin by telling you a bit about my family. My father was a Holocaust survivor and my mother was a feminist before the word was coined, and a staunch admirer of FDR, especially of his wife Eleanor. My sister and I remember sitting at our dinner table watching our parents argue. Mom would sing the virtues of FDR, he saved our country, he could do no wrong. And dad would respond that FDR sent back the St Louis and stopped thousands if not millions from coming to America to escape death. And that volley would happen on a regular basis. It is that tension which we will explore today.

Today we are here to face a tragic chapter of history. It is the intersection of Holocaust history and U.S. history. We are here to face a very dark chapter in State Department history, and to discuss unfinished business.

My name is Hannah Rosenthal and I am the State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. My job takes me to many countries around the world where my message to Prime or Foreign Ministers is that they must face up to their countries’ roles and responsibilities during the Holocaust. Today we must face up to our country’s role and responsibility during the Holocaust.

Many of you may have read the current best seller, “In the Garden of the Beasts” which chronicles what we knew about Hitler and his plans in 1933-34. It is a painful read. And last year many of you may have heard Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner speak about the role that Treasury played in trying to save Jews.

But today I want to tell you why it was that Treasury was concerned with saving Jews from death, when the State Department was not. In August 1942 a secret cable was sent to the State Department through secure channels detailing Hitler’s plans to totally exterminate European Jews. Instead of acting, State tried to shut down the secret channel of secure information. State told its consulates in neutral countries that they were not to accept reports submitted to them to be transmitted to private persons unless advisable because of extraordinary circumstances. That State cable signaled to U.S. Embassies that State was uninterested in information concerning the Jews.

Treasury’s Foreign Funds Director John Pehle and his Deputy Josiah DuBois learned that State was actively blocking the transfer of funds from private Jewish organizations intended for refugee rescue. Pehle identified the problem was the need to remove the refugee question from State to an agency sympathetic to the Jews. Treasury Secretary Morgenthau’s staff urged him to immediately recommend a commission to deal with his matter. Morgenthau requested to see a copy of the cable that State sent, and he received an altered version of it. State had left out the crucial reference to the original cable cataloging what was happening to the Jews, and thereby withholding from Treasury information about the murder of Jews. Morgenthau was convinced he had to persuade the President to remove refugee affairs from the State Department . After a study of the materials, on January 13, 1944, the report written by Pehle and duBois was completed and titled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews”.

The report began “One of the greatest crimes in history, the slaughter of the Jewish people in Europe, is continuing unabated…Unless remedial steps of a drastic nature are taken…immediately, I am certain that no effective action will be taken by this Government to prevent the complete extermination of the Jews in German controlled Europe, and that this Government will have to share for all time responsibility for this extermination.” At a meeting later, Morgenthau would say “The attitude to date is no different from Hitler’s attitude”.

The Treasury report catalogued State’s “willful failure to act”, charging that Department officials had used Government machinery to prevent the rescue of Jews, taken steps to prevent the rescue programs of private organizations from being put into effect, failed to facilitate the obtaining of information on Hitler’s plans to exterminate Europe’s Jews, and in their official capacity, have “gone so far as to surreptitiously attempt to stop the obtaining of information” and tried to cover up, conceal, and misrepresent their guilt by giving out false and misleading explanations.

Pehle and DuBois and Morgenthau urged the President to establish a refugee board outside the State Department.

Nine days later the War Refugee Board was established. Though placed in the Executive Office of the President, the WRB was really run from Pehle’s office in Treasury. Its initial budget was $1 million and later an additional $4 million was given to the WRB. Much of the eventual $20 million for rescue was financed by private donations from Jewish and Christian individuals and groups. A special shout out is called for here for the great work of the Joint Distribution Committee. The WRB estimated that it saved over 200,000 lives. Pehle’s comments say it all: “what we did was little. It was late… and little.”

But in recognizing this horrible story, we in America always strive to improve. What came out of this tragic chapter of history? The United Nations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the definition of genocide, the Nuremburg trials.

And the State Department is a totally different State Department. It is lead by superb people, committed to improving not only our responses to human rights abuses, but in repairing this fractured world. And no one exemplifies this more than Deputy Secretary Bill Burns.

Bill holds the highest rank in the Foreign Service, Career Ambassador, and became the Deputy Secretary of State in July 2011. He is only the second serving career diplomat in history to become Deputy Secretary. Besides serving as Ambassador to Russia and Jordan, I could read a long list of his assignments and accomplishments. But I think the best way to give you an idea of what his job is like is to tell you that he just returned from Libya, where he met with U.S. Embassy staff and Libyan government officials under some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable.

Welcome Deputy Secretary Burns…