Rosenheim Letter Requesting Bombing of Deportation Rail Lines Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On June 18, 1944, Jewish leader Jacob Rosenheim addressed a letter to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. At the time, Morgenthau—along with the secretaries of war and state—comprised the newly formed War Refugee Board (WRB), tasked with supporting efforts to rescue the victims of Nazi oppression in Europe. In his letter, Rosenheim makes an appeal to Morgenthau for a specific action: bombing the rail lines leading from Hungary to Poland to slow down the deportation and subsequent slaughter of thousands of Jews.

Summary Overview

On June 18, 1944, Jewish leader Jacob Rosenheim addressed a letter to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. At the time, Morgenthau—along with the secretaries of war and state—comprised the newly formed War Refugee Board (WRB), tasked with supporting efforts to rescue the victims of Nazi oppression in Europe. In his letter, Rosenheim makes an appeal to Morgenthau for a specific action: bombing the rail lines leading from Hungary to Poland to slow down the deportation and subsequent slaughter of thousands of Jews.

Defining Moment

Evidence that the Nazis planned not only to persecute European Jews and other minorities, but to systematically exterminate them as well, began to surface in 1942. Jewish leaders had, on numerous occasions, appealed to Allied leaders to take action against Nazi plans. From early on, the Allies had balked at addressing Nazi Germany's persecution of Jews. Even after Nazi plans to exterminate the European Jewish population were revealed, Allied leaders hesitated. Although they condemned Nazi actions and intentions, and promised retribution, they made no direct political or military effort to aid the Jews.

As media and public criticism escalated, American and British officials met at the Bermuda Conference, in April 1943, to address the refugee problem. However, they did not open their borders to more refugees, revise any policy, or make any effort to plan the rescue of refugees. In January 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt responded to pressure from Morgenthau and others to do something to help the Jews,by issuing Executive Order 9417, through which he established the War Refugee Board and instructed the board “to rescue the victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death.”

Unfortunately, the WRB failed to live up to its charge. Conflict among the members of the board, and concerns among other Allied leaders and officials—including the military leadership of the Allied forces—prevented rescue efforts. The WRB did establish a refugee center at Fort Ontario in New York, and did provide some monetary assistance to relief and rescue efforts overseas. However, other communications among officials reveal that the Allies did not intend to divert military resources toward any efforts that were not specifically military in nature.

By 1944, millions of Jews and others had already died at the hands of Nazi Germany. That year, too, Allied forces had gained sufficient ground in Europe, allowing them to consider striking German resources directly. In this context, Rosenheim wrote to Morgenthau that members of the Jewish Agency in Switzerland had devised a plan to bomb the rail lines from Hungary to Poland—the major artery of Nazi deportation of Jews to killing centers in the East.

It is notable that Rosenheim addressed his letter directly to Morgenthau, and not to other members of the WRB. Morgenthau had been the most consistent proponent of action on behalf of Europe's Jewish people, and had appealed to President Roosevelt to address the lack of US government action. In a letter to Roosevelt, dated January 16, 1944, Morgenthau had warned that a growing number of people “see plain Anti-Semitism motivating the actions of these State Department officials and, rightly or wrongly, it will require little more in the way of proof for this suspicion to explode into a nasty scandal.” Shortly thereafter, Roosevelt had put the Treasury Department in charge of rescue and aid efforts in Europe.

Author Biography

Born in Germany in 1870, Jacob Rosenheim emerged as a prominent world Jewish leader during World War II. Rosenheim was an Orthodox Jew and a leading member of the Jewish community in Frankfurt, Germany, before immigrating to England in the 1930s. From there, he went to the United States, where he remained for the duration of the war. Early in the century, he had helped found World Agudath Israel to promote Orthodox Judaism, and continued as a leading member of that organization once in the United States. At the time of this letter, Rosenheim was serving as president of World Agudath Israel. He wrote extensively on Judaism, and immigrated to Israel after the war. Rosenheim died in 1965.

Historical Document

June 18, 1944

Secretary of the Treasury

Mr. Henry Morgenthau Jr.

Leader of War Refugee Board

Washington, D.C.

Dear Mr. Morgenthau:

I beg to approach you in the name of my organization in the following urgent matter of life and death for thousands of innocent Nazi-victims.

Since April, the deportation of Jews from Hungary to the gas chambers of Poland is relentlessly going on. About ten thousand to fifteen thousand persons a day are deported, and up to now, about 300,000 Jews are said to have been doomed to destruction in this way.

Our Rescue-Committee in Switzerland, which is in permanent close contact with Hungary by courier, has recently submitted to the American and British Embassies in Berne the idea of taking measures, to slow down, at least, the process of annihilation and thus to preserve a greater number of Jewish lives for the day of liberation.

This slackening of the process of annihilation could be achieved by paralyzing the rail-road traffic from Hungary to Poland, especially by an aerial bombardment of the most important railway junctions of Kaschau and Presov, through which the deportation-trains pass. By such a procedure, precious time would be won and thousands of human lives preserved.

On the other hand, every day of delay means a very heavy responsibility for the human lives at stake.

For this reason, we take the liberty of applying to you directly, imploring you for immediate decisive assistance in this work of life rescue.

I remain,

Yours respectfully,

Jacob Rosenheim

President

Document Analysis

Throughout the letter, Rosenheim's tone is one of plaintive appeal, as reflected by rhetoric such as, “I beg to approach you,” “take the liberty,” and “imploring you.” Still, Rosenheim's words are also firm and resolute in their purpose.

At the outset, he identifies the subject of his letter as the “urgent matter of life and death for thousands of innocent Nazi-victims.” This statement makes clear that he means to appeal to Morgenthau and the WRB to take action on behalf of the Jews confined in—or destined to be sent to—Nazi death camps in Poland. Rosenheim follows up this introduction with factual statistics meant to support the request to save lives. Specifically, he emphasizes the thousands of Jews being deported to the death camps each day, and states that 300,000 have been sent from Hungary to die thus far. These startling statistics, in conjunction with previous reports, are intended to convince officials of the serious and tragic nature of the Nazi war machine, and to motivate them to prevent further suffering.

In the third paragraph, Rosenheim references the “Rescue-Committee in Switzerland,” most likely referring to the Relief and Rescue Committee of Budapest and its liaisons in Switzerland. The committee had formed in 1941 to help Jewish refugees escape Hungary before being transported to killing centers in Poland, and worked closely with officials in neighboring Switzerland. The diplomats at the American and British embassies in Switzerland had also served as crucial supports for communication and aid throughout the war. Here, Rosenheim states that his colleagues overseas had already submitted proposals “to slow down, at least, the process of annihilation.” He reiterates that the intention of these plans is to save as many lives as possible.

Rosenheim goes on to explain that the proposed plan to slow the annihilation hinges on the bombing of the rail lines responsible for transporting most Jews to the extermination camps. He justifies this plan by asserting that the destruction of the rail lines would delay the deportation of the Jews to the camps and save “thousands of human lives.” He then offers a counter to any potential objections, stating that “every day of delay means a very heavy responsibility for the human lives at stake.” By this statement, Rosenheim suggests that the burden, or responsibility, for those lives shifts to those officials who might refuse to take action.

Rosenheim closes his letter with a final appeal for “immediate decisive assistance in this work of life rescue.” It is this decisive action to save lives that had been the goal of Rosenheim, his colleagues, and many others in Europe and the United States for years as they observed Nazi violence against Jews and other minorities escalate toward systematic genocide.

Essential Themes

The main theme of this document is the communication not only of the atrocities being committed against Europe's Jews, but also the appeal for definite action to slow the atrocities. Rosenheim identifies a plan for action that has also been proposed via other channels. He asks not for an ambiguous response, but for a specific one: bomb the railroad lines in an effort to stop the deportation of thousands of Jews to their deaths in known extermination camps. The tenor of the letter leaves no room for doubt about the circumstance, and places responsibility directly on American officials to take—or not take—action. This letter constitutes one resource among many documenting a debate that lasted through much of 1944, as Allied officials weighed whether or not to bomb the rail lines and perhaps even the camps themselves. Many factors played a part in these considerations, and ultimately, the Allies chose not to attack the rail lines or the camps. They remained firmly focused on the broader mission of winning the war.

At the same time, efforts by the Relief and Rescue Committee, supported to some degree by the War Refugee Board, continued working on the liberation of refugees, with some success. And in 1944, the Fort Ontario Refugee Center at Oswego, New York, also took in 983 refugees brought from Yugoslavia.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Breitman, Richard. Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew. New York: Hill, 1998. Print.
  • Breitman, Richard, and Alan M. Kraut. “A Message to Rabbi Wise.” American Refugee Policy and European Jewry, 1933–1945. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. Print.
  • Hamerow, Theodore. Why We Watched: Europe, America, and the Holocaust. New York: Norton, 2008. Print.
  • Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution. New Haven: Yale UP, 2008. Print.
  • Neufeld, Michael J., and Michael Berenbaum, eds. The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It? New York: St. Martin's, 2000. Print.
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