One of the most moving moments of the current production of Christmas in the Airwaves centers around the experience of the character of Hubert (Michael Conroy), a French war refugee that station manager Philip (Dann Peterson) hired as the station sound engineer. Hubert's position at the station would have been more unusual than you might suspect. The Washington Post recently published an article with public opinion polls from 1938-1939 that show that before the U.S. declared war, most Americans (60 to 70%) were opposed to allowing German, Austrian and other European political refugees entrance to the United States. However, as the war progressed, several different individuals and groups brought the plight of European war refugees to the attention of the U.S. government. These actions led to the establishment of the U.S. War Refugee Board in January of 1944 - a little less than a year before the play takes place.
In April of 1943, Gerhart Riegner, the representative of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, sent a message to the U.S. with details of a new rescue plan to help to hide Jews in France and to aid young people in the region to escape. In the late fall of 1943, a group of senators, led by Guy Gillette and responding to a proposal from members of the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, introduced a resolution that called for a government rescue agency. At the same time, Will Rogers, Jr. introduced an identical resolution into the House. Although the proposal got caught up in protracted and controversial House hearings, a vote in the Senate, scheduled to take place on January 24, 1944, seemed almost guaranteed to approve the measure. By mid-January a poll indicated the resolution would also pass in the House. Two days before the Senate ballot was to take place, President Roosevelt seized the initiative and set up the U.S. War Refugee Board.
All in all, the War Refugee Board (WRB) probably helped save the lives of about 200,000 Jews. Its rescue efforts included evacuating 15,000 from areas controlled by Germany and its allies. Another 10,000 Jews (and probably thousands more) were protected within other parts of Axis Europe by WRB-financed underground activities. Additionally, the WRB was instrumental in building the pressures that ended the deportations from Hungary in July of 1944. Ultimately, about 120,000 Jews survived in Budapest.
The American Experience website produced by PBS described how, even with these successes, the WRB struggled with opposition and inadequate funding. In the opinion of many of those who worked for the WRB, its greatest failing was that it was set up too late. Even John Pehle, who headed its rescue operations, spoke of the Board's achievements in modest terms: "What we did was little enough. It was late.... Late and little, I would say."
Hubert's story reminds us that this season is a wonderful time to be grateful for our homes, our health, and our loved ones. Happy Thanksgiving all!