(March 30, 2016 / JNS)
In April 1944, a bean farmer in Colorado sent a check for $100 to the Washington, DC, headquarters of the War Refugee Board. He explained that the donation was intended to help the Board stop the Germans “from exterminating the Jews” and to “feed, clothe, and share with them an earthly home.” In fact, the farmer wrote, he was ready to share his own home—he offered to personally take in five Jewish refugee families.
It was not a small sum in those days. Adjusted for inflation, $100 was the equivalent of $1,359 today. What would motivate a Baptist farmer in the Rocky Mountains to take such a strong interest in the plight of Jews in Nazi Europe? The answer to that question reveals a great deal about the complexities surrounding America’s response to the Holocaust.
Throughout the 1930s—the height of the Great Depression—polls consistently found an overwhelming majority of Americans opposed to any increase in immigration. There was a widespread fear of foreigners taking away jobs from Americans.
During the early years of World War II, opposition to immigration remained high; many Americans feared that Nazi spies might infiltrate the United States, disguised as refugees. When Jewish leaders appealed to the White House to try to save at least some Jews from annihilation, Franklin D. Roosevelt administration officials insisted their hands were tied because of the widespread anti-immigration sentiment. The president preferred to follow public opinion rather than lead it.
But not everyone agreed with the White House’s approach. After all, by the autumn of 1943, many things had changed. The war had put an end to unemployment. Italy had been defeated, and the Germans and Japanese were in retreat. The Jewish activists known as the Bergson Group began arguing that the American public would now be more receptive to appeals to rescue Jewish refugees.
In its public rallies, lobbying missions to Capitol Hill, and more than 200 full-page newspaper ads, the Bergsonites contended that there was a substantial reservoir of untapped public sympathy for helping Jewish refugees. The activists began pushing for a Congressional resolution urging FDR to establish a rescue agency.
Roosevelt opposed the resolution, and even sent assistant secretary of state Breckinridge Long to testify against it before a Congressional committee. But the growing controversy on Capitol Hill, combined with behind-the-scenes pressure from the Treasury Department, finally forced Roosevelt to establish the War Refugee Board.
Although the Board received almost no federal funding and very little cooperation from the State and War departments, it energetically promoted rescue initiatives, including the idea of granting haven in the U.S. for refugees until the end of the war.
It was against this background that the White House, in April 1944, commissioned Gallup to carry out a poll concerning the idea of temporary havens. The results were astounding. Asked if the U.S. should provide “temporary protection and refugee to this people in Europe who have been persecuted by the Nazis…for the duration of the war,” fully 70 percent of Americans said yes; only 23 percent said no.
That Colorado bean farmer, Harry Rogers, was part of the 70 percent—the large but silent majority of Americans who wanted to help the Jews. After a local newspaper mentioned that Rogers had offered to take in five Jewish families, the managing editor of the Intermountain Jewish News, Robert S. Gamzey, decided to find out more. Gamzey’s article, “Farmer Rogers, His Brother’s Keeper,” was distributed by the Independent Jewish Press Service.
When Gamzey arrived at the 981-acre Rogers property, he found the farmer “rushing plans to build a new house for ‘my refugees,’ and his neighbors are preparing to follow suit.” One of the neighbors has agreed “to take in two refugee children,” and another “said that he will take in two families.” Rogers’s sister and brother-in-law had made similar offers. Rogers himself, having just sent $100 to the War Refugee Board, was now busy “raising $100 for the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe (the Bergson Group), whose publicity efforts have strongly impressed him.”
“What prompted this obscure farmer to do what he is doing?” Gamzey wondered aloud.
“It is all very simple,” Rogers explained. “I was raised by Christian parents and all my life I have tried to live close to my Maker…When we hear this cry of the dying, it becomes a part of our duties, both Christian and American, to share with them our providential blessings.”
Rogers told Gamzey that he is urging his fellow Christians to remember that “God, looking from the windows of Heaven, is making a record of individual conduct,” including how people respond to “our unfortunate brothers’ welfare, regardless of race, color, class or blood.”
The farmer, who “specializes in growing superb beans and has 140 head of cattle, 30 hogs, and a large number of chickens,” is situated “in one of the most inaccessible sections of the Colorado Rockies,” but he “keeps up with world events by reading widely and traveling.”
The Intermountain Jewish News editor concluded his interview with these words: “Oh, Lord, pray give us more Harry Rogers, and we will make a better world!”
Sadly, the Roosevelt administration rejected the War Refugee Board’s pleas to grant temporary haven to a substantial number of Jewish refugees, despite the fact that most Americans would have supported such a move. President Roosevelt agreed to admit just one group of 982 refugees, who were housed in an abandoned army camp in upstate New York. Farmer Rogers and his neighbors were never given the opportunity to act on their remarkable and generous offer.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and author of 16 books about Jewish history, Zionism, and the Holocaust.