Picture it: Chicago, December 2001. I was looking for a topic for my honors thesis. I knew I wanted to work with my history advisor, who was a Holocaust historian. Since I spent most of my time studying U.S. history, I decided to dig for information on America and the Holocaust. My advisor told me that America and the Holocaust was too broad for my thesis. He also suggested that I look for a topic that hadn’t received much attention. I asked if I could write about Eleanor Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust. He said yes, if I found enough information on it. A couple of hours at the library told me that my new idea was too narrow.
While sifting through books on U.S. and the Holocaust, I discovered a chapter here and there in several books about a government agency created in 1944 called the War Refugee Board. At first I thought, a thesis about a government agency? BORING. Once I started reading about the people behind the agency, though, things got interesting. These men were not household names (anyone familiar with John Pehle, and if so, how to pronounce his name?), but they were working their tails off trying to save the few Jews who hadn’t been murdered yet in the Holocaust.
I started to ask myself questions like why wasn’t the War Refugee Board created sooner? What drove these men, who were mostly from Protestant backgrounds, to risk their jobs by going to the president and criticizing the administration’s lack of response to the Holocaust? So I wrote my thesis, and put it on my bookshelf. I always thought the topic would make a great book and that a well-known historian would write it.
Fast forward several years, and no one else had written a book about the WRB. I contacted my former professor, who encouraged me to do more research on my old topic. Ironically, shortly after I wrote my thesis, a major project to collect the papers of the War Refugee Board was completed. I discovered that I could borrow microfilm from the Library of Congress and read the actual memos that FDR and Board representatives wrote. I spent at least a year of my life looking through those documents, and then I visited the FDR library in Hyde Park because I couldn’t borrow everything I needed. (The picture on the top of my blog and in this post is of me outside the library. I was one relieved researcher)!
My book wasn’t going to rehash my thesis, however. After studying the memos and other government documents related to the Board, I made an interesting discovery. Not only did the members of the War Refugee Board save Jews, but they also made an impact on American foreign policy that continues today. As I mentioned in a previous post, I hoped for a publishing contract, but decided to self-publish when that didn’t happen. Hopefully self-publishing will make my work available to the largest possible number of people, since that always was my main goal.