Amid heavy security, unsung Holocaust hero honored at Orange synagogue
ORANGE — Amid heavy security, some 400 people packed Or Shalom synagogue Sunday to honor the late Josiah DuBois Jr., an attorney for the U.S. Treasury Department whose actions are estimated to have saved the lives of about 120,000 Hungarian Jews.
DuBois’ son, Robert DuBois, accepted a U.S. Senate citation in his father’s honor from U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal.
Robert DuBois said he had no idea about his father’s place in history until around high school, and then learned more details on occasions when his father was honored in later years.
Robert DuBois said his dad would have said the award Sunday wasn’t necessary, as he was just “doing what anyone should do.”
Josiah DuBois got the spotlight as part of Or Shalom’s 12th program to commemorate Kristallnacht, which translates to “Night of Broken Glass” — considered the start of the Holocaust. Kristallnacht occurred Nov. 9-10, 1938, and refers to nights of destruction and violence against Jews, synagogues, Jewish-owned businesses and everything Jewish in Germany and Austria.
Rabbi Alvin Wainhaus, who considers the annual event a “labor of love,” said the community was still “reeling” from the shooting of 11 at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and was “aghast” at the recent revelation of anti-Semitic happenings at Amity High School in Woodbridge. Wainhaus said he applauds the students who spoke up about the hate.
There was tighter-than-usual security for the event Sunday morning, with a few security guards and a police officer present; purses and bags were searched at the door.
Wainhaus said the Kristallnacht event is about celebrating the courage of everyday people like DuBois, who were “upstanders” rather than “bystanders.”
While working for the Treasury, attorney DuBois slipped into State Department files with a friend and fellow government official and made a startling discovery that would confirm the U.S. government knew about the genocide but kept it under wraps so the public wouldn’t find out. U.S. leaders were trying to stem immigration of Jews.
On Christmas Day, after spending a brief time with family, DuBois wrote a report to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that couldn’t be ignored. He called it “The Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews.” DuBois approached his boss, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, and said: “Tell the president that if he doesn’t act on this I’m going to resign and release it to the press.”
DuBois’ urgent report — and possibly the threat to go to the press — prompted Roosevelt to take personal responsibility for reaching out to the living victims of Nazi persecution by creating a special task force, “The War Refugee Board,” whose mission included “taking all measures to rescue the victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death,” Wainhaus said. DuBois was also assigned to the board.
DuBois received death threats over exerting pressure — nobody knows where they originated — and risked his job to save lives, Wainhaus said.
Riveting details of the DuBois story were given Sunday by Rebecca Erbelding, a historian and curator at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and author of the book “Rescue Board.” The details include all kinds of interesting political twists and the perspective of the American public, who were horrified by Kristallnacht — in front page headlines here for three weeks — but in polling signaling they didn’t want refugees brought here, the author said.
Erbelding told the synagogue crowd that 94 percent of Americans polled about Kristallnacht disapproved of what happened but 71 percent said they didn’t want Jews relocated here.
Special guests at the event also included a teacher, Christy Marrella, and two students, Sam Bitman and Shayna Herzfeld from New Jersey, who made an award-winning 10-minute documentary about Josiah DuBois after seeing a street named after him.
Josiah DuBois uncovered a telegram being kept under wraps in a State Department file from the World Jewish Congress reporting that 6,000 Jews were being killed daily, the student video reports.
Herzfeld said their hope is that people will spread the story of Josiah Dubois’ heroism and courage.
As he does every year, Blumenthal retold the story of how his father came to United States alone in 1935 at age 17.
“This country gave him a chance to succeed,” Blumenthal said.
He said one of the great mysteries is “why this great country turned a blind eye” to the Holocaust.
“It took people of courage, perseverance and strength to take a stand,” Blumenthal said.
He said DuBois spoke “truth to power,” a phrase often talked about today in politics.
Once DuBois got Roosevelt to establish the board, Swedish architect and businessman Raoul Wallenberg, who was commissioned by the War Refugee Board, managed to rescue tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazi regime by setting up safe houses.
A shelter was also created in New York for those who escaped the Holocaust and wound up on American soil.
As a “surprise” in the program Sunday, Wainhaus found and brought in a family saved by Wallenberg that wouldn’t have survived if not for DuBois’ actions.
The family matriarch, Judith Saley, 97, who knew Wallenberg, told the audience that she’s grateful Wallenberg and DuBois exisited and that she could express her “gratitude and love” for them.
Erbelding said the actions of the men can serve as a reminder today that “we do have the power to stand up and make a difference.”