A film by Hilan Warshaw
“Honorable Mr. Morgenthau… Kindly grant authority for us to come to the U.S.A. For us, it will mean no more and no less than a possibility to live.”
–Ernest Meisel, Letter to Henry Morgenthau Jr. from Frankenthal, Germany, September 19, 1937
HONORABLE MR. MORGENTHAU will be a feature-length documentary about American immigration policy during the Holocaust, as told through the lens of one American’s extraordinary experience. Throughout most of the 1930s and World War II, the United States government actively worked to ensure that the influx of European Jews to America stayed well below America’s official immigration quota from that part of the world. This acknowledged policy– rooted in a variety of political concerns, as well as frequently transparent anti-Semitism– left millions of individuals with no haven from the Nazi terror, and emboldened Hitler to transition from a policy of Jewish emigration to extermination.
Few people had a closer view of these troubling events than the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr. A devoted friend to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt– and the only Jewish member of the Cabinet– Morgenthau helped craft the New Deal economic policies that saved millions of Americans from the Great Depression. A proudly assimilated American Jew, he was also careful to stay neutral about Jewish issues– knowing that FDR did not take kindly to advisors who “pull(ed) any sob stuff” regarding refugees. In the 1930s, he declined to help when distant relatives in Europe contacted him for immigration aid (as in the letter quoted above), and made only mild efforts on behalf of the doomed S.S. St. Louis when it attempted to dock in the United States with its 937 refugees from Hitler.
Morgenthau gradually became more troubled about what he was seeing around him. Finally, his conscience forced him to act. In a nail-biting climax worthy of a thriller, Morgenthau and his staff uncovered evidence that the State Department was deliberately suppressing evidence of the Holocaust, and blocking funds for Government-approved rescue operations. The confrontation that followed led to the establishing of the War Refugee Board, credited with saving as many as 200,000 Jews in the final years of World War II– largely through sponsoring the operations of humanitarian heroes like Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. The United States itself took in only 982 Jewish refugees through the War Refugee Board, kept under curfew and without visa status in Oswego, New York.
After leaving government, Morgenthau (raised in an anti-Zionist home) became head of the United Jewish Appeal and turned his attention to raising funds for the new State of Israel– convinced that had Israel existed during the preceding decade, millions of Jews would have had a destination and would not have been slaughtered in the face of the world’s apathy.
HONORABLE MR. MORGENTHAU brings this narrative to life in an innovative and immersive format. Unlike in most historical documentaries, there are no expert interviews or modern narration. Instead, the story is told entirely through primary source materials, supplemented with original cinematography and a powerful musical score. This format allows viewers to experience these events as they unfold, as people at the time did.
The questions that are raised by this story – about American anti-Semitism, the fear of immigrants in a nation of immigrants, and the power of individual courage — have never been timelier than now. Both a troubling and an ultimately hopeful film, HONORABLE MR. MORGENTHAU aims to provide a window into the words and deeds of an America that sometimes seems not unlike our own, caught in the onrush of an unprecedented historical calamity.
Premiere screenings will take place in January 2024, to mark the 80th anniversary of the founding of the War Refugee Board.
A fiscally sponsored project of the National Center for Jewish Film, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. To visit the project’s page and make a tax-deductible contribution to the production: