The Central graduate who saved thousands of lives

Until 1944, during World War II, there weren’t much more than rumors, but in 1944, people around the world started to notice what the Nazis were doing with the Jews. So finally, after a long time waiting, the Treasury Department had enough reasons to convince Franklin D. Roosevelt, the U.S. president at that time, to help the Jews as much as possible.  

Roosevelt gave them permission to use all their resources on saving the Jews. They created the War Refugee Board (WRB), but they needed a leader, so they gave the position of director to John Pehle.  

Pehle always looked like how many people would say “a normal guy.” Born in Minneapolis, and raised in Omaha, Pehle graduated from Central in 1926. He also studied at Creighton University and Yale Law School. Social studies teacher Scott Wilson said, “Nothing about his life suggested like (he was) destined for greatness.” But sometimes it’s just the normal people who take the necessary step for change. And the change that Pehle made was to be the WRB director. 

The purpose for the WRB with this program was saving as many Jews as possible from Europe, and they did it by creating fake IDs, papers or bribing the soldiers. “They were human beings, they took the money, they looked the other way,” Wilson said.  

“You don’t have to be anybody incredible to make a change.”  

Pehle put much effort into his job. Even when his brother Richard Pehle died as an American soldier in France, he didn’t stop working to go to his funeral, because he knew that every moment could mean the life of someone.  

Maybe in his youth he wasn’t incredible, but as the WRB director, he demonstrated how incredible he was. At the end of the war in September 1945, when the program was dissolved, the WRB already saved tens of thousands of Jews. After that, Pehle just continued with his normal life. He liked to go golfing and bowling, and he worked as a tax financial lawyer, but it doesn’t change what he did.  

And he deserved to be remembered. In 2006, he received the Congressional Gold Medal for his rescue efforts. He was also featured in a documentary by Ken Burns, Lynn Novack and Sarah Botstein called “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” that was released in September.  

Wilson nominated Pehle to the Central High School Foundation Hall Fame In 2021, where he won’t be forgotten.