World War II documents released this week indicate Britain and the United States knew ahead of time that Germany planned to exterminate Rome’s Jews.
They also reveal candid conversations among German prisoners of war, including graphic descriptions of how Jews were executed during the war.
According to records, British intelligence knew in late 1943 of German plans to deport Roman Jews to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland, and shared this information with United States. Neither country took steps to warn the Germans or inform the Italians.
“I understand that the British were trying to protect the secrecy of their code-breaking operations,” said Richard Breitman, a professor of history at American University in Washington. But Breitman said the British had other methods of leaking the information, and had used these methods in the past.
The Nazi War Criminal Records Interagency Working Group released 400,000 pages of documents to comply with the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act of 1998. The documents, culled from records of the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner to the CIA, constitute the largest document release by the working group so far.
Among these documents are secret tape recordings by the British of frank conversations between captured German prisoners.
Often, German POWs gave “minimized” accounts of their actions during the Holocaust to Allied investigators to avoid prosecution, said Eli Rosenbaum, director of the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, which hunts Nazis, and a representative with the working group.
“How was it done?” asked one prisoner, concerning executions in a town in Latvia.
“[The Jews] faced the trench and then 20 Latvians came up behind and simply fired once through the back of their heads,” answered the second prisoner.
“There was a sort of step in the trench, so that they stood rather lower than the Latvians, who stood up on the edge and simply shot them through the head, and they fell down forward into the trench. After that came 20 men,” and then “someone gave the command and the 20 fell into the trench like ninepins.”
Later, the second prisoner expressed his disgust at the executions. “We draw our drinking water from deep springs; we’re getting nothing but corpse water there.”
The records, said the historians, show a range of attitudes about the Holocaust among German soldiers.
“Anybody looking to find supporting evidence for the view that some German soldiers as well as the SS were involved in or knowledgeable about the Holocaust will find plenty of supporting evidence,” Breitman said.
“But they will also find evidence of people who were opposed to the Holocaust, and some who knew little about the Nazi atrocities in and outside of the extermination camps.”
Tullia Zevi, former president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, said the revelation that the Allies knew of German plans for Italian Jews did not surprise her.
“It above all is a confirmation of what was practically known, and adds more details,” she said.
Zevi said revelations like this, however, may end up clarifying many “blurred” aspects of the war and attitudes to the Shoah.
“A lot is known about news that reached the Vatican and reached the Allies about the genocide,” she said. “But what we know less is the reaction of the recipients. How was this news received? Was there even a blink of moral indignation? Did they intend to protest?”
The documents are now available to researchers at the National Archives in College Park, Md.
The more material that is released, said Timothy Naftali of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, the easier it is to make a case for the release of even further information from government agencies, including the U.S. Army, FBI, CIA and the State Department.
Rosenbaum spoke at a news conference Monday announcing the release of the documents.
“If there is anyone left on this planet who harbors a suspicion that perhaps Holocaust survivors have exaggerated the grotesqueries inflicted by the Nazis on their victims, that suspicion will be put to rest by reading this transcript,” he said.
(JTA correspondent Ruth Gruber in Rome contributed to this report.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.