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Special Interview the Long Night

April 6, 1983
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

There has been a growing controversy in the American Jewish community over the role of American Jewry in the rescue of European Jews during the Holocaust. The behavior of American Jewry, however, cannot be evaluated in a vacuum. Information on and understanding of the circumstances in which they operated — including the role of the American and British governments — is essential to put their behavior in historical context.

In an effort to provide this framework and some answers to the question of whether American Jews “did enough” to rescue European Jews, the Jewish Tele graphic Agency recently interviewed Dr. Gerhart Riegner, currently Secretary-General of the World Jewish Congress. Riegner, an outstanding fighter against Nazism, served from 1936 to the end of the war as the WJC representative in Geneva.

There he established an effective network which enabled him to gather and transmit to American and British Jewry and their governments crucial information on the day-to-day developments in the Nazis’ war against the Jews.

In this interview with JTA, Riegner provides insights on the role of the Allies and American Jewry with regard to rescue. What follows is a three-part condensed version of this interview.

The first part deals with the famous 1942 telegram Riegner, then 30 years old, sent to American and British Jews revealing the Nazi plan behind the deportations and massacres he had been reporting on to them and their initial response to this information.


Q: The telegram you sent to the World Jewish Congress in London and New York on August 8, 1942, via American and British diplomats in Switzerland, that the Germans were discussing plans for a “final solution” was based on a report from a German industrialist. What made the report credible?

A: There were three major reasons why I believed that report, or convinced myself that it was credible. One, Hitler had threatened a number of times in his speeches that the one thing that was certain was that European Jews will not survive the war. Second, the message showed there was a plan (behind) the whole range of deportations from the West which started on one day, July 15 — in Paris, Lyon, Marseilles, Amsterdam, Brussels, Antwerp — which otherwise remained isolated actions.

We already knew about the deportations from Central Europe — Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia …. Third, I had seen the Nazis come to power in Germany. I knew their character, their ruthless fanaticism and brutality. We knew how they murdered political enemies, the places in Berlin where they tortured them — it was the cellars of the (former) Communist Party newspaper ….

Q: What action did you expect from American Jews in reaction to the telegram?

A: I discussed this with one person only, Professor (Paul) Guggenheim, the legal advisor of the World Jewish Congress. He felt, and I accepted this, that the Jews in the free world had better judgement than we did, surrounded as we were by Nazis — in Germany, France, Austria and Italy — and that we should leave it to them to undertake action that was appropriate in the judgement of a Jewry that was completely free.

Q: Rabbi Stephen Wise, the president of the World and the American Jewish Congress, received your cable via London on August 28. According to Saul Friedman, in “No Haven for the Oppressed,” the AJCongress Executive Beard decided Wise should go to Washington to verify the information through the State Department. Apparently, they did not believe its contents, otherwise, why did they seek this confirmation?

A: They didn’t ask (for confirmation), they sought help. Sumner Welles, the Undersecretary of State, who had the reputation of being friendly, told Wise not to go public (with the information), this was his condition….

Q: Do you mean that Wise had no choice but to suppress the information?

A: That’s my reading. They felt that they depended on the State Department, on Welles, for other news because whatever would come, would come through official channels. They wanted action from the government, (and) felt they should not act against their advice from the beginning….

I believe Wise believed (the report). I’ve read his letters of those days — the end of August, beginning of September — to Justice Felix Frankfurter, and to Rev. John Haynes Holmes, a Protestant clergyman, a very moving letter saying, “What can we do? I don’t know what we should do.”

This was not the first report I sent. The “Final Solution,” although we didn’t yet call it that, started with the Russian campaign, in 1941. And they got all kinds of additional information. For example, the first message from the German industrialist was followed six to seven weeks later by a second one: “Now I am sure there is a ‘final solution’ policy.”

From the moment I had this, I tried to get as much additional evidence (as possible). On October 22, Richard Lichtheim (The Jewish Agency representative in Geneva) and I were asked to see the American Minister, Leland Harrison, and submit all the information we had. That came to a document of 25 pages. We had a long discussion with him ….. When (his report) arrived in America in November, Welles called in Wise and said, “I have terrible news for you, your worst fears are confirmed.”


Q: Walter Laquer, in “The Terrible Secret,” thinks the Jews did not really believe this or other reports ….

A: Knowing facts and accepting them are two quite different things. Nahum Goldman, head of the Zionist Emergency Committee during the war, in his speeches, for example, at the Biltmore Conference (May, 1942, where American Zionists officially advocated the establishment of a Jewish State), painted the most pessimistic picture of the fate of European Jewry — that millions of Jews are dying. Nevertheless, he writes in his autobiography that “somewhere in my inner heart I couldn’t believe it.”

One of my colleagues in New York sent me in 1943 or 1944, on behalf of the Federation of Polish Jewry, the addresses of 30,000 Polish Jews to whom they wanted me to send packages. I couldn’t do anything; I went mad when I saw the list. These were people who knew what was happening, they knew that most of the people (on the list) were no more. But they simply could not accept this absolute evil. This had never happened before; (this was) an enemy without precedent in history.

Q: Do you think American Jews did enough to try to rescue European Jews?

A: Let me say, nobody did enough. In such a situation, nobody does enough, I didn’t do enough, nobody did …. I have always insisted that we lost this war. It is very difficult to admit this, too, and nobody wants to. I don’t believe that just because you fight you have to win. The reality is that we Jews lost the war against Hitler, we suffered a terrible defeat ….

The question is, what could have been done at this stage, when the real war was on? We have to examine this situation by situation …. We could have saved more …. The English could have been pressured to take in more Jews, they didn’t take in many. There could certainly have been more immigration to North Africa, going through Spain. Palestine could have taken in more (if not for) the resistance of the British.

There could have been much greater pressure on the neutral countries — Switzerland, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Turkey — with more guarantees, Switzerland finally saved about 25-30,000. I have no doubt this could have been even 60,000, perhaps 70 or 80,000. Sweden could have taken in more …. Transport was also a problem — transporting tens or hundreds of thousands of Jews easily was not possible.

Q: What about the U.S. admitting Jewish refugees — couldn’t the immigration laws have been changed or bent?

A: The immigration laws were absolutely sacrosanct. It was considered absolutely impossible to change them. I don’t think Roosevelt could have done it; the opposition was much stronger than we believe. Nobody wanted immigration. The best friends we had at the time, the trade unions, the labor people — who had been the greatest supporters in the boycott against Germany — were the first to oppose (any change in the laws). Nobody dared to raise the question of changing the immigration laws.

(Tomorrow: Part II)

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