Remembering a warning that defied belief
NOT LONG out of University, in 1998, I was asked to represent the Holocaust Educational Trust at the World Jewish Congress’ international gathering in Moscow — a rather daunting task at the time! After a long flight, I arrived late in the evening and upon arrival happened to meet a gentleman called Gerhard Riegner. It was only years later that I realised that I had met someone with a fascinating, and important, story to tell.
In July 1942, Himmler, the architect of the Final Solution, travelled to Auschwitz and Lublin to share his and Hitler’s decision to exterminate all Jews in Europe immediately. Hoess, the Commandant of Auschwitz, later recalled that, over dinner, Himmler seemed unusually cheerful and chatty. Eduard Schulte, a German industrialist who learned of Himmler’s plans from one of the dinner guests, was so alarmed that he forwarded the information to Gerhart Riegner, at that time Secretary of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva.
On August 8 of that year, Gerhard sent what would later be known as the Riegner Telegram, in which he wrote: “Received alarming report stating that, in the Fuehrer’s Headquarters, a plan has been discussed, and is under consideration, according to which all Jews in countries occupied or controlled by Germany numbering three and a half to four millions should, after deportation and concentration in the East, be at one blow exterminated, in order to resolve, once and for all the Jewish question in Europe.” This telegram was delivered to officials in Washington, New York, and London, with a request for it to also be passed on to Stephen Wise, the President of the World Jewish Congress.
The US State Department, on receiving the telegram, deemed it a ‘‘wild rumour, fuelled by Jewish anxieties’’, and chose not to share it with Wise. The Foreign Office didn’t forward the telegram for some time, although they did go on to pass it to Wise, who pushed for it to be made public.
When he learned of what was to happen to the Jews of Europe, Eduard Schulte refused to stand by, as did Riegner and Wise. But officials in New York, Washington and London chose to ignore what later proved to be crucial information. It is difficult to judge their behaviour — in 1942, to hear of plans to exterminate all Jews, everywhere in Europe, even those fit to work, during a war, must have seemed incredible and we will never know how differently this story may have turned out if they had taken action.
Riegner’s is the story of one man who refused to stand silent but who ultimately could not stop the horrors that befell the Jews of Europe. As we know only too well, the story of the Holocaust is not the story of the brave few, or the few with the foresight to know the severity of the situation, the story of the Holocaust is the story of six million men, women and children rounded up, imprisoned, starved, tortured and murdered, while millions of others took no action to help. It is the story of all the people who met Himmler during his three days in Poland, who didn’t go to Riegner, or anybody else — who accepted their orders to accelerate the murders of Jews.
Years later, Riegner said: “Never did I feel so strongly the sense of abandonment, powerlessness and loneliness as when I sent messages of disaster and horror to the free world and no one believed me.”
Despite the powerlessness that he felt, his legacy as a man who stood up for what was right is an inspiration to me. As well as remembering all that we lost in the Shoah, this year I will also be remembering Gerhart Riegner. Karen Pollock is chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust
Heroic: Gerhard Riegner was the first to warn of Nazi atrocities