Re­mem­ber­ing a warn­ing that de­fied be­lief

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - HMD KAREN POL­LOCK

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

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