by Rafael Medoff
On a sunny Saturday morning seventy years ago this week, there was a knock on the door of the American consulate in Geneva, Switzerland. Howard Elting, Jr., a junior diplomat on duty in place of his vacationing boss, was confronted by a young man, “in great agitation,” bearing an urgent message. The messenger’s name was Gerhart Riegner, and he had come to reveal the news of the Holocaust to an unbelieving world.
Riegner, a 30 year-old lawyer, was a German Jewish refugee who served as the Swiss representative of the World Jewish Congress. In recent months, he had received reports about the Nazis deporting tens of thousands of Jews to unknown destinations “in the East”–and then never being heard from again. What could have happened to them? The new information he brought to the American consulate that day seemed to provide the answer.
A German industrialist with close ties to the Nazi hierarchy had revealed to a Jewish associate in Switzerland–who then passed it on to Riegner–that the deportations were part of an incredible Nazi plan to concentrate “all Jews [from] countries occupied or controlled Germany” in eastern Europe, where they would be “exterminated at one blow” through poison gas.
Riegner asked the consul to forward the information to the Roosevelt administration and to Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the foremost Jewish leader in the United States. Elting found the news difficult to believe, but he recognized Riegner was “a serious and balanced individual,” as he wrote to the U.S. consulate in Bern, recommending that Riegner’s message be sent to Washington.
But some American officials took a different view. Jerome Huddle, at the consulate in Bern, was worried that “the recent agitation” about the fate of the Jews indicated “there may be a big play soon to get all these people to the U.S.A.” His colleague, Leland Harrison, grudgingly agreed to send Riegner’s news to Washington, but only with a cover note characterizing it as “war rumor inspired by fear.” That was expanded to “wild rumor inspired by Jewish fears” when the State Department later sent a summary to the Office of Strategic Services.
When the telegram reached Washington, Roosevelt administration officials decided to withhold it from Rabbi Wise. Elbridge Durbrow of the State Department cited what he called “the fantastic nature of the allegation” and “the impossibility of our being any assistance” even if it proved true–meaning that since the administration had already decided it would not admit more refugees or take other steps, providing any help was necessarily “impossible.”
But the Americans were not the only ones whom Riegner had contacted. He also asked the British consulate in Geneva to send his telegram to Sidney Silverman, a Jewish member of the British parliament. Frank Roberts of the British Foreign Office warned his colleagues that the telegram might “provoke embarrassing repercussions.” Drawing the public’s attention to the Allies’ abandonment of European Jewry might indeed be “embarrassing,” but withholding information from a member of parliament might be more trouble than it was worth. They sent it on to Silverman. He, in turn, forwarded it to Rabbi Wise.
Wise called Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles on September 2. Welles, feigning surprise and never letting on that the State Department had tried to stop Wise from receiving the news, poured cold water on Riegner’s telegram. He told Wise the Jews were being deported for “war work.”
But Welles already knew the truth, from many other reports the administration had received. As recently as July 21, for example, the U.S. consulate in Stockholm, Sweden, sent the State Department a report from Polish officials listing the number of Jews “executed by the Germans” during the previous year: 60,000 in Vilna, 40,000 in Latvia and Estonia, 84,000 in White Ruthenia, 100,000 in Kiev. No reasonable person could consider such killings to be the kind of spontaneous atrocities that accompany all wars.
Nonetheless, Welles asked Wise to keep the Riegner information out of the press while the State Department investigated. Wise agreed, and Welles and his colleagues began investigating–very, very slowly. For example, it was not until three weeks later, on September 23, that the State Department asked the Vatican if it had any information about the mass killings. A curt reply from Rome mentioned only unverified reports about unspecified “severe measures against non-Aryans.”
It was not until early October –more than a month after his conversation with Rabbi Wise– that Welles asked the U.S. consul in Bern, Leland Harrison, to contact Riegner for more information. Harrison took two weeks to reply.
In the meantime, Riegner had obtained letters from a Jewish refugee in Warsaw who eluded the German censors by using Hebrew phrases as codewords. The letters reported that “Mr. Jager [hunter, i.e. the Germans] told me that he will invite all relatives of the family Acheinu [our brothers, i.e. the Jews]; that “Uncle Gerusch [deportation] works in Warsaw; he is a very capable worker”; and that “his friend Miso [death] works together with him.” Riegner gave the letters to the U.S. consulate in Geneva on September 28. Yet they did not reach the State Department until October 23.
Finally, on November 24, three long months after their first conversation about the Riegner telegram, Welles called Rabbi Wise “to confirm your deepest fears.” At a press conference the same day, Wise revealed the horrific news to the world. There would be many excuses heard from the Allies in the months and years to follow as to why Jews could not be rescued. But nobody could plead ignorance any longer.