Seventy years ago, on 8 August 1942, the World Jewish Congress representative in Geneva, Gerhart M. Riegner, attempted to send a telegram to Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the World Jewish Congress and a personal friend of President Franklin Roosevelt, providing him with reliable information that he had received from a high-placed source revealing Hitler’s plans to annihilate millions of European Jews. It was the first authoritative word that the Nazis had actually coordinated an extermination plan.
A few days before, Riegner had received a phone call from a friend at the Federation of Jewish Communities in Switzerland with news that a German industrialist had told him of a plan being discussed by Hitler to exterminate the Jews of Europe. The cable he prepared for Wise read as follows:
Received alarming report about plan being discussed and considered in Führer headquarters to exterminate at one fell swoop all Jews in German-controlled countries comprising three and a half to four million after deportation and concentration in the east thus solving Jewish question once and for all stop campaign planned for autumn methods being discussed including hydrocyanic acid.
Riegner knew that he could not send the telegram to Rabbi Wise through a Swiss telegraph service, as it would certainly be intercepted by German intelligence. Instead, he approached the U.S. Vice Consul in Geneva, asking him to to inform the administration in Washington of the plan and to transmit the contents of the telegram to its intended recipient.
Two weeks later, the American diplomat informed him that the State Department refused to pass the information to Wise, due to the “fantastic nature of the allegation and the impossibility of our being of any assistance if such action were taken.”
Riegner then approached his contacts at the British Consulate with a nearly identical telegram, requesting that it be transmitted to the British Foreign Office for delivery to Samuel Sidney Silverman, a Jewish member of the British parliament and chairman of the WJC’s British section.
The Foreign Office received the report on August 10, and hesitated for a week before sending it, finally concluding that the information could not be withheld. When the Foreign Office eventually transmitted the telegram to Silverman, it did so with the disclaimer that “we have no information bearing on or confirming this story. On August 28, Silverman cabled the report to the U.S., where it reached Rabbi Wise, who transferred it to his close high-ranking contact in the State Department. The contact then asked him to keep the information under wraps until attempts could be made to confirm it.
Over the course of the next few months, Rabbi Wise and other Jewish leaders brought forward confirmation of the information, and on December 17, a joint U.S.-British declaration, “German Policy of Extermination of the Jewish Race” officially confirmed the Nazi exterminations and vowed war crimes prosecutions against the responsible German officials.
It was not until January 1944, however, that President Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board whose aim was to try to save Jews, using the evidence that had been uncovered through the efforts over the course of the preceding year. "Since my first telegram, 18 months had passed during which time the inexorable massacre continued and millions of Jews were sacrificed," Riegner wrote in his memoirs.
For the rest of his life, Riegner was haunted by the knowledge that many of the six million Jews killed in Nazi concentration camps could have been saved if the United States and Britain had acted promptly on his warning dispatched from Switzerland. "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," Riegner recalled in his memoirs. "We discussed it for five or six hours, walking along the lake shore. Did we have to take it seriously? Was it conceivable to kill millions of people? Was it credible?" Riegner agonized. He decided it was.
Riegner went on to serve as secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress from 1965 to 1983. French President François Mitterand decorated him with the Legion of Honor in 1987. He was closely involved with the often-difficult process of improving relations with the Roman Catholic Church, and was present at the signing of the basic accord normalizing relations between the Holy See and Israel in 1993 (pictured left, in the center; photo (c) Andres Lacko). Riegner was also active at the United Nations, especially in the campaign to rescind the 1975 General Assembly vote that equated Zionism with racism. The resolution was finally annulled in 1991.