On 8 August 1942, Gerhart M. Riegner, the World Jewish Congress representative in Geneva, dictated a telegram to American vice-consul Howard Elting, Jr. about Hitler’s plan to murder millions of European Jews.
The cable, which was intended to be sent to the State Department and WJC President Rabbi Stephen 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.
This communique, commonly referred to as the Riegner Telegram, was met with skepticism. While the message would be forwarded to the State Department, the Riegner Telegram would first be received by Minister Leland Harrison who warned that it was likely a, “war rumor inspired by fear.” State Department officials agreed with Harrison’s assessment and decided not to forward the message to WJC President Rabbi Stephen Wise, due to the, “fantastic nature of the allegation and the impossibility of our being of any assistance if such action were taken.”
Undeterred, Riegner asked the British Consul in Geneva to transmit a nearly identical telegram to Samuel Sidney Silverman, a Jewish member of the British parliament and chairman of the WJC’s British section. The Foreign Office held onto the telegram for a week, debating whether it should be forwarded, since it may have “embarrassing repercussions.” Ultimately, it was determined that the information could not be withheld.
On 29 August, Silverman transmitted the report to Wise, who in turn conveyed it to Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles. Welles asked Wise to keep the information under wraps until its contents could be verified. In November, Welles told Wise that the State Department had independently verified the telegram’s contents. Welles added that while he was not able to release the information to the press, “[t]here is no reason why you should not. It might even help if you did.”
According to historian Prof. Yehuda Bauer, even after Wise held a press conference on the atrocities in Europe, the news “received minimal newspaper coverage, and his message was basically ignored...” Newspapers throughout the United States reported variations of the allegations, although most did not feature the story on their front pages.
In response to the horrific news, Jewish communities in Allied countries declared 2 December 1942 an international day of mourning. In the United States, over 1,500 synagogues held prayer services to for European Jews, and thousands of Jews demonstrated in New York City. Jewish communities in countries as diverse as Egypt, Australia, and Nicaragua commemorated the day as a fast day and closed their businesses.
While the State Department was initially hesitant to confirm the report, on 17 December 1942, the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and nine Allied governments-in-exile released a “Declaration on Atrocities.” While the statement stopped short of promising an Allied rescue; it did condemn the “cold-blooded extermination” and vowed that the Allied forces would punish the war criminals who were responsible.
In January 1944 —nearly 18 months after Riegner’s initial telegram was sent— President Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board. While that body aimed to rescue European Jews from the Nazis, by that point millions had already fallen victim to Hitler’s plan.
Riegner was haunted by the knowledge that many of the six million Jewish victims could have been saved had the United States and Britain acted promptly in response to his initial warning. "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 memoir. "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 would go on to serve as the secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress from 1965 to 1983. In 1987, French President François Mitterand awarded him the Legion of Honor. He died in Geneva in 2001.