Over the past several years, there has emerged with increasing frequency the charge that because it failed to bomb the Germans' concentration camps, the United States bears a significant share of the blame for the Holocaust. There are even those who in- sist that American officials were well aware of Hitler's crimes during World War Two, yet chose purposely not to stop them.1
Documentation made available only during the past decade, however, amply demonstrates that the volatile accusations of American indifference — even collusion — are unwarranted. That the Roosevelt administration (and, it is also charged, American Jews) did not act with dispatch to effect the rescue of European Jewry, shows essentially that the tales of extermination were not believed.
This study will examine what was known of allegations of a German policy of mass murder in Europe, and whether the many wartime reports about such allegations were credible. I contend that the mass murder reports were, in the main, of such a patternless character that their key elements are thrown into doubt.
Consequently, with few exceptions the information as received in the West was dismissed as atrocity propaganda. It was not treated seriously by the Allied leadership, nor by Allied intelligence; not by the American public nor the English; not by American Jewry nor even European Jews. Who could accept the fantastic allegation that Hitler would exterminate a vital manpower source late in the war, while engaged in ferocious battles on three fronts and desperate for every available hand?
Because the Allied response to the sporadic accounts of mass killings was conditioned mainly on intelligence data, it is appropriate that the study begin here. Records of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), America's chief wartime intelligence agency, are currently being declassified and to date show a startling paucity of data on "exterminations." By themselves the OSS documents challenge the notion that Allied leaders "knew" what was happening to the Jews under German occupation. Not only is the information given in them remarkably scant, it is often mutually contradictory and sometimes bizarre.
One document quotes a "Polish underground source" as saying during the Spring of 1944 that Auschwitz was metamorphosing from a death camp into a massive "forced labor camp."2 This was ostensibly taking place during the alleged time of greatest killing at the Birkenau facility, when 700,000 Hungarian Jews were presumably being murdered. This report directly contradicts all that has been claimed about that period since the end of the war.
Another document, distributed by OSS headquarters in Washington in March 1944, refers to Belzek, Sobibor and Treblinka as the best-known death camps. Some 20 others are mentioned as well-yet Auschwitz, sometimes called "the kingdom of death," is nowhere discussed.3 This document is significant because, as Walter Laqueur notes in his book The Terrible Secret, Auschwitz had been open since 1940. Thus, any report failing to point to Auschwitz as the Nazis' key extermination plant would be puzzling. There are, however, many reports which do not connect Auschwitz with exterminations.
In the same period, June 1944, a captured SS man told his Allied interrogators that his brother had witnessed an extermination of Jews in special "gas barracks." After the murders, the OSS report says, he told his captors that the corpses were "sticking together; it was one block of dead which could not be separated. Apparently the gas destroyed the skin and therefore the bodies melted together."4 Few other accounts, contemporaneous or postwar, have described such queer and doubtful effects.
Another story, sent in early January 1944 from the American Consulate-General in Istanbul to the State Department in Washington, discusses Jewish underground activities at length. But while prisoner-smuggling techniques and other issues are bandied about, nothing in this internal memo relates to the Nazis' killing of Jews.5
A high-ranking OSS official, William L. Langer, received a report apparently composed in August 1943. In it Auschwitz is described in some detail. Among other claims made for the camp is the immediate gassing of 98% of all Jewish arrivees, "mostly young and healthy individuals." These, the report alleges, were "gassed and then burned half-alive." Women and children were gassed, then "thrown out through an apperture and cremated on a stake." Langer was asked by a horrified subordinate to give this information "maximum publicity" in the United States. In the postwar era, of course, most of the extensive body of Holocaust lore insists that healthy persons were not killed outright, but worked to death. Since then, "stakes" have not seriously been associated with Auschwitz. (For unexplained reasons this document adds that "only a German could have perpetrated such destruction.")6
Still another late-war dispatch (made also at the supposed time of greatest killing) rejects news of gas as a murder agent, in favor of steam. At Treblinka, it says, "men and women were separated and driven into hermetically-sealed baths, in which instead of water steam was introduced through the faucets. The victims [at Treblinka] are in general killed by steam, and not by gas as had been first suspected."7
One of the most nettlesome and persistent tales, accepted by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, involved the manufacture of soap from Jewish bodies. While no one was convicted of such loathesome business by the war crimes courts (nor any reliable evidence produced for it), the soap story continues to enjoy widespread currency. This despite occasional debunking by scholars like Walter Laqueur,8 and the dismissal several years ago by a German court in Flensburg of "soap recipes" presented by Holocaust survivors. (The former inmates had claimed that a "soap factory" had existed at the Stutthof concentration camp in Germany.9)
Certainly one of the most significant events bearing on the question of the Allies' knowledge of German extermination preparations or operations occurred in 1979. Owing to research by two CIA photo-analysts, Dino A. Brugioni and Robert Poirier (who said they were moved by the original NBC Network telecast of Holocaust), the National Archives and the CIA released dozens of aerial photographs taken by Allied warplanes over Auschwitz in the Spring and Fall of 1944.10
The two CIA men, who apparently worked in their spare time, said they wondered whether any actual "photo-imagery" existed of the camp's extermination annex, Birkenau. They began an exhaustive search of government photographic holdings from this period, finally locating many images of Auschwitz I (the main camp), Auschwitz III (the primary industrial sector), and Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
The unusual photos, made sharper by advanced computer enhancement techniques, are often cited by critics of the U.S. government as proof of a callous disregard for the fate of the Jews. Author Konnilyn Feig, for example, contends that since the photos were available to the American military, there can be no doubt that this country "knew" about Hitler's "death camps." Feig says that the American explanation that it had inadequate information was now proven to be "a clear lie." Here, finally, were photos bearing "clear… topographical information."11 According to Feig and other contemporary writers, for the American government to have had this evidence and not concluded what today seems obvious is somehow incriminating.
These accusations, however, have the classic hallmarks of "20-20 hindsight." At the original press conference announcing the release of the photos (a conference that Feig appears to have missed), CIA analyst Brugioni said that when the photos were first viewed they indeed seemed inconsequential. There was nothing in them to suggest anything besides a conventional prison camp — or even army camp — of the sort which dotted the Silesian landscape at that time.l2
Brugioni also explained that when he served as a young Army Corps photo-interpreter in Europe, there were no reports in Yank, Stars and Stripes, or other publications referring to Polish camps as the locus of Nazi murder programs.13 Moreover, the two intelligence analysts (along with Robert Wolfe, curator of the National Archives' Modern Military Branch) stressed that the current means of minutely examining the photos were unavailable to the armed forces of 40 years ago.14
The real significance of the CIA/Archives photos lies not in what they show, however, but in what they fail to show. That is: evidence to sustain "ground accounts" of mass murder of Jews at Auschwitz in the Spring of 1944. Whereas the great majority of the extensive descriptions of Auschwitz speak of between ten and thirty thousand victims gassed and cremated daily at this time, in none of the hundreds of aerial photos examined by the CIA officials is found any hint of the smoke and flame said to blanket the entire Auschwitz region.15
The great and infamous "burning pits" meant to accommodate the overflow of Hungarian Jews are absent as well. Only one shallow pit — perhaps 15 by 20 feet — is visible in any of the photos. And even with the benefit of computer-enhancement it shows no evidence of the revolting purpose ascribed to it.
The CIA analysts and the National Archives (which in 1979 supplied for the photos such labels as "possible cremation pit," "Jews on the way to gas chambers," "gas chambers," etc.), were unable to reconcile this anomaly. A footnote accompanying the monograph observes only that the photos did not conform to "corollary ground accounts" of the purported events at Birkenau.16 In light of this, declarations by writers such as Otto Friedrich that the "remarkably clear" photos show "the essential evidence — the gas chambers, the crematoria, the prisoners standing in line"17 are without foundation. They are, in fact, utterly ridiculous.
The keys to understanding these important photographs, are, rather, that 1) Auschwitz was not "reliably" reported by Allied authorities as a death camp until the Fall of 1944, and 2) the photos' seemingly-authoritative captions were not applied until 34 years after the war ended.
Robert Wolfe — under whose aegis the Birkenau pictures were released by the National Archives — is concerned lest people today use them as weapons against various government agencies or officials. Yes, he says, the U.S. did receive scattered atrocity reports, but "if you don't know or suspect something like [gassing at Auschwitz], you wouldn't look for evidence like chimneys." Besides, the custodian of the Archives' vast Modern Military Branch added, "the truth was intermingled with all sorts of rumors and stories… The U.S. didn't put [the information] together correctly."18
Wolfe, who is Jewish, says that investigations of this sort are difficult for him, but that as a professional archivist he must rely on "contemporary textual and documentary evidence." In the realm of extermination data, this evidence is largely absent. According to Wolfe, the rules governing the acceptance of mass-murder intelligence data were and are the same as those impinging on other areas.
"You have to evaluate [the information]," he said intently. "How good is the source? Where does the data come from? How does it fit in with something else?" He offered as an analogy the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. In that instance Allied commanders possessed information that, assembled in a cogent way, would have thwarted the unpleasant surprise of the Germans' sweep through American lines in Belgium.
In marked contrast to critics who insist that the Allies had obtained good information on exterminations of Jews as early as 1942, Wolfe would prefer not to characterize inaction as indifference. "The main questions involve when and to what extent, and which part of the Allies [knew about the extermination], and what could they do about it. All of that is pretty hard to boil down."19
Author Edward T. Chase is similarly aware of the need for probity about the CIA/Archives photos and other evidence. In assessing the role of former Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy in the American failure to bomb Auschwitz, Chase said: "You've got to be enormously careful… before you start throwing bricks around; you have to really look at [the question of responsibility]. You can't just impose hindsight on events that took place then."
To Chase, the information of the period — as well as post-war "revelations" of Allied culpability for not rescuing European Jews — "has to be examined with more responsibility."20 Chase's views reflect the experience gained from his service as a Naval Intelligence officer during World War Two.
It appears that the treatment of intelligence data received throughout the war was, in the main, distinguished by such rigorous evaluation. Even analysts in the British ENIGMA program, which decrypted nearly all German intelligence ciphers from 1942 on, possessed nothing of sufficient moment with which to frame a conclusion of a German extermination policy. Thus, although the Allies had, through the possession of a captured ENIGMA coding machine, decoded the messages of the SS, the Wehrmacht, the Luftwaffe and other organizations, a highly respected authority on the ENIGMA program has little to say on the subject of extermination. In the nearly 1000 pages of Bodyguard of Lies, Anthony Cave Brown refers to the Nazi concentration camps primarily as adjuncts of German industry.
In this seminal study, Cave Brown also cites standard intelligence sources which failed to establish a relationship between deportation and mass murder. "… [British] MI-6 and [American] OSS," he writes, "had gained considerable success discovering Hitler's secrets through conventional… channels — the reports of spies and informants throughout Nazi-occupied Europe and in the satellite and neutral countries; the censorship of foreign mail; the interrogation of POWs."2l
A "massively-detailed" but "little read" study of Britain's wartime intelligence published in 1981, British Intelligence in the Second World War, strongly bolsters the notion that the British did not associate what appeared to be random shootings of Jews with a policy of mass murder. In fact, from 1942 on there were no references in the SS and Police decrypts to gassing. Underscoring a seeming disbelief in the reports, mention of German concentration camps in any connection became increasingly scant as the war progressed. The British did, however, "carefully log" the return of prisoners — presumably from work details — to Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau and seven other camps.22
In both the massive British intelligence study and in SS records at the National Archives there are, to be sure, field reports alluding to "executions" of Jewish partisans and civilians in Russia. "Field reports" of this sort are hardly persuasive evidence of an extermination program, however. Nor were they taken as such by analysts of the time.
Another recent book on Allied intelligence, Joseph Persico's Piercing the Reich (dealing specifically with American agent penetration of Germany), devotes only four pages to what was known of the activities of camps like Auschwitz. This is curious, inasmuch as the author's preface states that "the U.S. reaped an abundant harvest of intelligence in the operations of the wartime OSS."23 And a former OSS operative who served in Europe made this observation recently: "… the OSS learned in advance about the development of German jet aircraft, the Nazi effort to develop a nuclear weapon, secrets of the V-ls and V-2s, and the plot against Hitler."24 These were some of the most highly secret goings-on in the entire Third Reich. Had even verbal information about a projected slaughter of the Jews been gleaned by the OSS, knowledge of this ought to appear in study after study of wartime European intelligence. It does not. Rather, it is fairly clear that American agents' reports directly from Germany itself expressed no knowledge about — or belief in — accounts of Jewish exterminations in Europe.
As the previously-cited British study indicates, Allied planners in the U.S. and England did calculate the size of concentration camp populations through the years; the linkage between manpower capabilities and industrial output clearly interested them.
Investigating the manufacture of ersatz fuel at Auschwitz, for example, was deemed a vital mission by Allied intelligence because the hydrogenation worlds were a key to Germany's capacity for future military operations. It is virtually certain that information concerning Jews at Auschwitz — who were employed in many of the three dozen enterprises located there — was both obtained by American agents inside Germany and published in manpower or demographic studies.
Had the rumors of extermination, with which the camps were reportedly rife, been credible, the agents' reports ought to have conveyed shock and anxiety. This because a sudden diminution of available laborers in the camp would logically have prompted questions about their disposition. To date (although there remains much classified data on the subject) indications are that intelligence analysts viewed the waxing and waning of inmate populations as no more ominous than intra-camp transfers, which occurred on a regular basis depending upon which prisoners had which skills.25 (Auschwitz, for example, had an artillery fuse plant and cement works; Dachau a clothing factory for the Waffen SS; Neuengamme a research and development facility for V-2 missiles. All were staffed largely by Jews.)
Some students of the period, such as American University professor Allen Kraut, contradict Persico's contention that the OSS was well-informed on concentration camp matters. To Kraut, the "OSS was just a bunch of amateurs beginning to learn professional methods." Moreover, "the plight of the Jews was really a very secondary matter. What the OSS wanted was military intelligence." Yet the OSS received vast assemblages of data on the role of concentration camps in the German war effort; it in effect concluded that the evidence for charging Germany with an extermination program was insufficient.
Kraut is similarly hard-put to explain the lack of plausable extermination information on the part of the British, who largely taught America its intelligence craft. "They weren't looking for [evidence]," he contends. "They were getting some about the ex- ecutions of Jews; many times they were ignoring it. And other times they saw it, they read it, and they didn't believe it. But there's a difference between that and simply not having any information."28 It might be added that there is a difference between having an unconsolidated mass of raw intelligence about the killings of Jewish civilians, and knowing which reports were more reliable than the discredited "Belgian baby"-type allegations of the previous war, which members of the British Parliament later admitted fabricating.
It appears, then, that in the intelligence sphere the accounts of mass killings lacked credibility. Even if some analysts suspected that Germans randomly shot Jews, Slavs, Poles and others considered racially inferior by the Reich government, a quantum leap of faith was required to accept tales of Europe-wide extermination.
If the reports had at that time been accorded the respect and credibility they have acquired since the war, some attempt to warn Europe's Jews would almost certainly have been inaugurated. Yet those agencies (the OSS, MI-6, and others) privy to the most secret communications throughout the far-flung Reich failed to attempt even rudimentary leaflet campaigns for this purpose.27
Even American officials like Roswell McClelland, who found the term "deportation" pregnant with evil meaning, kept their suspicions mostly to themselves. "One wonders why… It's something I've never entirely explained to myself," McClelland says in answer to the question of why he didn't mobilize others to act on his "gut feelings."28
McClelland was stationed in Switzerland during the war as War Refugee Board (WRB) representative at the American Consulate in Bern. In addition to his work on behalf of war refugees, including Jews, he often communicated, he says, with the Switzerland-based OSS chief, Allen Dulles. McClelland is widely acclaimed for having transmitted to Washington from his post in Bern the report of two Slovakian Jewish escapees from Auschwitz. (This report was later to gain notoriety as the main evidentiary feature of the "WRB Report.") His remarks to this writer on his failure to propose the obvious — a massive warning campaign for the Jews — are all the more puzzling for it. They underscore that fact that although some people in rumor-choked Switzerland had a "gut" suspicion that extermination was taking place, their actual behavior did not reflect such concerns. Pressed on his inaction, McClelland offers little. "You had intimations," he recalled rather weakly. "But then you were swept on, and there was a lot of [other] work to do. [The extermination allegations] sort of faded to the background."29
There was another, earlier, report which sparked a great deal of controversy, because it appeared more authoritative and complete than the notably brief and usually unattributed fillers that the New York Times and other U.S. papers started publishing in mid-l942.30
Like Roswell McClelland, the World Jewish Congress (WJC) representative in Switzerland, Gerhard Riegner, was apparently a man who "could not believe, yet did believe" information on exterminations. He made many protestations to Allied governments on the basis of a report he allegedly obtained from an anti-Nazi German industrialist in the Summer of 1942.
In that report, Riegner was quoted recently as saying, were somber warnings that Hitler had prepared for the total physical annihilation of European Jews. Authorities in the U.S. and Britain were asked to believe that the industrialist (who owned factories employing 30,000 workers) had access to the highest counsels of the German government, and was invited to a secret meeting at which the Nazi extermination plan was laid out.
In the first of several messages to American and British diplomatic representatives in Switzerland, Riegner asked that the data be transmitted to their governments and to key Jewish leaders. As is now well known, the information was dismissed as fantasy by the foreign service establishments of both countries. A typical reaction was that these allegations were merely "the opinion of one Jew in Geneva."31 As Riegner himself told the Washington Post: "No one really believed it. Not even the Jews who knew it [?]… I counted 4 million Jews as dead." (How they were counted is not indicated.) "My own World Jewish Congress office in New York — where I sent all my reports — published the figure of only 1.5 million."32
While he has reportedly "struggled" long and hard with the reasons his industrialist's — and by extension, others' — reports were suspect, Riegner concludes that the human mind simply could not accept claims of such magnitude.
There are, of course, less metaphysical reasons why Riegner's claims were viewed as little more than rumor. The most obvious is their unsubstantiated character. As Martin Gilbert made plain in his 1981 book Auschwitz and the Allies, Washington and London were "disinclined" to believe Riegner's "fantastic" tales, in part because no others had been as strikingly grandiose. Although Riegner spoke of interrogating the mysterious industrialist (it was two full days before he believed the man's accounts himself), authorities in the West remained dubious. Much of this attitude appears to have hinged on the phrase "at one blow exterminated," found in Riegner's first urgent telegram, of 8 August 1942.33 To be sure, some officials, including the American Vice-Consul in Geneva, Howard Elting, considered the 30-year-old lawyer "a serious and balanced individual," but inside the State Department skepticism prevailed.
Against Vice-Consul Elting's view that Riegner would not have asked to see him had Riegner "lacked confidence in his informant," must be weighed the questions of Elting's colleagues about the messenger. Riegner was, in fact, an entirely unknown quantity either in Foggy Bottom or in Whitehall. When the Riegner correspondence was forwarded from Switzerland to London, the response of Richard Law, Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs, was to ask: "What do we know of Mr. Riegner?"34 After pouring over refugee files and consulting with British Zionists, the answer was: nothing. As Gilbert notes, "the Foreign Office drew a blank."35
Owing to such official reservations the Riegner report was not made public. On 17 August the U.S. Minister in Bern, Leland Harrison, was told by Washington that the report also had not been delivered — as requested by Riegner — to World Jewish Congress President Rabbi Stephen Wise. The reason, according to U.S. documents quoted extensively in Gilbert's book, was "the unsubstantiated nature of the information."
The American Consul in Geneva, Paul Squire, bluntly echoed this language in communicating to Riegner a week later. Until "corroboratory information" on the extermination of the Jews was received, Squire told a frustrated Riegner, the State Department was "disinclined to deliver the message in question in view of the apparently unsubstantiated character in the information that forms its main theme."
There was another reason for this disinclination. The report repeated some of the most gruesome atrocity canards of the First World War.36 Some stories retained the discredited charges intact, others dropped certain elements and replaced them with ones which may have had a plausible basis. The result was an incomprehensible hash of fact and fancy.
A typical illustration: Quoting on authority of an "anti-Nazi" German officer attached to German Army Headquarters, Riegner contended that Nazi factories were rendering Jewish bodies into fertilizer, glue and lubricants. This part of his story was similar to other dreadful tales circulating around Europe at the time — tales whose authors were, of course, anonymous. Recalling the propaganda of the previous war, one British diplomat remarked: "The facts are quite bad enough without the addition of such an old story as the use of bodies for the manufacture of soap."37
Just as the contents of intelligence reports on the Jews' misfortunes were disjointed in extremis, so did poorly-sourced news accounts about people like Riegner help to undermine public confidence in them. The content of many stories circulating in Geneva tended, in fact, to make all "extermination" information suspect in the eyes of Allied officialdom. In addition to the "soap and glue" tales, there were even accounts alleging that Hitler sought the elimination of Jews because European food supplies were dwindling.38
Nor did reports from nations bordering on Germany or Poland give credence to charges by Riegner and his fellow messengers of the unthinkable. For example, Eduard Benes, the exiled but well-informed President of Czechoslovakia, wrote to the World Jewish Congress in late 1942 to say that Riegner's claims were false.39 This statesman hardly regarded himself as a friend of the Germans; he was, however, convinced that they had drawn up no plans to murder the Jews.
The Swiss government reacted in a similar vein, declaring (after the poorly-detailed Allied atrocity declaration of 17 December 1942) that such claims were "foreign rumor propaganda of the worst type."40 Roswell McClelland found the Swiss view reflected in an October 1942 interview with Heinrich Rothmann, head of the Swiss Federal Police. McClelland says that the extermination charges against Germany were judged patently untrue.4l This was not the case with various reports of sporadic killings. brutality, and general abuse of Jews and others by German occupation forces. Yet, as disturbing as these reports were to many people, few were prepared to extrapolate the likelihood that the extermination of a race was in the offing.
American and European Jews, too (for emotional, logical, or other reasons) largely dismissed as rumor the tales of massive killing. The connection between the two Jewish communities is important. Contrary to a popular postwar impression, the flow of information from one to the other was far from totally circumscribed.
Information on numerous topics flowed freely between Germany and neighboring Switzerland, transmitted by phone, telegrams postcard, word-of-mouth and other methods. Remarkably German censors even passed data of intelligence value from Nazi-occupied areas — including messages about Jewish suffering. Historian Walter Laqueur describes, for example, cards sent from Jews in Europe to relatives in Allied nations. Had fear of imminent death been endemic or palpable, surely this would have been communicated. Had the extermination accounts been accepted by European Jewry in a serious way, concerted efforts to bring them to the attention of Jews everywhere would have been made.
Rather than merely one or two examples of data transmitted by the mails containing, for example, "coded" messages about exterminations to fellow Jews outside Nazi control, one would expect to find hundreds or thousands in Jewish archives. Laqueur knows of only two extant.42 This is not to say that other "coded" letters or phone-call transcripts might not exist. They would certainly be considered of immense value to historians and thus publicized, if indeed they were preserved and known.43
The foreign press stationed in Germany also succeeded in passing a great deal more information in their dispatches to "the outside world" than is generally believed. Often these accounts were uncensored, though critical of the Nazi regime. Others from countries occupied by Germany were similarly uncensored for the most part; reporters from neutral powers in these nations sent "a steady stream" of material to their home offices.44 On occasion, the foreign press coverage focused on tales of Jewish civilian deaths, sometimes even describing them as the product of extermination. Surely some people believed the tales, Gentiles as well as Jews; most did not.
On 6 June 1943, the secret Polish radio station SWIT was quoted by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on the subject of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of two months before. Jewish survivors of the fighting, said SWIT, were "deported to an unknown destination." After the war it was learned that the destination was Auschwitz. By 1943 the camp had supposedly become a household word throughout occupied Europe, as the most notorious camp in the Nazi "kingdom of death."45
It is thus surprising that the SWIT report did not mention the "destination" in any context suggesting a grisly fate for the ghetto soldiers. Rumors were rife at this time, of course; SWIT broadcasters were no strangers to them. Yet the failure to mention death camps implied that captivity was the Warsaw survivors' lot. Moreover, the World Jewish Congress even omitted mention of the important uprising in the "Resistance" column of its newsletter, Jewish Comment, for 11 June l943.46
The fact that this portentous event was overlooked by a major Jewish organization (although covered in some detail by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on successive days thereafter) amply illustrates the crisis of credibility engendered by mass-murder stories. And it foreshadowed the bitter infighting and recriminations that attend the current debate on Jewish behavior during the war.
The Judenraete, or Jewish councils of the occupied towns and cities of Europe, similarly had no inkling of any German plans for the complete physical annihilation of their people. These organizations have been severely lambasted over the years by writers who have found in them "Nazi collaborationists." While this collaboration may in some instances have occurred out of fear for individuals' lives, it is only through the optic of hindsight that the elders of the Judenraete are so disparaged. Of the views of such writers as the late Hannah Arendt, National Archives official Robert Wolfe says exasperatedly: "Those poor [Judenraete] bastards. It wasn't their idea to exterminate their fellow Jews." He maintains that "hope" led them to believe in resettlement (not extermination), and that the end of the war would save them "from whatever the fate was — resettlement or death; whatever they happened to know or believe."47
Clearly, what most of the elders and their flocks knew was less unsettling than the fears they are now criticized for not giving rein to. The councils' actions seem best reflected in examples like the following. In early 1943 the elders of Amsterdam were disturbed at the lack of postcards from two categories of Dutch deportees: the elderly and mothers with children. But the source of their concern was not the one that now leaps quickly to mind, i.e., extermination. The Amsterdam Jewish Council was, rather, angered because the Germans had broken their promise to keep Jewish families united on their journeys to various camps.48 There was what has been called "an unbridgeable gulf" between what was ultimately concluded about the fate of the deported Jews, and the remarkable dearth of information as to where this killing was taking place. It bears repeating that the great majority of Jewish officials did not mentally associate trains with gas chambers.49
One highly-respected elder, Berlin Rabbi Leo Baeck, reportedly rejected as rumor claims of mass murder eight months into 1943. He had been told of large-scale gassing at Auschwitz by a fellow inmate at Theresienstadt camp, and decided against informing the camp elders' council about it. "… this death was not certain at all," he reasoned. "… There was selection for slave labor; perhaps not all transports went to Auschwitz. So I came to the grave decision to tell no one."50 Why Baeck's informant did not then himself communicate this urgent information to everyone, may never be known.
French Jewry apparently refused to believe in the deportation-means-death theory until the end of the war. The increasing reports of the putative fate of Europe's Jews were generally chalked up to British propaganda; few paid any attention. It was not merely the blasé rejection of the genocide information as propaganda that led the French Jews to their conclusions; its disjointed character made rejection a virtual certainty. And so it went throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. The French, Dutch, Danish, Greek, Hungarian and other Jews behaved in a manner that bespoke disbelief in the fantastic gossip of the time.
The most dramatic evidence — even proof — that the claims were generally dismissed, however, is the simple fact that throughout the war Jews passively boarded the "resettlement" trains. Certainly there were cases of panic, and the odd suicide — but there was little resistance to speak of. Roswell McClelland recalls having a "gut knowledge" that the Jews of France — some of whom he aided after they had fled the war zone in 194 — would be murdered. Yet he confined expressions of his fears to a 10-minute chat with the Vichy President, Pierre Laval. Laval told the American relief worker that he was a victim of "atrocity propaganda"; no such killings were taking place.5l Granted that Laval was not the most authoritative source, his remarks nevertheless could only have reinforced McClelland's own experience. Resistance by French Jews? "There wasn't any, besides some infrequent hysteria," he agrees.52 Instead, entire Jewish populations of cities, towns and hamlets throughout Europe, numbering in the millions, grudgingly accepted the journey to "labor assignment in the East."
Jewish organizations in America and in other Allied nations betrayed a similar disinclination to honor the stories emanating from "the old country." Yes, most people had seen the press reports of the cruelties being inflicted upon the Jews by the Nazis, and yes, the word from relatives under occupation confirmed that conditions for the Jews were harsh. Nonetheless, at no time did American or British Jews mount an all-out, sustained, unified mobilization for rescue or even protest.53 In view of this lack of visible attempts on the part of Jewish leaders themselves, it seems tendentious now to heap blame on British or American statesmen for "complacency."
The concern over exaggerations was by no means limited to suspicious officials in the U.S. State Department and the British Foreign Office, however. Such was the wide and wild variety of extermination stories from occupied Europe that even the Zionist press often warned against "padding" them. Thus, while the organ of the World Zionist movement, Ha'olem, published up to June 1942 no news concerning Nazi massacres, it did contain a feature by a Polish Jewish leader claiming that the propaganda uses of Jewish suffering had been discovered and the truth "actually exaggerated two-fold and more." (This, and the following citations quoting Jewish newspapers Ha'olem, Davar, and Hatzofe are from Laqueur, The Terrible Secret, pp. 184-85.)
Another Hebrew-language newspaper, Davar, cautioned all of its reporters (and readers) that great care should be taken in evaluating tales of, for example, soldiers returning from the front. Some people had accepted claims in the Soviet Army tabloid, Red Star, that most of those killed by the Germans at Babi Yar (Kiev) were Jews. Laqueur writes that Davar admonished readers not to accept such reports because the Soviet paper had not adequately supported its claims.
Even the information from Warsaw Ghetto leader Schmuel Zygelboim (whose report constituted key evidence of extermination after the war) was discredited when it appeared. Another Hebrew paper, Hatzofe, commented about Zygelboim: "The irresponsible informants… absorb every rumor, they desperately look for every piece of bad news, every enormous figure and present it in a way that makes the blood curdle in one's veins." This organ scolded careless correspondents and informants, comparing their inaccurate stories to those about the Palestine riots of 1936-39. These, the paper recalled "were spread all over the world and… were so much exaggerated." (In the earlier case, Zionist press accounts dealt falsely with the degree of Arab violence towards the increasing numbers of Jewish refugees in Palestine.)54
Perhaps more than any single document, the detailed physical description of Auschwitz given in the War Refugee Board [WRB] Report convinced some that the rumors of extermination were based on fact. The information, carried by two young Slovakian Jewish escapees from Auschwitz, was published by the U.S. War Refugee Board in November 1944. The late date is significant for the purposes of this study. The Roosevelt administration, reacting to the two Slovakian Jews' report as it had to earlier data alleging a Nazi extermination campaign, "sat on" the Auschwitz news for four months before authorizing the WRB to release it.55
Again the believability issue had surfaced. While more detailed than previous questionable reports, this one by escapees Alfred Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba contained similar data. One element, however, distinguished it: for the first time Auschwitz was mentioned primarily as an "extermination camp." The introduction of this new term — new at least in connection with "genocide" — probably undergirded the widespread suspicions among Allied leaders. When the Auschwitz claims reached Washington via OSS London representative Arthur Goldberg, officials at the State Department remained unimpressed. Remember, one said privately: "… stuff like this has been coming out of Bern since 1942… this is a Jew telling about other Jews."56
Although some Jews may have begun to accept the claims by this time (having read similar material in the past), Jewish organizations in Hungary apparently steadfastly rejected them. Instead of a dramatic rescue plan for Jewish camp inmates, a laborious barter arrangement was established. Gilbert describes in some detail the talks between SS-Standartenführer Adolf Eichmann and Hungarian Zionist authorities, in which Eichmann offered Jews their freedom in exchange for food, trucks and other commodities needed by the struggling German military.57
As impressive a document as the Vrba/Wetzler report is supposed to have been, the desperate warnings it contained about the endangered Hungarian Jews were somehow shunted aside in favor of an inherently time-consuming approach. To this day, Vrba is said to be convinced that had the facts brought to Bratislava been circulated immediately throughout Hungary, many of the 450,000 Jews scheduled for deportation would have resisted, evaded or otherwise obstructed their transfer to concen- tration camps. As it happened, the two young Jewish messengers sparked the same lukewarm response as had Gerhard Riegner.
Some people, however, still do not accept the logical notion that masses of panicked Jews in the middle of a war could have wrought havoc among the Nazi authorities. Among these are former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, National Archives curator Robert Wolfe, and Holocaust scholar David Weinberg. The first two argue that any resistance to the Germans would have been futile, and that the Jews were conscious of their fate.
Weinberg (a member of an interdisciplinary Holocaust research team) agrees that awareness of impending doom was widespread among the deportees, but he describes a kind of "moral resistance." It was "not necessarily a passive acceptance" that the trains' occupants expressed, says Weinberg, but "a pattern of resistance that manifested itself in a commitment to Jewish identity and a will to survive as witnesses to Nazi brutality." This explanation is untenable, however, if only because of the em- phatically "survivalist"mentality evolved in the Jews through centuries of bitter experience. How Weinberg expected the doomed Jews to have "survived as witnesses" — if they believed they were to die — is nowhere explained in his writings about the behavior of Jewish prisoners.58
One final report on the Jews' response to information about mass killings deserves examination. It is one which, considering its background and sponsors, seems surprisingly to have been quoted only rarely in the post-war period. The Displacement of Population in Europe, published in late 1943 by the International Labor office in Montreal, contains heavily annotated data on the far-ranging movements of civilians during the war. But despite having been prepared and sanctioned by an impressive coalition of Jewish organizations, the Red Cross, and others concerned with refugee work, Displacement echoes the Nazi line on deportation.59 The rule, this 100-page document found, was that following concentration in ghettos, European Jews (along with other civilians) were transferred from their homes to make room for "repatriated. Germans."
"At the same time, however," the report continues, "another factor, perceptible since the end of 1940 and now assuming growing importance, is strongly operating in a contradictory direction — namely, the needs of the German war economy. As a result, Germany's Jewish policy may be described as a compromise between the extermination of the Jews and their utilization in the war economy." It is difficult to understand whether the term "extermination" in this context refers to physical murder, or to the elimination of all vestiges of Jewish unity and cultural heritage.60 But because the report proceeds at length concerning the manner in which Jews were being forced to labor for Germany (and only rarely refers to "extermination" in other contexts) it seems clear that many Jewish organizations accepted the Nazis' explanation of the word "deportation." In addition to the surprising and conspicuous absence from the population report of the "extermination camp" category from its list of labor and other camps, there is the interesting observation that Jews were "permitted to return home" following a day's work.61
There is, certainly, a complicated matrix of elements involved in the attitudes of the Allied governments accused of failure to destroy the Nazi "extermination" camps. Some relate to concerns that heavy rescue efforts on behalf of Jews would be construed as preferential treatment for their Jewish civilians by nations seeking help from the major powers. A related issue was apparently the belief that responding to the sporadic pressures from Jewish leaders would make the conflict appear to be a "Jewish war," causing latent anti-Semitism to rise in the U.S. and Britain and playing into the hands of Nazi propagandists. Another element involves the wisdom of diverting military resources for humanitarian purposes.
But such concerns — now the subjects of many books and articles — are dependent upon, and rightly subordinated to, the question of what was known factually, and believed, about Nazi atrocities. Highly-charged debate over questions like the Allied failure to bomb Auschwitz becomes moot when viewed in light of the absence of evidence supporting allegations of mass murder.
Whether or not greater rescue efforts by the Allies or Western Jewish groups could have prevented Jewish deaths is highly speculative. What is far clearer and, I believe, amply demonstrated by the foregoing, is that neither the Allied powers nor world Jewry had adequate knowledge from which convincingly to argue a case that the extermination of the Jews was occurring.
The "bottom line," perhaps, is this: with the Goldberg Commission (to investigate Jewish behavior during the war) now — Summer 1984 — aswirl in charge and countercharge — accusations about who helped and who did not, who had the resources and who did not, who "knew" about the atrocities and kept silent, and so on ad infinitum — it is unjust for the seemingly growing numbers of Jewish leaders now to accuse the Allied governments of indifference. What appears to be taking place is a dangerous scapegoating, aided by an entirely misplaced and inappropriate guilt among those Gentile leaders who associate with this school of thought. Among these are President Ronald Reagan, Vice-President George Bush, and other government officials endorsing the goals of the semi-official "President's Commission on the Holocaust."
Because the fruit of the Commission's work will be the opening of a "Holocaust Museum" in Washington, in which Allied "indifference" will reportedly be highlighted, the Mea culpas of present-day administration figures have the effect of aligning them with only one (albeit the loudest) faction in a dispute that has yet to be resolved.
It is hoped that this study may help to illuminate those darker corners of the dispute that some have preferred to shun.
Full References for Sources Cited in the Notes Are Given in the Bibliography
Edward T. Chase, May 1983.
Arthur Goldberg, June 1983.
Allen Kraut, May 1983.
Roswell McClelland, April 1983.
Robert Wolfe, April 1983.
Bauer, Yehuda. American Jewry and the Holocaust. Chicago: Wayne State University Press, 1979.
Brenner, Leni. Zionism in the Age of the Dictators. Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill, 1983.
Cave Brown, Anthony. Bodyguard of Lies. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.
DuBois, Josiah E., Jr. The Devil's Chemists. Boston: Beacon Press, 1952.
Feig, Konnilyn G. Hitler's Death Camps: The Sanity of Madness. New York and London: Holmes and Meier, 1981.
Gilbert, Martin. Auschwitz and the Allies. New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1981.
Grunberger, Richard. The Twelve-Year Reich. New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1971.
Hinsley, F. H.; Thomas, E. E.; Gransom, C. F.; and Knight, R. C. British Intelligence in the Second World War. London: Her Majesty's Stationary Office, 1979, Vol. II (1981), Vol. III (1984).
Kern, Erich. Meineid gegen Deutschland. Preuss-Oldendorf, W. Germany: Verlag K. W. Schutze, 1971.
Kulischer, Eugene M. The Displacement of Population in Europe. Montreal: International Labor Office, 1943.
Laqueur, Walter. The Terrible Secret: Suppression of the Truth About Hitler's 'Final Solution.' London: Penguin Books, 1980.
Morse, Arthur B. While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy. New York: Random House, 1968.
Persicos Joseph. Piercing the Reich. New York: Viking, 1979.
Wasserstein, Bernard. Britain and the Jews of Europe, 1939-1945. London: Institute of Jewish Affairs, 1979.
Weinberg, David. "The Holocaust in Historical Perspective," in Byron L. Sherwin and Susan G. Ament (eds.), Encountering the Holocaust: An Interdisciplinary Survey. Chicago and New York: Impact Press, 1979.
Yad Vashem Institute (ed.). Rescue Attempts During the Holocaust. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1977.
"British Intelligence and the Holocaust." Baltimore Jewish Week (15 April 1983), "News" section, p. 30.
Brugioni, Dino A., and Poirier, Robert. The Holocaust Revisited: A Retrospective Analysis of the Auschwitz/Birkenau Extermination Complex [monograph]. Washington D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency, 1979.
Cohen, Richard. "John J. McCloy and Harvard." Washington Post (19 May 1983), p. B-1.
Dunlop, Richard. "The Wartime OSS." American Legion (June 1984), p. 15.
Friedrich, Otto. "The Kingdom of Auschwitz." Atlantic (September 1981), pp. 30-60.
Jewish Week [Washington D.C.l (7-13 April 1983), p. 10.
"The Nazi Secret No One Believed." Washington Post (5 February 1983), pp. C-1, C-4.
New York Times: (14 February 1943), p. 37; (16 February 1943), p. 7; (10 March 1943), p. 10; (20 April 1943), p. 11.
"Washington Hosts Holocaust Survivors' Gathering." Washington Times (8 April 1983), p. 2-B.
Wasserstein, Bernard. "Jewish Silence." Midstream (August-September 1980), p. 13.