Introduction

In August 1942, Gerhart Riegner, the Geneva-based representative for the World Jewish Congress, came to the U.S. Consulate in Switzerland and told Vice-Consul Howard Elting, Jr. disturbing news of a German plan to exterminate Europe’s Jews. While passing this information onto the State Department, Elting and Leland Harrison, the U.S. Minister to Switzerland, each separately commented on the report’s reliability. It took until November 24, 1942 for the U.S. and British government to publically confirm that the report was correct.

On December 17, the United States, as part of a joint statement from the Allied nations, denounced Germany’s plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe and vowed to punish those responsible. Nonetheless, details about the murder of Europe’s Jews received little press attention during the war and many Americans were shocked to discover the truth when Allied troops entered the concentration and extermination camps in 1944–45.


Source: U.S. State Department receives information from Switzerland regarding the Nazi plan to murder the Jews of Europe, “America and the Holocaust,” The American Experience, produced by WGBH, Boston. https://goo.gl/G7mn4v. See also Michael Neufeld and Michael Berenbaum, The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It? (New York: St. Martin’s Press, published in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2000), 76 – 79.


Harrison to the State Department

STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL

Gerhardt M. Riegner Secretary World Jewish Congress Geneva called on Vice Consul Elting Geneva Saturday eighth greatly agitated and requested following quoted message be transmitted for information American and other Allied Governments and be notified in Department’s discretion to Dr Stephen Wise New York City:

“Informer reported to have close connections with highest German authorities who has previously generally reliable reports says that in Fuehrer’s [sic] headquarters plan under consideration to exterminate at one blow this fall three and half to four millions Jews following deportation from countries occupied, controlled by Germany and concentration in east. Method execution undecided but prussic acid1 has been considered. Information transmitted with reservation as exactitude cannot be ascertained.”

CONFIDENTIAL Legation2 note: Legation has no information which would tend to confirm this report which is however forwarded in accordance with Riegner’s wishes. In conversation with Elting Riegner drew attention to recently reported Jewish deportations eastward from occupied France, protectorate and probably elsewhere. The report has earmarks of war rumor inspired by fear and what is commonly understood to be the actually miserable condition of these refugees who face decimation as result physical maltreatment persecution and scarcely endurable privations malnutrition and disease.

HARRISON

 

Elting to the State Department

MEMORANDUM

Subject: Conversation with Mr. Gerhart M. RIEGNER, Secretary of World Jewish Congress

This morning Mr. Gerhart M. RIEGNER, Secretary of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, called in great agitation. He stated that he had just received a report from a German business man of considerable prominence,3  who is said to have excellent political and military connections in Germany and from whom reliable and important political information has been obtained on two previous occasions, to the effect that there has been and is being considered in Hitler’s headquarters a plan to exterminate all Jews from Germany and German controlled areas in Europe after they have been concentrated in the east (presumably Poland). The number involved is said to be between three-and-a-half and four millions and the object is to permanently settle the Jewish question in Europe. The mass execution if decided upon would allegedly take place this fall.

Riegner stated that according to his informant the use of prussic acid was mentioned as a means of accomplishing the executions. When I mentioned that this report seemed fantastic to me, Riegner said that it struck him in the same way but that from the fact that mass deportation had been taking place since July 16 as confirmed by reports received by him from Paris, Holland, Berlin, Vienna, and Prague it was always conceivable that such a diabolical plan was actually being considered by Hitler as a corollary.

According to Riegner, 14,000 Jews have already been deported from occupied France and 10,000 more are to be handed over from occupied France in the course of the next few days. Similarly from German sources 56,000 Jews have already been deported from the Protectorate together with unspecified numbers from Germany and other occupied countries.

Riegner said this report was so serious and alarming that he felt it his duty to make the following requests: (1) that the American and other Allied Governments be informed with regard thereto at once; (2) that they be asked to try by every means to obtain confirmation or denial; (3) that Dr. Stephen Wise, the president of his organization, be informed of the report.

I told Riegner that the information would be passed on to the Legation at once but that I was not in a position to inform him as to what action, if any, the Legation might take. He hoped that he might be informed in due course that the information had been transmitted to Washington.

For what it is worth, my personal opinion is that Riegner is a serious and balanced individual and that he would never have come to the Consulate with the above report if he had not had confidence in his informant’s reliability and if he did not seriously consider that the report might well contain an element of truth. Again it is my opinion that the report should be passed on to the Department for what it is worth.

There is attached a draft of a telegram prepared by Riegner giving in his own words a telegraphic summary of his statements to me.

Howard Elting, Jr.

American Vice Consul

American Consulate

Geneva, Switzerland

 

Study Questions

A. How did Harrison’s reaction to the report of German plans to exterminate Jews differ from Elting’s reaction? How did each justify his reaction?

B. What key decisions did the United States make in responding to the Holocaust (See Stopping the Holocaust and Justice Jackson’s Report on the Nuremberg Trials)?

Footnotes

  1. Zyklon B, the gas used in the gas chambers, was derived from prussic acid.
  2. By “legation,” Harrison means the staff of the American diplomatic mission in Switzerland.
  3. Riegner’s informant was Eduard Schulte, a leading German industrialist who served as an Allied spy throughout the war.