The memory of the Holocaust has enabled Israel to be a responsible and restrained conqueror. Memory is the key to morality.
Rabbi Irving Greenberg
(I would assume that many American and Israeli Jews would agree with him.
“Think before you think….” EM)
In the almost seventy years that have passed since the end of World War II, among the questions that remain unanswered are a number that have to do with the arrival and dissemination of the information about the German government’s systematic operation of mass murder. More specifically, the question involves the path the information took into Switzerland, and out to the West -- how it was received, and then disseminated once it reached contacts in Switzerland. This is a short essay in which some incidents are presented as interwoven vignettes to introduce some new aspects of Holocaust research in this regard. I leave it to the reader to reach his or her own conclusions.
In his attempt to unravel the identity of the German informants who brought to the West the plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe, historian Walter Laqueur mentions an American by the name of Sam Woods, who resided in Switzerland during WWII and was a key figure in the mysterious and intriguing world of Intelligence. According to Laqueur, Sam Woods was in a key position during WWII in Intelligence circles [Walter Laqueur, The Terrible Secret (Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1980); pp. 96-97]. Although not much is known about Woods, we know for sure that he was the person who received in Berlin a copy of the German plan to invade the Soviet Union.
Many years ago when I started, sort of in total darkness, to figure out certain events that led to the Holocaust, I did not pay much attention to the issue of Intelligence in Switzerland. In the mid-1970’s, it was well known to most scholars of the Holocaust that Switzerland had been a hotbed of spying. Moreover, Switzerland was also recognized to be the place where Germans who were unhappy about Hitler’s Nazi regime came to unload their evidence and complaints to the Allies -- their hopes of enlisting the Allies’ help to overthrow Hitler were not met with too much success. The German dissidents eventually had to go it on their own, and they of course paid the ultimate price for their adventures.
Dr. Gerhardt Riegner was World Jewish Congress representative residing in Switzerland during WWII. As a result of his own claim, he is widely believed to have been the person who met with one of the German dissidents who laid out details about the ongoing massacre of European Jewry. It was eventually Dr. Riegner who did send the informant’s testimony to the United States, consequently forcing the US government to recognize the facts of the Holocaust. Also as a result of this testimony, the American Jewish leadership was prompted to ask for a meeting with FDR. The President subsequently invited the entire American Jewish leadership to the White House, in fact the only time that such a meeting was to take place during the war. In the August/September 1980 issue of Midstream, I published an article that included comments that Adolf Held, the president of the Jewish Labor Committee, wrote on that meeting; Held’s comments represent the only source found to-date describing the event. Unfortunately, FDR, aside from a verbal show of sympathy, hardly took any steps to act to save Jews. Meanwhile, later on in my research I discovered that Dr. Riegner would have been the wrong person to be in a position such as to have met personally with any German informant during WWII, for he apparently lacked the strength of character and insight necessary to take on the responsibilities of this position; in fact he was in reality not the person who met with one of the German informers. This issue of German informants about the massacre of European Jewry is a very complex one, some aspects of which I will illuminate below [see also my “Letter to the Editor” in Commentary (Vol. 77, Number 1,January 1984)].
In the course of my research to understand the Holocaust, I ran into an Israeli who, in the early 1970’s, was writing a book on the Zionist leadership and its response to the Holocaust. His name was S.B. Beit-Zvi [S.B. Beit-Zvi, Post-Ugandian Zionism in the Crucible of the Holocaust (Tel Aviv: Bronfman Publishers, 1977). Unable to find a single publisher who wanted to take it on, eventually Beit-Zvi self-published his book. As he and I predicted, the book raised some eyebrows, and some articles about it appeared in Israeli newspapers, but when his book came out in Israel in 1977, it basically hit a brick wall. Eventually, Beit-Zvi convinced professor Yehuda Bauer of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem to arrange a year-long seminar on the topic of Zionist Leadership during the Holocaust. But Beit-Zvi’s assessments were criticized and ridiculed by an Israeli Holocaust research establishment that was too caught up in its own politics. Today a number of historians have accepted Beit-Zvi’s assessment of the Zionist leadership. In an unpublished article I wrote in the early 1980’s on the American Zionist leadership during the Holocaust, my conclusions were similar.
Ideology, the ideology of Zionism and building a nation, was so overwhelming to them that no serious attention was given to the Holocaust events. The question of how they would build a nation without Jews was on their minds, but was not treated seriously. In a very significant revelation in his book, Beit-Zvi for the first time published the June 11, 1944, minutes of the Executive Zionist leadership in Jerusalem in which a discussion ensued among the Jerusalem Zionist leadership concerning the issue of whether Auschwitz should be bombed. Beit-Zvi points out that our very dear and larger-than-life leader, David Ben Gurion, declared that Auschwitz should not be bombed; he based his reasoning on what he stated to be a lack of information. However, in reality, as many documents show, including the documents of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, as well as newspapers published in Palestine, there was enough information about Auschwitz if only one wanted to know.
In 1982 I published a book review [“Britain and the Holocaust” in Midstream (April 1982)], in which I also included the text of the minutes of that famous meeting, including the following paragraph:
The Chairman, Mr. Ben-Gurion, summarizes: The opinion of the Executive is that it ought not be proposed to the Allies to bomb places where there are Jews.
I always felt indebted to Beit-Zvi, who became a personal friend, for his book and for the revelation about Ben-Gurion.
It is well known in many circles, among historians as well as former Intelligence officials and other mavins, that the United States was at a great disadvantage in the area of Intelligence during WWII (for a short summary of this fact, see the “Introduction” to Intelligence Wars: American Secret History From Hitler to Al-Qaeda, by Thomas Powers.) The Intelligence agencies were late to be established, thus requiring further time to acquire the right personnel to work with Intelligence and set the wheels in motion. The Americans’ approach to create an Intelligence Agency was first to consult the British Intelligence agencies in order to establish a close relationship and cooperation with them. Consequently, the British opened an office in New York City at Rockefeller Center adjacent to the office of Bill Donovan, who was the head of America’s Intelligence agency (the OSS). The close relationship between these two agencies produced some level of friendship and mediocre Intelligence, but it also created some major snags, as some of the British Intelligence officers turned out to be double agents for the Soviets, and perhaps even for the Germans [see William Stevenson, Intrepid’s Last Case (New York: Villard Books, 1983)]. In their broad scale of Intelligence work, the British were responsible for many Intelligence disasters on a number of fronts. Among them was Switzerland, where, especially but not only in this instance of the Holocaust, their failures became evident, specifically in the area of dealing with the German dissidents who wanted to negotiate with the Allies to end the War and eliminate Hitler.
In the mid-1970’s, I worked with Dr. David S. Wyman doing research on the American response to the Holocaust [David S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984)]. During that time I supported most of his arguments, except that I had a few questions concerning the role that Dr. Gerhardt Riegner played in transmitting the famous cable to the Secretary of State in Washington on the extermination of European Jewry. I wrote but never published a short article titled, “The Mysterious Riegner” on this question. In the October 7, 1983, issue of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, correspondent Dan Margalit published an interview he had with Riegner on the subject of that mysterious German whom Riegner supposedly personally received the information from concerning the German’s program of extermination. In answer to Margalit’s question on the matter, Riegner is quoted as saying, “I don’t respond, I don’t confirm, and I don’t deny” any information about the identity of that German informant. It seemed odd to me that Riegner, after so many years of withholding the name of the informant, would still not release his name. This otherwise pointless refusal fueled my belief that Riegner simply did not know the answer to that question because he was not the person who met the informant. I questioned Riegner’s sincerity and his character, and my suspicions were confirmed later on when I met with a woman named Cecilia Zimmermann, who had been secretary to Abraham Silbersheim. Silbersheim had founded RELICO, the committee for the aid of the war-stricken Jewish population. Originally he worked within the World Jewish Congress with Riegner, but, due to a dispute over policy between them, Silbersheim was forced to leave. According to Zimmermann, Riegner was not courageous enough to show flexibility in saving Jews through any creative methods, illegal or otherwise.
For me, the second more serious issue with Wyman’s book concerned the question of bombing Auschwitz. I strongly supported his arguments on the necessity and feasibility of bombing Auschwitz; the only point of his that I questioned was one issue that had to do with when Auschwitz and its death machine were discovered and made known to the wider world. Contrary to Wyman’s argument that the full extent of the information was known only in June 1944, I think, and I am almost sure, that as soon as this machinery of death started to operate at the beginning of 1942, sketchy details of this place and its happenings were transmitted to the world via various ways and were reflected in news reports coming out at that time. I totally disagree with the absurd arguments set forth in a book against the bombing of Auschwitz that was published in the year 2000 in association with the US Holocaust Museum (Michael J. Neufeld and Michael Berenbaum, eds, The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies have Attempted It? [New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000]). I often wonder how can it be that Israeli children are brought to this site to complete their education and understanding of the Holocaust. What are they to learn at Auschwitz? From my point of view, this place should be condemned, and not a single person should ever enter within its gates again. A memorial is one thing, but a tourist attraction? How Jews of modern times, after the Holocaust, can be tourists at Auschwitz, is beyond my understanding.
During the late 1970’s, I worked in the office of Samuel Merlin and Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook), those two individuals who worked day and night in 1943 with the mission to save European Jewry. Their work was in some ways successful when in January 1944 President Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board (for further explanation see my article “Political Action vs. Personal Relations” in Midstream [April 1981]). I raised the issue of Auschwitz with them, along with the possibility of my searching the OSS archives to see what type of information the US Intelligence services had on that machinery of murder. Samuel Merlin contacted his friend Paul O’Dwyer, a very distinguished Irish American lawyer and one of their supporters in the 1940’s. With O’Dwyer’s help we received the necessary permit, and I subsequently spent one week at the Carlisle Army Barracks in Pennsylvania examining Bill Donovan’s papers. As it turned out, I found almost no messages from Europe concerning Auschwitz. However, I did find two documents of special interest. One was a “United States Strategic Bombing Survey” dated 25 August 1945, in which the maps in the survey showed the year 1943 where Auschwitz was indicated as a producer of methanol. In addition, I found an OSS document from 23 June 1945 titled the “Memorandum of Information for the Joint U.S. Chiefs of Staff Subject: OSS Operations in Switzerland 1942-1945,” in which it was written, “Contacts leading directly into the German Abwehr [German Military Intelligence Service] were developed through a key agent with close connections to high German political circles.” To better understand some issues concerning Switzerland, Merlin encouraged me to travel to Israel to visit the former Irgun member Dr. Reuven (Rudolf) Hecht, whose family had lived in Switzerland and was involved in the shipping and supply of grain. What they did during WWII is still a mystery. Dr. Hecht, an avid Zionist and supporter of the Irgun, worked in Switzerland during WWII and was involved in his family business. After WWII he moved to Israel and established the same sort of business in the port city of Haifa. He was an avid supporter of Menachem Begin and his political party. Before I left for Israel, Merlin handed me a letter of introduction to Dr. Hecht, along with another letter which was a copy of an official US document that Sam Woods had handed to Hecht as a thank you note for his service to Allied causes during WWII. It took awhile for me to secure an appointment, but finally I arrived by invitation at Dr. Hecht’s office. But my welcome was brief: as I had suspected, once I just opened my mouth and mentioned Sam Woods, Hecht politely asked me leave – he had no interest in telling me what had happened between him and Woods. Switzerland, a supposedly neutral country during WWII, was not so neutral after all.
The relationship between neutrality and Intelligence during WWII remains, I believe, a worthwhile subject for research, for it bears on the whole issue of the massacre of European Jewry -- might the extermination process at least have slowed to some degree, if not been halted, if Intelligence had not been sabotaged, or if some Jews who were free to act, had acted more courageously? Today’s Jewry, which is living and thinking after the events of Auschwitz, should look with objective introspection at the Holocaust event. It is sort of sad, or one might say too early, to analyze events that just happened to Jews seventy years ago. To me, the attempts to explain the Holocaust via Elie Wiesel in the United States or Yad Vashem in Jerusalem have been total failures. Wiesel prefers to limit his writings to telling Chasidic stories rather than dealing with political realities that are associated with the Holocaust. Following his release from Auschwitz, Wiesel ended up in Paris, where he sympathized with the Irgun and knew Peter Bergson [Hillel Kook]. Later on Bergson came to Wiesel’s aid in NYC after he was injured in an accident. To-date I have not yet seen any reference in Wiesel’s writings about Hillel Kook, who definitely knew what to do in the Holocaust, and certainly understood the post-Holocaust historical momentum of the establishment of Israel as a modern Republic with a written constitution (which has not yet happened). On the other hand, Yad Vashem focuses on Jewish heroism in the Holocaust but completely forgot until a year or so ago to include the sole most important Jew of the century, Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook) who, with a few Irgun members persisted in their insistence that the United States Government should take an active role in saving Jews (who but the US would be capable of such a feat?). Jews living after the Holocaust in the US or in Israel need to find better ideas, deeper thoughts, in order for them to conduct their affairs in such a way so as not to be blinded from the real and evolving world around them.