THE RIEGNER TELEGRAM
By Elayne LeTraunik
Howard Elting, Jr. found himself in a comfortable spot. While the world raged in war around him, he was in a peaceful oasis as American Vice Consul in Geneva, Switzerland. Switzerland’s neutrality kept things as calm as they could be in the midst of such a storm.
All this changed on August 8, 1942 when Elting was visited by a greatly agitated man telling a tale that no sane person could believe. The man was Gerhardt Riegner, Secretary of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva and his story was so impossible that Elting was inclined to dismiss it. But something about Riegner gave him pause and he listened more closely.
Riegner had many contacts in Switzerland and one of the closest was Dr. Eduard Schulte, an industrialist who lived in Upper Silesia, not far from the Auschwitz concentration camp, which had opened in June of 1942, and through his contacts had learned of Hitler’s plan to exterminate every Jew in Europe. While in Switzerland, Schulte relayed this information to Riegner and even told him the method of the murder, Prussic acid.
Agitated and frantic, Riegner attempted to pass this information to the Allies as quickly as he could to do whatever possible to avoid the massacre. That is what brought him to Elting’s office that day in August.
After speaking with Riegner, Elting sent the following message to the American Legation in Bern:
“This morning Mr. Gerhardt 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, 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 million and the object is to permanently settle the Jewish question in Europe. The mass execution if decided upon would allegedly take place this fall.”
Elting went on to say that the use of prussic acid was said to be the method of execution and that according to Riegner, thousands of Jews had already been deported from France, Germany and other areas of occupied Europe. The fact that these deportations were taking place made this seemingly fantastic plan possible.
This message was sent on August 10, 1942 to the American legation in Bern and from there was passed along to the US State Department. Elting added that it was his opinion that Riegner was someone to be believed and that this report should be taken as serious.
On August 11, 1942 the American legation forwarded the message to the US State Department along with this addition: “CONFIDENTIAL: Legation 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 conditions of these refugees who face decimation as result physical maltreatment and scarcely endurable privations, malnutrition and disease.”
The information was also sent to the British government and to Rabbi Stephen Wise, the head of the World Jewish Congress. Rabbi Wise was greatly distressed and contacted the Under Secretary of State, Sumner Welles to give him the information. Welles asked Rabbi Wise not to release the information until the State Department could investigate the matter. During this two month “investigation” more than 1 million Jews were murdered.
It was not until January of 1944 that an effort began to try to save European Jews but by then it was too late. Millions of Jews had already died and would continue to die until the day the camps were liberated.
On December 3, 2001 Gerhard Riegner died at the age of 90. Despite living a long and distinguished life, he was still haunted by the knowledge that he saw the Holocaust approaching and could not stop it.
Elayne LeTraunik is formerly Artistic Director of Chicago Jewish Theatre and is now an historical researcher.
from the November 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine