Knowledge of the Holocaust was not kept from the North American public. The majority of people were notified.
In June of 1942, the popular and widely respected American journalist Edward R. Murrow first reported that more than one million Jews had been killed.
Then, on December 13, 1942, broadcasting from London, Murrow told his listeners: “What is happening is this: Millions of human beings, most of them Jews, are being gathered up with ruthless efficiency and murdered… The phrase ‘concentration camp,'” he continued, “is obsolete… there are no longer ‘concentration camps’—we must speak now only of ‘extermination camps.’” Listeners worldwide heard the trusted newsman recognize “a horror beyond what imagination can grasp.”
Four days later, on December 17, 1942, the United States joined ten other Allied governments in issuing a solemn public declaration condemning Nazi Germany’s “bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination” of the Jews.
Hence, the Holocaust was not a secret in 1942.
By December of 1941, there had been sufficient rumours and allegations to convince the conservative New York Herald Tribune to allege that European Jews were being subjected to nothing less than “systemic extermination.”
In the early days of January, 1942, the icy waters of the Danube had been strewn with the corpses of 3,000-4,000 Jews, Roma and Serbs during raids by Nazi-affiliated gendarmes in southern Backa and the Yugoslavian city of Novi Sad (now the second-largest city in Serbia).
- On January 20, 1942, the Nazis made it their official policy to eliminate Jews. At a gathering of Nazi officials at Wannsee, in southwestern Berlin, Reinhard Heydrich, one of the organizers of Kristallnacht (subsequently promoted to chief of the Reich Main Security Office), laid out Hitler’s plans for ‘The Final Solution of the European Jewish Question.’
- On August 1, 1942, the German industrialist Eduard Schulte tried to stop the Holocaust by informing Gerhart M. Riegner, the secretary-general of the Jewish World Congress, that Hitler was planning to exterminate European Jews for the Final Solution by committing mass murder with cyanide acid. Riegner took this information to the American Consulate in Geneva duly. The U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. failed to take any action. [Near the outset of the Holocaust there had been scattered reports that Nazis were eliminating European Jews with mass shootings (wherein victims were often forced to strip and step down into huge pits for efficient burial) or with mobile gassing trucks. This second, more impersonal methodology could be used to kill up to a maximum of one thousand Jews per day but the Nazis had to admit there was an administrative flaw: Executioners tasked with the job of disposing of the human debris were often emotionally troubled by the necessity of cleaning up the hideous aftermath. Consequently, Reinhard Heydrich, Albert Speer and others devised a far more ingenious mass murder scheme whereby Jews would be forced to handle the ghastly task of removing disgusting corpses. The death camp architects enlisted the expertise of I.G. Farben to supply the necessary lethal gas to be efficiently administered en masse after the Jews were stripped and tricked into entering large buildings, ostensibly for showers. Eventually, the use of cynanide-based Zyklon gas cannisters at Auschwitz, under the administration of camp commandante Rudolf Hoess, would reduce the estimated cost of mass extermination per victim to approximately 1 U.S. cent per carcass. Hence Gerhart Riegner of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva had reported to the Allies that the Nazis were planning on using poison gas to commit mass murders of Jews.]
- By the summer of 1942 there were “Stop Hitler” rallies in the U.S. and yet governmental officials remained incredulous. These rumours, after all, were being circulated by Jews themselves and—and in a world in which Jews were commonly barred from membership in golf clubs, fraternities and all manner of organizations—there was the age-old tradition, emanating from Europe over centuries, that everyone knew that Jews couldn’t be trusted. Only gypsies were worse. But the truth known beneath the veneer of prejudice. Elizabeth (also Elisabeth) Wiskemann (1901–1971), press attaché at the Bern British legation, reported that an S.S. official had stated “in casual conversation that during the second half of 1942 about 30,000 Polish Jews had been killed by gas.”
- In December of 1942, R. Borden Reams, as the specialist on Jewish affairs for the U.S. State Department, typically said mass murders of Jews were “to the best of my knowledge … as yet unconfirmed.” One could politely suggest that Americans were paralyzed by disbelief, or one could surmise they remained in a convenient state of denial. A Jewish historian could be excused for surmising that the cloak of disbelief was a cover-up for the undergarments of outright denial or avoidance. Reams’ avoidance of reality was the first of many such lies made by U.S. government officials. Just days before Murrow’s aforementioned broadcast, President Roosevelt had met with Jewish leaders and said afterwards, privately, “Representatives of the United States government in Switzerland and other neutral countries have given us proof that confirms the horrors discussed by you.” But such words were not uttered in public.
- What the public also never knew was that a member of the Polish underground named Jan Karski had disguised himself as an Estonian prison guard in 1942 and infiltrated the death camp at Belzac. Karski prepared an in-depth report describing how the process of rounding up Jews facilitated train transports from ghettos for mass exterminations. “Wherever the trains arrive,” he wrote, “half the people arrive dead.” In the autumn of 1942, endorsed by the Polish government-in-exile, Karski, took his written report to London and Washington D.C. where he personally briefed President Roosevelt, Secretary of War Henry Stimson and OSS Chief William Donovan.His report doubled as a direct request for the Allies to take actions to halt the deportations to Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor. (Auschwitz was yet to be mentioned.) The American trio was unmoved, stone-faced. They preferred to question Karski about political matters in Poland. Alarmed by such passivity in the face of his own eyewitness reportage, Karski and the Polish ambassador hoped they might gain a more attentive audience from Jewish Justice Felix Frankfurter, an active Zionist, when a meeting was arranged at the Polish embassy. And, indeed, Frankfurter listened with attentive silence for twenty-five minutes as Karski outlined the conditions and operations at Belzec that he had risked his life to provide. After pacing the floor for an extensive silence, Frankfurter reportedly said, “A man like me talking to a man like you must be totally frank. So, I say that I am unable to believe you.” When his audience as aghast, Frankfurter revealed he was not being totally frank. He continued, “Mr. Ambassador, I did not say that this young man is lying. I said that I am unable to believe him. There is a difference.” And that difference—the difference of denial—would prove deadly for the next three years.
In February of 1943, the acclaimed screenwriter and author Ben Hecht wrote an article for The American Mercury magazine called “The Extermination of the Jews.” It was soon revised for Reader’s Digest in which he wrote, “Of these 6,000,000 Jews [of Europe], almost a third have already been massacred by Germans, Romanians, and Hungarians, and the most conservative of scorekeepers estimate that before the war ends, at least another third will have been done to death.” To raise awareness of genocide, he also crafted a pageant called “We Shall Never Die” that premiered before a sold-out audience at Madison Square Garden on March 9, touring major U.S. cities until July, assisted by Broadway director Moss Hart, producer Billy Rose and German refugee composer Kurt Weill.As the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has recorded, “Yiddish stage actor Jacob Ben-Ami informed the audience: ‘We are here to say our prayers for the two million who have been killed in Europe.’ Twenty rabbis, whom the audience were told had escaped from Europe, recited the Shema Yisrael prayer. The rabbis stood on risers in front of two forty-foot-high tablets representing the Ten Commandments. Two narrators—Hollywood stars Paul Muni and Edward G. Robinson at the New York performances—listed the names of prominent Jews throughout history. Among them were the biblical figures Moses and King David, Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, psychologist Sigmund Freud, and twenty Jewish Nobel laureates.” According USHMM, at least 100,000 Americans witnessed the pageant, many more listened on radio, saw newsreel coverage, or read newspaper articles. America knew.
- In July of 1943, the Zionist leader Peter Bergson (known as Hillel Kook in Palestine) created the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe.
THE RAB INCIDENT
After the Italians had established a concentration camp on the Adriatic island of Rab (located in the northern Dalmatia region of present-day Croatia) in July of 1942, there were approximately 2,700 Jews incarcerated among the overall prison population of 7,400 people by mid-1943. When Mussolini was deposed in July, it became likely that Rab would be transferred to German control. The Italian Foreign Ministry was willing to release Jews and sought to free Jews on August 16–but where could they go?
Following the capitulation of Italy on September, 8, 1943, Jewish prisoners overpowered their guards, took their weapons and amalgamated with Slovenian prisoners to form a partisan battalion of 243 fighters on the island. Some 2,000 freed Jews were eventually evacuated to the Croatian mainland. About 245 Jews would join the Rab Brigade of the 24th Division of the “People’s Liberation Army and Partisan Detachments of Yugoslavia.”
This successful, armed rebellion by Jews is rarely-cited. Most Jews have never heard of it. There are three reasons why:
- Unfortunately, the elderly and sick had to be left behind. When the Germans arrived, these remaining Jews on Rab were all be sent to Auschwitz to be killed.
- Knowing the Germans were likely to take this island, the World Jewish Congress appealed to the U.S. War Department to help to transport these Jewish refugees trapped on Rab to safety in Allied-occupied Italy—before the Nazis took the island—only to have the theatre commander determine “military action did not permit the rendition of direct assistance to these refugees, the majority of whom were Jews.”
- The Joint Chiefs of Staff noted that responding to the crisis on Rab “might create a precedent which would lead to other demands and an influx of additional refugees.” With the Rab Incident as a precedent, the War Department unilaterally decided against involving the military in rescue operations (concerning Jews). Meanwhile, the army was providing military transport for thousands of non-Jewish refugees from Italy to Egypt.
According to David S. Wyman, the War Refugee Board was never directly informed of this policy. The only exception was likely John J. McCloy because he doubled as both the second-in-command to Stimson in the War Department and to Pehle on War Refugee Board. One need only read McCloy’s letters in response to pleas for assistance regarding Jews to understand how he resolved his conflict of dual interests.
The Rab Incident would reverberate to the lethal detriment of Jews throughout Europe for the remainder of World War II. It was also a largely uncharted turning point in John J. McCloy’s career as fixer behind the scenes.
It was not just Jan Karski who let FDR know about the Holocaust face to face. Within his own home, he had a wife who was acutely aware of the cataclysmic crisis facing the Jews of Europe. In her syndicated newspaper column called My Day, which ran six days a week (from December 31, 1935, to September 26, 1962), First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt lamented the Holocaust in a column for August 13, 1943: “I do not know what we can do to save the Jews of Europe and to find them homes, but I know that we will be the sufferers if we let great wrongs occur without exerting ourselves to correct them.”
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