Cable from London to Rabbi Stephen Wise Regarding the Final Solution Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1942, Gerhart Riegner of the World Jewish Congress learned that the Nazi leadership planned to kill millions of European Jews. He did not know that the killings had already begun. He could not confirm his information, though he considered his source reliable. The information came at a time when the United States had just entered World War II, the conflict had become truly global, and the Nazis had accelerated their plans for genocide. Up to that time, the Allies had failed to stall or stop the Nazi onslaught, and the primary victims of Nazi aggression desperately needed help. Hoping it would spur investigation and action, Riegner communicated what he had learned to diplomatic channels, asking that a message be sent to Rabbi Stephen Wise of the American Jewish Congress.

Summary Overview

In 1942, Gerhart Riegner of the World Jewish Congress learned that the Nazi leadership planned to kill millions of European Jews. He did not know that the killings had already begun. He could not confirm his information, though he considered his source reliable. The information came at a time when the United States had just entered World War II, the conflict had become truly global, and the Nazis had accelerated their plans for genocide. Up to that time, the Allies had failed to stall or stop the Nazi onslaught, and the primary victims of Nazi aggression desperately needed help. Hoping it would spur investigation and action, Riegner communicated what he had learned to diplomatic channels, asking that a message be sent to Rabbi Stephen Wise of the American Jewish Congress.

Defining Moment

From the beginning of their rule, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi leadership espoused a policy of racial hatred and promoted policies of racial purification. Hitler focused much of his animosity on European Jews, whom he blamed for Germany's disastrous loss of World War I, among other ills. Under Hitler, the Nazi state began resettling Jewish populations in concentration and labor camps as well as ghettos (sections of cities reserved for Jews), and stripping them of their rights, property, and even professions. Millions of men, women, and children perished from sickness, malnutrition, the hardships of labor, and by outright execution. At the same time, Hitler seized on racial supremacy as grounds for territorial expansion, asserting that the German people, whom he designated as racially pure, required more and better land.

In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria and deported thousands of Austrian Jews to camps in Germany. This conquest set off a wave of violence against Jewish people in Germany and Austria. Many Jews had already begun trying to emigrate from the region, but most had no place to go. Many nations, including the United States, refused or restricted Jewish immigration. Following Germany's annexation of Austria, in July 1938, delegates from thirty-two countries met at the Évian Conference in France to discuss resettlement of Jewish refugees. However, the countries failed to live up to the purpose of the conference, with virtually none of the attendees—including the United States—agreeing to accept more than a token number of Jewish refugees. Thus, millions of Jews remained stuck in the path of the German military machine.

Persecution of the Jews increased as the Nazis pushed onward. In January 1939, Hitler gave a speech in which he warned that if war broke out in Europe, it would result in “the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” Though many doubted this rhetoric, the words signaled a decisive shift toward genocide. Later that year, Germany invaded Poland, and Britain and France declared war on Germany. The Nazi advance continued steadily over the next two years, as Germany invaded France, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, and finally the Soviet Union.

In late 1941, the first of the Nazi death camps—Chełmno—opened its gates in Poland and began executing people via mobile gas vans. Five more death camps would follow. Despite Nazi attempts to hide the genocide, rumors spread, prisoners escaped, and spies leaked information. Among those who leaked Nazi plans to exterminate the Jews was Eduard Schulte. A prominent German businessman with ties to the Nazi elite, Schulte remained in Germany during the war in order to inform on the Nazis. On July 29, 1942, as death camps were being built, Schulte reported Nazi plans for wholesale extermination of millions of Jews to Benjamin Sagalowitz, a journalist for the Jewish Press Agency in Switzerland. Sagalowitz passed on the information to Riegner in Geneva, and Riegner contacted the diplomatic offices of the United States and Britain. On August 8, 1942, Riegner asked that his report of the Nazi plans be communicated to Allied leadership and to Rabbi Wise.

Author Biography

This document derives from two authors: Gerhart Riegner, the author of the embedded message, and Samuel Silverman, author of the cable forwarding the message to Rabbi Wise.

Born to a working-class British Jewish family in Liverpool in 1895, Samuel Sydney Silverman rose to become a prominent member of Parliament. His early university studies were interrupted when he refused to serve in the British military at the outset of World War I. As a pacifist, he registered as a conscientious objector, and was imprisoned several times for his stance. He went on to become a teacher and a lawyer before being elected to the House of Commons in 1935. He served in Parliament until his death in 1968. Silverman's pacifism faced its greatest challenge during World War II, when British leadership argued that, in part, the war must be waged to stop the plight of the Jews in Europe. As a politician, he conceded the necessity for war. It was during this time that he learned of the information relayed by Riegner, and sent a cable to Rabbi Wise.

Gerhart Riegner was born a Jew in Germany in 1911. His family weathered World War I, and Riegner went on to study law and political science. As Hitler rose to power, Riegner took notice. In May 1933, just months after Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany, Riegner fled to France, where he finished his law degree before immigrating to Switzerland. In Geneva, Riegner served first as legal officer and then as director of the World Jewish Congress office. He remained there for the duration of World War II, and afterward worked to provide aid to Jewish refugees. He continued his work for the World Jewish Congress into the 1980s and died in 2001.

Historical Document

C Aug 28–42

1. LINYL LIVERPOOL 123 1/64 25 NLT

2. STEPHEN WISE WORLD JEWISH CONGRESS NEW YORK

3. HAVE RECEIVED THROUGH FOREIGN OFFICE FOLLOWING MESSAGE FROM RIEGNER GENEVA STOP (RECEIVED ALARMING REPORT THAT IN FUHRERS HEADQUARTERS PLAN DISCUSSED AND UNDER CONSIDERATION ALL JEWS IN COUNTRIES OCCUPIED OR CONTROLLED GERMANY NUMBERING 3–1/2 TO 4 MILLION SHOULD AFTER DEPORTATION AND CONCENTRATION IN EAST AT ONE BLOW EXTERMINATED TO RESOLVE ONCE FOR ALL JEWISH QUESTION IN EUROPE. STOP ACTION REPORTED PLANNED FOR AUTUMN METHODS UNDER DISCUSSION INCLUDING PRUSSIC ACID STOP WE TRANSMIT INFORMATION WITH ALL NECESSARY RESERVATION AS EXACTITUDE CANNOT BE CONFIRMED STOP INFORMANT STATED TO HAVE CLOSE CONNECTIONS WITH HIGHEST GERMAN AUTHORITIES AND HIS REPORTS GENERALLY RELIABLE STOP INFORM AND CONSULT NEW YORK STOP FOREIGN OFFICE HAS NO INFORMATION BEARING ON OR CONFIRMING STORY

4. SAMUEL SILVERMAN

5. MM REFERRED ADSE: B5057 SNDR & TEXT NSL

7. WU

1200 CNY 89035 AG

Glossary

Prussic acid: hydrocyanic acid; a colorless, highly poisonous liquid

Document Analysis

The message in the cable to Rabbi Wise, dated August 28, 1942, passed through several hands and took weeks to reach its intended recipient. The cable was sent by Silverman, and begins by stating that Silverman is relaying a message from Riegner. The cable then embeds a message from Riegner.

“Received alarming report,” the cable reads, making clear that Riegner himself is passing on information received from another source. In the choppy prose in which telegrams were composed, Riegner relays that Hitler's government is considering a plan “to resolve once for all Jewish question in Europe” by arranging for all Jews in German-controlled areas—numbering a staggering 3.5 to 4 million—to be “at one blow exterminated.” The information suggests that German deportation and resettlement of millions of European Jews is a guise for a grosser plan for racial genocide. The crucial import is that the threats of Hitler and the Nazis have not been idle. The allegation that the Nazis truly intend to murder millions of Jewish citizens is given added credibility by the strategic details revealed: “planned for autumn methods under discussion including prussic acid,” or hydrogen cyanide—a highly poisonous liquid that was in fact the key ingredient in Zyklon B, the pesticide used in the gas chambers of the Nazi extermination camps.

The cable acknowledges that the “exactitude” of the information “cannot be confirmed” but asserts that Riegner's informant has been reliable in the past and has close ties to Nazi officials that would provide access to such information. (Riegner refused to reveal his source, for fear of compromising both Schulte's personal safety and his continuing access to information from the Nazi leadership, until October 1942.)

The cable is dated August 28, three weeks after the day that Riegner first passed on Schulte's information. It took three weeks for the message to filter through official channels and to be cabled by Silverman to Rabbi Wise. During that time, other authorities vetted the information, as evidenced by the notation that the Foreign Office had no information to add. The document itself serves as evidence that word of the coming genocide (which was already under way by this time) was communicated to authorities in Europe and the United States.

Essential Themes

Despite evidence offered in the cable and from further investigations, the Allies did not take direct action to stop the transport of Jews to the death camps, to destroy the camps, or to free those imprisoned. The position of the Allied leadership remained that the best way to save the victims of Nazi aggression was to win the war. The American response was especially disappointing, as Rabbi Wise was deemed to have close personal ties to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The primary theme of this telegram hinges on the revelation of escalating atrocities against European Jews. Until that point, the Allies had done little to rescue those who suffered Nazi persecution. Schulte, Sagalowitz, Riegner, Silverman, and, later, Wise all hoped the information would spur international response. It did not. Allied leadership remained focused on fighting the war, and any action taken on behalf of those dying in death camps was peripheral.

The greater context for this source is the bearing that it has on the evaluation of events in World War II and on ongoing debates regarding humanitarian intervention. Despite repeated notice and evidence, the Allies failed to take direct action to aid victims of Nazi aggression. Most often, they dismissed the warnings as exaggerated and looked away. As a result, more than six million European Jews died, and Nazi Germany ravaged much of the continent. After the liberation of Auschwitz and the discovery of the extent of Nazi atrocities, people have asked why the Allies did not do more. The central question has become, how many more lives might have been saved had the Allies opened their borders to refugees, moved more swiftly against the Nazis, and even bombed Nazi transport lines and camps? The answer is unknowable, but the question remains important for future leaders.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Breitman, Richard, Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew. New York: Hill, 1998. Print.
  • Hamerow, Theodor. While We Watched: Europe, America, and the Holocaust. New York: Norton, 2008. Print.
  • Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution. New Haven: Yale UP, 2008. Print.
  • Longerich, Peter. Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.
  • Neufeld, Michael J., and Michael Berenbaum, eds. The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It? New York: St. Martin's, 2000. Print.
  • Roseman, Mark. The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution: A Reconsideration. New York: Metropolitan, 2002. Print.
  • Wyman, David S. The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941–1945. New York: New, 1998. Print.
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