January 1943 Telegram Confirming Reports of Mass Executions of Jews in Poland Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On January 19, 1943, Gerhart Riegner of the World Jewish Congress and Richard Lichtheim of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, both in Geneva, Switzerland, issued a joint report on the mass execution and other Nazi-led persecutions of Europe's Jews. Their report served to confirm an earlier report made by Riegner, in August 1942, regarding Nazi plans to exterminate the continent's Jewish population. That information had been leaked by a Nazi informant, later disclosed as Eduard Schulte, a prominent German businessman with close ties to the Nazi elite. The report in January 1943 cites several sources as confirming the deliberate execution of thousands of Jews per day in Poland. It also elucidates the ongoing deportation of Jews from across Europe and the declining conditions suffered by those remaining in ghettos and labor camps.

Summary Overview

On January 19, 1943, Gerhart Riegner of the World Jewish Congress and Richard Lichtheim of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, both in Geneva, Switzerland, issued a joint report on the mass execution and other Nazi-led persecutions of Europe's Jews. Their report served to confirm an earlier report made by Riegner, in August 1942, regarding Nazi plans to exterminate the continent's Jewish population. That information had been leaked by a Nazi informant, later disclosed as Eduard Schulte, a prominent German businessman with close ties to the Nazi elite. The report in January 1943 cites several sources as confirming the deliberate execution of thousands of Jews per day in Poland. It also elucidates the ongoing deportation of Jews from across Europe and the declining conditions suffered by those remaining in ghettos and labor camps.

Defining Moment

Anti-Semitism was not a uniquely Nazi attitude. Throughout the Nazi Party's rise to power, Jews attempted to flee Germany and its neighboring lands, only to be rebuffed. Most nations, including the United States, maintained strict quotas on immigration. Despite mounting reports of persecution and violence against Jews, these nations did not relax their restrictions in order to admit more Jewish refugees. Even when Allied leaders called a conference at Évian, France, in 1938, to discuss potential solutions to the refugee crisis, little was done. Hitler had stated that he would allow the millions of Jews in German-controlled territory emigrate, but the international community would not take them.

In the United States, a nativist and isolationist mood predominated not only among the citizenry but also in the Congress. The Immigration Reform Act of 1924 had passed tight quotas that saw only nominal relaxation following the Évian Conference. Immigration restrictions in the United States actually tightened in 1940, as the nation became more involved in European affairs, and again in 1941, when the United States officially entered World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other officials warned that stricter controls on immigration were needed to prevent an influx of potential German spies and other foreign threats.

When Riegner sent his first report of Nazi plans to exterminate European Jewry, American officials delayed transmission of the message and did not immediately publicize what they had learned. Many officials decried the reports as rumor, and dismissed them as exaggerated. However, reports from various quarters kept coming. In November 1942, the US State Department confirmed that deliberate mass executions were taking place at death camps in Poland, and Rabbi Stephen Wise of the American Jewish Congress made a public statement regarding Nazi plans for genocide. A month later, on December 17, 1942, Allied leaders and the so-called United Nations (not yet a formal international body) had issued a statement condemning “in the strongest possible terms this bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination.” However, they did not take military action to stop the killings or to liberate the victims of the death camps.

By January 1943, several known killing centers were operating in Poland, and reports had been leaked of mass killings in Romania. Riegner and Lichtheim's report came as added confirmation to a growing pile of evidence. However, the reports would keep coming. Citizens, journalists, and reporters in Europe would keep relaying information on the operations of the Nazi death camps in hopes that the Allies would respond with more than speeches.

Author Biography

Born in Berlin in 1885, Richard Lichtheim became a leader in the German and global Zionist movement. In the early twentieth century, the Zionists promoted Jewish culture and rights and advocated for a return to the Jewish homeland in what was then Palestine (now Israel and the Israeli-occupied territories). Lichtheim studied at the University of Freiburg before joining the World Zionist Organization in 1909. He became editor of the organization's main publication, Die Welt, and authored Zionist treatises that earned him international notice. During World War II, Lichtheim served as the representative for the Jewish Agency for Palestine in Geneva, Switzerland. Lichtheim died in 1963.

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 and the Nazis 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 a 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. Later in life, he remained involved with the World Jewish Congress, serving as secretary general from 1965 to 1983, and worked closely with the United Nations. Riegner died in 2001.

Historical Document

FROM: AMERICAN LEGATION, BERN

TO: Under Secretary of State, Washington, D.C.

DATE: January 21, 1943

NUMBER: 482

The following is for your information and to be transmitted to Rabbi Stephen Wise, if you so determine. Reference Department's 2314 of October 5.

“It has now been confirmed from different sources that mass executions have taken place in Poland and it is reported from one source that 6,000 are killed daily. The Jews are required, before execution, to strip themselves of all clothing, which is then sent to Germany. The remaining Jews in Poland are now confined to approximately fifty-five ghettoes - in the old ghetto insofar as the larger towns are concerned, and in small places transformed into ghettoes in other localities. Some Jews, both Polish and those deported from other countries, are in labor camps in Silesia and Poland. No news is received from the ghettoes, although occasional reports are received from some people in the labor camp and in the Resienstadt. The ghetto in Poland is comparatively worse than the Resienstadt, insofar as those remaining and working there are concerned. The Resienstadt is a self-governing Jewish community under Edelstein, Stricker, Friedmann, Zucker, among others. No delegate is allowed to be sent to the Resienstadt by the International Red Cross. Reports about the situation in Germany indicate as of the end of November and the middle of December, that deportations are continuing. Special agents of the Gestapo, having completed the job of arranging deportations from Vienna, have been sent to Holland and Berlin for the purpose of speeding up the job in those localities. Female war workers in Berlin, whose parents have already been deported, were suddenly deported after arrest, and occasionally parents returned from work to find their children have been deported during their absence. About 2000 are in hiding, and there have been many cases of suicide. People who have been arrested, and whose deportation is pending are put in buildings which have neither furniture nor beds. Twenty-one members of the German Community Council and members of the German Jewish Representation who were arrested on November 9, and held as hostages have disappeared, and it is reported that eight of them have been shot in reprisal for the fleeing of some Jews from the locality.

Jews in Czechoslovakia, Germany and Austria are not allowed to buy live fish, poultry, vegetables or rationed food stuffs, and under a new order, the local authorities are empowered to withdraw their rationing cards. Thus, Jews in Berlin are unable to buy milk, meat or eggs. It is reported from Prague and Berlin that no Jews will be left in either city by the end of March.

Fildermann has filed a special report from Rumania stating that in the fall of 1941, 130,000 Rumanian Jews were deported to Trananistria. Of these, 15,000 came from the district of Dorohoi, 30,000 from Gernauti, 45,000 from Bessarabia, and 40,000 from other parts of Bucovina. During the summer of 1942, 6,000 were deported from other parts of Rumania. These deported people have been distributed among ninety places in five districts, and some of them are confined to ghettoes which are comparatively free Jewish settlements, while others are in labor camps. The living conditions are indescribable. They are deprived of all money, food stuffs and possessions, and are housed in deserted cellars, and occasionally twenty to thirty people sleep on the floor of one unheated room. Disease is rift, particularly spotted fever. These conditions have resulted in the death of approximately 60,000 while 70,000 are starving.

Fildermann insists that the community requires urgent assistance, because the Jews in old Rumania have been ejected from most provisions and property has been confiscated, and they have been deprived of money and are therefore unable to provide large amounts.

This report is signed by Richard Lichthim and Gerhars [sic] Riegner of Geneva, and is dated January 19, 1943.”

Glossary

ghetto: former usage—a section of a city in which all Jews were required to live

Resienstadt: formally known as Theresienstadt; a concentration camp or ghetto established by the SS during World War II.

Document Analysis

This document, dated January 21, 1943, is a telegram from the American Legation, or embassy, in Bern, Switzerland, to the US State Department. The purpose of the telegram is to relay a report from Richard Lichtheim and Gerhart Riegner, written two days earlier, as indicated in the closing line of the report. The telegram also requests that the report be sent to Rabbi Stephen Wise, leader of the American Jewish Congress and friend to President Roosevelt. The American Legation, via envoy Leland Harrison and Vice Consul Howard Elting, Jr., had played a crucial role in relaying a previous message from Riegner regarding the Nazi plan for extermination of the Jews to the State Department. Riegner had requested that this previous message be sent to Rabbi Wise as well. British official Samuel Sydney Silverman, rather than the Americans, fulfilled that earlier request.

Riegner and Lichtheim's report follows up on Riegner's earlier message, as detailed in the first sentence: “It has now been confirmed from different sources that mass executions have taken place in Poland and it is reported from one source that 6,000 are killed daily.” A key component of this statement is “confirmed from different sources,” which emphasizes that Riegner and Lichtheim are confirming earlier allegations of genocide, and are relying on multiple sources for their information. The reference to multiple sources is meant to add credibility to the report. The statement also clarifies that the killings are taking place in Poland, then recognized as the destination for most of the mass deportations of Jews across Europe, and cites a specific number of people being executed each day. The authors provide an additional detail, explaining that the Jews selected for execution are required “to strip themselves of all clothing, which is then sent to Germany.” These details lend credence to the allegations of Nazi genocide.

Riegner and Lichtheim go on to describe the conditions endured by those Jews remaining in Polish ghettos, as well as in labor camps throughout Europe. Although this content does not directly support allegations regarding Nazi intentions to exterminate the Jewish population, it does reinforce that Nazis have singled out European Jews for persecution, and makes clear the dire, desperate conditions in which European Jews were living. The overall impression is that the Jewish people of Europe were being treated as a subhuman class, subjected to numerous atrocities, including separation from their children.

The report also refers to ongoing and planned deportations from Austria, Holland, Germany, and other locations. “It is reported from Prague and Berlin that no Jews will be left in either city by the end of March.” This conveys Nazi plans to empty most German-controlled lands of Jewish citizens. One paragraph includes information provided by Dr. Wilhelm Fildermann, accounting for the 130,000 Romanian Jews deported to Transnistria, a region located in northeastern Romania that bordered German-occupied Poland. There, several concentration camps and ghettos had been established.

The report concludes with the assertion that “Fildermann insists that the community requires urgent assistance,” and the entire document may be interpreted as an appeal for action on the part of Allied leadership.

Essential Themes

Taken with previous communications from Geneva (in August 1942), this report conveys that Nazi persecution of European Jews continued to escalate, and that mounting evidence pointed toward deliberate and systematic extermination of the Jewish race. The overarching theme of the document is the ongoing refusal of the Allies to take direct action to aid the victims of what would become known as the Holocaust. The report leads off with confirmation of “mass executions,” clearly intending to motivate an international response to the plight of Europe's Jews. To that point, Allied response had been inadequate—amounting to little more than rhetoric—as the leaders of Britain and the United States continued to focus their efforts on the prosecution of the war itself, and remained largely inactive on the issue of genocide. The tension between what Allied leaders knew and what they did has been a focal point of controversy, both during the war and in the decades since its conclusion.

Critics maintained that the Allies could have and should have done more; Allied leaders and their defenders argued that the best way to help the Jews was to focus on winning the war.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Breitman, Richard, and Alan M. Kraut. “A Message to Rabbi Wise.” American Refugee Policy and European Jewry, 1933–1945. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. 146–66. Print.
  • Breitman, Richard. Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew. New York: Hill, 1998. Print.
  • Hamerow, Theodore S. Why 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.
  • 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.
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