GENEVA (AP) — In August 1942, he tried to alert the West about the Nazi plan to annihilate Europe’s Jews. No one responded.
Now, more than half a century later, Gerhart Riegner says the world is still unwilling to accept reports of brutality and mass killings. And worse, he says, the world is still reluctant to act.
“News of the extermination of Jews was so awful that people didn’t believe it. Even people who did know were very reluctant to do anything.
“It’s the same today,” Riegner said, in reference to recent horrors like the 1994 genocide in Rwanda in which an estimated half million people were killed.
Riegner, 87, spoke to a small group of journalists recently about his newly published memoirs, which he wrote to show how difficult it was to get the public to accept the truth.
The 680-page book, “Ne Jamais Desperer,” (Never Give Up Hope), describes his life as a World Jewish Congress official, including the dispatch of the now-famous “Riegner cable,” which contained his early account of the systematic killing that became known as the Holocaust.
He maintains that many of the 6 million Jews killed in Nazi concentration camps could have been saved if the United States and Britain had acted when he sounded the alarm.
Although there had been earlier reports of deportations and slayings of Jews, Riegner’s telegram was the first authoritative word that the Nazis actually had a coordinated extermination plan.
“Never did I feel so strongly the sense of abandonment, powerlessness and loneliness as when I sent messages of disaster and horror to the free world and no one believed me,” Riegner wrote.
Born into an intellectual Jewish family in Germany, Riegner’s first experience of anti-Semitism came at age 5, when another schoolboy called him a “dirty little Jew.”
Years later, in 1933, Nazi thugs stood outside his parent’s Berlin house yelling “Jews out! Jews out!” while Riegner sat in the bath, frozen in terror.
Eventually, Riegner, a trained lawyer, moved to Geneva and staffed the office of the newly founded World Jewish Congress.
He was in neutral Switzerland during the war, with a “rucksack filled with basics ready to flee into the mountains” in case of German attack, a false Bolivian passport and an emergency visa for the United States.
Then, on July 29, 1942, Riegner received reliable intelligence from a top German industrialist about Hitler’s plan to deport an estimated 4 million Jews to the East to kill them.
On Aug. 8, 1942, Riegner gave the cable to U.S. representatives in Switzerland, with details of the plan.
U.S. Vice Consul Howard Elting immediately relayed the cable to Washington. But the State Department said it would not transmit telegrams from private sources and so refused Riegner’s request to forward the news to World Jewish Congress President Stephen Wise — a personal friend of then-President Franklin Roosevelt. Because of wartime restrictions, Riegner had no direct contact with the Jewish Congress.
The State Department checked with the Vatican and Red Cross, who conceded they were aware of deportations and maltreatment of Jews but not of a plan to annihilate them.
In his book, Riegner criticizes the silence of the Red Cross in the face of atrocities. While he praised the courage of Roman Catholic bishops and priests in some countries, he denounced the failure of the Vatican and the Catholic church in Germany to take a decisive stand against the persecution of the Jews throughout the Nazi era.
By the fall of 1942, graphic witness accounts from a variety of sources and British intelligence helped convince even the skeptics in the State Department about the horrible truth.
But it was only in January 1944 that Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board to try to save Jews.
“Since my first telegram, 18 months had passed during which time the inexorable massacre continued and millions of Jews were sacrificed,” Riegner wrote.