ARC Main Page Aktion Reinhard

What was known, what was done by the Allies

Last Update 7 September 2006


It has been estimated that in March 1942, 75 - 80% of the victims of the Shoah were alive, whilst 20 - 25% were dead. By February 1943, the percentages had been exactly reversed. Put another way, in that eleven-month period, a minimum of 3 million Jews had perished. 1942 was the year of the "shechita" (the slaughter), and the majority of that slaughter had occurred under the umbrella of Aktion Reinhard. Most of the Jews had died in the camps, at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, but many thousands had been shot on the outskirts of the towns in which they had been ghettoised, during the round ups which were an intrinsic part of the Aktionen, or in transit to the extermination centres. Thousands more had died in the ghettos themselves and in labour and concentration camps from starvation, disease, over-work and summary execution. On a single typical day, 19 August 1942, Reserve Police Battalion 101 annihilated the Jewish population of Lomazy. At the same time, deportation trains were en-route to Belzec from Lwow and Jaslo and to Treblinka from Warsaw and Otwock. On this one day, in excess of 25,000 people were murdered – and there were many such days during those terrible months.

The essence of Aktion Reinhard could be summarised in two words – speed and secrecy. No one can doubt the efficiency of Nazi planning once the decision to murder the Jews had been taken, as the above illustrates. The intense killing phase was short and brutal. But what of secrecy? How was it possible to prevent knowledge of murder on such a scale becoming widespread? And if what was happening to the Jews of Europe was known, what could have been done? Indeed, what was done?

The history of "Ultra" and the "Enigma Machine" are now sufficiently well known not to require recounting. The British Code and Cypher School had been intercepting and deciphering coded German military and police reports with varying degrees of success since the early days of the war. By the summer of 1941, and Operation Barbarossa, decrypts of Order Police shootings in the Soviet Union were commonplace. For example, an SS Cavalry Brigade reported 7,819 executions in the Minsk area on 17 August 1941. Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, the "HSSPF Central Russia", submitted a report on the same day, noting 30,000 shootings. Between 23 and 31 August 1941, 17 reports provided details of the shooting of Jews in the southern sector in groups ranging in size from 61 to 4,200. Police Regiment South reported on 12 September 1941 on the shooting of 1,255 Jews at Ovruch.
These intercepts were regularly sent to British Military Intelligence, who presented weekly summaries to the Prime Minister. The activities of the Einsatzgruppen in the former Soviet Union were therefore known at the highest levels of British Government. On 24 August 1941, in a radio broadcast, Winston Churchill said:
"Whole districts are being exterminated. Scores of thousands – literally scores of thousands – of executions in cold blood are being perpetrated by the German police-troops upon the Russian patriots who defend their native soil. Since the Mongol invasions of Europe in the sixteenth century, there has never been methodical, merciless butchery on such a scale, or approaching such a scale."
Churchill went on to say, "we are in the presence of a crime without a name."
No specific mention was made of the Jews. The British were in a difficult position; to disclose too many details might have alerted the Germans to the possibility that their codes were being broken. In fact, there is some evidence that the Germans were suspicious of exactly that, for on 13 September 1941 Kurt Daluege, head of the Ordnungspolizei, instructed field commanders to make their reports by courier and not by radio.

By November 1941, Churchill was less reticent about the fate of the Jews. In a message to the Jewish Chronicle on 14 November 1941, he wrote:
"None has suffered more cruelly than the Jew, the unspeakable evils wrought on the bodies and spirits of men by Hitler and his vile regime."
A week earlier, the Jewish Chronicle had publicized the deportation of German Jews to Poland. On 16 January 1942, the same newspaper published a Soviet report that 52,000 Jews had been killed in Kiev. In February 1942, the newspaper contained news of the rumour that 18,000 Jews had died in Poltava and reported that 15,000 Jews had been killed at Borisov. On 10 April, an article appeared stating that 1,200 Jews had been deported to KZ Mauthausen and killed by “poison gas”.

There had been newspaper reports of Nazi atrocities in Poland since the early days of the war, but now the information emerging was of a more sinister nature. Under the heading "Extinction Feared by Jews in Poland", Dr Henry Shoskes presented details of the mortality rate in the ghettos of Poland to The New York Times on 1 March 1942. The monthly average of those dying was 10,000.

Confirmation of the activities of the Einsatzgruppen was also soon forthcoming. A report sent to the Polish Government in Exile in London by the Jewish Labour Bund in Warsaw in May 1942 was the first document about the killings to reach the West. Containing an accurate description of the methods used, the report set out details of the murder of Jews. 30,000 had been killed in Lwow, 15,000 in Stanislawow, 5,000 in Tarnopol, 2,000 in Zloczow, 4,000 in Brzezany, where the pre-war Jewish population of 18,000 now numbered 1,700. The same had happened in Zborow, Kolomyja, Stryj, Sambor, Drohobycz, Zbaraz, Przemslany, Kuty, Sniatyn, Zaleszczyki, Brody, Przemysl, Rawa Ruska and other places in Galicia as well as in the Baltic States. By 19 June, the Jewish Chronicle was commenting that “News is filtering through of recent ghastly massacres of Jews in Nazi Europe. Some 85,000 men women and children are mentioned in reports to hand.

The United States Office of Strategic Services received a report dated 20 June 1942 from Lisbon, that began with the words, "Germany is no longer persecuting the Jews. It is systematically exterminating them."
The information came from a British officer who had escaped from captivity and had hidden for a time in the Warsaw Ghetto before reaching Portugal. The officer reported that Heinrich Himmler had visited Hans Frank in April 1942 to inform him that the Jews were not disappearing fast enough to please the Führer. The Jews were to be "virtually exterminated" by a specified date. A trial speeding up had been ordered at Lublin, "where for a time trainloads were taken daily to Sobibor station in the suburbs, thence to an isolated area where they are machine-gunned". Peasants had left nearby farms because of the stench of unburied corpses.

On 25 June 1942, the London Daily Telegraph reported having received information from the exiled Polish government that the Germans were planning to murder all Jews. The newspaper carried details of the murders committed in eastern Poland. 50,000 Jews had been slaughtered in Vilnius, terror ruled the Warsaw Ghetto, and mobile gas chambers were in use. The disclosures were difficult to comprehend. The Jewish Chronicle commented:
The hideous details … read like tales from the imagination of some drug maddened creature seeking to portray a nightmare of hell. The average mind simply cannot believe the reality of such sickening revelations, or that men, even the vilest and most bestial, could be found to perpetrate such disgusting orgies of sadistic mania.

The Times of London carried a report on 10 July 1942 to the effect that Polish Vice-Premier S. Mikolajczyk had received information from the Home Army (AK – one of the two main groups of underground forces in Poland itself) about the liquidation of Poles and the most terrible situation of the Jews, who had been murdered en masse, or transported to unknown destinations. The Newsweek magazine commented in its issue of 10 August 1942 that trainloads of Warsaw Jews were vanishing into a "black limbo". On 20 August 1942, The New York Times quoting the previous day's edition of the French Paris Soir, stated that Jews from France were being deported to "Polish Silesia".

Information was also available in the summer of 1942 from more direct sources. In Switzerland, quite independently of each other, three Germans provided the details. Ernst Lemmer, a journalist, spoke of gas chambers, both stationary and mobile, but he was not considered reliable. An economist, Artur Sommer, passed a note to Edgar Salin, a professor at the University of Basel. In it, Sommer stated that camps were being prepared in the East for gassing. The BBC should broadcast daily warnings. The message passed unheeded.

The third informant was a businessman, Eduard Schulte. His report of 30 July 1942 eventually reached the chief of the Geneva office of the World Jewish Congress, Gerhart Riegner, who cabled via diplomatic channels to Rabbi Dr Stephen Wise in the United States and to British Member of Parliament Sidney Silverman. Riegner reported that a plan had been discussed and was under consideration in the Führer's headquarters for the deportation of the European Jews to the East, where they were to be "exterminated at one blow". Among methods under discussion was the use of prussic acid. Silverman received the cable; mysteriously, Wise did not, until Silverman sent him a copy. No public pronouncement was made in the United States concerning the contents of the telegram until November 1942. By that time, a report had already appeared on 5 October 1942 from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency concerning the systematic deportation of Jews from the Lodz Ghetto, who, the agency said, "are poisoned by gas." The New York magazine Jewish Frontier carried a report in its issue of November 1942 about the killing of Jews in Chelmno, complete with information about gas vans.

A train carrying Jews from Poland, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands arrived in Palestine on 14 November 1942. Most of those arriving were Palestinian citizens who had been caught in Poland at the outbreak of war. The Nazis had agreed to exchange them for German detainees in the West. The refugees had witnessed countless atrocities. The Jewish Agency in Palestine made public details of the Nazi extermination policy obtained from these witnesses on 23 November 1942. The following day, Wise called a press conference to release the Riegner telegramme. On 25 November 1942, The New York Times published information received from the Polish Government in Exile that mentioned Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. In the same edition, the newspaper carried an item providing details of concrete buildings on the former Russian frontier used as gas chambers and of crematoria at Oswiecim (Auschwitz), as well as an estimate from Wise that the Jewish dead already numbered 2 million. The next day, The New York Times quoted Dr Ignacy Szwarcbart (Schwartzbart), a Jewish member of the Polish National Council in London:
"Jews were being gassed and in Belzec they were being killed by electrical current."

Szmul Zygelboim
Reports of the genocide were not limited to the United States in the autumn and winter of 1942. Szmul Zygelbojm, another Jewish member of the Polish National Council in London, released the text of a speech he had made on 1 September 1942, the third anniversary of the outbreak of war. 700,000 Jews had been murdered by May 1942. Some had been shot, some starved, some gassed. 7,000 Jews were being deported daily from Warsaw.
Zygelbojm appealed for immediate help, before Europe became a cemetery. In another speech broadcast by the BBC earlier that year, he had said:
"It will be a disgrace to go on living, to belong to the human race, unless immediate steps are taken to put a stop to this crime, the greatest that history has known."
Zygelbojm spoke again on the BBC in December 1942, saying:
"If Polish Jewry's call for help goes unheeded, Hitler will have achieved one of his war aims – to destroy the Jews of Europe irrespective of the final military outcome of the war."

On 7 December 1942, The Times of London reported that E. Raczynski, the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Polish Government, had passed the latest information from Poland to Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary, including proof of the mass murder of Jews. The report continued that the German plan of extermination was continuing. It was intended to clear the Netherlands and Denmark of Jews by June 1943, and Rumania before the end of the same year. On the selfsame day, Eden advised the British Ambassador in Washington that he now had "little doubt that a policy of gradual extermination of all Jews, except for highly skilled workers, is being carried out by the German authorities. The Polish Government has recently received reports tending to confirm this view. They regard these reports as reliable and they read convincingly."
In a reply in the House of Commons on 17 December 1942, to a question put by Silverman, Eden listed the barbarities committed by the Nazis against the Jews and denounced "this bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination." Those responsible would not escape retribution. At the conclusion of Eden's speech, the House rose to stand in silence.

Menahem Kirschenbaum
If further evidence was required that crimes of an unprecedented nature were being perpetrated in the East, it had become available that winter. Jan Karski (Kozielewski) was a Polish Gentile. He was a member of the Polish underground and acted as a courier for the Polish government in Exile. In late August 1942, Karski was twice smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto in order to be able to provide eyewitness testimony of what was happening there. He met with Menahem Kirschenbaum of the "General Zionists" and Leon Feiner of the Jewish "Bund". At their first meeting, the two Jewish leaders were in a state of complete despair, pacing back and forth as they recounted the dreadful fate of Polish Jewry. Karski was to relay much of what was said verbatim when he reached London.
Nothing and nobody in Poland could prevent the murder of Jews. Therefore, the responsibility for making at least some effort to save them lay with the Allies. "Let not a single leader of the United Nations be able to say that they did not know that we were being murdered in Poland," said Feiner.

History would hold the Allies responsible if they failed to act. The Allies must publicly declare that prevention of the extermination of the Jews would be among the Allied war aims. Allied propaganda should inform the German nation of Hitler's crimes through radio, air dropped leaflets and any other available means. The names of those Germans responsible for the annihilation and the methods used should be publicised, so that no German could claim ignorance of what was being done in his or her name. Appeals should be made to the German people to bring pressure to bear on the Nazi regime to stop the genocide. If they did not publicly protest, the German nation would be considered collectively responsible for the crimes. Finally, if none of these measures were successful, the Allies were to carry out reprisal measures. Selected sites of cultural importance should be bombed and Germans in Allied hands still professing loyalty to Hitler after learning of his crimes should be executed. In vain, Karski protested that such a demand was impossible. It was against international law. The final stipulation was unrealistic and weakened the Jewish case. "No," said Feiner, "say it. We don't know what is realistic or unrealistic. We are dying here. Say it!"

Many other matters were discussed at that first meeting, including an appeal by the two leaders for material aid for the hapless Jews. Finally, it was decided that if Karski merely repeated their conversation when he reached London, he would not be believed. Messages had been sent to England before, without result. In order to be credible, Karski must become a witness. He must be able to swear that he had seen the butchery with his own eyes. Karski agreed to be smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto.

Jan Karski
Sometime between 20–25 August 1942, accompanied by Feiner, Karski entered the ghetto via a tunnel at 6 Muranowska Street on the "Aryan" side.
More than thirty years later, he graphically described what he saw that day in Claude Lanzmann's film "Shoah":
"It was not a world. There was not humanity. Streets full, full….Selling. Begging. Crying and hungry…It wasn't humanity. It was some…some hell… Stench, stench, dirt, stench everywhere, suffocating. Dirty streets, nervousness, tension. Bedlam." Over and over again, Feiner would relentlessly point out some new horror to Karski. "Remember this," Feiner would say, "remember this."
Karski returned to the ghetto on another day for further verification of the ghastly conditions, but left after only a short time. "Frankly, I couldn't take it any more... I was sick." But Feiner was not satisfied. The courier would have to see even more if he was to be an effective witness. Karski agreed to see "The Final Solution" in practice. Dressed as a Ukrainian guard, he entered the transit camp of Izbica Lubelska, where Jews were held until Belzec was ready to receive them. What he saw there defies description. Shattered by the experience, Karski returned to Warsaw to prepare for the long, tortuous journey to London, where he arrived on 25 November 1942. Until he had reached Paris he had carried with him a microfilm, placed into a hollowed key, which was then welded shut. The key and its contents were immediately sent to London, arriving there before Karski himself, and formed the basis of a press release issued by the Polish Government in Exile on 24 November 1942. This press release was the source of the material contained in The New York Times report of 25 November 1942 and The Times of London report of 7 December 1942, referred to above.

Karski had hoped to meet Churchill, but had to be satisfied with an interview with Eden in February 1943. The audience was polite but unproductive, except to the extent that Eden provided a report of the meeting to the War Cabinet (which included Churchill) on 17 February 1943.
Karski remained in England for several months, meeting a variety of supposedly influential people. But nothing of consequence occurred, and throughout that time the killing centres continued with their deadly work. The Polish government decided to send Karski to the United States, where he arrived on 16 June 1943. It was not until late July of that year, eleven months after he had ventured into the Warsaw Ghetto (which no longer existed) and been smuggled into Izbica, that Karski finally met with the one person who could have significantly influenced Allied policy, United States President Franklin D Roosevelt. Karski pulled no punches in making his report to the President:
"There is a difference between the German orchestrated systems of terror against the Poles and the Jews. The Germans want to ruin the Polish state as a state - with regard to the Jews, they want to devastate the biological substance of the Jewish nation - . If the Germans do not change their method of dealing with the Jewish population, if there is no effort at Allied intervention, whether through reprisals or other action, barring some unforeseen circumstance, within a year and a half of the time I left the Homeland, the Jewish people of Poland will cease to exist."
Karski's impassioned plea on behalf of the Jews possibly influenced Roosevelt in his decision to set up the War Refugee Board on 22 January 1944, a move that was to have a beneficial effect, for by the war's end the board had played an important role in saving approximately 200,000 Jews, mainly in Hungary and Rumania. If it had stimulated Roosevelt into action, it was the only tangible consequence of Karski's brave effort to stop the killing. By 1944, of course, the Aktion Reinhard camps had long since been dismantled and most of the victims of the Shoah were dead. Karski's mission had been undermined by a combination of political hypocrisy, uncaring bureaucracy, national self-interest and indifference. The Jews, it appeared, were expendable.

Szwarcbart cabled confirmation of Karski's testimony to the Jewish World Congress in New York on 4 December 1942. Because of wartime censorship regulations, a copy of the telegram, which was passed to the Foreign Office, has survived in the British Public Records Office. Even more extraordinary is the cable sent the preceding day to the Jewish World Congress from Abraham Stupp of the Jewish Agency in Tel Aviv.
Since Palestine was then a British Mandate, this telegramme was subject to the same wartime censorship regulations and a copy duly made its way to the Foreign Office. The refugees from occupied Europe who had arrived in Palestine on 14 November 1942 had by now been thoroughly de-briefed. The cable contained comprehensive information regarding the Nazi extermination policy, of which the refugees had first hand knowledge. 70,000 Jews had been deported from Lublin. 7,000 had been sent to Majdanek. No trace remained of the remaining 63,000, who had presumably been murdered. In May 1942, only 6,000 Jews remained in Krakow. All other Jewish inhabitants of the city had been deported in an unknown direction and were assumed to have been killed. 10,000 Jews had been deported from Tarnow, with another 7,000 shot at the railway station.

Deportations from Warsaw had commenced on 22 June 1942 (actually 22 July) at the rate of 7,000 daily. By October 1942, only 36,000 remained of the city's Jewish population. The deportees had been sent to Treblinka, where the "Jews (were) taken (to a) so-called bath-house which (was) hermetically closed. (The) chamber air (was) pumped away (so that) the people suffocate. Other reports say (that the) Jews (are) killed by poison gas."
The fact was that, whatever the method used, no one left the "bath-house" alive. Corpses were being continually cremated. Commencing in January 1942, Jews from the Wartheland had been deported to the village of Chelmno (Chelmno Nad Nerem) and murdered in gas vans. The cable went on to describe other atrocities, and concluded with a demand that the governments of the civilized world put an end to these crimes. A copy of the cable was being sent to the heads of democratic nations. It was signed by Anselm Reiss as the representative of Polish Jewry.

By now, the Allies had an almost embarrassing amount of detailed information concerning the extermination of the Jews. Much more was to follow in 1943 and 1944, particularly concerning Auschwitz.
From there, a comprehensive report was received by the London office of the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS – the forerunner of the CIA). The two-part report had been compiled on 10 and 12 August 1943 and was received in London on 28 January 1944. It contained comprehensive information on the murders committed at Auschwitz. Amongst other details, the report stated that 468,000 non-registered Jews had been gassed at the camp by September 1942. Between September 1942 and the beginning of June 1943, the camp received approximately 60,000 Jews from Greece, 50,000 from Slovakia and the Protectorate, 60,000 from the Netherlands, Belgium and France and 16,000 from Polish towns. At the beginning of August 1943, 15,000 Jews had arrived from Sosnowiec and Bedzin. Of all of these people, about 2 percent were still alive. Of more than 14,000 Gypsies, 90% had been gassed. The report went on to describe the crematoria at Birkenau, and listed the names of the principal perpetrators: Höss, Schwarz, Aumeier, Mandel, Grabner, and Boger, amongst others. "History knows no parallel of such destruction of human life," the report said.

There were other reports in the OSS files. On 25 September 1943, the International Red Cross Committee had reported on ghetto clearances in Galicia, including a massacre of the Jewish population of Rawa Ruska in December 1942. There was a statement by an escapee from Treblinka, David Milgrom, dated 30 August 1943 and a report on shootings at Majdanek dated 24 February 1944 (Aktion Erntefest).

Rudolf Vrba
On 10 April 1944, two Slovak Jews, Rudolf Vrba (Walter Rosenberg) and Alfred Wetzler escaped from Birkenau. Eventually reaching Slovakia, they made long, detailed statements to the Jewish Council in Zilina. On 19 March 1944, the German army had occupied Hungary. In the same month, the construction of the unloading ramp leading directly to the crematoria in Birkenau was completed. SS men were heard around the camp speaking of Hungarian "salami". It was apparent that the next victims would be the Jews of Hungary, the largest Jewish population remaining in territory under Nazi control. Vrba and Wetzler knew that they had to warn the Hungarian Jews of their impending fate. Their report was sent to the Hungarian Foreign Office by the first week of May 1944. A copy was passed to the War Refugee Board on 16 June 1944. The transports of Hungarian Jews to Birkenau began on 15 May 1944 and continued until 9 July 1944. By that time, 437,000 had been deported, most of whom were gassed on arrival.

As can be seen, these reports often contained errors. Viewed individually, they might be questioned. But taken together, they provided incontrovertible evidence that the Germans were committing a crime of enormous dimensions in Europe. Only those who did not want to see could deny that a systematic, highly organized and efficient machinery of mass murder was in operation.

Questions of principle rarely provide a "casus belli". Wars are fought, in the main, for geopolitical reasons. Hitler's war against the Jews was an exception, even if the concept involved was entirely malignant.
The disappearance of the Jews, and eventually their destruction, was not ancillary to some other purpose. Although theft on a grand scale played no small part, the eradication of the Jews was, in itself, the objective. If it was Germany's ambition to eliminate of the Jews, the Allies were not fighting the war to rescue them. Inasmuch as it featured at all, saving the Jews of Europe did not appear high on the agenda of Allied war aims. The Allies could find many reasons for their inaction, some valid, some more questionable. Shipping was not available to transport the Jews to safety. There might have been foreign agents among the refugees, which could have undermined the war effort. There was fear in both Britain and the United States of a rise in anti-Semitism in the event of an influx of large numbers of Jews. The British were concerned at the possibility of problems in Palestine, were the Jews to be admitted there. Nothing should be allowed to deflect the Allies from the military priority of defeating Germany. Finally, and most importantly, the Jews were not perceived as either a nationality or an ally. In the face of this kind of reasoning, the Jewish position was hopeless.

There was a good deal of cynicism in the Allied attitude. It was not considered necessary to grant the Jews any kind of priority in their desperate plight. In fact, precisely the opposite attitude prevailed in Allied circles. Faced with the alternative, the Jews held by the Nazis and their co-religionists not in Nazi captivity would always support the Allies whatever the circumstances. The Allies were fearful of treating the Jews as a "special case". Over 100,000 Poles, Greeks and Yugoslavs were evacuated after 1942.
The Allies supplied much of the food requirements of the Greek population between 1942 and 1945. Yet a senior American official, Assistant Secretary of State for Special Problems Breckinridge Long felt able to confide in his private diary in April 1943, that any commitment to aid the Jews on behalf of the Allies might "lend colour to the charges of Hitler that we are fighting this war on account of and at the instigation and direction of our Jewish citizens."

In 1942, the Allies possessed neither the means, nor, more importantly the will to attempt to provide significant assistance to European Jewry. By 1944, the resources were available to save those who were left - but the will remained absent. In 1942, the Allies were losing the war on all fronts. Military intervention of any kind in eastern Poland or the western Soviet Union was impossible, which is not to say that nothing could have been done. If direct military action was unfeasible in 1942, that was certainly not the case by 1944. To repeated requests from Jewish leaders that the crematoria in Birkenau and the railway lines leading to them be bombed, the standard response was that any diversion of men and materiel would delay the Allied victory. Only by defeating the Nazis could the Jews be saved. That was a self-evident truth, but the argument was specious. The simple fact was that the Nazis were killing Jews faster than the Allies were winning the war. What would be the point of liberating 6 million corpses? The Allies were unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge this dilemma. William J Casey, a member of the OSS stationed in London from 1943, wrote in his memoirs:
"I'll never understand how, with all we knew about Germany and its military machine, we knew so little about the concentration camps and the magnitude of the Holocaust. We knew in a general way that Jews were being persecuted, that they were being rounded up in occupied countries and deported to Germany, that they were brought to camps, and that brutality and murder took place at these camps. But few if any comprehended the appalling magnitude of it. It wasn't sufficiently real to stand out from the general brutality and slaughter which is war. There was little talk in London about the concentration camps except as places to which captured agents and resistants were deported if they were not executed on the spot. And such reports as we did receive were shunted aside because of the official policy in Washington and London to concentrate exclusively on the defeat of the enemy."

Bombing railway lines would certainly have been ineffectual, since they could rapidly be repaired. In the event, Auschwitz was bombed by the USAAF on four occasions between August and December 1944. But the target was not the gas chambers of Birkenau, which were still functioning in August and September, but the industrial complex at Monowitz.
It must be said that even destroying Birkenau's gas chambers would not necessarily have saved the Jews. The Nazis were sufficiently dedicated to their extermination programme to have resorted to other methods of murder. In two days of Aktion Erntefest in November 1943, 42,000 Jews had been shot. In the summer of 1944, the gas vans at Chelmno became operational again for a short period. The intent to annihilate was so single-minded that alternatives might have been sought. But some kind of positive response would have sent a clear message to the Nazis that their crimes had been acknowledged – and perhaps lives would have been saved.

There was another factor involved in the Allies apathetic approach to the problem of rescuing the Jews. The attitude of many British and American politicians, civil servants, diplomats and military personnel was far from favourable. Their reaction varied from disbelief to apathy, from expedience to prejudice. According to his private secretary, Eden expressed a definite dislike for Jews on at least two occasions. In this he was merely in tune with the attitude of others in the British Foreign Office, as well as some of those in the United States State Department. It is often forgotten just how commonplace, indeed almost fashionable it was to have pronounced anti-Semitic views in the pre-Shoah world. The aforementioned Breckinridge Long thought Hitler's book "Mein Kampf" 'eloquent in opposition to Jewry and to Jews as exponents of Communism and Chaos'.

In August 1943, Roger Allen, an official in the British Foreign Office, wrote to William Cavendish-Bentinck, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, commenting on formal British observations (which themselves made no mention of Jews) on a report emanating from Polish underground sources about Nazi extermination policy in eastern Poland. Allen commented, inter alia,
"It is true that there have been references to the use of gas chambers in other reports; but these references have usually, if not always, been equally vague, and since they have concerned the extermination of Jews, have usually emanated from Jewish sources. Personally, I have never really understood the advantage of the gas chamber over the simpler machine gun, or the equally simple starvation method. These stories may or may not be true, but in any event I submit we are putting out a statement on evidence which is far from conclusive, and which we have no means of assessing."

Cavendish-Bentinck added his own comments:
"In my opinion it is incorrect to describe Polish Information regarding German atrocities as "trustworthy". The Poles, and to a far greater extent the Jews, tend to exaggerate German atrocities in order to stoke us up. They seem to have succeeded. Mr. Allen and myself have both followed German atrocities quite closely. I do not believe that there is any evidence which would be accepted in a Law Court that Polish children have been killed on the spot by Germans when their parents were being deported to work in Germany, nor that Polish children have been sold to German settlers. As regards putting Poles to death in gas chambers, I do not believe that there is any evidence that this has been done."

When the United States Treasury Department attempted to license the transfer of money from Jewish charities to fund a programme for the relief and rescue of Jews, it was blocked by the State Department for months. The British were no less callous. In December 1943, a cable was sent from London to Washington, opposing such relief programmes because "of the difficulties in disposing of any considerable number of Jews should they be rescued."
A 1944 internal investigation into the State Department's handling of the question of rescue was entitled "Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of this Government in the murder of the Jews." Nor were anti-Semitic opinions limited to those who wielded power. In a poll taken on the eve of war, 75 - 85% of Americans were opposed to a relaxation of immigration quotas, which would unquestionably have aided Jewish refugees. Opinion polls taken throughout the war in America indicated that only Japanese and Germans were considered a greater menace to American society than the Jews. If anti-Semitism was expressed less publicly in wartime Britain, it was certainly present in all classes of society.

Pressurised by the accumulating evidence, the British and American governments arranged a conference, ostensibly to find a solution to the problem of wartime refugees. It opened in Bermuda on 19 April 1943, coincidentally the first day of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The two delegations categorically ruled out any approach to Hitler to release Jews in Nazi–occupied territory, any exchange of German prisoners of war and internees for Jews, or the sending of food to the Jews of Europe. The Jewish character of the problem was suppressed. The British insisted that the Jews were merely one of many victimized groups. The State Department insisted on using the term "political refugees", thus concealing the true nature of the problem. A tacit agreement was reached; the Americans would not press the British over Palestine, the British would remain similarly discrete about Jewish immigration to the United States. The conference was a disaster for the Jews. In the ghettos and camps of Europe, the Jews had felt abandoned. Now they were abandoned. Some aid was provided to Jews in different parts of Europe throughout the war, particularly by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the "Joint"), and in the last year of the war, by the War Refugee Board. By and large, it was both too little and too late.

There are those who would argue, with some justification, that criticism of the Allies enjoys the benefit of hindsight. The world of 1942 was very different from the world of today. Only those who are personally familiar with wartime conditions can appreciate the difficulties the Allies faced. All of this is true; many of the propositions put to the Allies were impractical, if not illegal under international law. But other, less direct action could have been taken. Temporary refugee camps in neutral countries, such as Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Switzerland and Sweden could have been funded and encouraged. Life as a Displaced Person, to use the bureaucratic post-war term, would undoubtedly have been far from pleasant, but was infinitely preferable to the alternative. At the very least, wartime visa quotas for entry to Palestine and the United States could have been filled (which they were not). Breckinridge Long, in charge of U.S. refugee policy, commented in an internal State Department memorandum in June 1940:
"We can delay and effectively stop for a period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States. We could do this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way and - to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.
By July 1941, only 25% of the available U.S. quotas were being taken up.
Moreover, there was a simple measure that could have been taken which would have placed negligible demands on Allied resources and might have saved countless lives.
Disseminating details of the fate of the Jews in occupied Europe more consistently and in greater depth by the use of radio broadcasts may have caused some to heed the warning and stimulated resistance. Rudolf Vrba commented:
"Would anyone have got me alive to Auschwitz if I had had this information? Would thousands and thousands of able-bodied Jewish men have sent their children, wives, mothers to Auschwitz from all over Europe, if they knew?"

Perhaps it was too late to save the Jews of Poland. Maybe none of these proposals would have saved any of Europe's Jews. But by a positive response, the Allies would at least have occupied the moral high ground and avoided the accusation that they did not care. To do nothing was not an option. Words of sympathy and promises of retribution were of little comfort to the victims. Meaningful action was required. Above all else, it was a failure of imagination, an inability, for whatever reasons, to appreciate the true nature of the evil they were fighting, coupled with a fundamental lack of compassion, for which the Allies were answerable. Unwittingly, their inertia dovetailed neatly with the Nazi genocidal policy to produce a lethal result.

Even after the capture of KZ Majdanek by the Soviets in July 1944, following which Western reporters were permitted to inspect the camp, and newsreels and photographs of the crematoria appeared in cinemas and newspapers, many still sought to evade the reality of events. The Times of London questioned whether showing the horrors of Majdanek was in good taste. The BBC informed its correspondent with the Red Army that his broadcast from Majdanek was “a propaganda stunt”. It was not transmitted.
In truth, the fate of European Jewry was sealed long before the Einsatzgruppen began their murderous passage across Poland and the Soviet Union, years before the trains began rolling towards Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. The Jews had been condemned by a pre-war combination of narrow self-interest, xenophobia and bigotry. If there had ever been any doubt about the likely consequence for the Jews of an Eastward thrust by Germany, the events of the Reichskristallnacht in November 1938 should have dispersed all illusions. If nobody could have predicted the Shoah, a sense of common humanity should have compelled the civilized nations of the world to open their doors. Instead of which, on the whole, those doors remained firmly shut.

Perhaps the final reflection on this tragic chapter of modern history should be reserved for Szmul Zygelbojm, who had fought so desperately for some recognition of the plight of Poland's Jews. In despair on receiving news of the liquidation of the last Jews of Warsaw, including his wife, Manya, and his 16 year-old son, Tuvia, Zygelbojm committed suicide in London on 12 May 1943, aged 48. His final letters, addressed to members of the Polish government in exile included the following:
"Responsibility for the murder of the entire Jewish population lies primarily with the murderers themselves, but indirectly humanity as a whole is responsible – all of the Allied nations and their Governments, who to date have done nothing to stop the crime - . I cannot keep quiet, I cannot live while the remnants of the Jewish people in Poland, who sent me here, are being destroyed. My comrades in the Warsaw Ghetto have died a hero's death in the final battle, with a weapon in their hands. I did not have the honour to fall like them. But I belong to them and to their grave – their mass grave. May my death be a resounding cry of protest against the indifference with which the world looks at the destruction of the Jewish world, looks on and does nothing to stop it."

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Photos: GFH

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