This week Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research is hosting an international conference marking 70 years since the end of 1942, believed by many historians to mark a turning point in the course of WWII – and the Shoah. Over four days, concluding today, some 50 guest lecturers from 15 countries gathered at Yad Vashem to discuss key questions regarding this historical period: What did the Allies know and believe by the end of 1942 regarding Nazi policy? How much accurate information had the Vatican, the media, the Red Cross and the intelligence community received, and what messages did their declarations and statements convey? How crucial was the North African theater to the subsequent direction taken by the war? And most notably, when did the leaders of various Jewish groups and communities know about the destructive intentions of the Nazi regime, and did the late realization of the truth stand in the way of possible response measures?
The sheer scope of mass murder perpetrated by Einsatzgruppen since June 1941, with the invasion of the USSR, began to be known in early 1942. During that year, more and more information came through, and in August it was further strengthened by the Riegner Telegram – a message warning the Jewish organizations in the free world of Germany's plans to kill 2-3 million people at death facilities. In late October a group of exchanged citizens arrived in Eretz Israel from Europe and horrified the yishuv (the Jewish community under the British mandate) by what they had to tell; US President Roosevelt notified the leaders of the Jewish community in America that US intelligence confirmed the truth of these reports. In late November, the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem issued a press release to the effect that a systematic murder operation was underway in Europe, and on 17 December, the Allies made another solemn announcement to this effect at the British parliament, fortifying it with a threat of trial and persecution for all war criminals seized after the war.
However, at the same time, the military front was also experiencing a change in course: in October 1942, the Germans lost the battle at El Alamein. From that point on, the wheel of war started turning in the opposite direction: in February 1943 Britain launched an offensive to recover several strategic locations surrendered during the first half of the war, particularly in the Middle Eastern region.
"'Operation Torch' (7 November 1942) was certainly a turning point in WWII," argues Dr. Haim Saadoun, Director of the Documentation Center for North African Jewry during WWII at the Ben-Zvi Institute – co-sponsors of the conference. "This was the first military initiative of the Allied forces; it changed the standing of France in North Africa and greatly influenced the lives of Jews living in the region."
The conclusions thus far seem to indicate that exactly at the time when news of the mass murder of European Jewry was finding its way to the international forum, and precisely when the yishuv and communities of the free world began to propose rescue programs, collect funds and seek the Allies' assistance, Britain and America directed all their energy towards achieving military success on the front lines, thus making all plans of rescuing Jews appear as hindrances to the war effort.
Although at the end of 1942 the extermination of European Jewry became a publicly known reality, the complicated process of understanding an extermination plan of such unprecedented cruelty, too horrific almost for the human mind to comprehend, still remains at the very heart of extensive pondering. Despite the impressive research being presented at the conference and the lively discussions that follow, it seems that many of the familiar questions are yet to be answered.