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The passing of Dr. Gerhart Riegner, the World Jewish Congress representative in Geneva, who alerted the world to the murder of the Jews in the Holocaust

03 December 2001

Dr. Gerhart Riegner, the World Jewish Congress representative in Geneva, who alerted the world to the murder of the Jews in the Holocaust, died at age 90 on December 3, 2001 in Switzerland.

Riegner, originally a lawyer from Liepzig, Germany fled to Switzerland in 1933, where he became the representative of the World Jewish Congress (WJC). On August 8, 1942 he sent a now famous cable about Nazi plans to murder the Jews to Rabbi Dr. Stephen Wise the President of the WJC in New York and to Sidney Silverman, a Jewish member of the British House of Commons in London.

The cable read as follows:

“Received alarming report that in Fuhrer's headquarters plan discussed and under consideration according to which all Jews in countries occupied or controlled Germany numbering 3 1/2 - 4 million should after deportation and concentration in east be exterminated at one blow to resolve once and for all the Jewish question in Europe. Action reported planned for autumn; methods under discussion including prussic acid. We transmit information with all necessary reservation as exactitude cannot be confirmed. Informant stated to have close connections with highest German authorities and his reports generally speaking reliable.”

It is now known, after many years of investigation, that the information on which the cable was based was transmitted by Eduard Scholte, a Leipzig businessman who had official business in Switzerland and used the opportunity to transmit information to the western Allies. He contacted a Swiss intermediary, who in turn informed Dr. Benjamin Sagalowitz, a Jewish journalist who ran the Swiss Jewish press agency. Sagalowitz conveyed the information to Riegner on August 1.

The sources on which Scholte based himself are not known. The information was inaccurate: mass murder of Jews had been going on since June 1941, and gassings (first in gas vans, with carbon monoxide, and later in gas chambers) had been taking place since September 1941. The cable spoke of a future "blow" under "consideration," whereas the extermination that had been begun was an ongoing process. Moreover, the cable itself indicated that the information may not have been true. The last sentence had been introduced into the cable at the insistence of Dr. Paul Guggenheim, a senior member of the WJC living in Geneva. Nevertheless, the cable was a breakthrough, because it confirmed seemingly inconclusive information about the mass murder that had reached the West previously.

The cable was transmitted through the British legation to Silverman, and Howard Elting attempted to transmit the message through the American vice-consul in Geneva to the United States Department of State. The State Department refused to inform Wise, in view of the apparently unsubstantiated nature of the information. However, Silverman sent the cable to Wise from London, and it reached him on August 28. On September 2, Wise sent the cable to Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, who invited Wise to meet with him, asking that he not publish the cable until it had been confirmed. Wise agreed, but he informed a number of Cabinet members; President Franklin D. Roosevelt, through Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter; and Christian clergymen. On September 3, Jacob Rosenheim, president of Agudat Israel (the ultra-Orthodox Jewish movement) in New York, received a similar cable from Isaac Sternbuch of Va’ad Ha-hatsala in Switzerland. As a result, Wise approached Rosenheim and formed a temporary emergency committee of Jewish leaders to deal with the situation. On November 24, when the American government finally became convinced of the fact of the mass murder of the Jews, Wise broke the news of the cable, together with much supporting information, to the press.

(Excerpt from: Israel Gutman (ed.), The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, New York: Macmillan, 1990)