Death of Gerhart Riegner, World Jewish Congress official who sent 1942 Report from Switzerland that Hitler had Decided on Final Solution.
Miami, Florida, Wednesday, December 5, 2001
Gerhart Riegner, warned of Holocaust
BY GLARE NULLIS
GENEVA - (AP) - Gerhart Riegner, the man who tried in vain to alert the world about the planned Nazi Holocaust and later led the World Jewish Congress, has died. He was 90.
He was known for his now-famous cable of Aug. 8, 1942, which detailed Hitler's plan to deport an estimated four million Jews to Eastern Europe to annihilate them. His warnings initially fell on deaf ears in the United States and Britain.
For the rest of his life, Riegner was haunted by the knowledge that many of the six million Jews killed in Nazi concentration camps could have been saved if the United States and Britain had acted promptly on his warning dispatched from his "listening post" in Switzerland.
"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 recalled in his memoirs.
Riegner went on to serve as secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress from 1965 to 1983. The late French President François Mitterand decorated Riegner with the Legion of Honor in 1987.
He was closely involved with the often-difficult process of improving relations with the Roman Catholic Church, and was present at the signing of the basic accord normalizing relations between the Holy See and Israel in 1993.
Riegner was also active at the United Nations, especially in the campaign to rescind the 1975 General Assembly vote that equated Zionism with racism. The resolution was finally annulled in 1991.
RIEGNER was born into an intellectual Jewish family in Germany. His first experience with anti-Semitism came when another boy yelled "You dirty little Jew" at him while on his way to school. "Filthy little Christian," he shouted back -- a response that later caused him great shame.
Years later, in 1933, Nazi thugs stood outside his parents' Berlin house yelling "Jews out! Jews out!" while Riegner sat in the bath, frozen in terror. The family subsequently fled to France and then moved on to Switzerland.
Riegner, a trained lawyer, was appointed to staff the office of the newly founded World Jewish Congress in Geneva. He remained in Switzerland during the war.
On July 29, 1942, he received a phone call from a friend at the Federation of Jewish Communities in Switzerland with news that a German industrialist -- apparently with a bad conscience -- had told him of a plan being discussed by Hitler to exterminate the Jews of Europe.
"We discussed it for five or six hours, walking along the lake shore. Did we have to take it seriously? Was it conceivable to kill millions of people? Was it credible?" Riegner agonized. He decided it was.
On Aug. 8, 1942, Riegner asked the U.S. vice consul in Geneva to inform the U.S. government of the plan and to transmit the contents of the telegram to Stephen Wise, president of the World Jewish Congress and a personal friend of President Franklin Roosevelt.
"Received alarming report," Riegner cabled, "that in Fuhrer's headquarters plan discussed and under consideration, according to which all Jews in countries occupied or controlled by Germany, numbering 3 '/2 to four million, should, after deportation and concentration in the East, be exterminated at one blow to resolve once and for all the Jewish question in Europe."
Riegner's telegram was the first authoritative word that the Nazis actually had a coordinated extermination plan.
However, it was not until 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 in his memoirs.
Riegner never married and had no children.
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