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Auschwitz, and the Typhus Plague in Poland.

More preview pages from David Irving's new biography, Churchill's War, vol. ii


A sneak preview

ChurchillTHERE WERE other matters concerning German prison camps on which Whitehall preferred to turn a blind eye. Rumours were still trickling out of Hitler's empire about things happening to the Jews.

Britain already had evidence from codebreaking and diplomatic sources that the Germans were deporting the Jews from Germany and other parts of Europe under their control to ghettoes and camps in the Government-General (formerly Poland) where malnutrition, epidemics, brutal conditions, and executions were taking an immense toll.[1]

There was no shortage of Intelligence about the continued 'cleaning-up' operations in the east.

  1. Minute by D Allen, Sep 10, 1942 (PRO file FO.371/30917).
  2. GC&CS German Police section, report ZIP/MSGP.37, dated Aug 11, 1942 (PRO file HW.16/6, part i).

The codebreakers had only just intercepted a message from the southern Russian front, reporting a Judenaktion on July 23 forty miles south-west of Kamenets, during which seven hundred Jews found incapable of work had been shot. [2]


  1. FO to Quito, No. 105, Dec 27, 1941 (PRO file FO.371/26515); Mr Hughes Hallett had inquired what questions to ask 100 German Jewish refugees shortly arriving in Ecuador.
  2. Tel. Norton (Berne) to FO, No. 2831, Aug 10, 1942, with the text of a telegram from Riegner to Sydney Silverman MP (PRO file FO.371/30917). The 30-year-old Riegner claimed to have the report from a 'German industrialist,' whom he has refused to identify. Dr Benjamin Sagalowitz, press officer of the Swiss Jewish community, claimed to have given the name to Leland Harrison, the American ambassador in Berne, to place in a sealed envelope; there is no archival evidence to support this. Walter Laqueur, writing in Encounter, Jul 1980, page 13, expressed doubts that the man was German or an industrialist. Harrison regarded Riegner's story as a 'wild rumor inspired by Jewish fears' (ibid.; NA: RG.226, Berne, folder 2, box 2, entry 4).


Despite this, the foreign office was inclined to treat the more lurid public reports with scepticism. They were regarded as part of the international Zionist campaign which was continuing regardless of the war effort. 'Information from Jewish refugees is generally coloured and frequently unreliable,' the F.O. had reminded one diplomatic outpost in December 1941.[1]

When such a telegram arrived from Geneva on August 10, 1942, composed by Gerhart Riegner, the youthful secretary of the World Jewish Congress, it ran into this wall of institutional disbelief: Riegner claimed that Hitler's headquarters was planning to deport up to four million Jews from Nazi-occupied countries to the east during the coming autumn, where they were to be exterminated 'in order to resolve, once and for all, the Jewish question in Europe.' Killing methods under discussion included, claimed Riegner, the use of hydrogen-cyanide.[2]

  1. 'The Crucifixion of the Jews Must Stop,' in American Hebrew, Oct 31, 1919.
  2. 'Der Vernichtungs-Feldzug gegen die Juden in Polen' Jüdische Volkszeitung, Apr 16, 1937. This reported 'daily pogroms' in Poland.
  3. Minute by D Allen, Aug 14, 1942; Frank Roberts minuted, 'I do not see how we can hold up this message much longer' but he feared the 'embarrassing repercussions' it would provoke (ibid.) 'The facts are quite bad enough,' wrote Roberts, 'without the addition of such an old story as the use of bodies for the manufacture of soap.' Bernard Wasserstein, Britain and the Jews of Europe 1939 - 1945 (London, 1979).
  4. Ministry of information minute, Jul 25, 1941 (PRO file INF.1/251).
  5. Minutes by Miss T Scofield, Sep 9, 10 and 16, 1942 (PRO file FO.371/30917)
  6. Minute by D Allen, Sep 10, 1942 (ibid.)

There was nothing new in such allegations: after World War One the American Jewish community had raised a similar outcry about what they had even then called a 'holocaust'; the governor of New York had claimed in a 1919 speech that 'six million' Jews were being exterminated.[1] In 1936, three years before the war, Victor Gollancz Ltd. had published a book entitled The Extermination of the Jews in Germany. In April 1937 a typical article in Breslau's Jewish newspaper had been headline, "The Liquidation Campaign against the Jews in Poland."[2] They had cried wolf too often before. In internal papers, the F.O. remarked that there was no confirmation for Riegner's story from 'other sources' - a hint at ULTRA.[3] There was a marked reluctance to exploit the stories for propaganda, and the files show that there was little public sympathy with the Jews in wartime Britain. A year before, the ministry of information had directed the horror stories were to be used only sparing, and they must always deal with the maltreatment of 'indisputably innocent' people - 'not with violent political opponents,' they amplified. 'And not with Jews.'[4] Sydney Silverman, a Labour member of Parliament, asked permission to phone Riegner's report through to Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress in New York; the foreign office disallowed this, arguing quaintly that this would merely provoke the Germans who 'always listen to such conversations.'[5] While they felt that they might profitably consult PWE (their own Political Warfare Executive) about Riegner's 'rather wild story,' that was the only further action they would take.[6] There is no indication that Riegner's message was ever put before Churchill, who was in Cairo and Moscow at that time.


  1. Halifax diary, Sep 4, 1942 (Univ. of York, Borthwick Institute: Hickleton Papers, Lord Halifax, file A7.8.11).
  2. Halifax diary, Sep 23, 1942 (Univ. of York, Borthwick Institute: Hickleton Papers, Lord Halifax, file A7.8.11).

Similar 'wild stories' did however reach the United States. On September 4 the Polish ambassador in Washington produced to Lord Halifax 'an awful report about the Germans exterminating all the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto at the rate of 100,000 a month.' Halifax added: 'They are supposed to make various things they want out of the boiled-down corpses. I wonder whether this horror is true.* A good deal more likely to be true, I fancy, than it was in the last war.'[1] A few mornings later he noted heartlessly a visit by Rabbi Wise and a colleague 'whose talk was exactly like that of a stage Jew.' Grim though the subject-matter of their visit was, as the ambassador privately recorded, 'it was all I could do to keep a straight face when he chipped in.' They depicted in vivid detail how the Nazis were deporting French Jews to the east to kill them. 'If this is true,' Halifax cautioned himself, 'how vile it is of Laval to hand any more poor wretches over.'[2] Again the foreign office line was one of scepticism. In September 1944 a British diplomat would argue against publicising the atrocity stories on the heartless ground that it would compel officials to 'waste a disproportionate amount of their time dealing with wailing Jews.'

* It was not true.
  1. GC&CS German police section report No. 40/42, dated Sep 26 (PRO file HW.16/6, part ii; and HW1/929). The intercepts also established that as from Sep 1, 1942 'deaths from natural causes' among prisoners in concentration camps were to be reported 'only on pro-formas (durch Formblatt).' The typhus epidemic that ravaged Nazi-controlled Europe from late 1941 to the end of the war was very real, and GC&CS was evidently briefed to focus attention on it. See e.g. 'Police Report,' Oct 17, 1941 ('There has been noted a pretty consistent demand for Anti-typhoid lymph in the eastern areas for the inoculation of Police units. It is difficult to know whether these demands in any way exceed the normal, given the conditions occasioned by war') and the report 'Typhus III,' signed by [Nigel] de G[rey], Jan 24, 1942, in PRO files HW1/148 and HW.16/6 part ii respectively. The Polish under-ground deliberately spread typhus among German occupation forces: see e.g. the report from the SS Polizeiführer in Galicia to SS OGruf. Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger, Jun 30, 1943 (Hoover Library, Ms. DS 135, G2G37). Col. L Mitkiewicz, Polish liaison officer to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, reported to the CCS (100th Mtg, Jul 2, 1943) that in the first four months of 1943 the Polish underground had poisoned 526 Germans and administered 'typhoid fever microbes and typhoid fever lice' to Germans 'in a few hundred cases.' See too Report on The Polish Secret Army to Brig Gen John R Deane, JCS Secretariat, Sep 7, 1943 (NA, RG.218, Joints Chiefs of Staff, file CCS/381 'Poland - 6.30.1943 - Sec.1'). Such methods may have backfired on the Poles, as epidemics are poor respecters of persons.

See Reader's letter: Frank Lowe Jr has information on Hitler's order, Wannsee; and the Typhus War

Later in September 1942 information did reach Churchill from his secret sources lifting a corner of the veil on Hitler's concentration camps. Analysis of their commandants' secret returns, transmitted in cypher to Berlin, had begun yielding daily figures for the death rates in a dozen such camps. These included twenty-one deaths during August at Niederhagen, eighty-eight at Flossenbürg, and seventy-four at Buchenwald; in a fast-growing camp at Auschwitz in Upper Silesia the intercepts revealed the notable totals of 6,829 male and 1,525 female fatalities. There was evidently a deadly epidemic raging at the camp since a message of September 4, in reply to a request for a thousand prisoners for building the Danube railway, stated that Auschwitz could not provide them until the 'ban' (Lagersperre) on the camp had been lifted. It was an odd, one-way kind of quarantine: 'It appears that although typhus is still rife at Auschwitz,' the Intelligence report pointed out, 'new arrivals continue to come in.'[1]

  1. GC&CS German Police report No. 41, 1942, Oct 5, 1942 (PRO file HW.16/6, part ii).
  2. GC&CS German Police Section intercept: Lolling, Amt D III, to Auschwitz, Oct 26, 1942 (PRO file HW.16/11).
  3. GC&CS German Police Section intercept: KL Sachsenhausen (gez. Liebehenschel) an Amt D III, Oct 27, 1942 (PRO file HW.16/11).
  4. SS WVHA, Amtsgruppenchef D (Glücks) to all major concentration camp commandants, betr. Meldeverfahren bei Todesfällen in Konzentrationlagern, Nov 21 (Yivo archives, G - 207); GC&CS German Police Section intercept: KL Buchenwald (gez. Hoven) to Amt D III, betr Meldung der Todesfällen von Häftlingen, Dec 1, 1942 (PRO file HW.16/11).
  5. GC&CS German Police Section intercept: KL Auschwitz, signed Dr Wirths, an Amt D III, btr Stand der Fleckfiebererkrankungen, Dec 8, 1942 (PRO file HW.16/11).
  6. 'The returns from Auschwitz, the largest of the camps with 20,000 prisoners, mentioned illness as the main cause of death, but included references to shootings and hangings. There were no references in the decrypts to gassing.' Professor Sir Frank H Hinsley et al., British Intelligence in the Second World War: Its Influence on Strategy and Operations, Cambridge, 1979 - 84, 3 vols., vol. ii, appendix, page 673.

Every other detail, however trivial, was reflected in these intercepts, including a signal to Auschwitz commandant S.S. Sturmbannführer Rudolf Höss in September 1942 regretting that rubber truncheons were unobtainable in Breslau.'[1] On October 26 the codebreakers found Berlin warning Auschwitz to stand by to receive two visitors from the Führer's Chancellery in Berlin - the agency supervising euthanasia and various other killing schemes - for a lengthy stay, as the radio signal said: they would be setting up an X-ray sterilisation operation (this being the method chosen by the S.S. to keep the Jews from breeding).[2] On October 27 Sachsenhausen reported that it was shipping to Auschwitz two hundred Soviet prisoners of war found to have contracted tuberculosis.[3] After Berlin ordered that all camp fatalities were to be reported, on December 1 Buchenwald dutifully reported, in their secret code, a total of 134 deaths from natural causes during November including four Jews.[4] On December 8 Dr Wirths reported twenty-seven male and thirty-six female typhus deaths in Auschwitz during the previous week.[5] It is worth noting, as the official historian does, that nowhere in these myriads of intercepted German messages was there any reference to gas chambers or gassings, so the official scepticism which greeted Riegner's report from Geneva is understandable.[6]

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