1984

Gerhart Riegner, Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress

…for the ethical fervor he showed in transforming his professional assignment into a sacred mission when, in August 1942, he endeavored to draw attention of the mighty to the fate of the Jews in German-controlled Europe.


 Gerhart Riegner, probably at the meeting of the World Jewish Congress in Montreux, Switzerland.   

Gerhart Riegner, probably at the meeting of the World Jewish Congress in Montreux, Switzerland.

 

Received alarming report that in Fuhrer’s headquarters plan discussed and under consideration, according to which all Jews in countries occupied or controlled by Germany, numbering 3.4 to 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.” 

This cable, or “Riegner’s Telegram” as it has come to be known, although it contained some inaccuracies, was sent by Gerhart Riegner in 1942 to the President of the World Jewish Congress, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. It is the first piece of documentation that confirmed Hitler’s “Final Solution,” a wide-scale scheme to murder all of the Jews in Europe. 

Gerhart M. Riegner was born in Berlin in 1911 and experienced anti-Semitism at an early age, being called a “dirty little Jew” as a small child. He grew up to study law at various universities in Germany, but had to leave for Paris to avoid the soldiers sent in to forcibly remove Jewish students. Riegner finished his degree but could not practice law in France for ten years, and so moved to Switzerland. There, he became part of the World Jewish Congress, formed in 1936, first as legal officer and later moving up to Secretary-General. One day in July 1942, Riegner was contacted by a journalist named Benjamin Sagalowitz, who had received information about Hitler’s plans for the Jewish population. After a lengthy discussion, Riegner sent the above cable to Rabbi Wise in early August. He wasn’t certain the information was entirely accurate; indeed, the genocide had already begun the year before. Still, he hoped that the U.S. and Britain would intervene once Rabbi Wise received the telegram. But instead of reaching him directly, the State Department and Britain tried for months to verify the contents before warning Germany about the Holocaust, and it wasn’t until 1944, eighteen months after Riegner’s telegram, the President Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board to establish a rescue operation for Jews trying to escape from the Nazis. 

After the war, Riegner worked for years as part of the World Jewish Congress to improve the relationship between Christians and Jews, but was troubled for the rest of his life by the thought that more Jews might have been saved had the U.S. and Britain acted immediately; in his own words, “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.”