Photo Credit: Courtesy Yad Vashem
Babi Yar, Ukraine, The site of a mass murder of Jews, September 1941

*Editor’s Note: This is part XIX in a series. You can read Part XVIII , here  

Throughout the first six months of 1942, reports of the systematic slaughter of Jews on the Russian front continued to reach America and were widely reported in the Yiddish and Anglo-Jewish press. Although the degree of space allotted for these reports varied, American Jewry had overwhelming information about the incredible brutalities and the wanton destruction of lives and property. There were many eyewitness accounts of these mass executions from Russian, Jewish, Polish, and Hungarian sources as well as from neutral diplomats reported in Congress Weekly, Forward, Der Tog, Jewish Frontier, Contemporary Jewish Record, and in The New York Times. On January 1942, JTA, Forward, and Der Tog reported an admission by the Germans that they were killing Jewish war prisoners for allegedly shooting German soldiers.  


The February 23 issue of Life magazine substantiated some of these harrowing tales; and a report by a Bavarian Catholic priest on March 25 that the Nazis killed an estimated 10,000 Dutch Jews at the Mauthausen concentration camp 20 miles north of Linz in Upper Austria. The number was more than 100, not 10,000. On February 22 and 23, 1941, the Germans initiated the first raids of Jews in Western Europe declared historian Wally de Lang. One hundred and eight were murdered at the nearby Hartheim Castle. “It was a kind of laboratory [for the Nazis],” he said, “to improve their knowledge of everything that we see at Auschwitz on a much, much bigger scale.” 

Many dispatches reported the deportation of tens of thousands of Jews to concentration and camps, to forced labor, and to “unknown destinations.” In early January, the JTA, Forward, and Der Tog reported about the Berlin order approving the execution of typus-stricken Jews in Nazi-occupied territory. Appeals for help from the Jews appeared in the JTA, Forward, Congress Weekly, Der Tog and the Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia. The JTA, Forward, The New York Times, Congress Weekly, and the Jewish Spectator reported about the thousands of Jews in ghettos who froze to death as a result of insufficient fuel, and the thousands who died because of the ever-present food shortage.  

“The Pit Took Three Days to Die” 

On March 13, 1942, S. Bernard Jacobson, a representative of the JDC in Eastern Europe, revealed in New York that 240,000 Jews “who had been deported from Germany and all parts of Central Europe to German-held Ukraine were murdered by the Gestapo, according to the testimony of Hungarian soldiers returning from the easter front.”  Jacobson quoted one Hungarian soldier saying at one great tract of land near Kiev, he saw the ground “move in waves.” The Germans had systematically executed thousands of Jews and had buried their victims even before they were dead. Father Patrick Desbois, who investigated the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis and their collaborators in Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Russia and Poland, interviewed peasants who repeatedly described how the pits where Jews were buried “breathed” for three days. 

“The pit took three days to quiet down,” they said, “because many of the victims had been buried alive.” Some Jews were either wounded or just thrown into the pits. Those who did not immediately fall, were pushed. The witnesses spoke about the “pits as if they were alive.”  One witness, who had been a child when forced to dig a pit, told of a hand “coming out of the ground” and grabbing hold of his spade. All of the witnesses spoke of the pits moving, accompanying their remarks with “an up and down movement of the hand.” Desbois then understood the meaning of the words: “the pit took three days to die.” Two or three meters of sand were flung on top of the Jews who died of suffocation.  

Jacobson declared the Nazis had decided there was only one solution to the Jewish question-extermination and destruction. This policy, he said, was being carried out in every country under German domination. In Yugoslavia, he noted the Jewish population had been reduced from 68,00 before the Nazi invasion of April 6, 1941 to “a maximum of 25,000 today.” The Jews of Belgrade were “rounded up and taken in trucks, a hundred at a time, to nearby forests where they were executed.”  

Response of Jews in the Yishuv 

Aside from Jacobson’s report, there was also an official letter to the American government from Vyacheslav Molotov, Soviet Foreign Minister, and testimonies from eyewitnesses collected by the US legation in Moscow writes historian Dina Porat. The reports stated that every several days, a few thousand Jews were murdered in occupied Soviet areas, either by shooting or with explosives. No less than 100,000 Jews had already been killed.  

Porat said this evidence differed from other reports in three ways. The information showed a direct link between Jews being deported from central Europe and being murdered, indicating the existence of a calculated strategy of how to deal with the Jewish problem. Additionally, the JDC and the American legation were considered trustworthy sources, whereas the Soviets were generally considered suspect of promoting anti-Nazi propaganda. Finally, this was the first case of official sources asserting that tens of thousands of Jews were murdered in a short time in the same region.  

Porat said in Israel, the historian Ben-Zion Dinaburg (later Dinur) voiced the angst of many Jews in the Yishuv (Jews living in the Land of Israel) about the “death and expulsion of Jews, unprecedented in world history.” Although many were despondent and embarrassed, he contended the feelings of despair had not yet translated into communal anxiety. He posited that people confronted with an ominous situation frequently become involved in trivial issues, in order not to have to address pressing concerns, which they wish to avoid. This might explain the increase of political and interparty bickering at just that time in the Yishuv. 

American Jewish Response 

American Jewry found “little ground to doubt the truth of the reports,” because as the Jewish Frontier observed: “JDC representatives are not known to exaggerate any aspect of anti-Semitism…. But perhaps the most telling evidence of the extent of German mass-murder of Jews,” the Jewish Frontier concluded, was “the triumphant remark by a Nazi newspaper in the Nazi-occupied territory that ‘the Jewish question has now been solved except for the five million Jews in the United States.’” 

The American Jewish Congress stated although many had hoped these reports were exaggerated, there was “no longer any reason to doubt the veracity of the fact. No imagination could invent this conception of a field heaving like a living sea with the breath of those buried alive. Only men who saw it with their own eyes could bring it back.”  

Despite accepting the authenticity of these accounts, it appeared to many American Jews this war was just a repeat of the First World War, albeit of greater intensity and magnitude. The American Jewish Committee expressed the feeling of most Jewish organizations when they declared “No amount of bad news from the battlefield can dim the hopes for the success of an eventual peace conference nor still the discussion of postwar problems and solutions.” In other words, nothing would shake American Jewry’s belief in the ultimate defeat of Hitler or in the inevitability of Jewish survival. 

They were skeptical about what they could do as Jews to thwart Hitler’s destruction of their European brethren. The Congress Weekly reported that Leon Kubowitzki, one of the founders of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) who served on the Executive Committee of the WJC, asserted that any question of American Jewry’s possible influence upon Nazi policy in 1942 was purely academic. The battle against Hitler had been lost at the very beginning of Hitler’s ascension to power when the Jewish people were divided by differences of opinion. At that point, the Jewish leadership did not marshal their political and economic resources; and failed to create the self-sacrifice in the Jewish community that might have spared European Jewry much of their agony. Most Jews believed their only recourse involved intensifying their efforts in post war preparations; extending more aid and relief to European Jewry and reminding the Nazis their atrocities against the Jews will be punished at the end of the war.  

 When it came to the fate of European Jewry opined historian Henry Feingold, American Jewry could not agree on the nature of the threat or policy to confront it. Because they continually competed for political power among themselves and constantly fighting with each other, they could not even send a message in a single voice to their own elected officials. Even in 1943, when the German trains were transporting large numbers of Jews to the extermination camps, all efforts to create unity within the Jewish community failed.  


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Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.