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

Aside from the question of how many Jews had been murdered thus far in Europe, a distinct pattern appeared regarding the goal  to have emerged Lacquer concluded. At the highest levels of the German hierarchy, the decision had been made to murder all the Jews of Europe, but when had this been decided? Dr. Gerhard M. Riegner, representative of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, Switzerland, provided the answer. 

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In his memoir, Never Despair: Sixty Years in the Service of the Jewish People and of Human Rights, Riegner says the saga began on July 29, 1942, when he received a phone call from his friend Benjamin Sagalowitz, press officer with the Fédération communautés juives de Suisse (Federation of Jewish Communities of Switzerland) in Zurich. Sagalowitz said he had to meet Riegner “with the utmost urgency.” At their meeting in Lausanne on August 1,1942, Sagalowitz informed him that a friend had been in touch with a prominent German industrialist, the head of a company with thousands of employees, actively involved in the war effort. This function afforded him access to the most senior German military personnel. We know from historians Walter Laqueur and Richard Breitman, this German corporate leader was Dr. Eduard Schulte, chief executive officer of Giesche, one of Germany’s leading mining firms. 

Sagalowitz told Riegner Schulte occasionally saw his friend in Zurich, where Schulte came for business. A few days earlier, Schulte came to Zurich, “apparently to relieve his conscience,” Riegner wrote. At Hitler’s headquarters, Schulte learned the Germans were discussing  “a plan aimed at transferring all the Jews of Europe, from three and a half million people, to the countries of Eastern Europe, in order to annihilate them and thus resolve once and for all the Jewish problem in Europe.” Schulte suggested this declaration be shared with the Jews and the Allies. In the discussion on what method might be used to accomplish this task, they mentioned prussic acid. Only much later Riegner said did he learn that Zyklon B used in the gas chambers was based  on prussic acid. 

During a walk with Sagalowitz lasting five or six hours, they considered the veracity and implications of this revelation: “Was it to be taken seriously? Was it conceivable that the Nazis would plan to kill millions of people? Wasn’t it just a provocation? Was the message credible?” They asked themselves “despite everything we already knew about what was happening in Germany itself and in occupied Europe—and we knew a great deal—this seemed extraordinary to us.” 

During the course of several days, they continued to ask questions. “in spite of all the information in my possession,” Riegner said, “ spite of the discussions we pursued in ever greater depth, in spite of what I had already experienced myself,  I still needed another two days to convince myself that these events really were possible and, finally, to believe in them.” Sagalowitz went through the same grueling process while they remained in constant contact.  

Three Factors Determined How they Would Proceed 

Three facts determined how they would proceed. First, in Hitler’s speech  to the Reichstag on January 30, 1939, he ostensibly explained his intentions regarding the Jewish people when he accused them of inciting war: “In the course of my life I have very often been a prophet and have usually been ridiculed for it. During the time of my struggle for power it was in the first instance the Jewish race which only received my prophecies with laughter when I said that I would one day take over the leadership of the State, and with it that of the whole nation, and that I would then among many other things settle the Jewish problem. Their laughter was uproarious, but I think that for some time now they have been laughing on the other side of their face. Today I will once more be a prophet: If the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!”  

On several other public occasions in 1940, 1941 and 1942 Hitler repeated this warning Riegner said, nonetheless, few took this ominous warning seriously. His threats in Mein Kampf, in which he proclaimed his aggressive objectives, practically nobody viewed as convincing. “Were we once again to ignore his menace, commit yet gain the same error?” Riegner asked. 

The second fact they pondered, occurred in early August 1942, when two weeks earlier the Germans initiated a massive deportation of Jews throughout all of occupied Western Europe. On the same day, August 14, tens of thousands of Jews  in Antwerp, Brussels, Paris, Lyon, and Marseilles were arrested and incarcerated in transit camps until they could be deported. After having received precise numbers of those arrested in the streets, shops, and in their homes in Berlin, Vienna, and Prague raised the  question the purpose of these expulsions. At that point, they had no information about the deportations from Warsaw, which started on July 25 “Suddenly all Europe seemed engaged in a process of annihilation.” Riegner concluded. The warning from the German industrialist provided the context “to everything that was happening.” 

Another determining factor guiding their considerations, was the recognition of the criminal nature of the Nazi regime. Riegner had witnessed their brutality first hand. He also knew about the concentration camps for those who opposed the government, and that they were resolute in implementing the Nazi party agenda delineated in Mein Kampf. The burning of the Reichstag, the “Night of the Long Knives,” and the murder of Chief of Staff Ernst Röhm, a co-founder of the Sturmabteilung (SA), the Nazi Party’s militia, offered further proof of the criminal character of the regime. 

In addition to the Nazi rule of terror within Germany, the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936, the Anschluss in 1938, the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938, the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938-1939, the attack on Poland and the and massacres of Jews in Poznań in western Poland and Bromberg in northern part of the country, leading to the Second World War, all in contravention of international law, demonstrated the extent to which the Nazis would go to destroy their enemies. 

A Whole New Light on the Tragedy 

In all their deliberations, Sagalowitz and Riegner were aware that hatred of the Jews comprised the “central tenet of Nazi ideology and of the Nazi program.” Of “decisive importance,” in deciding how to process this information was the evidence  did not originate with the victims, contrary to most of their intelligence,” but from  German sources. Since Sagalowitz did not know the German industrialist personally, Riegner insisted on meeting Isidor Koppelmann, who had originally received the message from Schulte.  

Sagalowitz and Riegner met Koppelmann in Zurich to confirm in extensive detail the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe. Koppelmann alluded to the use of prussic acid and said there had be a discussion “of giant crematoriums, in which the Jews of Europe… were to ‘go up in flames.’”  Koppelmann had been impressed with Schulte, “whom he had known for some time,” and who had previously shared secret information about the war. Several weeks prior to the German invasion of Russia, Koppelmann informed him about the attack, proving he had connections with very high-level individuals in the Nazi regime.  

The meeting with Koppelmann convinced Riegner to alert the World Jewish Congress. 

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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.