ALEX MAWS: From the Holocaust Educational Trust, I’m Alex Maws and this is the 70 Voices podcast. 70 Voices is a digital commemorative project from the Holocaust Educational Trust marking 70 years since the end of the Holocaust by documenting its history through 70 unique sources. Follow the project as it unfolds online at www.70voices.org.uk or download the 70 Voices app available for most smartphones and tablets.
I am joined this week by Professor David Cesarani OBE. Professor Cesarani is Research Chair in History at Royal Holloway University of London, and author of numerous books on the Holocaust and Jewish history including Justice Delayed: How Britain became a Refuge for Nazi War Criminals and Eichmann: His Life and Crimes.
DAVID CESARANI: Hello.
AM: Thanks for joining us. This week’s content has examined the reactions of the world beyond Nazi-occupied Europe to the persecution and murder of the continent’s Jews. Our first two readings on 70 Voices this week addressed the pre-war period looking at the reactions of the democracies, including Britain, to the refugee crisis created by the persecution of the Jews in Germany, and although we’ve seen that some refugees were admitted, for example through the Kindertransport programme, it seems that most countries were reluctant to accept large numbers of Jews. So, why was this?
DC: I think we need to look at the initial response of governments and public opinion to the takeover of power by the Nazis in 1933 and the kind of measures that they put into place. The Nazi assault on their political opponents triggered a wave of political emigration: socialists, communists, liberals, trade unionists fled mainly to countries adjacent to Germany – France, Netherlands, Denmark – amongst them were thousands of Jews. Now the initial onslaught against the Jews was really quite specific. The Nazis were targeting Jews who were communists and socialists, they weren’t going for the entire Jewish population. So many of the Jews who were fleeing across the border, and in that first year 37,000 fled, a very large number of them were political refugees. It was very difficult for people in the neighbouring countries, and indeed in Britain to tell the difference between Jews who were fleeing because they were Jewish – and they felt threatened by the antisemitism of the regime, as evidenced by the April 1933 boycott for example – and the mass of political refugees. All they knew was that thousands of Germans were pouring into their countries. Now they had a great deal of sympathy for the political refugees. Many governments were extremely worried by developments in Germany, worried that Hitler was bellicose and that he would take Germany in the direction of revanchism and try and recover lost territories. Already in 1933 there was great fear of Germany, which meant that political refugees were initially welcomed. However, most of the countries in Europe were suffering from the Depression, there was unemployment, there was social distress, and there were also quite powerful left-wing and right-wring movements causing political instability. For all of these reasons, governments began to look askance at this unending flow of political refugees and also Jewish refugees. By the end of 1933, the mood had changed quite profoundly.
AM: What was the cause of that change?
DC: Hitler was now pretty well established in power, he was making diplomatic noises, and it appeared that the regime would consolidate but would perhaps be more conservative than was initially feared. The sympathy for the political refugees began to ebb away, and the sympathy for Jews began to ebb away no less, in some ways even more. Because, if we move onto 1934 and 1935 and think now about the persecution of the Jews, there were of course anti-Jewish measures. Jews were dismissed from employment in government offices and in state agencies. They were swept out of positions in cultural organisations by Goebbels. However, the bulk of the community was relatively untouched, they were hanging on. In fact, the ministry for the economy was protecting the Jewish economic sector, the economics ministry was telling Hitler if we want the German economy to recover, we don’t want to disrupt the shops, the department stores, the businesses that Jews are running. So, discrimination against Jews is fine, but let them earn their living, let them contribute to Germany’s gross national product. Although it may seem remarkable now with hindsight, things began to settle down for the German-Jewish community and some of those early refugees who’d left in 1933, fed up with a precarious life as a refugee, actually began to go back to Germany, and to governments and to publics in Europe and in North America it looked as though the worst might be over. So, not only was sympathy for refugees ebbing because they were apparently competing for jobs and housing in countries that were afflicted by depression, but it looked as though there wasn’t such urgency for them to leave to leave in the first place.
AM: But eventually more of a sense of panic would set in?
DC: The mood then changes very substantially and you find it registered most keenly in the response of Jewish communities. Jewish communities rally to the plight of the refugees in 1933, but in 1934 they were beginning to run out of money supporting the refugees, they were beginning to get a bit impatient with them, and there’s even talk of winding up the effort to help Jews who had fled resettle, and, indeed, to treat the refugee problem as though it was more or less over. The perception of the situation of Jews in Germany, changes again very significantly after 1936. The year of the Berlin Olympics was a year of superficial tranquillity for German Jews. They were not harassed as much, there was less violence against them, many cities and towns took down offensive signs attacking the Jews – signs saying for example “Jews not wanted here” which were very typical at the entrance to towns and villages throughout Germany – because it was felt this might offend tourists who’d come to Germany for the Olympics in the summer of 1936. However, when the Olympics were over, the attitude of the regime to the Jews changes. It changes because the regime is now very deliberately gearing up for war.
At the end of 1936, Hitler reveals to the inner circle of the Third Reich his plans of expansion: war. The Four Year Plan which is announced in 1936 was a plan to gear up the German economy for war in 1940. In order to prepare Germany for war, the regime sees Jews as a potential source of revenue, of wealth. The Germany economy is straining at this point. Rearmament and expansion of the army had caused all sorts of tensions in the German economy. The regime saw plunder of the Jews as a way to alleviate some of that tension and so measures against the Jews begin to ratchet during 1937, particularly a programme called Aryanisation. When the German-Jewish community realises that the game is up, that there is no future, certainly for young Jews, in Germany, German Jews meet with American and British Jews and begin to plan what is in effect a long term evacuation of German Jewry. Certainly, the young Jews who no longer had a future in the country would be resettled in other parts of the world, many of them in Palestine. This effort, of course, becomes even more urgent after the occupation of Austria, the Anschluss. in March 1938, and the November Pogrom in November 1938. These two events demonstrate a degree of brutality, of ruthlessness, of plunder and extortion that makes it quite clear that no Jews have any future in the Reich any longer. The world Jewish community realises now that it is a matter of urgency to get as many Jews out as they possibly can. World opinion is shocked by reports in the media about what happens in Vienna in March 1938 and what happens throughout the Reich on the 9th, 10th of November 1938.
AM: So the November pogrom, or Kristallnacht, as it is sometimes called, really was a wakeup call to the rest of the world?
DC: There is no doubt that swathes of international opinion were appalled by the violence against Jews. However, governments found it quite difficult to respond. In North America, President Roosevelt faced a Congress that was overwhelmingly isolationist, congressmen didn’t want to get involved in European affairs. Legislatures, the public, were preoccupied with domestic problems, the continuation of the Depression, massive unemployment, and social distress. A similar dynamic is at work in France and, though Britain is beginning to pull out of the Depression, there is still huge unemployment, and there is huge discontent which supports a fascist movement led by Oswald Mosley on the right and communists on the left. So governments throughout Europe, while they feel great sympathy for what is happening to the Jews in Germany – and we know from the correspondence from people like Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in London that politicians were appalled by the burning of synagogues, the trashing of department stores, the arrest and detention in concentration camps of Jewish men in Germany and Austria who were perfectly innocent – they were appalled by this but they really were rather at a loss as to what to do. Germany was now rearmed, it was quite clear that Hitler was on a belligerent course, there was great anxiety that war was coming. European leaders didn’t want to provoke Hitler if they could possibly avoid it. They felt that condemning the atrocities against the Jews and reaching out and helping the Jews might be perceived as an act of provocation. The publics were alarmed at the prospect of a vast influx of Germans: they might be German Jews, they might be Austrian Jews, but nevertheless they were Germans. At a time when war clouds were gathering, the idea of opening your gates to tens of thousands of Germans seemed perverse, and there was of course deep and ingrained antisemitism which had been aggravated by propaganda emanating from the Third Reich over the preceding half decade and generated by right-wing and antisemitic movements and newspapers in many countries in Europe, France particularly, but even in Britain and also in North America.
All of these factors come together in the last year before the Second World War. High unemployment, a fear of aggravating Germany, persistent antisemitism, and crucially at just this moment the Jewish communities, that until that time being doing their best to help Jewish refugees, are short of money, they feel intimidated by the atmosphere around them and they, quite frankly, can’t cope with this new and even larger influx of refugees. So there is a desperate scramble to find the resources to help those who were able to get out. That is why, for example, in the case of the Kindertransport movement in Britain, the Jewish community, with many people in the wider community helping, are able to bring about 9,000 Jewish children from Germany on specially chartered trains but it’s only the children, they simply don’t have the political leverage, the muscle, to persuade the government to open the doors for men and women who might enter and compete on the labour market. So they trade on the massive sympathy that people have for distressed children to enable unaccompanied children to enter the country. Although, even then the Jewish community cannot find enough homes for them, it doesn’t have enough money to assist these children, it is frankly quite a chaotic humanitarian effort. Even though it was a wonderful gesture by the British government and the British public, it was tragically late in the day and tragically under-resourced, as of course we now know and at the time, such foresight was not available to most people. The worse the crisis became for German and Austrian Jews, in short, the harder it was for Jewish publics to react, for those who sympathised with the Jews to help them, or governments who were willing to do something to actually extend a helping hand.
AM: This sense of chaos that you are describing is really fascinating. I think that the history of the Kindertransport which is so much a part of the British narrative of its own reaction to and involvement with the events that led to the Holocaust is so much more complex than I think is commonly understood, so thank you for that.
If we now move on to the wartime period. I’m wondering at what point did the Allies really become aware of the Holocaust and how much did they know? One of the most challenging readings that our listeners will have read this week on the 70 voices app was the final letter of the Polish-Jewish socialist leader Szmul Zygielbojm who committed suicide in London in 1943 in protest at what he saw as the indifference of the wider world to the fate of the Jews. How far in your opinion was this a legitimate claim?
DC: The response of what we can call the free world to the plight of Jews during the Second World War needs to be divided up into quite discrete periods, because what happens to the Jews changes over time between 1939 and 1944-45 because the kind of knowledge that was coming of Germany and German-occupied Europe changes and also because the willingness, the ability of people to believe and comprehend that information also goes through some very significant transformations.
AM: What kind of transformations?
DC: During the first two years of the war, 1939, 1940, it’s quite clear to the governments in Paris, in London, to the Americans, what is happening to the Jews in German-occupied Poland. There are journalists from neutral countries there, including American journalists, in Germany able to cover what is going on in Poland – they report on the massacre of Jews in Poland during the conquest of the country by the German army, they report on the terrible anti-Jewish measures and they report on the beginning of so called Jewish residential districts, some of which evolve into ghettos and some of which evolve into walled ghettos in which there is disease, starvation and terrible suffering. All of this is reported in the press – you find it in the New York Times, you find it in the London Jewish Chronicle and Jewish publics try to send aid to Jews in occupied Poland and Jews still in Germany but, of course, their ability to help was dramatically affected by the fact that Europe was now at war, that it was illegal to transfer money, any kind of asset into enemy held territory, you weren’t allowed to trade with the enemy. So getting aid to the Jews in Poland was extraordinarily difficult. The most important source of aid was the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee, the JDC, which was crucial in sending money to Jewish representative organisations which provided a lifeline for Jews in Poland.
Then, of course, with the fall of France in the summer of 1940, expansion of German power – the period in which Britain is fighting alone – the situation goes through yet another transformation. Now hundreds of thousands more Jews are under German control, but the Jews in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, while they are subjected to discrimination – much of which flows from their own government particularly in France, its discrimination, its harassment – there are no massacres, there are no atrocities of the kind that occur in Poland and there is nothing that hints of round-ups or deportations.
So in Britain the Jewish communities mainly focused, like the rest of the British population, on simply surviving, holding the Germans at bay. The American public is focused on the drama which is unfolding in the second half of 1940 and during 1941, will Britain hold out, will Britain survive? This is the question and it obscures really the fate of the Jews, the suffering that continues in the ghettos in Poland. The great drama on 1940-41 is the drama of British resistance and then the German onslaught on the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941.
AM: So that invasion was a significant turning point in so many different ways. How did it impact upon international reactions?
DC: With the beginning of Operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941 we enter a profoundly new phase. With the invading forces that go into Soviet territory there are mobile murder squads, Einsatzgruppen, with a variety of tasks but one of which is to round up male Jews more or less of military age and to murder them because they are perceived as Bolsheviks, communists supporters of the state, a threat to the German occupation, and ultimately mainly because they are Jews.
AM: What specifically did Britain know about these developments?
DC: We do know that the British authorities – the government, Whitehall, the higher echelons of the military – were getting information decrypted at Bletchley Park, radio transmission from SS units to Berlin that were intercepted, decrypted and translated. That indicated that SS units and police units were engaged in massacres on a vast scale and we know that some of those intercepted reports went up the chain of command and ended up on Churchill’s desk and we know that Churchill personally read them, that he was moved and anxious about what he was reading because we know that he took pens in various colours and circled the numbers of Jews who had been killed in these operations that were being reported from SS killing units back to Berlin. He even went so far as to make a speech in August 1941 in which he referred to the massacre of ordinary people on the territory of the Soviet Union by German police units. He didn’t name the Jews, he didn’t name the specific elements of the German forces that were doing this but what he did say was a sufficient breach of security to alert the Germans to the fact that one of their codes had been broken, so they changed the code that the police units were using.
Now this I think is a remarkable insight both into Churchill’s mentality that he was so disturbed by the scale of these massacres he felt he had to say something and also the difficulty of responding, because if the allies responded to the information that was reaching them covertly they put those covert sources in jeopardy – that includes the information that is now coming from the Polish underground. The Polish underground is reporting constantly from the summer of 1939 onwards about the persecution of Jews, about the building of ghettos, about the rate of death and starvation and then towards the end of 1941 the building of what we call death camps. This information continues all the way through 1942 with the Polish underground and the Jewish workers movement, the Bund, sending messages via the Polish underground alerting the Polish government-in-exile in London which then alerts the British Foreign Office that extraordinary and terrible things are happening in Poland, that tens of thousands of Jews are being rounded up shipped out of ghettos and disappeared and the conclusion is that they are being murdered.
So we can say with confidence that during Operation Barbarossa, during the period of Einsatzgruppen massacres, the government in London and the American government knew of atrocities on a vast scale, atrocities against the Jews, but what could they do? Well, they could condemn them and in January 1942 the governments-in-exile get together and issue a statement of condemnation, although it is rather mealy-mouthed when it comes to the Jews – it doesn’t actually mention the Jews specifically but it talks about atrocities against civilians. This is all taking place ar the height of German military expansion and military power, at the point in which the Allies are at their weakest. Indeed, it is a tragedy of history that the news from the Polish underground and from the Bund that reaches London and reaches Washington in the summer of 1942 – about death camps, about the massive destruction of Jewish life – occurs when the Allied forces are on the back foot, when the Allies are reeling from one defeat after another. For example, here is a very important juxtaposition: by July 1942, the German Afrika Korps and the Italian Army is at El Alamein, 90 miles from Alexandria, Britain’s major naval base in Eastern Mediterranean, 200 miles from the Suez Canal, the artery to the Far East, to India. This is a critical moment for the survival of Britain and the British Empire, the war is hanging on a thread. In the Pacific, the Americans are struggling to hold back the Japanese advance: there are battles going on in Guadalcanal; the outcome of these battles is uncertain, no one knows which way the war is going to go. And in Russia, the Germans have just defeated a Russian counter-offensive, they have picked themselves up from their battering at the gates of Moscow in the winter of 1941-42 and they have launched into an assault on the Caucasus aiming for the rich oil fields of the Caucasus which if the seized would make the Third Reich virtually unbeatable.
So at just the moment when the Allies are facing perhaps their worst crisis of the Second World War, the information comes to light from unimpeachable sources that the Germans are murdering hundreds of thousands of Jews in purpose built death camps in Poland. In some ways, this is the worst possible time for the information to emerge. It does have an effect, though: it catalyses public opinion – there are protest meetings in Britain in the autumn of 1942 and eventually the pressure builds up to the point at which the government feels it has to act and both London and Washington combine together to draft a statement that is issued in the name of the Allies to the United Nation on the 17th December 1942 explicitly referring to a German programme of extermination against the Jews of Europe and promising retribution. That is followed by a propaganda bombardment – radio broadcasts to Germany and to occupied Europe which seek to reform the public and warn them not to cooperate with the Germans on this programme of extermination.
But what else can the Allies do at this point? They can’t intervene militarily and they also face a peculiar dilemma. It is one of the major themes of German propaganda, one of Goebbels's favourite themes, that the war is a Jewish war, that the war is being fought for the Jews, that American soldiers, British servicemen and servicewomen are being sent in harm’s way, are dying for the sake of the Jews, which of course is not a very appealing idea. The governments of the allies were desperate to avoid any kind of indication that that was true, that they were indeed acting to the behest of the Jews, that this was a Jewish war. When they thought about what they could do to help the Jews, they were desperate to avoid anything that was too prominent and too public. They also faced genuine and serious problems about the possibility of waves of refugees, of people trying to get out of Europe. The British were particularly anxious in case Jews tried to get to Palestine – they were running Palestine. There had been opposition to Jewish immigration into what was called the Jewish national home being created under British patronage since 1917. That opposition had not gone away: the Middle East was an incredibly sensitive part of the British Empire; the British wanted to avoid annoying Arab opinion, therefore they didn’t want to do anything that would trigger a flight of refugees from Europe who might want to go to Palestine.
AM: It is often said that the world turned its back on the plight of the Jews so much so that even British Mandate Palestine was off limits to them.
DC: This is why when the Allies get together to hold a conference on the so-called refugee question – a conference held in Bermuda in April 1943 – they agree behind the scenes not to do anything. The Americans tell the British “We can’t take refugees into our territory, there would be public opposition, it wouldn’t go down very well”. The British say “We can’t take Jewish refugees into Palestine there would be opposition from the Arabs, it wouldn’t go down very well, so we won’t press you the Americans to take Jewish refugees if you don’t press us to take Jewish refugees”. This deal was done behind the scenes the conference was held in Bermuda so Jews could not lobby, they couldn’t protest outside. Only a couple of Jewish representatives go there, one was Sol Bloom an American Congressman, and at exactly the same time that the Jews in Warsaw begin their uprising, diplomats and civil servants deliberate in Bermuda and come up with precisely zero by way of assistance for the Jews.
It is that which provokes Zygielbojm to his act of desperation, his last final tragic gesture, taking his own life as a protest. He could not bear to contemplate the result of this empty talk shop in Bermuda while at the same time thinking about the struggle of his people in Warsaw. It was too much for him. He believed the only way he could draw attention to what was really happening and the failure of the Allied powers, United Nations – failure that he went so far as to call collaboration with the Germans in the destruction of the Jews – the only we he could draw attention to this was by taking his own life and the ultimate desperate tragedy is that barely anyone noticed. His suicide note, which was a scathing condemnation of politicians in Britain and America was published in only one newspaper, The Manchester Guardian. It was ignored everywhere else – not even the Jewish Chronicle in London published the truth of Zygielbojm's suicide.
AM: Professor David Cesarani thank you very much for joining us this.
DC: Thank you Alex.
AM: I think the issue of the world’s responses is one of the reasons that we continue to scrutinise the events of the Holocaust so many years later. There is so much to consider, so many complexities there to get stuck into. Just this week on the 70 Voices app our listeners will have read a range of different responses ranging from the reaction of the Vatican, which could be its own podcast episode in its own right, to the final poem of Hannah Szenes, a young Jewish women from Palestine who was executed after her aborted mission to rescue Jews in Hungary, her country of birth. Such a wide range of different types of reactions and responses to consider, so Professor thank you for lending your expertise on this topic and we look forward to you joining us again on the podcast next week. To our listeners we hope you will join us again for another edition of this, the 70 Voices podcast.