My friend and former colleague Craig S. Karpel often e-mails me eye-opening links to stories that don’t get the attention they deserve.
This piece from the Jerusalem Post is an example, a true shocker:
it’s about a new book published in Hebrew that reveals that an explicit warning of Hitler’s plan for exterminationist death camps for Jews was passed on to British officials, perhaps even Churchill himself, in the summer of 1942, months before what had been previously regarded as the first explicit report of the industrialized mass murder the one that came in August of ’42.
But to my mind even more important than the timing is what the book reveals accompanied the warning: a proposed practical course of action that might–who knows now?– have made a difference in forestalling it.
The book–Pazner: The Man Who Knew–tells the story of Chaim Pazner an official of the Jewish Agency’s Palestine Office in Switzerland who was approached by a Swiss friend who wanted to pass on an explicit message from a German officer who made clear the gravity and urgency of the message:
“In the East, there are camps being prepared which will be used to destroy all the Jews of Europe and many of the Soviet war prisoners by gas,” the message read. “Please pass this message on immediately to Churchill and Roosevelt personally.”
But what makes this story even more devastating than the fact that it, like other such warnings resulted in no effective action, was the second half of the message:
“If the BBC broadcasts a daily warning to the Germans not to operate the gas chambers maybe they will not operate them, because the criminals are doing everything they can to prevent the German people from finding out what they are planning to do and it is clear that they will also do this.”
Here we get into one of the most controversial areas of Holocaust history: what could the Allies had done if they’d listened to the warnings and not largely dismissed them? Most of the debate has surrounded the question of whether they should have bombed Auschwitz or the railway tracks to the death camp. There are those who say yes, definitely, it would have saved lives, and there are those who say that the best way to save the most lives was to focus on winning the war more quickly and that the information about the camps and accessibility of them to bombing raids was not certain.
But this BBC idea is startling and new to me and has a certain plausibility. According to the book the warning was passed on to the BBC and to Churchill himself although the evidence on the latter is less strong. And of course, as we know, nothing was done. Would it have made a difference if the advice to the BBC had been followed?
From my reading of the situation in the course of writing Explaining Hitler (see left column), it’s true that Hitler had wanted to keep the death camps secret from the Allies because he feared (unnecessarily, alas) that such knowledge would provoke a fierce reaction.
On the other hand the evidence is less clear that the Final Solution was unknown to the German people. Yes, there is a well-known Himmler speech to the SS in which he celebrates their secret participation in the slaughter. But there is also evidence that German soldiers and civilian administrators knew very well what was going on. And Hitler had repeatedly made clear his goal of the destruction of the European jews in public speeches. But the fact that the process was actually going on in death camps in Poland (mainly) was not widely advertised in Germany. Which doesn’t mean the German people didn’t know.
I recall being on some panel with an official of the German consulate here who cited a poll showing that German civilians didn’t know and asking him: what did they think happened to all the Jews of Germany who disappeared from the cities and towns. Did the German people think they’d all decided to take a vacation? Of course a poll would elicit a “we didn’t know” response. And of course it’s an open question whether, if they knew, they’d care.
Still the idea of BBC broadcasts that might have warned any Germans who participated in the extermination process that they would be prosecuted as war criminals, broadcasts that left no doubt in the mind of every single German, every single European (since most European nations were complicit in the execution of the Holocaust) that they would be held accountable. Even if they weren’t, the fear of it might have had some effect, the putative broadcasts might have made a difference.
And–who knows–the widespread broadcast of the on going mass murder might have given more impetus to those few German officers and civilians wavering to go forward sooner with their plans to depose or assassinate Hitler. Or maybe I’m giving them too much credit for caring. Maybe it would have made no difference at all. We’ll never know.
Still among all the stories of warnings ignored, or disbelieved, rescue action denied or delayed till too late, this struck me as a not-impossible lost chance.
And a reminder that the time to stop a nation from committing genocide is before it starts not after it’s finished.