On November 24, 1942, a high ranking official in the State Department confirmed to Rabbi Stephen Wise that the Nazis had a plan to murder all of European Jewry. The rabbi held a press conference later that day and shared that information with reporters. Meanwhile, our survivor Lila Millen turned five that November in the Warsaw ghetto. Much of the time, as Lila tells us in her documentary, she and her sister Anne Levy were hiding from the Nazis and their collaborators, who had already dispatched over three hundred Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka.
There was a complicated story behind Rabbi Wise’s press conference on November 24, 1942. Three months earlier a German industrialist living near Auschwitz-Birkenau learned of the camp’s existence through contacts in the Nazi high command. Dr. Eduard Schulte also learned of Hitler’s play to destroy all the Jews in Europe. In an effort to alert the leaders of the Western democracies about the extermination of the Jews, Schulte traveled to neutral Switzerland, ostensibly on war-related business. In Geneva he relayed his information to Gerhardt Reigner, an official of the World Jewish Congress. Reigner transmitted Schulte’s information (by way of the American consulate in Geneva) to the British Foreign Ministry and to the U. S. State Department. Reigner specifically requested that the State Department forward the information to Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the World Jewish Congress. Reigner’s telegram summarizing Schulte’s information reached both London and Washington.
Before this information reached the West, it was recognized that terrible atrocities had been perpetrated against the Jews and others in Nazi-occupied Europe. But no one seemed to understand, or was willing to acknowledge, that these atrocities were a prelude to the total destruction of the Jewish people. Hence the importance of Schulte’s information: he provided the Western leaders with reliable information that there was a Nazi plan at the highest levels to murder all the Jews.
When Reigner’s telegram reached the State Department, officials dismissed its contents as “fantastic allegations” and refused to share the information with Rabbi Wise. In fact, those officials did not want information about the Jewish tragedy to reach the newspapers and influence the public opinion because “it would expose us to increased pressure to do something more specific to aid.”
A State Department internal memorandum revealed the basis of the government’s policy: “There was always the danger that the German Government might agree to turn over to the United States and to Great Britain a large number of Jewish refugees.”
For three months the State Department suppressed the contents of Reigner’s telegram. Rabbi Wise learned of it only from a source in London. When confronted, officials in the State Department explained that the information in Reigner’s telegram was not yet confirmed and persuaded him not to publicize it. He reluctantly agreed to wait for official confirmation. But it was no longer possible to suppress the “terrible secret.” The evidence, from many sources, was overwhelming.
On that fateful day, November 24, 1942, Rabbi Stephen Wise and his son were summoned to the State Department to meet with Under-Secretary of State Sumner Welles. Rabbi Wise described the scene in his autobiography:
“In the office of Mr. Welles, we took our places and I shall never forget the quiet but deeply moving way in which he turned to us and said, every word etching itself into my heart, ‘‘Gentlemen, I hold in my hands documents which have come to me from our legation in Berne. I regret to tell you, Dr. Wise, that these confirm and justify your deepest fears.’‘ He handed me the original documents from Berne which confirmed our dreadful apprehensions. The documents’ red seals suggested the blood of my people pouring forth in rivers. Mr. Welles added, ‘For reasons you will understand, I cannot give these to the press, but there is no reason why you should not. It might even help if you did.’”
That evening Rabbi Wise held a press conference in which he presented this information to reporters. He estimated that two million Jews had already been murdered.
The Times-Picayune, November 26, 1942, p. 2
Two days later The Times-Picayune published a short article about Rabbi Wise’s press conference. The editors of the paper did not give the article much prominence. They placed it in the upper left hand corner of page 2. Dr. Wise emphasized “that he was authorized by the state department to disclose details of the program…” He wanted the public to know it was the State Department talking and not himself. The article referred to “new Nazi anti-Jewish program…” There was nothing new about the “program.” The systematic slaughter of Jews began with the invasion of Russia in June 1941. The headline was also inaccurate. Rabbi Wise did not say that five million Jews had been slain but that the Nazis’ plan “would mean death for five million Jews in Hitler dominated Europe”
Two words in the headline, “…IS CLAIM,” intimated that Dr. Wise, described as “the New York rabbi,” could not be trusted to tell the truth. The article was heavy with doubt about the reliability of his information, “of which he claimed had been confirmed.”
Dr. Wise was quoted that he had “reason to believe someone in Washington will have something to say in a very few days.” He seemed to be suggesting that Secretary of State Cordell Hull would publicly confirm the enormity of the Nazi crimes. In fact, officials in the State Department would continue to argue that Dr. Wise’s information was unconfirmed.
Dr. Wise’s press conference was held during one of the war’s most crucial moments: the ever tightening encirclement of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad. The articles on the front page of The Times-Picayune on November 26, 1942, were all about the fighting outside Stalingrad.
Of the nineteen most widely circulated newspapers in the United States, only five published Dr. Wise’s information on the front page. Historian David Wyman concluded that Rabbi Wise’s “total trust of FDR” was “not an asset to American or European Jews.” And Elie Wiesel, survivor and Nobel Laureate, wrote: “All those unused visas, all those unheeded appeals, all those useless screams.”
But two weeks later, on December 17, 1942, the United Nations issued a War Crimes Declaration that addressed the Jewish tragedy directly.