United Nations War Crimes Declaration
December 17, 1942

Massacre in Poland

In December 1942, our survivor Eva Galler and her family were wasting away in the wretched conditions of the ghetto in Lubazcow, Poland. They arrived in the ghetto that October and would remain there until January 8, 1943, when the Germans packed the Jews onto trains bound for a death camp.

Eva Galler: Lubaczow Ghetto

On the other side of the world, while Eva Galler awaited a grim future in the Lubazcow ghetto, the United Nations, representing the three major Allies and the exiled governments of eight occupied countries, issued a War Crimes Declaration. The Declaration was unique because it focused entirely on what was happening to the Jews, and accurately described Eva Galler’s situation. It also signified the official recognition by the United States (and others) that the Germans “were now carrying into effect Hitler’s often repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe.” Not again during the war would the Jewish tragedy receive such attention.

The background of the War Crimes Declaration involved plenty of infighting in the Roosevelt administration. On December 8, 1942, President Roosevelt met with Rabbi Wise and five other representatives of the Jewish community. This was two weeks after the rabbi had received confirmation of the on-going extermination of European Jews, and it was the president’s only meeting with a Jewish group during the war.

Rabbi Wise read from a two page letter which concluded that “unless action is taken immediately, the Jews of Hitler Europe are doomed.”

The president assured his audience that the “government of the United States is very well acquainted with most of the facts you are now bringing to our attention.” He agreed to the request that he issue a declaration on war crimes, making it clear to the Nazis that they would be punished after the war.

Officials in the State Department opposed such a declaration. They were afraid of getting dragged into rescue efforts. R. Borden Reams, in charge of Jewish issues for the Division of European Affairs, made that clear: “In addition the various Governments of the United Nations would expose themselves to increased pressure from all sides to do something more specific in order to aid these people.” These officials at the State Department persisted in arguing that the mass murder of Jews was still unconfirmed.

Nonetheless, the United Nations issued The War Crimes Declaration on December 17, 1942

“German Policy of Extermination of the Jewish Race”

“The attention of the Governments of Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, the USA, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Yugoslavia, and the French Committee of National Liberation, has been drawn to numerous reports from Europe that the German authorities, not content to denying to persons of Jewish race in all the territories over which their barbarous rule has been extended the most elementary human rights, are now carrying into effect Hitler’s often repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe. From all the occupied countries Jews are being transported, in conditions of appalling horror and brutality, to Eastern Europe. In Poland, which has been made the principal Nazi slaughterhouse, the ghettos established by the Nazi invaders are being systematically emptied of all Jews except a few highly-skilled workers required for war industries. None of those taken away are ever heard of again. The able-bodies are slowly worked to death in labor camps. The infirm are left to die of exposure and starvation or are deliberately massacred in mass executions. The number of victims of these bloody cruelties is reckoned in many hundreds of thousands of entirely innocent men, women and children. The above-mentioned Governments and the French National Committee condemn in the strongest possible terms this bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination. They declare that such events can only strengthen the resolve of all freedom-loving people to overthrow the barbarous Hitlerite tyranny. They reaffirm their solemn resolution to ensure that those responsible for these crimes shall not escape retribution, and to press on with the necessary practical measures to this end.”

On December 18, 1942, the day after the UN’s announcement, The Times-Picayune published a brief article about the Declaration on page 14. The editors apparently did not consider the subject an important one, but readers did not have to read between the lines to understand what was happening to the Jews. The article included quotes from the Declaration: the Germans were “now are carrying into effect Hitler’s oft-repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe.” Poland was “the principal Nazi slaughterhouse.” The ghettos “were being systematically emptied” and “None of those taken away are ever heard of again.”

For readers of The Times-Picayune who bothered to turn to page 14 and whose eye was drawn to the headline, the UN’s Declaration on War Crimes left nothing to the imagination.