Nev­er Despair: Six­ty Years in the Ser­vice of the Jew­ish Peo­ple and the Cause of Human Rights

Ger­hart M. Rieg­n­er; William Say­ers, trans.
  • Review
By – May 11, 2012
This book is at once a per­son­al account of Ger­hart Riegner’s most impor­tant activ­i­ties in the ser­vice of the Jew­ish peo­ple and human rights, a por­trait of the Jew­ish con­di­tion in Europe dur­ing this peri­od, and a per­son­al his­to­ry of the World Jew­ish Con­gress, which he served for more than six­ty years. The Berlin Years Rieg­n­er ® came from a typ­i­cal upper mid­dle-class, pres­ti­gious Ger­man-Jew­ish fam­i­ly, estab­lished for gen­er­a­tions in Ger­many, inte­grat­ed into its cul­ture and mores, yet firm­ly anchored in Jew­ish tra­di­tion as well. Ger­man Jew­ry was in a peri­od of evo­lu­tion. The Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties expe­ri­enced sub­stan­tial loss­es due to a benev­o­lent law that abol­ished all auto­mat­ic affil­i­a­tion with a reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty, but the increas­ing num­ber of mixed mar­riages, where the Jew­ish hus­band assim­i­lat­ed to the Chris­t­ian major­i­ty, had the unin­tend­ed con­se­quence of increas­ing anti-Semi­tism as bar­ri­ers between Jews and non-Jews dimin­ished. Yet, influ­enced by their pas­sion­ate attach­ment to clas­si­cal Ger­man lit­er­a­ture and ide­al­ism, the Jews con­struct­ed an ide­al­ized ver­sion of the Ger­man. On the oth­er hand, writes R, the Ger­mans knew only the car­i­ca­ture of the Jew. It was in the begin­ning of the Weimar Repub­lic in the 1920s that R first expe­ri­enced overt anti-Semi­tism. He read about anti-Semit­ic inci­dents in the Jew­ish papers and lis­tened in on the polit­i­cal dis­cus­sions at home, nev­er believ­ing that the trou­ble would pass. At a young age, he under­stood that there were no ratio­nal argu­ments that would rea­son away the pre-Nazi anti-Semi­tism and Nazi anti-Semi­tism. Par­tic­i­pat­ing in stu­dent ral­lies, in cam­paigns for uni­ver­si­ty elec­tions, and in the strug­gle against Nazi stu­dents and the ter­ror they wield­ed, pre­pared him for his future pro­fes­sion. The Nazi elec­toral cam­paigns in Prus­sia and else­where had taught him about Nazi behav­ior, their cyn­i­cism, fanati­cism and bru­tal­i­ty. He har­bored no illu­sions about the reign of ter­ror they would launch. His descrip­tion of the The Day of the Jew­ish Boy­cott is graph­ic and he terms it one of the most ter­ri­ble days in the lives of Ger­man Jews. These mea­sures struck him per­son­al­ly: he was fired from his appren­tice court work, his father was dis­barred, one sis­ter was dis­missed from her teach­ing posi­tion and his younger sis­ter was expelled from her school. R want­ed to leave Ger­many at once, but he wait­ed until his father regained his strength after an ill­ness. Before his depar­ture, he plead­ed with every­one to leave, but they wouldn’t, nor would they per­mit the younger gen­er­a­tion to do so. R con­tin­ued his stud­ies in France, then Switzer­land, but legal­i­ties in each coun­try frus­trat­ed his desire to gain his law degree and license to prac­tice. It was a for­tu­itous meet­ing in Switzer­land with an Aus­tri­an pro­fes­sor, Hans Kelsen, that gained him an invi­ta­tion to come to Gene­va to attend The Swiss Grad­u­ate Insti­tute of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies, which pre­pared young peo­ple to extend their knowl­edge of inter­na­tion­al affairs and pre­pare for careers as diplo­mats or senior offi­cers in inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions. In the sum­mer of 1936, Stephen Wise and Nahum Gold­mann decid­ed to con­voke the found­ing assem­bly of the World Jew­ish Con­gress in Gene­va and estab­lished a mod­est per­ma­nent office. The office need­ed a young Jew who had spe­cial­ized in inter­na­tion­al law, human rights, minor­i­ty rights and inter­na­tion­al pro­ce­dures. The three pro­fes­sors they con­sult­ed all rec­om­mend­ed R. His descrip­tions of how he was hired for the job and how the WJC evolved into the orga­ni­za­tion it would become are fas­ci­nat­ing and enjoy­able to read. It is metic­u­lous­ly detailed and mer­its a read­ing of the book The Time of the Shoah and the Rieg­n­er Telegram. R was the first per­son to trans­mit authen­tic infor­ma­tion to the West­ern world about Hitler’s plan for the total anni­hi­la­tion of Euro­pean Jew­ry. In 1942, a promi­nent Ger­man indus­tri­al­ist whose huge com­bine con­tributed to the Ger­man war effort gave him access to the high­est mil­i­tary cir­cles. He had learned that at Hitler’s head­quar­ters the Nazis were dis­cussing a plan [to] trans­fer all the Jews of Europe…to the coun­tries of East­ern Europe, in order to anni­hi­late them and thus resolve once and for all the Jew­ish prob­lem in Europe. Even that ear­ly, the Ger­man said that prus­sic acid” would be used. Zyk­lon B was based on prus­sic acid. This infor­ma­tion was trans­mit­ted to R by an asso­ciate. R tried to inform the Amer­i­cans and British. He tried to reach Rab­bi Wise, but was frus­trat­ed by the State Depart­ment. Either no one believed it to be true, or chose not to act on it. It was only through a mutu­al friend that the infor­ma­tion was final­ly sent to Wise. R was shocked by the slow Allied reac­tion and also that of the Swiss gov­ern­ment. There was much anti-Semi­tism among the Allies, includ­ing the Unit­ed States, where Nazi pro­pa­gan­da was every­where. This fright­ened Amer­i­can Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions into not demon­strat­ing for the US entry into the war. Some of R’s telegrams did bear fruit, how­ev­er, and he was respon­si­ble for sav­ing many Jew­ish lives; the details of these activ­i­ties are described ful­ly, as is the Allies’ refusal to bomb Auschwitz and the rail lines when they often flew over this ter­ri­to­ry. Post-Shoah Jew­ish-Chris­t­ian Rela­tions To this review­er, the most inter­est­ing sec­tions deal with the reac­tion of Chris­t­ian church­es to the plight of the Jews, which is described in fas­ci­nat­ing detail. The record is both awful (the Ger­man church­es) and fair­ly, but not uni­form­ly, good. The Dutch epis­co­pate act­ed coura­geous­ly when Jews were deport­ed from the Nether­lands, as did numer­ous priests, monks, and nuns in Hol­land, Poland, France, Bel­gium and Italy. Many tried to help save Jews, not from a Vat­i­can order, but from their own faith that demands respect for human life. These indi­vid­u­als had a sound con­cep­tion of their own Chris­tian­i­ty, writes R. In the Allied coun­tries the atti­tude of Catholics was pro- Jew­ish; and in Amer­i­ca, only Father Cough­lin was against the Jews. It was only after the death of Pope Pius XII that the Church of Rome under­stood or admit­ted the full scale of the Jew­ish tragedy. It was not until 1965, at the Vat­i­can II Coun­cil, and at the prompt­ing of Pope John XXI­II, that the Church was ready to issue an encycli­cal on the Jew­ish ques­tion. This sec­tion titled Jew­ish-Chris­t­ian Rela­tions, is of extreme inter­est, involv­ing pol­i­tics and strat­e­gy, in addi­tion to reli­gious issues. The bal­ance of the book is a record of dilem­mas fac­ing the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty and R’s rea­son­ing and actions tak­en to reme­di­ate the prob­lems. Top­ics include: The Strug­gle for Human Rights (the Sovi­et Union), described and dis­cussed in fas­ci­nat­ing detail; Work­ing for North African Jew­ry (Tunisia, Moroc­co and Alge­ria); Oth­er Inter­na­tion­al Activ­i­ties (includ­ing Ger­man repa­ra­tions and many fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ries about R’s deal­ing with oth­er coun­tries, includ­ing the Baltics); and, of course, WJC’s sup­port for Israel and its fight with the UN’s racist res­o­lu­tions against Zion­ism. R clos­es with his take on the mod­ern State of Israel as a place of renew­al and hope. There are so many fas­ci­nat­ing per­son­al anec­dotes as well as his­to­ry in this book. It is tru­ly a book of record.
Mar­cia W. Pos­ner, Ph.D., of the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty, is the library and pro­gram direc­tor. An author and play­wright her­self, she loves review­ing for JBW and read­ing all the oth­er reviews and arti­cles in this mar­velous periodical.

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