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.