On August 1, 1942, Dr. Gerhart Riegner, the representative of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, Switzerland, received information about the Nazis’ intention to murder all the Jews of Europe. Eduard Schulte, a top German industrialist and anti-Nazi, learned of the plan through his contacts in the Nazi regime and alerted Isidor Koppelman, a Jewish business associate in Geneva. Koppelman contacted Dr. Benjamin Sagalowitz, a Jewish journalist there, who passed on the report to Riegner. On August 8, Riegner presented the information to the British and American legations in Geneva and asked them to cable the information to their governments. He also asked that the report be sent to Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the World Jewish Congress and its affiliate, the American Jewish Congress.
On August 11, the U.S. consulate cabled the report to Washington, D.C., but officials in the State Department’s Division of European Affairs dismissed Riegner’s findings as nothing more than a “fantastic war rumor.” Because they were unable to substantiate the source of Riegner’s report, they refused to send it to Rabbi Wise. Sidney Silverman, a member of the British Parliament who had also received the report, sent the cable to Wise from London on August 28. The report was inaccurate in its warning that the annihilation of the Jews was about to begin. Mass murder had, in fact, been taking place since June 1941. The cable was nonetheless a crucial step forward in the uphill battle that Wise and others waged to convince the Allies to intervene.
On September 2, 1942, Wise, the most prominent Jewish leader in America at the time, sent the report to Under Secretary of State Summer Welles, who said he would discuss the matter as long as Wise agreed not to publish the cable until its contents were confirmed. Wise went ahead and informed several Cabinet members; President Roosevelt became aware of the report through Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. On November 24, 1942, the American government finally acknowledged the ongoing annihilation of the Jews, and Wise was allowed to hold a press conference to release the news.
You might talk about the Riegner Cable when discussing the Roosevelt administration’s response, first, to the Jewish refugee crisis and, later, to the Holocaust. At the JFR’s Summer Institute for Teachers, a number of scholars addressed the importance of context in assessing the actions – or inactions – of witnesses such as the Roosevelt administration, the Vatican, and the Red Cross. It is tempting to look back and declare what should have been done – to ask what was moral. It is more difficult to look back and think about what was possible. We cannot consider the latter question, though, without also acknowledging the lack of imagination and will that so many witnesses displayed – a limitation that someone like Varian Fry, a Righteous Gentile from the United States, was able to overcome.