12. Search and Kill

(1942)

In their quest to deport the Jews of western Europe to the killing factories in the east, the Nazis faced formidable difficulties. No one country could be dealt with the same way as another. The occupied countries of Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark were all administered differently; Italy was an ally; and France was a strange cross between a quasi-ally and a subjugated nation. Not only that, but in the summer of 1942 German forces were focused on the conquest of the Soviet Union – the defining conflict of history, as Hitler saw it. As a consequence, the SS were given minimal resources to accomplish their mission and deport the Jews. They could succeed only with the help of others.

In France in particular, the Nazis were able to exploit many pre-existing prejudices – not just anti-Semitic beliefs, but fear of foreigners and dislike of immigrants. Even before the creation of the Vichy government, the French authorities had opened camps in order to detain unwanted foreigners. In 1939, at Gurs in the Pyrenees, the French set up a camp to imprison people fleeing from the Spanish civil war; not just Spaniards who had fought, and lost, on the republican side, but many other nationalities were held in terrible conditions at Gurs.

However, the worst kind of unwanted foreigner, as far as the French authorities were concerned, was the Jew. ‘The Jew is not only an unassimilable foreigner, whose implantation tends to form a state within the state,’ said Xavier Vallat, the Commissioner-General for Jewish Questions within the Vichy government. ‘He is also, by temperament, a foreigner who wants to dominate and who tends to create, with his kin, a super state within the state.’1

The Vichy authorities not only imposed a whole series of restrictive laws targeted at Jews from 1940 onwards, but were also sympathetic in principle to the idea of deporting large numbers of their foreign Jews – many of whom had fled Nazi oppression in Germany and Austria. The Vichy government recognized, however, that solely because of practicalities expelling all these foreign Jews had to be a long-term aim. ‘Send them where?’ asked Vallat in a speech in 1942. ‘By what means, so long as the war is going on? In reality, it will be the victor’s business, if he intends to organize a durable peace, to find the means, worldwide if possible, European in any case, to settle the wandering Jew.’2

Notwithstanding Vichy’s dislike of foreign Jews, the first train filled with Jews that left France for Auschwitz in 1942 was sent not as part of a concerted plan to expel foreign Jews, but in an act of reprisal. The reasons why more than a thousand Jewish men were on that train in March 1942 can be traced back to the summer of 1941. In August 1941, French Communists shot two Germans in Paris, killing one and badly injuring the other. The German invasion of the Soviet Union had released French Communists from the shackles placed on their actions by the pact between Stalin and Hitler. The following month another German was shot dead. In reprisal, the German military authorities killed three Communist hostages. Hitler was incensed. He thought this a trivial response. ‘The Führer considers one German soldier to be worth much more than three French Communists,’ wrote Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel in a dispatch from Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia. ‘The Führer expects such instances to be responded to with the harshest reprisals … At the next assassination at least 100 shootings for each German [killed] are to take place without delay. Without such draconian retribution, matters cannot be controlled.’3

However, General Otto von Stülpnagel, the German military commander in France, believed that such ‘Polish methods’ simply did not work in France.4 And the evidence on the ground seemed to support that view. There was outrage among many French citizens, for instance, at the German reprisal killing of ninety-eight hostages in Nantes in October 1941. In January 1942 Stülpnagel offered his resignation. He was particularly bitter about having to leave his job because, as he outlined in a letter to Field Marshal Keitel, he thought he had come up with a better way to deter future attacks on Germans: ‘I believed that I could accomplish the clearly necessary reprisals for assassinations of personnel by other means, i.e., through limited executions, but primarily through transporting massive numbers of Jews and Communists to the East, which, in my informed opinion, has a far more chilling effect on the French population than these mass shootings, which the French do not understand.’5

Stülpnagel’s successor, his cousin Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, managed to obtain agreement to try out this policy of reprisal by mass expulsion. Hence the first deportation in March 1942, in response to resistance attacks, of 1,112 Jews from Compiègne to Auschwitz. It didn’t matter to the Germans that none of these 1,112 Jews had been found guilty of acts of murderous resistance. Because of the Nazi belief in the iron link between Communism and Judaism, it was sufficient merely that they were Jews.

The train carrying the French Jews reached Auschwitz on 30 March 1942, just a few days after the first transport carrying Slovak Jews had arrived at the camp. The French Jews, like the initial transports of Slovaks, were not selected on arrival and were admitted to the camp, but virtually all of them still perished in Auschwitz. More than 1,000 of them were dead within five months.

It wasn’t until the summer of 1942 that the mass deportation of Jews from France as a consequence of the Final Solution began. This action was intended as part of a pattern for western Europe as a whole. On 11 June, SS Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel) Adolf Eichmann of the Department of Jewish Affairs convened a meeting in Berlin to discuss the implementation of the Final Solution with his various representatives from France, the Netherlands and Belgium. He told them that Himmler had ordered the deportation of large numbers of Jews from the west, but that 90 per cent of these Jews had to be fit and healthy. Only 10 per cent could be ‘not able to work’.6 Specific targets for the number of Jews to be deported were also fixed at the meeting – 10,000 from Belgium, 15,000 from the Netherlands and 100,000 from France. The French figure was obviously the most ambitious and represented a challenge for Eichmann’s representative in Paris, Theodor Dannecker, a twenty-nine-year-old SS Hauptsturmführer (captain).

Dannecker knew that he had to gain the collaboration of the French authorities in order to fulfil his task. There were only around 3,000 German police in the whole of France in 1942, a completely inadequate force to implement the target set by Eichmann – but there were nearly 100,000 French police.7 At a meeting on 2 July 1942 between German and French officials, René Bousquet, the head of the French National Police, outlined the French position. In the occupied zone of France – the area under the administrative control of the Germans – only foreign Jews could be deported. In the unoccupied zone – the area controlled by the Vichy government – the French police would not take part in an attempt to round up any Jews. ‘On the French side we have nothing against the arrests themselves,’ said Bousquet, but the involvement of the French police ‘would be embarrassing’.8 Bousquet altered his position after the head of the German security police, Helmut Knochen, pointed out that Hitler would object strongly to the French attitude. Bousquet now said that the French police would cooperate in both occupied and unoccupied zones, but they would still target only foreign Jews, not French Jews. He subsequently confirmed that Marshal Pétain had agreed to the deportation of the foreign Jews in all parts of France ‘as a first step’.9 There was no agreement with the Germans that the French Jews would somehow be saved at the expense of the foreign Jews – merely a statement by the French authorities that the foreign Jews would be sent first.

image

These are the figures of Jews deported to Auschwitz – the great majority of whom died there. Almost all arrived at Auschwitz Birkenau, though the initial transports in 1942 went to Auschwitz main camp. The figures are taken from Franciszek Piper’s detailed analytical study, Auschwitz: How Many Perished, Oświęcim, Frap Books, 1996, p. 53.

Dr Piper gives an additional figure of 34,000 Jews deported to Auschwitz from concentration camps and ‘unknown places’. It is also important to note that his original figure of 438,000 Jews from Hungary was subsequently revised to 430,000, and a Norwegian Royal Commission gives a more exact estimate for the number of Jews from Norway who died in Auschwitz, rather than were deported, at 747 (see here).

Finally, it should of course always be remembered that Jews were deported by the Nazis to many other camps and destinations, and not just Auschwitz.

On 4 July, the French Prime Minister, Pierre Laval, met with Dannecker to discuss the forthcoming round-up. Laval said that, as far as the French were concerned, ‘during the evacuation of Jewish families from the unoccupied zone, children under sixteen [can] also be taken away.’10 He went on to express indifference for the fate of the children in the occupied zone. Laval thus voluntarily gave up the Jewish children. The Nazis had not asked for them – at this moment, they appeared not to want them. But the Prime Minister of France, a country with a proud history of protecting the rights of the individual, took the initiative and suggested that the Nazis carry away innocent children. Laval later tried to present his actions as a humanitarian act, but that was always an unsustainable excuse, not least because Laval knew that Hitler had publicly committed himself to ‘exterminating’ the Jewish race in Europe in the event of a world war. Laval – just as the Slovaks had been – was almost certainly motivated by simple expediency. If Jewish parents were allowed to leave their children behind after they had been deported, their offspring would become a problem for the French authorities. Laval didn’t want that problem, so he tried to get rid of them. Laval was not even a fanatical anti-Semite. But he was a cynical and cold-hearted politician.

Over two days, 16 and 17 July 1942, some 9,000 French police took part in one of the most infamous actions in the history of Paris – the round-up known as the grande rafle. In the 10th arrondissement, Annette Muller – then just nine years old – remembers the police pushing into her flat and her mother ‘begging them to spare her children, to take her [instead] … I have the vision of my mother being humiliated by the police officer who pushed her. I remember the scene in front of my eyes.’ Annette, her youngest brother Michel and their mother were taken to a hall close by where the French police were temporarily gathering the Jews together. ‘I saw people lying on tables who were having fits,’ says Annette, ‘and others who were vomiting.’11 Her two elder brothers had managed to escape in the chaos – Annette’s mother had encouraged them to run as she was under no illusions as to what might await the family in captivity. Her husband, who was away from the flat that night, was Polish, and had learnt a few months before that many of his close relatives in Poland had been shot by the Germans.

Altogether 12,884 Jews were snatched from their homes by the French police in the course of the grande rafle – nearly 10,000 on the first day of the raid, the rest on the second. Several thousand Jews – including Annette, Michel and their mother – were transported to the Vélodrôme d’Hiver, a cycle stadium on the left bank of the Seine where they were confined in atrocious conditions. Michel, just seven years old at the time, still has memories of the terrible stench of diarrhoea that enveloped the Vélodrôme.

From the Vélodrôme d’Hiver, they were sent to Beaune-la-Rolande, a holding camp in the Loiret, south of Paris. Though the whole experience was frightening, Annette and Michel felt comforted because they were with their mother. ‘She was there,’ says Annette, ‘she was warm. We felt protected. We felt that as long as she was there, nothing could happen to us.’ Nonetheless, Annette worried about ‘what was going to happen to us when we went back to school’ because they might ‘miss the beginning of classes’.

They were held at Beaune-la-Rolande for three weeks. They didn’t know it, but during this time the Nazis were discussing what should be done with the children who had been caught in the round-ups. Dannecker had asked Eichmann for a ruling, and during a telephone call on 20 July Eichmann finally passed on the verdict – the children could be sent east as well, but only once transport complications had been sorted out. The French authorities now decided – instead of waiting until the families could be deported together – to send the parents of the children away first. So much for Laval’s claim that he wanted for humane reasons to deport the children along with their parents.12

Early in August, parents at Beaune-la-Rolande were separated from their children. ‘They brought us together, all of us, in the middle of the camp,’ remembers Annette, ‘and the police very violently beat the women back. The children were holding on to their clothing … there was a lot of screaming, crying, it was really a lot of noise.’ Her last memory of her mother is that ‘she made a sign with her eyes and we watched her. I had the impression that her eyes smiled at us, as if she wanted to say that she was going to come back.’13

The mothers were sent to Drancy in the suburbs of Paris, and a camp that had been established in a half-built housing estate. The majority of the Jews that were deported from France – around 69,000 people – left for the east from Drancy. In 1942 the camp was administered by the French authorities, and conditions were appalling. Not only were sanitation and food wholly inadequate, but this was also a place of emotional despair, especially when the mothers arrived who had been taken from their children. Odette Daltroff-Baticle, an adult who was imprisoned in Drancy that summer, remembers, ‘These women naturally were hurt, because they had to leave their children, and some of them threw themselves out of windows. There was one who was saved because she fell on to barbed wire that went around the courtyard [and so her fall was cushioned]. But some of them did die.’14

After their mother had been snatched away, life at Beaune-la-Rolande became all but unbearable for Annette and her brother. ‘After the departure,’ she says, ‘for a few days I didn’t want to go out of the barracks because I was so sad. I couldn’t stop crying. I stayed sleeping on the straw, and I told myself that it was my fault that my mother left, that I wasn’t nice with her. All those sorts of things that I could reproach myself with … It was a period of constant fear. The Gendarmes had become menacing, threatening, and we needed to stay quiet.’

There was one poignant physical reminder of the mothers who had been separated from the children. ‘All the children had gone to go look at the latrine,’ says Annette, ‘and they had said, “Oh, come look, come look,” because at the bottom of the latrine, mixed with the excrement, there was lots of brilliant, shiny things. It was rings. It was wedding rings that the mothers had preferred to throw into the latrines rather than give up, because they had been told to surrender all their jewellery.’15

After two weeks or so at Beaune-la-Rolande without their mothers, the children were sent to Drancy. By now their mothers had been deported to Auschwitz. At Drancy, Annette and her brother slept on the concrete floor of a half-finished flat and tried ‘not to slip on the stairway because there was so much excrement. We all had diarrhoea.’ Though she remembers that she saw some French police ‘cry’ at the plight of the children, the majority did their work ‘with a lot of zeal’.16

Odette Daltroff-Baticle tried to look after the children as best she could: ‘When they arrived they were in really poor shape. The children were surrounded by insects and they were very, very dirty and had dysentery. We tried to give them showers but we didn’t have anything to dry them with. Then we tried to give them food – these children hadn’t eaten for several days – and we had a hard time giving them any. Furthermore, we tried to make a full list of their names, but many of them didn’t know their family names and so they just said things like, “I’m the little brother of Pierre.” So we persisted in trying to find out their names; the older ones, yes, of course, but for the smaller ones it was absolutely impossible. Their mothers had tied little pieces of wood on them with their names, but a lot of them had taken off the pieces of wood and played with them amongst themselves … The children always spoke about their parents, of course, they spoke about their mother mostly. They spoke about the moment when they had left their mothers, but we felt in everything they said that they knew that they would never see them again, that’s what it seemed to me.’17

In one respect, Michel and Annette were fortunate. Unbeknown to them, their father had been trying to get them released for weeks. Through an intermediary he managed to bribe French officials so that they were transferred from Drancy to a holding centre in Montmartre. Here the security was more lax, and he succeeded in taking them away and hiding them in a Catholic orphanage. Most of the other children held in Drancy had no such saviour working to protect them. They were on their own. Had Michel and Annette’s father not escaped the initial round-up on 16–17 July, they too would almost certainly have been sent on one of the seven trains that left Drancy for Auschwitz in late August, carrying the newly orphaned children to their deaths.

Odette Daltroff-Baticle remembers that before the children left Drancy they endured one last degradation in the camp: ‘they had their heads shaved. It was dreadful. I remember there was a little boy who had relatively long blond hair and he said: “Oh but my mum likes my blond hair so much, we can’t cut it.” But I saw him later and his head was shaven and [he looked] completely hopeless … It was true – he had especially beautiful hair. For the children, particularly the little girls, of ten or twelve years old, when they were shaved it was really a humiliation …’18

There were protests in France about the deportations, most notably from clerics. Archbishop Jules-Géraud Saliège of Toulouse said on 23 August: ‘that children, women and men, fathers and mothers, should be treated like a vile herd of cattle, that members of the same family should be separated from each other and sent to an unknown destination – it was reserved for our time to witness this tragic spectacle.’19 Other leading churchmen, like the Archbishop of Marseilles, also protested. But there was not one word of public support for these sentiments from Pope Pius XII, and the compassionate remonstrations of the French clerics came to nothing.

A total of 42,500 Jews were deported from France to Poland by the end of 1942. Prime Minister Laval gave every sign that he was pleased to see them go. ‘Laval made no mention of any German pressure,’ reported a visiting group of Americans who met him in August 1943, ‘but stated flatly that “these foreign Jews had always been a problem in France and that the French government was glad that a change in German attitude towards them gave France an opportunity to get rid of them.” ’20

The approach of the French authorities to the persecution and deportation of the Jews was in stark contrast to that of their neighbours to the south – the Italians. It comes as a surprise to many people to learn that the Fascist regime under Benito Mussolini did not deport any Italian Jews. Only the removal of Mussolini as Prime Minister of Italy in the summer of 1943, and the subsequent German occupation, changed that situation. Ironically – since Hitler saw Mussolini’s takeover of Italy in 1922 as an inspiration for the Nazi movement – many Italian Jews were also Fascists, with Guido Jung serving as Finance Minister in Mussolini’s cabinet from 1932 until 1935. One of Mussolini’s most intimate companions was also Jewish – Margherita Sarfatti, who was his mistress for almost twenty-five years. Despite this, however, there is still controversy over Mussolini’s own beliefs about Jews during this period, and whether or not he was a committed anti-Semite even at this time.21 What is certain is that whatever his personal views might have been they didn’t stop him working – and sleeping – with Jews.

It wasn’t perhaps surprising that Mussolini’s Fascists tolerated Jewish Italians. Jews had fought alongside Giuseppe Garibaldi – the great Italian hero and an inspiration to Mussolini – in the battle to unite Italy in the second half of the nineteenth century, and in the wake of Garibaldi’s victory official discrimination against Italian Jews had ceased. Italian Jews could now reach the highest positions in the state – for example, in 1902, Giuseppe Ottolenghi became Minister of War and in 1905 Alessandro Fortis became Prime Minister.

It was only after Mussolini had decided to commit to an enduring friendship with Hitler’s Germany in the late 1930s that his regime became openly anti-Semitic. In 1938 a whole raft of legislation was introduced, including provisions to outlaw marriage between Jews and non-Jews and prevent Italian Jews from serving in the armed forces. But these measures were primarily motivated by opportunism rather than by deep anti-Semitic conviction. Though there were undoubtedly some Italian Fascists who were Jew-haters, most Italians found it hard to understand why their Jewish neighbours were suddenly the victims of persecution. Even within the Fascist administration there was considerable flexibility in the application of anti-Semitic legislation. In July 1939, for instance, a commission was established which could ‘Aryanize’ selected Jews – chiefly those who paid large enough bribes.

Italy’s entry into the war in 1940 did not herald a massive upsurge in persecution against Italian Jews, though Italian police began to intern foreign Jews living in the country. In the areas outside Italy occupied by the Italian Army, the policy towards Jews was often relatively benign. In Croatia, for example, where the Italians occupied much of the coastline, the Italian Army protected Jews from the Croat Ustaše, the anti-Semitic militia. In 1942 the Croat government agreed with the Nazis that the remaining Jews left alive in the country could be deported. But the Italians would not relinquish the several thousand Jews who had sought sanctuary in the Italian zone. The Germans asked Mussolini to tell his representatives in Croatia to cooperate. Mussolini said he would try, but still the Italian authorities in Croatia procrastinated and kept coming up with reasons why they could not accede to German demands.22

In November 1942, in response to the Allied landings in North Africa, the Germans occupied the area of France previously under the control of the Vichy government. At the same time the Germans also agreed that the Italians could send their forces into eight French departments in former Vichy territory, near the Mediterranean coast. This led to a direct confrontation between the Italian and French administrators, and in the process revealed their very different attitudes towards the treatment of the Jews. The Italian General Carlo Avarna di Gualtieri told the Vichy authorities that the Italians would seek to govern their area of France with ‘humane legislation’.23 In pursuit of this aim, the Italians frustrated Vichy’s desire to persecute the Jews. For instance, the Italians allowed foreign Jews to carry on living along the coast – Vichy regulations said they should be moved inland – and refused to implement a French demand that the documentation of the Jews should be stamped with an identifying mark. The French authorities did not welcome this more ‘humane’ approach to the ‘Jewish question’. Pierre Laval complained to the Italians about their behaviour and went as far as to ask the German authorities for ‘appropriate support’24 in order to reassert French control.

How can we explain the ‘humanity’ of the Italians in these occupied areas? Partly it was because the Italians wanted to demonstrate that they were equal partners with their German allies. They were not about to be bullied. Unlike the French, the Italians were not a defeated nation forced into an unwanted relationship with the Germans, but subjects of a proudly independent country that had chosen to be an active belligerent. In addition, Italy, unlike France, had not absorbed large numbers of foreign Jews, nor had Italians been educated to hate Jews as the Germans had. The Italians could now protect Jews in the territory they occupied at little risk to themselves. So why not help them? This is not to say, however, that Italian soldiers were saints – one collection of oral testimony from Italian soldiers on the eastern front reveals that on occasion individual soldiers sexually exploited Jewish women.25

At the same time as the Italians were protecting Jews in the areas they controlled, thousands of Dutch Jews were en route to Auschwitz – by the end of 1942 about 40,000 Jews had been sent from the Netherlands to the east. All this was made possible not just because of the continuing cooperation of the Dutch authorities, but as a result of the comprehensive system of registration that the Germans had put in place. In January 1941 all Dutch Jews had been told to register with the authorities and virtually every single one of them had done so – altogether nearly 160,000 registrations.

Unlike in France, the Germans were also able to deal with the Dutch Jews through a single umbrella organization – the Jewish Council. The leaders of the Jewish Council – Dr David Cohen and Abraham Asscher – were later vilified. Many saw their cooperation with the Germans in the deportation process as betrayal. In part this was because the Jewish Council was granted 17,500 exemption certificates by the Germans in 1942 which meant that members of the Council and their families were spared deportation, albeit temporarily. When Cohen and Asscher were themselves eventually deported, they were sent not to the death camps of the east but to concentration camps within the Old Reich and Protectorate, and both survived the war.

At the Berlin meeting on 11 June 1942, Eichmann had originally planned on deporting 15,000 Jews from the Netherlands during the initial series of transports, but by the end of the month he had raised that demand to 40,000. It is possible that Eichmann took that decision because the Nazis found it easier to deport Dutch Jews than they had anticipated. This was in contrast to France, where Dannecker had expressed concern about his ability to meet his quota, as he argued with the Vichy authorities over the deportation of French Jews as opposed to foreign ones.26

On 4 July 1942 the first letters were sent out requiring Dutch Jews to present themselves for mass deportation. At the Jewish Lyceum in Amsterdam, Dr Hemelrijk, one of the teachers, remembers the atmosphere: ‘The shadow of death hung heavily over the first graduation ceremony (it was also the last) at my school. Girls over the age of fifteen had all received orders to report for transportation to [the] Central Station at one a.m. Destination unknown. All the parents knew was that they had to send their daughters out into the night, defenceless prey, never to be seen again. No one was allowed to accompany these children. The girls went, often after heart-rending domestic scenes, in the hope that by doing so they were sparing their parents. Not that they did.’27

No one on the Jewish Council, or within the Jewish community as a whole, knew for certain what was going to happen to these girls or to the thousands of other Jews about to be sent to a ‘destination unknown’. But within days of the deportations beginning rumours started to circulate. The underground newspaper De Waarheid printed a plea to Dutch policemen on 3 August, saying ‘think of your human and professional duty – arrest no Jews and only make a show of carrying out orders directed against them. Let them escape and go into hiding. Remember that every man, every woman and every child you arrest will be killed and that you are their murderer.’28 On 29 July, Radio Orange, broadcasting from London, had said: ‘Just how does it help the German war effort to herd together thousands of defenceless Jewish Poles and do away with them in gas-chambers? How does it help the war effort when thousands of Jewish Dutchmen are dragged out of their country?’29

The reference to ‘gas-chambers’ demonstrates that even this early in the deportation process there was some public knowledge of what was happening to the Jews. In London, on 9 July, at a press conference held by the Polish government-in-exile and attended by Brendan Bracken, the British Minister of Information, journalists had been briefed that the Germans were ‘deliberately carrying out their monstrous plan to exterminate Jews’ in Poland.30 But the Allies were still uncertain about the Germans’ broader intentions – did they, for instance, just want to kill Polish Jews? Were the Dutch and other European Jews perhaps genuinely to be used as forced labour?

The first firm warning that Hitler had an overall plan of extermination came in August 1942 from Gerhart Riegner of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva. With access to intelligence from German sources in central Europe, Riegner concluded that ‘a plan has been discussed, and is under consideration, according to which all Jews in countries occupied or controlled by Germany, numbering three and a half to four millions, should, after deportation and concentration in the East, be at one blow exterminated, in order to resolve once and for all the Jewish question in Europe. Action is reported to be planned for the autumn. Ways of execution are still being discussed including the use of prussic acid. We transmit this information with all necessary reservation, as exactitude cannot be confirmed by us.’31

When the leaders of the World Jewish Congress in New York received this news, they did not ‘doubt that the information is at least substantially correct’ but were concerned that publishing the information might ‘have a demoralizing effect on those who are marked as hopeless victims’. As a consequence, they sought ‘the best advice possible’ about what to do.32 Riegner’s telegram reached the British government by the middle of August and the American government shortly afterwards. To begin with, there was disbelief. It took the best part of four months for the Allies to accept that the news was undoubtedly true, and to make a concerted statement to the world about the Nazis’ actions. Only after they had received information from other sources – including an eyewitness account of the Warsaw ghetto – did they commit to condemning the crime in a concerted way.33

On 17 December 1942 the British, Americans and Soviets all issued statements expressing outrage at the Nazis’ murderous attack on the Jews. In the House of Commons, Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary, drew attention to ‘numerous reports from Europe that the German authorities, not content with 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 oft 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 … None of those taken away are ever heard of again.’ Eden said that the Allies ‘condemn in the strongest possible terms this bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination’ and that they would ‘ensure that those responsible for these crimes shall not escape retribution …’34

Months before Anthony Eden stood up in the House of Commons and revealed what was known about the Nazis’ plans, Gerhart Riegner and his colleagues had personally brought intelligence about the destruction of the Jews to the papal nuncio in Switzerland, Monsignor Philippe Bernardini. ‘We said, please ask the Vatican to intervene,’ says Riegner, ‘to preserve, at least in those countries [where it was still possible], what could still be preserved of the Jewish community.’35 He remembers that the reply from the Vatican was ‘wishy-washy’ and that ‘the attempt to involve the Vatican was a failure.’ Pope Pius XII still refused publicly to condemn the extermination of the Jews – though in his Christmas message of 1942 he did speak of those ‘who through no fault of their own and sometimes only on grounds of nationality or race, are destined for death or slow deterioration’.36 But he was not prepared to say the word ‘Jews’.

Those who seek to defend the inaction of Pope Pius XII often point to events in the Netherlands in the summer of 1942 as one of the key reasons for his silence. When the Nazis had learnt that Archbishop Johannes de Jong of Utrecht planned to condemn the deportation of the Jews, they warned him that if he did so they would also deport Jews in the Netherlands who had converted to Christianity. Archbishop de Jong stood firm in the face of this blackmail, and on 20 July 1942 his pastoral letter was read from pulpits across the country. The letter referred directly to the ‘persecution of the Jews’ and included the words of a telegram that had been sent to the ‘authorities of the occupying forces’ nine days before, which said that ‘The undersigned Dutch churches’ were ‘already deeply shocked by the actions taken against the Jews in the Netherlands that have excluded them from participating in the normal life of society’, and had now ‘learned with horror of the new measures by which men, women, children, and whole families will be deported to the German territory and its dependencies’. This action was ‘contrary to the deepest moral sense of the Dutch people’, and so the churches urged the Germans ‘not to execute these measures’.37

Not surprisingly, the ‘occupying authorities’ ignored the churches’ plea that they should act with common humanity towards the Dutch Jews. Not only that, the Nazis carried out their threat to deport Jews in the Netherlands who had converted to Christianity. No exact figures exist for how many were sent east as a result – it might have been several hundred,38 though it could have been no higher than ninety-two.39 Whatever the precise figure, it is argued that a number of people lost their lives as a consequence of Archbishop de Jong’s decision to have his letter of protest read in Dutch churches. This was a key reason, it is said, why Pope Pius XII kept quiet. ‘The persecution of the Jews in Holland had an enormous effect on the line that Pius XII subsequently took,’ says Archbishop Emanuele Clarizio, who worked in the Vatican during the war. ‘That’s obvious.’ Moreover, says Archbishop Gennaro Verolino, who was a papal diplomat at the time, the Pope ‘tried everything that he could. And if sometimes it seems he didn’t go all the way, it’s because he was afraid of making the situation worse. That his actions would be misinterpreted and lead to worse reprisals.’40

At first sight this appears a powerful justification – it was necessary to keep silent or there might have been more deaths. But it is crucial to remember that Archbishop de Jong was not responsible for the death of the Jewish converts – the Nazis were. They chose to kill them, not him. What Archbishop de Jong must surely have understood was that once you ignored your own feelings about what was right and wrong, your feet rested on quicksand. In any case, who was to say that the Nazis would ever have kept their promise not to deport the Dutch converts even if Archbishop de Jong had kept quiet?41 More than that, suppose the Nazis had said they would kill an innocent child every day unless Archbishop de Jong publicly renounced his entire faith? Would he then be worthy of condemnation if he had decided to stay true to his beliefs?

Similarly, a common excuse from bureaucrats who collaborated with the Nazis was that they ‘sought to change the system from within’ and that if they had been replaced the situation would have been ‘even worse’. After the war, for instance, Dutch civil servants could point to a number of Nazi measures that were watered down as a result of their involvement. Except that a close examination of the evidence reveals that this excuse lacks validity. That is because the Nazi Reichskommissar’s practice was to make deliberately excessive demands, so as to allow the civil servants to think that they had accomplished something when he subsequently reduced his requests to the level he had intended all along. By this simple trick the Nazi leadership helped ensure the administrative cooperation of the civil servants.42

As for the Pope, he did not just stay silent about the deportation of the Jews, he did not even publicly express outrage at the atrocities the Nazis were committing against Catholic Poles. ‘We all expected something – a word,’ says Witold Złotnicki, who fought with the Polish Home Army. ‘Some acknowledgement of what we were going through. Some word of sympathy. Some word of hope. But not total silence.’43

The Pope, and the Catholic Church as a whole, possessed enormous latent power – particularly in Slovakia. The President of Slovakia, Jozef Tiso, was an ordained Catholic priest and large numbers of the Hlinka Guard were Catholics. At the time of the initial deportations in the spring of 1942, leaders of the Jewish community in Slovakia pleaded with the Catholic Church to protest about the expulsion of the Jews. But they were dismayed by the response. The priority for the church as a whole appeared to be to try and save Jews who had been baptized as Christians.

Some individual churchmen, like Augustín Pozdech, a parish priest in Bratislava, did protest at the inhumanity of the deportation process. His outrage at the actions of the Slovak government and the Nazis was transmitted to the Vatican via the papal nuncio in Budapest. ‘I am distressed to the depth of my heart’, wrote Pozdech, ‘that human beings whose only fault is that they were born Jews should be robbed of all their possessions and should be banished – stripped of the last vestiges of their personal freedom – to a foreign country … It is impossible that the world should passively watch small infants, mortally sick old people, young girls torn away from their families and young people deported like animals: transported in cattle wagons towards an unknown place of destination, towards an uncertain future.’44 But Pozdech was an exception. The bulk of the Catholics in Slovakia made no protest against the deportation of the Jews in 1942.

One of the Pope’s closest aides in the Vatican, Monsignor Domenico Tardini, recognized the problem the church faced in not acting against President Tiso. ‘Everyone understands that the Holy See cannot stop Hitler,’ he wrote in March 1942. ‘But who can understand that it does not know how to rein in a priest [i.e. Jozef Tiso, President of Slovakia]?’45 As for the Pope, he was worried that the Soviet Union might triumph in this war, and was afraid of what the consequences of a Communist-dominated Europe would be for the Catholic Church. In such circumstances, in spring 1942, he might well have doubted the value of publicly breaking Tiso, a Catholic head of state who was confronting the Godless armies of Stalin.

Preaching at a Mass in August 1942, President Tiso said that it had been a Christian act to expel the Jewish ‘pests’. He also followed the Nazi line and declared that it was impossible for Jews to be converted into Christians – ‘a Jew remains a Jew,’ said Tiso, ‘even if he is baptized by a hundred bishops.’46 Yet just two months later Tiso suspended the deportations. It is not clear exactly why he did this. One likely answer is that he thought Slovakia had deported the agreed number of Jews and the deal with Germany had been fulfilled.47 It is also possible that he was responding both to foreign protests and to the increased knowledge in the world that the majority of Jews had been sent to their deaths. Even at his trial after the war, however, Tiso never claimed that he had stopped the deportations out of any sense of common humanity with the Jews.

By October, when the deportations ceased, around 58,000 Jews had been handed over to the Germans, leaving 24,000 in Slovakia. These remaining Jews were not yet safe, since – as we shall see – in 1944 the situation in Slovakia changed and the deportations started again.

The temptation to stray into counter-factual history is overwhelming at this point. What if the Pope had personally taken action against Tiso once the deportations began in the spring of 1942? As a Catholic priest, Tiso was especially vulnerable. Suppose Pius XII had threatened to excommunicate him – would not that have made Tiso think again? There was a precedent for excommunication during the war. Léon Degrelle, the leader of the Rexists in Belgium, was excommunicated in the summer of 1943 for wearing his SS uniform to Mass. Tiso’s crimes were surely greater, and though by the end of the war he had been heavily criticized by the Vatican, he remained a Catholic priest until his dying breath. He was still dressed as a priest while in prison awaiting execution for treason in April 1947.

The Jews languishing in the Warsaw ghetto were also aware that the Pope had the powerful weapon of excommunication at his disposal. We know this as the result of the experiences of an exceptional man called Jan Karski. He was a member of the Polish resistance, who was smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto in 1942 because he wanted to witness first hand the horrific conditions. ‘I saw terrible things,’ he says, ‘I saw horrible things. I saw dead bodies lying on the street. We were walking the streets, [and] my guide said from time to time, “Remember.” And I did remember.’ Karski met two Jewish leaders inside the ghetto who said they had a request directed at the Pope. They said to him, ‘ “But we don’t know how one does talk to your Pope, we are Jews. But we understand, however, that your Pope has a power to open and close the gates of heaven. Let them close those gates for all of those who persecute us. He [the Pope] doesn’t have to say that this concerns [all] the Germans. Only those who persecute and murder the Jews. [That] they may be subjects for automatic excommunication. Perhaps it will help. Perhaps even Hitler will reflect. Who knows? Perhaps some Catholic Germans will reflect and exercise some pressure. In the name of our common roots. We come from the same roots … Will you do it?” I said “I will do it, sir.” And I did it.’48 After witnessing the atrocious conditions inside the Warsaw ghetto, Karski managed to escape from Poland and cross occupied Europe. By the end of 1942 he had reached Britain and spoke personally with Anthony Eden. He also tried to influence the Vatican to speak out more strongly against the Nazis. But he feels that ‘nothing important happened as a result of my mission. It didn’t do any good.’

As the Nazis widened their search for Jews in the summer of 1942, their attention turned to Belgium. At Eichmann’s infamous meeting on 11 June, a quota of 10,000 Jews from Belgium had been set, and the first train filled with Jews left the country on 4 August. Queen Elisabeth of Belgium had asked the German authorities to exclude Belgian Jews from the deportations, and at least to begin with this request was met. But agreeing to the wishes of Queen Elisabeth was not difficult for the Nazis as 90 per cent of the 52,000 or so Jews in the country were not Belgian citizens.49

The deportation process was not as straightforward for the Nazis in Belgium as it was in the Netherlands. This was partly because of conflict between the military administration and the SS, but also because many of the non-Belgian Jews – having already fled from elsewhere to escape the Nazis – had no reason to trust the Germans when they announced that they wanted the Jews to work as forced labour in the east. Hard as it was to find a place to hide in a foreign country, for a number of the non-Belgian Jews that struggle was preferable to putting their fate back in the hands of their persecutors. The Nazis also faced a tough administrative task in Belgium, because unlike in the Netherlands there was not a fully functioning and cooperative civil service. Despite this, the initial quota of 10,000 Jews was reached by the middle of September 1942, and by the end of the year the Nazis had sent nearly 17,000 to the east.

In the autumn of 1942 the Germans also ordered the deportation of Jews from Norway, and Vidkun Quisling and the Norwegian police collaborated in the practicalities of their arrest.50 In December 1942, Quisling said in a speech that his administration had ‘protected itself against the Jews’ by cooperating with the Nazis.51 Not only that, but the Norwegian authorities benefited financially from the deportations. At the end of October 1942, Quisling signed a law that allowed the Norwegian state to seize Jewish property and assets.

On 26 November, the merchant ship Donau left Oslo for Stettin in the Baltic with 532 Jews on board. Eventually, after further deportations, a total of 747 Norwegian Jews were murdered in Auschwitz. But the majority of the 2,000 Norwegian Jews managed to escape the Nazis, most by fleeing across the border to neutral Sweden.52

The Nazis knew that they had to adapt their demands not only according to the individual circumstances of each country, but also according to whether they were dealing with their allies or with conquered nations. While they could decide themselves to deport the Jews of Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium – although to do so they still needed the assistance of the individual administrations – it was more difficult to act as decisively with countries like Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Croatia, which were treated not as conquered nations but as junior partners in an alliance.

One of the most intriguing examples of how the Nazis trod carefully with their allies is the case of Bulgaria. There were around 50,000 Jews living in Bulgaria – less than 1 per cent of the population. While there had been riots directed against the Jews early in the twentieth century and there were still staunch anti-Semites within the Bulgarian government, the country lacked the virulent anti-Semitism that existed, for example, in Slovakia. The regime signed up to the Axis in March 1941 only after Hitler had agreed that they could gain back territory lost to Romania in the First World War. The Bulgarians acquired more territory in April 1941, when they participated with the Germans in the invasion of Greece. Now Thrace and Macedonia became part of a ‘Greater Bulgaria’.

The Bulgarians demonstrated their independence by refusing to participate in the war against the Soviet Union, a decision arising from Bulgaria’s long historical association with Russia. However, the Bulgarian government was much more accommodating on the question of the Jews. In January 1941 the Bulgarians enacted a Law for the Protection of the Nation, which contained a host of anti-Semitic measures – such as banning marriages between Jewish and non-Jewish Bulgarians and excluding Jews from jobs in the civil service. But it wasn’t until March 1943, as we shall see, that the first Jews were deported to their deaths from Bulgarian-occupied territory.

Circumstances were very different in Croatia, another Balkan nation, to the west of Bulgaria. Here, astonishingly, members of the SS were shocked by the level of brutality displayed by the Croat militia, the Ustaše – not towards the Jews, but towards the Serbs. The head of the Security Police and SD in Croatia reported to Himmler in February 1942 that Ustaše units had committed atrocities against ‘defenceless old men, women and children, in a beastly manner’.53 The primitive way the Croats were killing their enemies seems to have had a particular effect on the Germans. Another SS security service report described how the Ustaše had stabbed farmers with ‘spear-like sticks’.54 As far back as July 1941, the German ambassador to Croatia had brought the attention of the Croatian authorities to the numerous ‘acts of terror’ committed against the Serbs which gave ‘rise to serious concerns’.55 At the Nuremberg war trials in 1946, Alfred Jodl, Chief of the Wehrmacht Operations Staff, said that he had been aware of the ‘unimaginable atrocities’ committed by one particular Ustaše company in June 1942. The war diary of the Wehrmacht Operations Staff confirmed that the actions of this one Ustaše unit had been thought so appalling that the German Army field police had moved in and disarmed them.56

However, the Nazis did not seem to object to the atrocities committed by the Ustaše against the Jews. During 1942 the majority of the 40,000 Jews in Croatia were imprisoned in concentration camps within the country – most in the infamous camp at Jasenovac. The Germans now asked the Croatians to deport the surviving Jews and on 13 August the first transport left for Auschwitz.

Notwithstanding the immense brutality of the Croat Ustaše, the SS could never implement the Final Solution as they wished in Croatia. The fundamental problem for the Nazis, as we have already seen, was the relationship between a number of Croat leaders and individual Jews. As the German police attaché to Croatia, SS Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel) Helm, put it in a report April 1944, ‘to a great extent the Croatian leadership is related to Jews by marriage.’ The ability of the Croatian leadership to declare individual Jews ‘Honorary Aryans’ meant that it was impossible ever to declare the ‘Jewish question’ in Croatia entirely ‘settled’. As long as Croatia remained an ally, there was little that the Nazis could easily do about this other than, as SS Obersturmbannführer Helm suggested, attempt to ‘persuade’ the Croatian government to ‘eliminate itself those Jews who are still in public positions’ and ‘apply a more severe standard in granting the rights of Honorary Aryans’.57

The Germans also had issues with the Hungarians’ attitude to the Jews, even though the authorities had already intensified anti-Semitic persecution. As far back as August 1941 the Hungarians had expelled around 17,000 Jews who did not have Hungarian citizenship, sending them into the maelstrom in the east where almost all of them were murdered by Einsatzgruppen and SS units at Kamenets-Podolsk in western Ukraine. The Hungarians also presided over a brutal occupation of territory in Yugoslavia, and in January 1942 massacred hundreds of Jews at Novi Sad in Serbia. In addition, they forced many Hungarian Jews to serve in Labour Service Battalions where their fate depended on the whim of the commander of their unit. According to one report, a number of Jews in one labour unit were hosed down with cold water in winter so that they resembled ‘ice statues’.58 Another Hungarian officer decided to execute his unit en masse. Ninety-six were killed, thirty murdered by the officer himself. One estimate is that more than 30,000 Hungarian Jews never returned from the eastern front.

However, the Hungarian government were still not willing to deport all of the Jews within the country and the neighbouring territories under Hungary’s control – a total of more than 750,000. Admiral Horthy, Hungarian Regent and head of state, was a sophisticated politician, and he balanced the need to be friendly to his German ally with the discontent that had followed from the disappearance of the Jews who had been handed over by the Hungarians to the Germans in 1941 and murdered at Kamenets-Podolsk. In March 1942 Horthy replaced the anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi Prime Minister, László Bárdossy, with the much more pragmatic figure of Miklós Kállay. Horthy had decided to play a long game, waiting to see how the war developed. He understood that it wasn’t necessarily in Hungary’s interests to hand over large numbers of Jews to the Nazis. After all, he must have thought, suppose the Allies won. What retribution might follow?

Hungary’s actions, while disappointing for the Nazis, were not too surprising since Admiral Horthy never hid his pragmatic attitude. What was more unexpected was the behaviour of Romania. The Romanian government had previously demonstrated an enormous commitment to killing Jews. Romanian troops, working alongside Einsatzgruppen, had murdered 160,000 Jews in Ukraine in the wake of the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union, and the Romanian authorities had deported 135,000 Jews from eastern Romania to Transnistria where around 90,000 died in camps.59

In the summer of 1942 it appeared that the Romanians would cooperate with the Germans and expel Jews from the Romanian heartland. On 8 August 1942, the Bukarester Tagblatt, a newspaper published in Romania by the German embassy, announced that preparations were being made to clear Romania ‘definitively’ of Jews.60 Shortly afterwards the Völkischer Beobachter confirmed the news, saying that ‘in the course of the next year, Romania will be completely purged of Jews.’61 But then the discussions about the deportations started to unravel.

Marshal Antonescu prevaricated. He did not say that he was no longer prepared to deport the remaining Jews in Romania, but nor did he commit to an exact date when the deportations would start. He was dithering for a combination of reasons. Information, as we have seen, was reaching the world about the fate of the Jews. This meant that any head of state that handed over Jews to the Germans would now find it hard to plead ignorance at the end of the war. Not that this would matter for the Romanians if the Germans won, but that outcome did not seem certain. Despite the gains that the Wehrmacht were making as they advanced towards the River Volga and the mountains of the Caucasus, the entry of America into the war had caused many of those who had allied themselves to the Germans to reassess what the future might bring. Even some within the German leadership were voicing doubts. In September 1942, for instance, General Friedrich Fromm, who was in charge of the supply of armaments to the German Army, sent a report to Hitler which called for him to negotiate with the Allies and stop the war. Germany, in Fromm’s view, simply could not compete with the firepower now at the disposal of the Allies.62

There was also an increasing lack of trust between the Romanians and the Germans. The Romanian government were upset by the perceived lack of respect shown to Radu Lecca, the Romanian Commissioner for Jewish Affairs, when he visited Berlin in the summer of 1942. At the same time, Gustav Richter, Eichmann’s agent in Bucharest, reported that he thought some Romanian politicians were accepting bribes from Jews.63 Antonescu was also lobbied by pressure groups within Romania about the fate of the Jews, particularly Archbishop Andrea Cassulo, the papal nuncio in Bucharest. Antonescu, like Admiral Horthy, was making a pragmatic political decision in the summer of 1942. He wasn’t suddenly ashamed about the quarter of a million Jews that he had condemned to death the previous year. He was just responding to changing circumstances.

Hitler behaved very differently. He was more intransigent than ever, and gave free rein to his fanaticism in a speech on 30 September 1942. He called the Jews the ‘wire-pullers of this insane man in the White House [i.e. Roosevelt]’, and said, ominously, ‘The Jews once laughed about my prophecies in Germany. I do not know whether they are still laughing today or whether they no longer feel like laughing. Today, too, I can assure you of one thing: they will soon not feel like laughing anymore anywhere.’64 Many of his followers were just as belligerent. In October 1942, shortly after General Fromm had submitted his memorandum to Hitler saying that Germany was heading for catastrophe, Robert Ley, head of the German Labour Front (the Nazi trade union organization), said at a meeting in Essen in Germany, ‘We have burnt all bridges behind us, intentionally we have. We have virtually solved the Jewish question in Germany. That alone is something incredible.’65 And that same month Göring declared in a speech in Berlin, ‘May the German Volk realize one thing: how necessary this fight has become! The terrible situation in which we lived [previously] was unbearable.’66

 There was now a divergence between those who believed there might be a chance of exiting the war before absolute defeat, and those who understood that they had ‘burnt all bridges’ and would keep fighting until the end. These fanatics would continue to murder Jews out of conviction – almost regardless of the consequences. Setbacks on the battlefield would never divert them from their course. Indeed, as time went on, many of these same ideologues would feel their resolve to kill the Jews harden as military difficulties increased. For the war against the Jews, they felt, was one fight they could win.

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