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After years in the making, the World Jewish Congress (WJC) was founded in 1936. It was conceived as an international association of Jewish organizations from around the world with an elected representative body and committees to address various issues facing Jews. When it was founded, the organization was headquartered in Paris, but it moved to Geneva following the outbreak of the war. When much of Western Europe was overrun by Nazi Germany in 1940, although Switzerland itself was not occupied, the organization's headquarters relocated to New York. During the war, the organization also operated offices in London and Buenos Aires while maintaining their offices in New York and Geneva, which proved to be WJC's most important wartime location.1
The goals of the organization included fighting the rising tide of antisemitism, protecting Jewish minority rights in Europe, providing humanitarian and other aid to Jewish communities at risk, rallying international support for a Jewish state, and ensuring a future for the Jewish people. The official Jewish organization in Nazi Germany (the Reichsvertretung der Juden in Deutschland) refused to be part of WJC. This was an understandable position, since the Reichsvertretung was under strict Nazi control. Additionally, its membership in the WJC would have been seen by the Nazi regime as lending credence to the central antisemitic plank of Nazi propaganda that international Jewry was running world affairs, and that this international conspiracy was aimed at destroying Germany. Nevertheless, official at the Reichsvertretung and its successor organization (Reichsvereinigung) maintained direct and indirect contacts with the WJC well into the war.
During the war, the WJC Geneva office became the most important field office of the entire organization. Switzerland was surrounded by the two European Axis powers and its ally—Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Vichy France. The strategic and precarious location of the Geneva office, and its proximity to central and eastern Europe allowed it to maintain unofficial contacts with individuals in the areas where the persecution and murder of the Jews was taking place. Collecting information from various sources, the WJC Geneva office was one of the first organizations that alerted Western governments to the systematic nature of the German genocide against the Jews in Europe. Relying on data provided by a German informant, Gerhart Riegner, the head of the WJC Geneva office, sent a telegram to British and American governments on August 8, 1942, informing them that the Germans were formulating a plan to exterminate European Jewry.2
The memorandum below summarizes the information about the systemic nature of German destruction of European Jews that the office compiled by October, some two months after initially alerting London and Washington. It was a joint memo written by Gerhart Riegner of WJC and Richard Lichtheim of the Jewish Agency,3 which also had an office in Geneva, for submission, together with other reports, to the U.S. envoy in Berne, Leland Harrison. Riegner and Lichtheim had a meeting with Harrison that same day.4
This document is an internal note and though its numbers are not entirely correct in retrospect, they are not far off. Given that information was compiled clandestinely and informally, this was an important achievement, and an indication of the crucial relevance of fact-gathering as a prerequisite for action on the part of Jewish organizations.
For an old, but still the only history of WJC, see an official publication by the organization: George Garai, ed., Forty Years in Action: A Record of the World Jewish Congress, 1936-1976 (Geneva: World Jewish Congress, 1976). See also a memoir of the wartime Geneva WJC office head, later a long-term WJC secretary-general: Gerhart Riegner, Never Despair: Sixty Years in the Service of the Jewish People and of Human Rights (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006).
On the Riegner telegram see Riegner, Never Despair. See also Walter Laqueur and Richard Breitman, Breaking the Silence: The German Who Exposed the Final Solution (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England for Brandeis University Press, 1994).
The Jewish Agency for Palestine was a Zionist-dominated political body in British Palestine that represented the Jewish population in Palestine. It was, in effect, a proto-government of the Jewish population in Palestine. After the proclamation of Israel's statehood in 1948, it was renamed the Jewish Agency for Israel, and is today one of the main Israeli institutions in charge of Jewish immigration to Israel. Richard Lichtheim was the wartime head of the Jewish Agency office in Geneva.
See the document in USHMMA RG 68.127, CZA L22/140, 113-37.
Courtesy of The Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem
October 22, 1942
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World Jewish Congress
Prague, Czechoslovakia (historical)
Prague, Czech Republic