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After years in the making, the World Jewish Congress (WJC) was founded in 1936. The WJC was conceived as an international association of Jewish organizations from around the world. It had 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 World War II. When much of western Europe was overrun by German forces in 1940, 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.1
The goals of the WJC included fighting the rising tide of antisemitism, protecting Jewish minority rights in Europe, providing humanitarian aid to Jewish communities at risk, and rallying international support for a Jewish state. The officially sanctioned central Jewish organization in Nazi Germany (the Reichsvertretung der Juden in Deutschland) was not a part of WJC. This is unsurprising, since the Reichsvertretung was under strict Nazi control. Nevertheless, officials at the Reichsvertretung and its successor organization (Reichsvereinigung) maintained contacts with the WJC well into the war.
During the war, the WJC's Geneva office became the most important field office of the entire organization. Switzerland was surrounded geographically by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Vichy France. The Geneva office was in a strategic location for the WJC. Geneva's proximity to central and eastern Europe allowed the office to keep in contact with individuals in the areas where the persecution and murder of the Jews was taking place. Because it was in a position to collect information from many different sources, the WJC's Geneva office was one of the first to alert Western governments to the systematic nature of the German genocide against the Jews in Europe. On August 8, 1942 Gerhart Riegner—the head of the WJC's Geneva office—sent a telegram to the British and American governments informing them that German authorities were planning to murder all European Jews.2
The featured memorandum was written about two months after the Geneva office first alerted London and Washington. It summarizes the information that the office had compiled by October, 1942. This joint memo was written by Gerhart Riegner of the WJC and Richard Lichtheim of the Jewish Agency,3 which also had an office in Geneva. It was drafted to submit to Leland Harrison—the US envoy in Bern—along with other reports. Riegner and Lichtheim had a meeting with Harrison that same day.4
This document was not created for publication. Although we know now that its numbers were not entirely correct, they are remarkably accurate considering that the information was gathered secretly and informally. This was an important achievement showing how Jewish organizations successfully gathered information to establish the facts and spread knowledge of the mass murder of European Jews during the Holocaust.
For a history of the WJC, see George Garai, ed., Forty Years in Action: A Record of the World Jewish Congress, 1936-1976 (Geneva: World Jewish Congress, 1976); and 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
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