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Shoah Outtake with Maurice Rossel

Rossel_I_2
Created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of "Shoah," used by permission of USHMM and Yad Vashem

During World War II, Dr. Maurice Rossel and his colleagues in the International Red Cross were responsible for monitoring the condition of Allied prisoners-of-war held by Nazi Germany.1 The regime refused access to the Nazi camp system, however, arguing that concentration camp inmates and forced laborers did not have the same rights under international law as captured enemy combatants.2 The International Red Cross received information about the brutal treatment and mass murder of these prisoners during the war, but it did not want to jeopardize its neutral status by publicly protesting or pushing more forcefully for access to the Nazi camp system.3

The Nazi regime staged and closely monitored the very few visits to concentration camps allowed for Red Cross representatives. On the morning of June 23, 1944, Rossel and two Danish representatives arrived at Theresienstadt for such a tour.4 Nazi authorities had made elaborate preparations for the visit, which included painting buildings, paving streets, creating a makeshift synagogue, and establishing a ghetto orchestra.5 The SS and police also deported thousands of people to Auschwitz in order to reduce Theresienstadt's obviously overcrowded appearance. Throughout the day, the foreign observers were accompanied by representatives of the SS and a doctor with the German Red Cross.

In the featured video excerpt, Rossel describes his impressions of Theresienstadt and defends the positive report he made of his tour. Although he says elsewhere that Nazi racism offended his "Swiss way of thinking," Rossel repeatedly uses antisemitic stereotypes as he blames the imprisoned Jews for fooling him. Rossel says he "couldn't stomach" the "servility" of those "very rich Jews" who did not alert him to the Nazis' deception. He also expresses disgust for those whom the Nazis forced to form Jewish councils in the ghettos: "that's where mankind sinks to its lowest level," he claims.

Did Rossel absorb these antisemitic stereotypes during his years living in Nazi Germany, or did he develop these prejudices elsewhere? How did Rossel use these stereotypes to rationalize his role in the Nazis' efforts to cover their crimes?

Rossel admits that he had trouble living with his part spreading the false narrative about Theresienstadt. He explains that "it is not possible to live constantly with the horror" of such things, and so "a sane part" of his brain decided to erase these memories in order for him to lead a normal, daily life after the war.

In the outtakes of the groundbreaking 1979 Holocaust documentary, Shoah, Rossel admits that he did not join the International Red Cross in 1942 "out of any crusading spirit, or because of any missionary drive." His motivation, he says, was simply to escape the boredom of the Swiss army. "I'd do anything to avoid that idiotic job," Rossel recalls. He contacted an old college friend working for the International Red Cross in Nazi Germany, and four days later the 25-year-old Swiss physician arrived at his new post in Berlin. 

 

The Nazi regime also did not permit Red Cross inspections of Soviet POWs, however, arguing that the Soviet Union had not signed the 1929 revisions to the Geneva Convention and therefore had no rights to its protections.

For more on the controversial record of the International Red Cross during the Holocaust, see Gerald Steinacher, Humanitarians at War: The Red Cross in the Shadow of the Holocaust (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); Jean-Claude Favez, The Red Cross and the Holocaust (Cambridge University Press, 1999); Aimé Bonifas, "A 'Paradisical' Ghetto of Theresienstadt: The Impossible Mission of the International Committee of the Red Cross," Journal of Church and State, 34:4 (Fall 1992): 805–18; Naomi Baumslag, "The Red Cross Fails Its Humanitarian Mission," in Murderous Medicine: Nazi Doctors, Human Experimentation, and Typhus (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005), 169–200; and Irvin Molotsky, "Red Cross Admits Knowing of the Holocaust during the War," New York Times, December 19, 1996, B17.

This visit was the result of extensive pressure from Denmark following the deportation of Danish Jews to Theresienstadt. In addition to Rossel, the foreign visitors included Danish Foreign Office representative Frants Hvass and Danish Red Cross representative Dr. Juel Henningsen. For more on their tour, see Theresienstadt: Red Cross Visit.

In the months following the 1944 Red Cross visit, Nazi authorities also commissioned a propaganda film to depict Theriesenstadt as an idyllic example of life in Nazi camps for Europe's Jews. 

Often associated with oppressive regimes hiding the truth, a Potemkin village is any false portrayal of conditions to deceive visitors into believing that conditions are better than they actually are.

Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban was a French military engineer known for constructing fortifications for King Louis XIV, including citadels and walled cities.

C.I.C.R. is the abbreviation of Comité Internationale de la Croix Rouge, or the Committee of the International Red Cross.

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MR: This visit... I was... ordered to go and see what they would show me. I made a report which I don't deny and which I maintain to be absolutely valid. As I was sent there, I was the eyes, I had to see, and I had, if you want, to try to see beyond, if there was something beyond to see. It is said that Theresienstadt was a Potemkin1 camp, you understand, which was... a well arranged camp, and for the visit of the Tsarina. It was perhaps even worse than that, it was an obviously arranged visit. 

CL: It was on June 23, 1944. 

MR: 44, thanks for saying it. I would not have been able to give you that date. It was an arranged visit. This was something that one could consider as a piece of theater but: one thing has to be made very clear. You asked me what the impression was, what was the atmosphere in Berlin, "what was the atmosphere when you went to Auschwitz?" Well, here you had the impression of a fake atmosphere. First of all, because the visit was ordered, because it was expected; as always in the middle of a war, when something is expected, there is a set-up, but, for me which bothered me right away, was also the attitude of the Jewish actors. It was a Potemkin camp, a trick camp and... I must excuse myself being frank, because it is now...

CL: It has to be. 

MR: At that age, if one does not say what one feels.... 

CL: Absolutely.

MR: This was a camp that was reserved for the privileged ones. It is awful to say that, because, my God...and then I cannot accuse anyone, I cannot, I don't want to, you understand, bless people who suffered horribly. But, unfortunately, there were "prominents" and this camp gave the impression that very wealthy Jews had been put there, or.... those who were important in their small towns, whom you just could not make disappear too brusquely. There were a number of notables there which .... which was totally abnormal, compared with the... the other camps, even those for prisoners. I don't know how many doctors were there, there were notables at every street corner and... the attitude of these people was very curious too, because... for a man whose job it is, for months, to visit prisoner camps, is used to seeing a certain type that winks at him, who attracts his attention on a certain matter, it is obvious, you understand? Well, there, nothing, nothing. A docility, a passivity… Which appeared to me.... created even worse malaise. If, today, I have to go deep into my thinking, it was that this camp was not only for a visit... certainly ... prepared by the SS, on which it was possible to make a report stating: "I have seen this, I have seen that, I have photographed such a thing." By the way, I could photograph anything I wanted. Thus I brought back many photos... at times, it is said, a photo says more than a thousand words. Well, I took many pictures, but the climate was staged by that impression of these Jews who considered even themselves, you understand, to be "prominent people" like, it is the word which was very much en vogue at that time, like privileged people and who had no desire to risk to be deported because they had permitted themselves an illusion or a remark, or passing a piece of paper or a report, which would have been easy, sir, because we were not spied upon, nor filmed, there were none of the means available that are today to follow someone. But there, passing through small passages which one does when going through a city, when going into a room, if, you understand, someone had wanted to put something into a pocket, be it of the two other men or myself, it would have been extremely easy.

CL: How long... I understand very well what you said, but, this, this, this is a very important point. How long was you visit to Theresienstadt? 

MR: My visit was, I think, I would say two hours, two or three hours.

CL: Not more?

MR: Not more.

CL: Oh, I have the impression that it was more. That in your report you said.. You said longer.

MR: That is quite possible, sir. You know... you said that this was in 1943....44.

CL: Yes.

MR: A lot of time has passed since. I don't want to make a point of it, I don't want to be... but at this time, I have the impression of two or three hours maximum.

CL: Yes. You arrived towards 10 in the morning,

MR: Yes.

CL: ... you had lunch, and you left again toward 6 in the evening.

MR: Oh, yes, but, there was a part outside of the city, to be sure. We were well informed that there was the "kleine Festung," where we had....

CL: The little fortress...

MR: ...where we had no right to enter. We were told: "In any case, you pass by it, .... but there, these are 'common prisoners.'" "'Common prisoners' which are detainees... these are our detainees, that is none of your business, you have the right to visit... the city itself." As you know, this city, like Vauban,2 very, very close by.... [inaudible word], a little, if you wish.

CL: Yes, yes, yes.

MR: Which was done by, by the way, by a little bit the same style of architecture.

CL: Yes, Fortress.

MR: Closed fortress, but fortresses which had never been attacked, which had remained intact.

CL: Yes. But... you made this visit in the company of these...

MR: Always accompanied by these two gentlemen...

CL: These two Danes and...

MR: and always by Germans, escorted by Germans.

CL: And also by the SS.

MR: The SS, those responsible for organizing this visit, I don't know any names, that I can tell you.

CL: Did you not ask for the names? 

MR: Well, no, no, no. Did I know them at the time? I don't remember at all. But. 

CL: We have them, the names.

MR: Oh, well.

CL: They were known.

MR: Possibly. But... certainly, I am sure that you have all that, but I just don't remember, I can't even see them, you see?

CL: And then... Did you see many Jews?

MR: Many.

CL: Yes.

MR: Many.

CL: And....

MR: They were, they were all Jews.... I did not see any other people there.

CL: At that time, there were only those.

MR: There were only Jews.

CL: there were only those, there were only those.

MR: They wore the stars, they wore the stars, by the way. And for me, I only saw Jews.

CL: Well, and one of them talked to you, at least one of them...

MR: Oh yes, the doctor...., so-and-so who introduced himself..

CL: Eppstein.

MR: Eppstein; as camp leader. And it was he who led us, you understand?

CL: Yes. And he was introduced to you as the mayor of....

MR: As the.... the... the head of the community, etc. But he, at no time... this is .... this is incredible... you understand... that nobody said: “But after all, this is a.... is a farce, if this really was... was at that time and then...

CL: But I don't understand. Why are you now saying that this was a farce? Did you know at the time that this was a farce?

MR: No, no. But it was well known that when one was invited, thus it was known that when one was invited to visit a camp, that was not the camp... that was an exceptional camp. That was known....

CL: Yes, but...

MR: ..... right away.

CL: You know today that you have reasons to say that this was a farce. But it was a farce in more than one way to think about, because all had been prepared "ad hoc" precisely for your visit.

MR: Yes.

CL: ..... or for the visit of the delegation....

MR: Yes.

CL: of the C.I.C.R.3

MR: But there was.... I believe that there was...

CL: for....

MR: Yes.

CL: for months, they worked on this. This is...

MR: I....

CL: ...what was called in German the "Verschönerungsaktion."

MR: That's so. But I believe.... readily, but we were....

CL: Yes, I say this: I say: "You are absolutely right to say that this was a farce," but it was a farce that was extraordinarily well prepared. They prepared for your visit for months and what they called the "Verschönerungsaktion" means: "beautification action."

MR: Beautification.

CL: To know.... you really visited, actually, they had prepared for you a Potemkin ghetto, completely, and they.... and... the question I want to ask you: You say this today, because you know... in reality today, that this was a farce. I don’t know, by the way, with what degree of certainty that you know it, but I would like to be assured of this: Did you sense it at that time, when you had....

MR: At the time?

CL: at the time of your visit?

MR: No, no. I felt, and I believed... and I still believe that it was a camp, but, the impression that I had at that time, when I was shown a camp for Jewish notables, privileged people. That was the impression that I had and that I took away. I never wrote it black on white, but I had the impression, the behavior of the people was also such that... it was... very antipathetic. The attitude of the Jews in this... this city. Because, in the end, sir, it is evident that they had selected what they wanted to show us... what they wanted us to see, but I think that nobody, nobody from the C.I.C.R. was duped that this was a camp, because it was the choice of the Security Service of the Gestapo; but I myself had the impression that there were really Jews there, and I still think so, who arranged their situation with dollars and with dollar payments in Portugal, and which permitted them to remain. Because, in the end, you know it just as I do, certain fabulously wealthy Jews even had exit visas, signed by Himmler, and, one has talked to these people – not in the camp, my God – it was talked about, but... I understand, it was talked about among us, one knew if one was rich enough to own, for example, a car from Budapest [unclear word] and company, and if one was Mr. So-and-So, who today.... the dynasties...

CL: But this arrived in Hungary, with the family Weiss.

MR: The...the... the family Weiss. Well, these people, you know, had enough money to clear their name and.... get visas. Well, I had the impression that I had people who did not have what? The international stature.. Of the Weiss or Rothschild, to be able to get out of... these clutches, but who were powerful enough and who had to deposit enough money to be there. This is the most sincere impression that I took away from my visit to Theresienstadt. And I ask myself still today – I still believe it – in spite of all that I have been told.

CL: What were you told?

MR: Oh, well, that this was just for the visit and that afterwards, these people were exterminated immediately. I still believe that these were Jewish notables, rich enough to pay for surviving there.

CL: They.... were exterminated before your visit, and they were exterminated afterwards.

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of "Shoah," used by permission of USHMM and Yad Vashem
Accession Number 1996.166
RG Number 60.4915
Source Number 2891
Date of Interview
June 1979
Duration 00:11:39
Time Selection 32:59–44:38
Interviewee
Maurice Rossel
Language(s)
English
French
Interview Type Interview
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