Delayed Reaction

Will it take another 60 years before we hear public admissions from the leaders of nations who shared in the guilt for the death of millions of Jews during World War II?


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on February 1, 2005.)

To mark the 60th anniversary of the arrival of Red Army troops at the gates of the Auschwitz extermination camp, a most impressive ceremony was held there attended by leaders of many of the world’s nations. Ceremonies marking this date were held at the United Nations Assembly in New York, in Paris and in London. Tens of millions of people around the world watched these ceremonies on television and followed the reports in newspapers. Except for the discordant note struck by Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, who in his speech at Auschwitz refrained from mentioning the Jewish people, the victims of German bestiality, full cognizance was taken of the greatest crime ever committed – the German attempt to efface the Jewish people from the face of the earth.

Although the extent of this crime was well known ever since the defeat of Germany in May 1945, and the subsequent war crimes trials at Nuremberg, there had until now not been such recognition of that crime by so many of the leaders of the world’s nations in full public view.

Two questions inevitably arise at this time. Why did it take 60 years before the peoples of the world saw an assembly of nations’ leaders paying homage to the victims of that crime? And how much longer will it take before the leaders of nations voice contrition for the absence of any significant effort to aid the Jewish people in their hour of trial, and admit the complicity of many in that crime by having closed all avenues of escape for Jews attempting to evade the German murder machine?

Was the crime against the Jewish people, the brutality and the methods used, so terrible that, except for the victims themselves, the rest of the world needed years before it could assimilate and fully comprehend what had occurred? Or are there countervailing forces leading to denial and unwillingness to admit what really happened? Was Germany admitted too quickly into the community of civilized nations after the war, and were German reparations to Israel and the establishment of diplomatic relations taken before their time? Or maybe the slow maturation of the public recognition of the full extent of what happened to the Jews of Europe, and almost happened to the Jews of North Africa, is connected with the second question, the degree of complicity of many nations in the crime committed.

The cable of Gerhard Riegner, the representative of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, conveying the news that the Germans planned the extermination of the Jews of Europe, was received by Stephen Wise, the head of the American Jewish Congress, at the end of August 1942. By that time the German murder machine was working at full capacity, and the mass deportation of Warsaw’s Jews to the gas chambers in  Treblinka was in progress.

It was only on December 8, 1942, that Wise met with President Roosevelt to plead for action to be taken by the Allies to prevent the completion of the German diabolic plan. But there was no meaningful Allied response to the gruesome news. After Jan Karski, the Polish underground courier, arrived in London in August 1942 after visiting the Warsaw Ghetto, and told British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden in London what he had seen, no steps were taken. April 19, 1943, the day of the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, was also the day of the opening of the Anglo-American conference on refugees in Bermuda that produced nothing but platitudes. That conference did not take cognizance of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt, even though the New York Times on April 22 carried on its front page the news that the German attempt to liquidate the remaining 35,000 Jews of Warsaw was meeting armed resistance by Jewish fighters.

All this time, the British were preventing ships carrying Jewish refugees from reaching Palestine. The Germans had good reason to assume that the murder of the Jews of Europe was not arousing significant opposition, or maybe even interest, among the Allies fighting Germany.

There could have been no clearer indication of indifference in Washington and London to the fate of the Jews than the decision not to bomb Auschwitz and the rail lines leading to it, while half a million of Hungary’s Jews were being transported to the gas chambers there in the Spring of 1944. Even though American bombers were attacking targets in the same area at the time, all appeals to halt the killings by bombing the installations at Auschwitz were rejected.

Will it take another 60 years before we hear public admissions from the leaders of nations who shared in the guilt for the death of millions of Jews during World War II?

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