As outlined in Part 1, in late November 1944, supreme SS commander Heinrich Himmler ordered a halt to the murder of Jews throughout the Reich and called for the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau and its 51 sub-camps to be blown up.
This order came far too late to save the millions upon millions of Jews whom the Nazis had murdered. The order was also not wholly obeyed. Adolf Eichmann ignored it, as did other lower-level commanders who acted on their own whim or initiative in the chaos at the war’s end.
Despite Himmler’s orders to the contrary, horrific death marches continued until Germany’s surrender. But historical evidence suggests that as many as 300,000 Jews who were still alive in the camps and in Nazi-occupied Hungary when the war ended may have survived because of Himmler’s intervention.
Evidence of this bizarre twist—whereby life-saving measures for Jews were ordered by the heinous criminal most instrumental in their annihilation—can be traced to a number of reliable sources. These include testimony from the Nuremberg War Trials, the Rudolf Kastner War Trial, the WRB and Vaad Hatzalah Archives, the Reuben Hecht Archive, and US Foreign Service documents.
These documents indicate that former Swiss president Jean Marie Musy, working for the Sternbuchs of Switzerland, was able to persuade the powerful Himmler that while the war was lost, there was an escape hatch through which he might gain a chance of post-war survival.
Musy persuaded Himmler that if he worked against Hitler to keep camp inmates alive, stopping the death marches, gassings and executions, he could expect more favorable international treatment. Part 2 takes a closer look at the Musy-Himmler negotiations that maneuvered Himmler into making some shocking moves that at undoubtedly saved tens of thousands of lives.
Why Himmler Cut A Deal
Himmler had good reason to fear the hangman’s noose. He was the chief architect of the planning and implementation of the “final solution.” He was not only the chief of German Secret Police, he merged the Gestapo and Criminal Police under his authority, effectively consolidating all civil and judicial power in his hands. He had exclusive jurisdiction over the entire concentration camp system. His power almost rivaled that of Hitler.
At the beginning of October 1943, Himmler addressed about ninety of his most senior officers in the town of Posen in Poland, in which he talked openly about the slaughter of the Jews. (His speech was recorded on a phonograph which was seized by the Allies after the fall of the Reich.)
By this time, Himmler had discarded euphemisms like “evacuation to the East” and “resettlement,” since all the men assembled were mass murderers who had played an active role in the genocide. The brilliantly decorated arch fiend commended his men for remaining “decent” while they brought about “the extermination of the Jewish people” including women, children and the elderly.
Although the war by then was going badly for Germany, one of the Third Reich’s chief goals—the annihilation of European Jewry—was proceeding according to plan.
Between April and November 1942 alone, the Nazis had murdered more than two a half million Jews. By the end of 1943, that figure had reached more than four million.
In the recording of his speech, Himmler went on to justify this slaughter, saying, “We were faced with the question: what to do about the women and children? I did not consider it justified to kill the men while allowing the children to grow up to be their avengers against our own sons.” (YVA, Shoah Resource Center).
But this barbarian also had a pragmatic side. He was willing, in the face of overriding self-interest, to put a stop to the cold-blooded killing and took concrete measures to do so.
This took place after Hitler’s last attempt to turn the tide of war in favor of Germany failed. The Ardennes offensive that was aimed at throwing the British and Americans “back into the Atlantic” had been turned back by U.S. General Patton. In the face of that failure and other military setbacks, few members of the Nazi high command still believed a German victory was possible.
Himmler approached Hitler around this time to discuss making overtures toward the Allies but was soundly rebuffed. “We won’t capitulate. Never!” Hitler ranted, vowing to blow up the remaining Jews in captivity upon the approach of the Allies, and insisting that the camps not fall into the hands of liberating forces. “We might go down,” he shouted, “but we’ll take the world with us.”
Determined not to be sucked down into Hitler’s self-destruction, Himmler became receptive to the notion of using his vast authority to stop the extermination of Jews in exchange for a separate peace with England and America. But he feared Hitler, had no stomach for a confrontation with him. He had to tread with caution.
For months Himmler played a double game—openly posing as the “faithful Heinrich” while secretly seeking an independent path for himself. The evidence suggests he even harbored a dream of being Hitler’s successor, leading a post-war Reich in the continued fight against Bolshevism.
Musy Takes on The Sternbuch Mission
A seasoned statesman, Jean-Marie Musy recognized Himmler’s delusions for what they were. He knew the Allies would never enter an alliance with the leader of a regime that had committed monstrous crimes on the unprecedented scale of Nazi Germany. But he set about exploiting Himmler’s delusion in hopes of carrying out the Sternbuch mission.
Musy had known Himmler since the 1930s and had been the publisher of a pro-German, anti-Semitic newspaper, La Jeune Suisse. During that period he had spoken out against the prominence of Jews in economic and public life. But by 1944, after visiting Germany, he came to the conclusion that Nazis were criminals and murderers. He gradually softened his pro-fascist position.
At the Nuremberg War Trials, Musy described his first meeting with the Sternbuchs, which was arranged through Reuben Hecht, a member of the Irgun who had joined HIJEFS [Swiss Rescue Committee] at the suggestion of Recha Sternbuch who knew Hecht from Antwerp.
“Mrs. Sternbuch had lost contact with her father and mother and brothers and sister. They had been deported to Drancy, a French internment camp outside of Paris, and later to Vittel,” Musy later testified at Nuremberg. “She felt driven to find them.”
[The US army had liberated Vittel in September 1944 but the Germans had by then transferred a majority of the inmates to Germany and then to Auschwitz, where most were murdered.]
“We are both servants of G-d,” Recha told Musy who was a religious Catholic. “The Nazis are an affront to every one of your religious beliefs. You must help us,” she implored. Recha’s plea evidently resonated with Musy and he agreed to bring the matter up with Himmler at an upcoming meeting with him in Berlin. The two men knew each other and were on cordial terms.
The rescue committee’s original plan was to win the release of 216 Jews who had been deported from the Vittel camp, including Recha’s immediate family. Recha offered Musy on behalf of HIJEFS 1 million Swiss francs to be used for bribes and 60,000 Swiss francs for other expenses.
At the meeting with Himmler, Musy explained he had come at the request of “Chief Rabbi Sternbuch” and a committee of rabbis from America and Canada. At some point, instead of sticking to the script and asking for the release of Vittel Jews, Musy decided to cast his net much wider.
“I asked Himmler to liberate all the Jews confined in concentration camps because of their Jewish faith,” he later reported. He told Hitler’s top deputy he was offering Germany the chance to make a great humanitarian gesture and turn world opinion in its favor.
To Musy’s surprise, after a two-hour conversation, Himmler claimed he was ready to accede to his request and liberate the 600 to 800 thousand Jews still alive in the camps for “material compensation.” Himmler described the Reich’s desperate shortage of trucks, machinery and tractors. When Musy objected that the Allied government would never grant military equipment as a part of any deal, Himmler said a compromise might be reached with “foreign currency.”
Himmler then pledged to begin immediately with the liberation of 15,000 Theresienstadt Jews for a down payment of $250,000. The Nazi chief, fully convinced the Jews in America controlled the media, insisted that the press report his “humanitarian” gesture. If they did so satisfactorily, Himmler promised that trains, each carrying 1200-1500 Jews from Theresienstadt, would arrive in Switzerland on a weekly basis.
The Musy Train
About two weeks after Musy’s first meeting with Himmler,” a first trainload of 1200 Jews from Theresienstadt concentration camp was indeed released. But their path to freedom was far from clear.
The train reached the border on the evening of February 6, a full day before the Swiss authorities had been expecting it. The border police refused to admit them and the passengers waited apprehensively while their fate was being decided. Survivor Ida Stahl in an interview with Max Wallace (In the Name of Humanity, Skyhorse Publishing) recalled her dread while the confusion was being cleared up.
“We knew we were in grave danger. Would the Germans let the train go through? Would the Swiss accept us? “Yes!” we dared hope whenever the train inched forward. “No!” we thought in panic when it was shunted back and forth. We spent that long night in Konstanz, agonizing, praying and waiting. Time dragged on and on. We could see the lights in the town and that made it even worse. To be so near to freedom and yet so far!”
In the end, Musy personally intervened with Swiss president Eduard von Steiger, imploring him to allow the Jews over the border. As the passengers disembarked, many wept with joy while several kissed the ground. Among the group were 58 children under the age of 12, including several who had been born in Thersienstadt.
Overwhelmed by the sight, Hermann Landau, representing the rescue committee HIJEFS along with a jubilant Recha and Yitzchok Sternbuch, “remembers thanking G-d for letting him play a part in the liberation of these tormented souls.”
The Sternbuchs quickly went to work to orchestrate the positive media response that Himmler had demanded as a condition for further transports. Despite their intense efforts, the results were disappointing. The NY Times ran a small article, headlined “First Jewish Convoy Reaches Swiss Haven.”
BERN, Switzerland, Feb. 7 (1945)—A convoy of 1200 Jewish refugees from the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Austria arrived at Kreuslingen today following negotiations by Jean Marie Musy, former Swiss Federal Counselor, with Heinrich Himmler.
A day later, another item appeared in the Times, describing a gathering of rabbis at the headquarters of the Vaad Hatzalah in New York to celebrate the release of the Theresienstadt Jews, which the paper credited to efforts of seventeen Vaad members. (New York Times; Rabbis Celebrate Freeing of Jewish Refugees, Feb. 9, 1945, WRB)
The JTA reported that a group of twenty Orthodox Jews had achieved “one of the most fantastic feats of rescue.”
Most American papers, however, ignored the story. Musy reported to the Sternbuchs that Berlin was furious at the lack of noticeable press reaction to their release of the Theresienstadt Jews. The Sternbuchs cabled the Vaad to inform the American leadership that future transports were in jeopardy unless the press produced favorable coverage.
Pulling whatever strings they could, the Vaad pressed ardently for positive media coverage of the rescue. Results began trickling in and then increased to a flow.
“In all, about a thousand American papers were persuaded to write about the episode,” writes historian Wallace. In the coming days, the Vaad sent to Switzerland a summary of the media reports which included extracts from three NY papers noting the “excellent condition” of the Theresienstadt Jews when they arrived in Switzerland—an outright fabrication. But the gambit seemed to be working.
Scrambling to Raise the Ransom
Meanwhile, HIJEFS was scrambling to come up with 5 million francs needed for additional releases of thousands of Jewish prisoners. The Vaad in New York had raised a considerable sum but it wasn’t nearly enough. They needed an additional $937,000 to fulfill Musy’s commitment to Himmler.
Irving Bunim was put in charge of raising the funds. In the synagogues of New York and Chicago, the response was overwhelming. But the Vaad leader was still forced to approach the JDC (Joint Distribution Committee) for the balance. Bunim noted that the JDC leadership initially recoiled when they heard what the funds would be used for.
“I called up Joint President Moe Leavitt,” Bunim recounted. “And I told him the story. ‘What!’ he shouted. ‘Ransom! You want to give ransom to these Nazis. England won’t like it. And it will never go through Washington.’”
Faced with the prospect of being blamed for failure to save the remaining Jews of Europe, the JDC finally agreed to a loan. One roadblock remained: they needed a Treasury Department license to transmit the funds. And this at first appeared to be the deal-breaker.
Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau showed considerable reluctance. He told the Vaad leadership at a March 13 meeting that if it emerged that Jews were dealing directly with Himmler, it could bring great harm to themselves and dangerous anti-Semitic publicity.
Irving Bunim shrewdly countered that the money was not intended as a payoff to either Musy or Himmler, but as bribes for officials involved in facilitating the convoys, as well as food and travel expenses for the liberated inmates.
In the end, John Pehle who had recently stepped down as head of the WRB to return to the Treasury, recommended that the license be granted. If the money doesn’t go through, he cautioned his colleagues, “the rabbis are going to tear the town loose.”(YU Irving Bunim Oral History Collection, cited by Wallace). The license was ultimately granted.
In the meantime, Musy was invited back to Berlin by Himmler to retrieve some of the Jewish inmates he had been asked to release during the first round of negotiations, and to work out the details about releasing more Jews.
Before leaving, Musy disclosed to Recha that her two brothers, Yaakov and Yosef Rottenberg, had been located by the Germans at a labor camp and would soon be released. Her parents, however, could not be located. Recha rejoiced over the news about her brothers but feared the worst for her parents.
Arriving in Berlin with his son, Musy immediately set to work with Himmler’s subordinate, Walter Schellenberg, Brigadier General of the Germany Police, hammering out a 3-point agreement:
1. Every fourteen days, a passenger train would bring approximately 1200 Jews from the camps to Switzerland.
2. The Rescue Committee (HIJEFS), the Vaad Hatzalah and other Jewish organizations with whom Musy was collaborating will give “active support” in solving the Jewish problem by bringing about a change in the world-wide “propaganda” against Germany.
3. 5 million francs would be deposited by the Americans in an account naming Musy as a trustee. Proof of such a deposit would have to be furnished before any Jews were permitted to leave Germany. (British-US Interrogation of Walter Schellenberg, July 1945)
Taking his leave of Musy and his son, Schellenberg informed them that he had a “gift” for them outside. They stepped outside to find Recha’s two brothers waiting, newly released from the slave labor camp. The dazed brothers, Yaakov and Yosef Rottenberg, accompanied the Musys back to Switzerland to be joyously reunited with Recha and her family.
The Rescue Plan is Torpedoed
With the money raised and a signed agreement in hand, hopes ran high that the convoys of thousands of Jewish prisoners promised by Himmler would soon resume. The Sternbuchs waited impatiently for the next trainload. To their anguish, it never arrived.
They soon learned why. Hitler had learned of the Himmler-Musy negotiations through an informant and in rage, banned any further releases. Even with the Allies closing in on all sides in the spring of 1945, the arch fiend demanded the continued evacuation of the half-million concentration camp prisoners still alive.
The ghastly death marches of sick, emaciated prisoners killed up to half of them. The prisoners either dropped to their deaths or were shot for not keeping pace with the others.
In spite of the devastating setback, the Sternbuchs refused to give up and Musy did his best to keep alive negotiations with Himmler. In place of the first deal that had fallen apart, a secondary plan evolved. Through this default plan, many thousands of Jews were ultimately saved through Himmler’s intervention in the death marches, and by his halting the dynamiting and destruction of the concentration camps in the waning days of the war.
The number of those saved would have been far greater had Hitler’s subordinates and concentration camp commanders heeded Himmler’s orders to let the surviving Jews live. In many cases, these murderers, led by the powerful General Ernst Kaltenbrunner (who was tried and hung for war crimes after the war) gave final vent to their bloodlust by seeking to uphold Hitler’s orders to annihilate the survivors.
Much of this information was first brought to light at the 1946 Nuremberg War Trials. It was publicized in the 1955 Rudolph Kastner Trial, as attorney Shmuel Tamir questioned Reuben Hecht of HIJEFS about the Musy-Himmler negotiations.
Reign of Evil Comes to An End
On April 22, in an outburst of hysterical fury, Hitler openly acknowledged that the war was lost. Ranting at the treachery all around him, he was clearly disintegrating. A few days later, on April 28, he learned through a BBC broadcast that Himmler had proposed unconditional surrender to Britain and America.
Present in the bunker where Hitler was holed up was Hanna Reitcsch, a decorated Luftwaffe pilot who was fanatically devoted to him, writes Wallace. Captured after the war, Reitsch told American intelligence officers that she was present when Hitler received the news about Himmler’s negotiations. She described the fuhrer raging like a madman as he expelled Himmler from the Nazi party, stripped him of all his posts and ordered his arrest.
Within two days, Hitler had committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. His successor, Admiral Karl Donitz, inherited for a few days the shreds of power in the Third Reich. A military man who had no part in the final solution, his first priority was a quick and orderly surrender to the Allies. Donitz regarded Himmler as a liability and rejected his overtures for inclusion in his short-lived cabinet.
Himmler, his dreams of continued power shattered, shaved off his moustache, exchanged his glasses for a black eye-patch, donned a military police sergeant uniform, and went on the run. He was captured by the British on May 23, 1945 and subjected to an interrogation followed by a medical examination. The camp doctor ordered him to open his mouth for inspection. Himmler then bit down on a cyanide capsule he kept hidden in a cavity in one of his teeth and within seconds collapsed in agony.
Major Norman Whittaker, one of the British officers present at the scene, recorded the aftermath in his diary: “There were terrible groans and grunts coming from the swine,” he wrote. “Attempts to resuscitate this evil thing failed and it breathed its last.”
Excerpt from the Kastner Trial About The Musy-Himmler Negotiations
Tamir to Reuben Hecht: Did you really think that you could deceive Himmler [by arranging positive press reports about him]?
Hecht: Yes. On the basis of talks with Sam Woods [the American consul general in Geneva who was on close terms with the Sternbuchs], we used this approach in the belief that Himmler was delusional. Woods explained to me that if it’s necessary to pay compliments to the devil in order to save Jews, you do that. Worry about setting the record straight afterwards.
Tamir: And what grounds did you have to believe that those Nazis, those criminals, after they murdered six million Jews, would fall into your trap?
Hecht: Because some of the top Nazi criminals were panicking that the War was lost.
Tamir: Was Himmler one of them?
Hecht: Yes, according to Musy, Himmler understood the war was lost.
Tamir: Since when did he understand this?
Hecht: Since the end of 1944. That was the basis which made Musy’s negotiation possible. By April, 1945, Musy was told that Himmler had agreed to prevent the evacuation of the camps which violated Hitler’s orders. He did this by insisting on a guarantee that camp guards would not be shot on sight by Allied forces, but would treated as prisoners of war. The United States was consulted and agreed to the terms.
Tamir: Do you know anything directly, not from hearsay alone, about Himmler’s command to ignore Hitler’s order to annihilate the Jews in the camps?
Hecht: Yes. It was through Musy’s negotiations with Himmler that the Rescue Committee was asked to transmit a request from Himmler to Gen. Eisenhower… Himmler promised to countermand Hitler’s order to liquidate the survivors if the Americans promised to treat the guards of the concentration camps as POWs—and not shoot them on sight.
Tamir: All this went through the Rescue Committee?
Hecht: Correct. Additional proof that Himmler issued the order to disregard any command to destroy the camp inmates is that Musy Junior arrived just at the moment when the Jewish prisoners of Buchenwald were in the process of being evacuated on a death march. This was in explicit violation of Himmler’s agreement. Musy was told that about 40 per cent of those participating in those marches would die on the road.
Tamir: And what happened?
Hecht: Musy Junior rushed immediately to Berlin to the Nazi head of foreign intelligence, Walter Schellenberg, who made a radio-telephone to Buchenwald instructing the commandant to cancel those evacuation orders and not carry them out.
[This episode was earlier confirmed at Nuremberg. In testimony he gave to Colonel John Harlan Amen, Chief Interrogator during the Nuremberg War Trials, on January 4, 1946, Schellenberg confirmed that Hitler had overruled Himmler’s command not to evacuate the camps. Himmler then countered Hitler’s order with a second command to stop the evacuations.]
Recha Sternbuch, As I knew Her
By Gutta Sternbuch
Excerpted from Heroine of Rescue (Friedenson and Kranzler, Mesorah Publications)
“I came to Switzerland in the middle of the war, one of the very few who survived the liquidation of the Vittel internment camp. The contrast between where I had come from and what I found in Switzerland, where people lived as if there were no war, no torture or destruction on the other side of the Alps, was traumatic for me.
“I was emotionally burned out, in desperate need of something to live for. Then I met Recha. I was able not only to get to know her but to live with her. I came to realize that as long as there are people like her in the world, life is worthwhile.
“Recha had a charisma that was captivating, not apparent before the war. The tragedy of the Jewish people must have awakened dormant forces within her. The tortured cry of her hunted and persecuted people kindled a fire in her heart that incessantly burned. She identified so keenly with their suffering. A thousand times she suffered their torment, experienced their death. But she never despaired.
“She fought for every life with a frenzied desperation. She enlisted everyone’s help: Swiss border police, the Chief of the Alien Police; the Papal Nuncio in Bern, and many others. She headed the rescue organization HIJEFS and commanded respect from everyone around her. She never issued orders but when she spoke, she was listened to. No one could blind himself to the rays of light she radiated.
“She sensed that every minute could mean a lost human life, so she pursued each case without fear of anyone. She asked, demanded, begged, shouted and pleaded until she stirred their conscience. If necessary, she was ready to resort to illegal means, even go to jail.
“Yet she was a quiet, reserved person. I was her sister-in-law and spent a great deal of time with her. Yet never did I hear her speak about herself, of her experiences and acts of bravery on behalf of others. Only once did she break her silence; it happened when I spent a night in her house with my daughter.
“My daughter would not stop begging her to tell us one of her experiences during the war. ‘Only one,’ she pleaded, until Recha finally gave in. Why, I don’t know… perhaps just to please her niece. This is the incredible story she told…