Early in the morning of November 25, 1944, prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau awoke to a deafening explosion. Peering from their barracks, they witnessed an incredible sight. The gas chambers and crematoria, a source of constant terror, had been reduced to smoking rubble.
Most inmates assumed this was the work of daring prisoners. While silently cheering the destruction of the dreaded killing machine, they also braced themselves for the horrors of Nazi retaliation that was sure to follow.
But they were wrong. The largest murder machine in human history that had annihilated more than a million and a half victims had been demolished not by Jews but by Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s top henchman, and one of the most powerful men in Germany.
For years, historians assumed that the destruction of the crematoria at Auschwitz was part of Hitler’s plan to erase evidence of Nazi atrocities in the face of Germany’s imminent defeat.
But Holocaust historian Max Wallace, author of a new book, In the Name of Humanity (Skyhorse Publishing), contends that Himmler banned the further mass killing of Jews at the camps not because he wanted to cover the Nazis’ tracks. Himmler hoped to negotiate a separate peace with the Western Allies against the Russians if he put an end to the genocide, Wallace argues, citing little known historical documents.
According to this view, Himmler’s plan was basically a fantasy deliberately initiated by Mrs. Recha Sternbuch of Switzerland, and cultivated by a “trio of unlikely collaborators.” In encouraging this fantasy, the Sternbuchs played on Himmler’s delusion that his heinous crimes would be overlooked once he made some impressive humanitarian gestures.
The trio included Jean-Marie Musy, the wealthy former fascist president of Switzerland who was a casual acquaintance of Himmler; high-ranking SS official Walter Schellenberg who was convinced the war was lost and was looking to save his own neck; and Himmler’s personal physician, Dr. Felix Kersten.
The revelations in Wallace’s book are not wholly new. They were preceded by the ground-breaking Heroine of Rescue (Mesorah Publications), a 1983 book by Joseph Friedenson and David Kranzler about Recha Sternbuch and her extraordinary rescue work.
While the newer book draws on Heroine of Rescue, it also relies on little known historical information gleaned from the Washington archives of the War Refugee Board, Vaad Hatzalah files, and interviews with children and close relatives of the Sternbuchs.
In his foreword, Wallace writes of his astonishment in learning about the activities of the Sternbuchs’ rescue organization, HIJEFS. He had traveled to Toronto in 2000 to hear about this “incredible chapter of history from one of the last living witnesses, Herman Landau.”
“As the secretary of the Swiss-based rescue organization, Landau had spent more than three years documenting the activities of an extraordinary band of Orthodox Jews who spent every waking moment on a mission that may have dwarfed the accomplishments of people like Schindler and other rescuers,” writes Wallace. “I was astonished that the staggering achievements of this group were so little known…”
The Sternbuch Scheme to Dupe Himmler
The Landau interview led Wallace on an historical trail that unearthed long-buried documents that tell a riveting narrative about a daring rescue scheme initiated by Recha Sternbuch.
The Swiss mother/housewife/activist had learned that Jean-Marie Musy, as a favor to a friend, had intervened with Nazi authorities to release a Jewish couple from a German concentration camp. That inspired her to approach Musy to enlist his help in rescuing her parents and siblings who had been deported from Poland four years earlier.
After securing a meeting with the former Swiss president, Recha discerned that the seasoned politician realized that Germany was losing the war and that Hitler was maniacal. She began to harbor hope that this former Nazi sympathizer would be willing to assist in a rescue scheme that would encompass far more than her family members. She dreamed of rescuing the hundreds of thousands of Jews still alive in Nazi camps.
As early as March 1944, there were grounds to believe that Himmler might be amenable to a plan to release Jewish prisoners in the tens of thousands for the right amount of payback. This perception was relayed by Himmler’s physician, Dr. Kersten, and Gestapo commander Walter Schellenberg who both recorded their memories in private journals.
As the Allies neared victory over Germany, Kersten feared he would be tainted by his close association with leading Nazis. Together with Schellenberg who feared punishment for war crimes, Kersten got involved in negotiations to end the mass killing of Jews as a path to buying leniency for himself.
Under the influence of Kersten, Himmler in April 1944 accepted an overture from Musy and invited the former Swiss president to Berlin for talks. Supreme commander of the dreaded Gestapo, SS, Einsatzgruppen, SD and other security and killing squads, Himmler had good reason to try to whitewash his crimes as Allied forced were closing in.
One of the most powerful men in Germany, Himmler was a uniformed monster, one of Hitler’s most loyal commanders most directly responsible for the wholesale slaughter of European Jewry.
After inspecting an Aktion in the early stages of the Nazi assault on Lithuania in which scores of Jewish men were gunned down into a pit, Himmler issued an order that vastly broadened the scope of Nazi slaughter: from that point on, Jewish women and children would be targeted along with the men, because the children would surely grow up to become “avengers.”
The Rescue Mission’s Promising Start
In the course of three perilous trips to Berlin which was then under heavy Allied bombing, Musy and his son, Benoit, apparently became deeply committed to the rescue mission.
The overtures they made to Himmler involved the proposal to free hundreds of thousands of Jews still alive in the death camps in exchange for various forms of ransom. The ransom included a million dollars to be provided by “World Jewry,” trucks (to be shipped from Switzerland to Germany) in addition to favorable publicity in the American press about the “humanitarian” gestures by the Nazis.
The promises Musy and his son made to Himmler were largely fabricated. The deception was encouraged by American authorities who entertained no notion of making a separate peace with the Germans. Himmler was apparently taken in. The deal was likely the catalyst for his unexplained decree in November 1944 to halt the mass exterminations and destroy the Auschwitz-Birkenau murder apparatus.
All told, the plan may have saved as many as 300,000 Jews including the remaining Jews of Hungary, writes Wallace.
To this day, many scholars maintain that it was the Allied liberation of the camps that halted the exterminations. This is a reasonable conclusion, admits the historian. “But it is difficult to ignore evidence that suggests [the operation of the crematoria] and wholesale liquidation of European Jewry ended six months before Germany officially surrendered.
This doesn’t mesh with Hitler’s orders, as the Third Reich was crumbling around him, to dynamite the camps and extinguish every last inmate.
Had the orders of this crazed barbarian been heeded, there might not have been a single survivor.
Himmler Betrays Hitler
Historians note that in the autumn of 1944, as the Allies were closing in on the Reich’s borders to the east and west, Himmler found himself pitted against his once-idolized fuhrer. Hitler forbade his generals from surrendering under any circumstances. But Himmler was not prepared to go under.
“On the contrary, he thought of saving his own neck, and even leading a post-Hitlerian Reich in the continued fight against Bolshevism,” writes British Holocaust historian Ian Kershaw in Himmler’s Great Betrayal.
To accomplish this, Himmler needed a negotiated settlement with the West. This required an image-makeover on his part. To gain credibility, he was ready to call a stop to the cold blooded killing and welcomed the opportunity presented by Musy. This led to his order to destroy the crematoria at Auschwitz in November, 1944.
Then, in January 1945, “through Swiss intermediary Jean-Marie Musy, acting for Orthodox rabbis in America and Canada, Himmler agreed to the release of 1,400 Jews a month from Theresienstadt in return for $250,000,” writes Kershaw.
No money, in fact, changed hands when the Jews were released a month later and allowed into Sweden. Himmler stipulated instead that the press in America and Switzerland should report his “humanitarian” gesture.
Enraged by Himmler’s “surrender,” Hitler countermanded the proposed release of concentration camp prisoners. He also gave the order to evacuate the prisoners before they could be liberated, sending the sick, emaciated survivors on death marches that killed untold thousands.
Victory was so close, yet for the prisoners of the Holocaust, it was not close enough. For the next six months, the nightmare continued as myriads perished in death marches, and from hunger and disease.
Musy Delivered but Jewish Leaders Balked at Ransom
The liberated Jews of Theresienstadt were supposed to be moved by continued transports at two week intervals, upon payment of ransom money. But those releases never materialized, as the million dollar ransom could not be raised despite frenzied efforts by the Vaad Hatzlalah and HIJEFS.
The raising of funds, writes Friedenson and Kranzler in Heroine of Rescue, was obstructed by a key Jewish leader in Switzerland and by WRB representative, Roswell McCleland, who repudiated any rescue plan that involved ransom. These individuals also distrusted Musy’s motives although hindsight shows he was sincere and went to great risks in his efforts to help.
The Sternbuchs kept negotiating through Musy to the end of the war, with some success and much disappointment. His negotiations with Himmler yielded an agreement to turn over four concentration camps essentially intact to the Allies, in return for a USA guarantee to try the camp guards in court as opposed to shooting them on the spot.
This saved the lives of tens of thousands of camp inmates. The Sternbuchs through Musy also negotiated the release of thousands of women from the Ravensbrück camp and the release of 15,000 Jews held in Austria. But to their despair, they failed to halt the death marches and the starvation and brutality that continued to wipe out huge numbers of Jews in the waning days of the war.
By now, Himmler’s star was on the wane. But he continued scheming to engineer his own survival. Following his meetings with Musy, he did something even more extraordinary to improve his standing with the Western Allies. He agreed to a secret rendezvous with a representative of the World Jewish Congress.
This move was orchestrated by Dr. Kersten and aided by Swedish intelligence. The secret meeting took place deep inside Germany at Kersten’s mansion, between Himmler and World Jewish Congress official Norbert Masur. The WJC delegate was tasked with convincing the SS chief to countermand Hitler’s diabolical orders to destroy the camps and all surviving Jews.
The week before, Allied troops had liberated Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald, two of Germany’s largest concentration camps. Himmler, defying Hitler’s order, had kept his promise to surrender the two camps intact, although Gestopo Chief Schellenberg had to intervene at the last minute to stop a planned death march out of Buchenwald ordered by [Ernst] Kaltenbrunner.
Himmler got his way. When the Allies arrived, they found a white flag flying from the water tower.
For Masur, in the days leading up to his meeting with the Nazi leader, the haunting challenge was how to hold Himmler to his recent promise to prevent the dynamiting of the camps and to surrender the remaining concentration camps to Allied liberators.
Face To Face With the Monster
On the morning of Thursday, April 19, 1944, Masur got word that he would be received by Himmler later that day or Friday at the latest. A plane was waiting at the airport to take him and Dr. Kersten from Stockholm to Berlin. Kersten slept during most of the flight while Masur contemplated the unbelievable turn of events.
Only a few days before, he had been a mid-level official safe from the inferno raging through Europe. “All day, he had sat in an office reading reports about the desperate plight of his people and crimes so horrific that he could barely breathe, never dreaming that he would one day have a chance to confront the perpetrator,” writes Wallace in In the Name of Humanity.
Masur would later describe what went through his mind as he embarked on the journey: “For me as a Jew, it was a horrifying thought that in a few hours, I would be face to face with the monster who was primarily responsible for the destruction of several million of my people.”
As the plane neared Berlin, Masur thought of one of the reports he had read earlier that week. It was a detailed account by the Soviet army of what they had found when they liberated Auschwitz three months earlier. The Germans had forced the prisoners on a death march but had left behind thousands of prisoners too sick to be moved. They told a story so frightening, so ghastly, that many soldiers at first thought them deranged.
Masur, who had seen for himself the physical and emotional scars on a few relatives who had been extricated from Nazi camps, wondered how he could remain composed when confronting the man responsible for these heinous crimes.
The plane landed at Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport shortly after 6 p.m. After a two-hour wait, an SS car arrived to take them to Kersten’s estate in Harzwalde, 50 miles away, where they were supposed to meet Himmler.
As they passed through Berlin, they witnessed a scene of utter devastation. The Allies had complete control of the skies and met no anti-aircraft fire as they relentlessly bombed the German capital. Finally, close to midnight, the car arrived at Harzwalde. They were met by Kersten’s sister Elizabeth, who showed Masur to his room.
“That night I was not able to sleep,” he recalled, “not because of the constant roar of the planes but tension at the thought of meeting with Himmler, the feeling that possibly the destiny of thousands of Jews hung on my words.”
Himmler did not arrive until 2 a.m. the following night, when Masur was almost resigned to a no-show. Kersten made the introductions. “Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler . . . Herr Norbert Masur, delegate of the World Jewish Congress.”
There was an uncomfortable silence as the two men sized each other up. Finally, Himmler said, “Good day. I’m glad you’ve come.”
“Thank you,” Masur responded coolly.
Excerpts from his report on the extraordinary meeting follow below.
My Meeting With Himmler
By WJC Delegate Norbert Masur, Translated From the Original German
The meeting began with Himmler plunging into a monologue in a self-righteous, self-pitying tone about the historical justification for German dislike of the Jews. He fell back on the most revolting lies and anti-Semitic canards in legitimizing Nazi persecution and genocide.
“The Jews were expelled from Germany over the centuries but kept returning where they are not wanted,” began Himmler. “They are full of diseases that mortally infected the Germans; they side with the partisans and communists and shoot at our troops,” he ranted behind a thin veneer of calm. The concentration camps were built primarily to ‘re-educate,’ he lied. The crematoria were built to eliminate the spread of toxic disease, and on and on.”
Masur countered with known facts about the atrocities in the camps. Himmler brushed this all aside, saying those guilty of atrocities had been punished. He then addressed the request to turn the camps over to Allied forces or the International Red Cross without resistance.
Himmler: I Got No Thanks
“It was my intention to turn over the concentration camps without defending them, as I had promised. I turned over Bergen Belsen and Buchenwald, but I got no thanks for this,” Himmler vented. “I also turned over Buchenwald without a struggle. Suddenly the advancing American tanks opened fire, hit the hospital building which caught on fire and burned down, and the burned corpses were later photographed. With these kinds of pictures the world press is now printing hate propaganda against me!
“Nobody has been covered with dirt in the newspapers in the last twelve years as much as I have been,” the Nazi leader continued bitterly. “The publication of atrocities does not encourage me to continue to turn over the camps without resistance. That is why, a few days ago, when the American tank columns closed in on a camp in Saxony, I ordered this camp evacuated [with the inmates sent on a death march]. Why should I do anything differently?”
In Hungary, Himmler claimed to have left 450,000 Jews unharmed. [In reality, only 180,000 remained alive.] “So what were the thanks for this?” he asked sanctimoniously.
“I struggled to contain myself,” wrote Masur in his report, recalling how the mass murderer before him tried to pose as a humanitarian. The gleaming medals on his uniform, each one rewarding him for some brutality committed in the name of the Reich, were enough to make one sick.
“I then asked Himmler to tell us the number of Jews still alive in the camps,” Masur wrote. “He listed the following figures: Theresienstadt, 25,000; Ravensbruck, 20,000; Mauthausen, 20 to 30,000, in addition to smaller numbers in several other camps. He claimed that in the camps captured by the Allies the following numbers of Jews were left: Auschwitz 150,000; Bergen Belsen 50,000; Buchenwald 6,000.”
“I began presenting our requests,” recounted Masur, “asking first of all that Jews in German-occupied territories be kept alive. I asked that Jews in the camps near the Swedish and Swiss borders be freed in order to evacuate them to other countries.
“Additionally, I asked that the Jews in the other camps be well-treated, properly fed and given medical care. And for the camps to be surrendered to the Allies without resistance once the front lines got close. Lastly, I pressed for the release of the people listed by the Swedish Foreign ministry, regardless of their religion or nationality. ”
Himmler conferred with a lieutenant named Brandt for a while and returned with an air of extreme magnanimity. “I am willing to free 1000 Jewish women from the Ravensbruck concentration camp, and you can pick them up through the Red Cross,” he began. “The freeing of a number of French women on the list of the Swedish Foreign Ministry is also approved.”
Himmler went on to proudly list his many other “concessions.” About 50 Norwegian Jews in camps would be freed and brought to the Swedish border. The case of 20 Swedish prisoners who were convicted by German courts “would be re-examined favorably and if at all possible, they will be freed.” A larger number of mostly Dutch prisoners who were listed by name in Theresienstadt would be freed “as long as the Red Cross can pick them up.”
“I do not trust any vague and general promises made by this man,” Masur wrote, noting that Himmler lives in great fear of “his fuhrer” whom he is defying by engaging in these negotiations. “I do feel, however, that specific promises made by him will probably be kept because Himmler’s aides [mainly Schellenberg] will see to that.”
Masur ends by expressing his fear that the final weeks of the war might bring disaster to the Jews still alive in the camps. “The negative publicity about Buchenwald might fuel the lethal intentions of the Nazi bosses to completely wipe out any living evidence and witnesses to the atrocities,” he wrote.
“The last days of the death struggle of the Third Reich could also be the death knell of the few remaining inmates who came through all the tortures alive…”
To be continued….
The Sternbuchs of Switzerland: Unsung Heroes
Recha and Yitzchok Sternbuch were the Vaad Hatzalah’s representatives in Switzerland during the Holocaust. From their home in Montreux, the couple worked tirelessly to rescue Jews fleeing Hitler. They brought thousands of Jews to safety with the help of false papers and forged passports, as well as by bribing government officials.
The daughter of Rav Mordechai Rottenberg, an esteemed rov in pre-war Antwerp and member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, Recha had children and was pregnant when she spent nights in the forest by the Austrian border to smuggle refugees to safety, while trying to evade Swiss border guards.
She enlisted the help of a compassionate Swiss police captain, Paul Gruninger, who in 1938 helped her smuggle over 800 refugees into Switzerland. When informants betrayed them, Gruninger lost his job and pension, and Recha was arrested and imprisoned.
She was forced to stand trial for smuggling Jewish refugees across the border in defiance of Swiss immigration laws. The prosecutors demanded that she disclose the names of those “colluding” with her but she refused. Instead she spoke about the unbearable pain of watching innocent human beings being turned back at the border to certain death. She pleaded with the judge to understand that she had to answer to a higher moral law.
She was not only acquitted of all charges; the judge summoned her into his chambers after the trial and presented her with his own private donation for her rescue work. (Heroine of Rescue; Friedenson and Kranzler)
After her release from prison, the Sternbuchs continued their activism, arranging the rescue of over 2,000 Jews. At great risk she smuggled forged Swiss visas to many Jews across the German and Austrian borders. Later she obtained Chinese entry visas which enabled their holders to traverse Switzerland and Italy to ports from where they could be smuggled into Palestine. She was the first to use the South American Paraguay passports to save Jews from being deported.
She and her husband had access to the Polish diplomatic pouch through which they were able to send coded cables to her contacts in the Vaad Hatzalah in the United States and Turkey. In 1942, after receiving from Rabbi Michoel Ber Weissmandl a copy of the Auschwitz Protocols authored by escapees Vrba and Wetzler, they used the diplomatic pouch to forward this searing document detailing the industrialized slaughter being carried out in Auschwitz to the Vaad Hatzalah in New York.
With this move, the Sternbuchs were the first to begin breaking down the wall of silence about the Holocaust in the United States. Until then, the subject had been deliberately hushed up by the FDR administration and a government-compliant press.
“Almost from the second they learned of the death camps, they threw themselves into rescue,” recalled Recha’s cousin, Renee Landau, in an interview with historian Max Wallace. “Every waking moment was devoted to saving European Jews. They neglected their business…at times even their children. They said the Torah required nothing less.”
The Sternbuchs frequently used the Polish diplomatic pouch to send secret messages and money to Jews in Nazi occupied Europe, and bribes for rescue. Recha also developed good connections with the Papal Nuncio to Switzerland, Monsignor Phillippe Bernadini, head of the Swiss diplomatic community. He gave her access to Vatican couriers for sending money and messages to Jewish and resistance organizations in Nazi-occupied Europe.
In the dark years of the Holocaust and in the years afterward, Recha exposed herself to countless dangers, risking imprisonment and even putting her life in danger. To the end of her life, she refused to speak of her achievements, but lamented over the people she did not succeed in saving, including her own parents.
“If Issac and Recha Sternbuch had their way, this story would likely never have been told,” wrote Wallace, expressing his gratefulness to family members who assisted him in discovering and documenting the amazing parameters of this couple’s heroic devotion to their people.
Details about their manifold rescue activities in Part 2.