Rescue Efforts for Camp Prisoners

As we saw in Chapter 2, help for concentration camp inmates and particularly Jews seemed almost impossible in the first three years of the war. The Nazi authorities and the German Red Cross were not cooperating, especially when Jews were concerned. A letter from the ICRC to the headquarters of the American Red Cross from early 1943 summarized the ongoing deadlock well:

The International Committee of the Red Cross have always been concerned with the welfare of civilian prisoners in concentration camps, maintaining that they could not pass over this category of internees, since they are enemy nationals in the hands of a belligerent. Hitherto, however, and despite all our efforts, the German Authorities have not allowed the International Committee to assist these prisoners, on the grounds that they were arrested for motives of public safety or for having committed crime.2

But the ICRC and others kept trying. The ICRC’s aid relief work for civilians was often carried out under the umbrella of a body called the Joint Relief Commission (JRC). Since the summer of 1941, ICRC president Carl Jacob Burckhardt, who was always more pragmatic and hands-on than his predecessor, Max Huber, had worked on creating a JRC that could coordinate the aid work of the League of Red Cross Societies and the ICRC. Its creation meant overcoming the long-standing tensions between the League and the ICRC that had existed since the creation of the League in 1919.3 Officially and publicly, of course, both organizations praised their positive, cooperative relations. The JRC would play a significant role in helping the international Red Cross to achieve the second prong of its strategy, sending food aid to camp prisoners. Given that the idea of a public protest had been abandoned by the ICRC, Gerhart Riegner and Paul Guggenheim from the World Jewish Congress (WJC) demanded at least more practical aid for Jewish camp inmates. In May 1943 they demanded that food parcels should be sent to these victims, as was already common practice for POWs. Guggenheim stated that after this war the world would sternly ask if his organization and the ICRC had done enough. Guggenheim went on to say that as things stood at that stage, he was doubtful that one could answer that question positively.4

Jean (Johannes) Schwarzenberg, an Austrian nobleman with Swiss citizenship, worked at the division for civilian internees at the ICRC headquarters, and from 1942 onwards was responsible for bringing relief to concentration camp prisoners.5 The ICRC faced no small challenge in organizing a campaign to provide food for camp inmates. In principle, the Nazis did allow shipment of parcels to concentration camps, but only if they were addressed to specific individuals. This was of little use, since the Nazi government typically did not give out information about the location of most concentration camp inmates and deportees.6 Therefore Schwarzenberg’s food parcel programme started on a very small scale. He had a list of only fifty names of Norwegian concentration camp prisoners. The first test run in June of 1943 was relatively successful, and thirty signed package receipts made their way back to Geneva. By mid-November 1943, 882 packages had been sent to Germany, most to Dutch and Norwegian inmates, thirty-one to Jews (their nationality left undefined). The ICRC took this as sufficient proof that the aid had reached the intended internees and called the programme a great success. Based on this limited positive experience, the ICRC even asked the American Red Cross to support lifting the Allied blockade so that the programme could continue and expand, but this request met with little success.

At the end of 1943 individual concentration camp commanders gave permission for collective deliveries of parcels for certain groups of inmates, mostly along national lines. In May 1943 the ICRC could report that some food parcels had reached ghettos in Poland and the Theresienstadt ghetto in occupied Czechoslovakia. The Jewish Elders in the ghettos had signed the receipts, which the ICRC saw as an indication that packages had reached the groups intended.7 In the spring of 1944 the parcel service to camp civilians was extended, and the status of Schwarzenberg’s office raised, but resources and personnel were still scarce for his special aid division. Aid for Jews remained limited, and mainly rested on the food parcel program to a number of camps and ghettos. But crucially all depended on the goodwill of the Nazi authorities. In June 1943 the ICRC delegate in Berlin proposed to extend the parcel scheme to camps such as Auschwitz- Birkenau, only to be rejected by Walther Hartmann from the German Red Cross. Hartmann claimed that the Jews were employed exclusively in labour camps in the East and that food and medication there was reportedly abundant. Therefore, Hartmann wrote, shipments of supplies to these camps were in principle not necessary.8 This brusque answer from Berlin shattered hopes in Geneva.

The Allied blockade was another obstacle for this kind of relief aid. At first some food could be bought from South America, Hungary, Turkey, and Sweden, but with the war expanding and becoming more intense this became more and more difficult.9 The Allies were willing to let the Swedish Red Cross and the ICRC provide aid to the starving Greek population under Nazi occupation, despite the blockade policy. However, the same consideration was not extended to Jews in concentration camps and ghettos in the rest of German-occupied Europe.10

But there were small successes too. Since the receipts often included the name of the recipient along with names of other prisoners in the same camp, the ICRC was able by March of 1945 to combine this information with that from other sources to compile a list of nearly 56,000 people and their locations. The organization thus did slowly emerge as an important conduit for bringing some limited aid to Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. Starting in 1944, large quantities of food parcels were sent to concentration camps and ghettos, often financed by Jewish organizations and delivered through the ICRC.11 In the autumn of 1944 the US government allowed 260,000 American Red Cross parcels to pass the blockade. The ICRC was mainly a trustee for financial and material aid provided by other organizations and governments. While the camps in the East, especially the death factories such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, and Sobibor, remained out of reach,12 thousands of food parcels did eventually reach Jews in camps, particularly in the last months of the war. Given the massive scale of suffering that had occurred in Nazi camps and ghettos, this ICRC effort may seem like a trivial contribution, far too little, far too late. However, the concentration camp food parcels programme could be seen as a ‘weapon of last resort’ for the ICRC, and it played a very important role in the ICRC’s postwar account of its activities during the Holocaust.13

The ICRC worked together with a large number of other Jewish and humanitarian organizations, including the Quakers and the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). But the ICRC’s help for Jewish victims was largely financed by Jewish organizations working in Europe. Schwarzenberg made very clear that most of this relief work under the flag of the ICRC was financed with ‘Jewish money’ (‘judischem Geld’).14 According to ICRC sources it received 22 million Swiss francs from Jewish organizations.15

Saly Mayer and Gerhart Riegner were among the main Jewish contacts for the ICRC in Switzerland. Mayer was president of the Association of Jewish Communities in Switzerland and later also a representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) or ‘Joint’.16 The JDC had been founded on the eve of the First World War in New York and was active in a wide range of rescue activities for Jewish victims. It helped with emigration, was sending food parcels, opening shelters and soup kitchens (not at least for displaced persons), helped to finance the efforts of government agencies, and in some cases even provided ransom money in order to save Jews.17 As we have seen, Riegner was a German Jew who found refuge in Switzerland and served as a representative of the WJC based in New York.

Map 1. The military situation in the spring of 1944 when Nazi German troops invaded Hungary

The WJC, founded in the 1930s, was an international organization ofJewish associations, which fought antisemitism and often lobbied for a range of causes. The ICRC worked with both men and the institutions they represented on a regular basis. But Red Cross representatives appear to have favoured the JDC and Saly Mayer for a number of reasons. The JDC provided crucial funds to the ICRC and in many respects shared a similar philosophy about concrete humanitarian aid work and discretion with the Geneva-based institution. Schwarzenberg described Mayer as an ‘experienced and discreet friend of our house’18 and went on to say: ‘Saly Mayer is really the only one who does something and is really useful to us.’19 As a result, cooperation between the Jewish organizations sitting in New York and Geneva and the ICRC soon increased. The former would provide financial support and the supplies, and the Red Cross would take over transport and delivery of the food supplies. Relation between the parties could be difficult at times, but also achieved some significant successes, especially later into the war.

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