Turning Point: 1944
In January 1944, the US Department of the Treasury was charged with the administration of the newly founded War Refugee Board (WRB). The WRB was created to help civilian victims of the Nazi regime, particularly Jews.20 The creation of the WRB was a turning point for the ICRC’s rescue efforts for civilian Nazi victims. Like the Allied joint declaration on German mass murder ofJews and other civilians of 17 December 1942, the founding of the refugee board seemed to send a clear if belated signal: the United States had now taken a more concerted interest in the fate of Europe’s Jews.21 From early 1944 onwards, government agencies such as the WRB took action and coordinated rescue efforts for Jews.22 It received support from private aid organisations, prominent among them the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which provided much of the funding for rescue operations of the government board.23 Furthermore, the WRB began putting considerable pressure on the ICRC to act and intervene, arguing that the ICRC should not limit itself to the letter of international humanitarian law, but should provide concrete aid in the spirit of Red Cross philosophy. With the foundation of the refugee board the status of many Jewish aid organizations in Europe began to change in the spring of 1944.24
Jewish relief organizations like the JDC turned out to be valuable partners of the first US agency to be founded with the explicit purpose of saving civilian victims of war and the Nazi genocide. The funds from Mayer along with pressure from the WRB spurred the ICRC to undertake more relief efforts in Eastern Europe. As part of the goal of becoming more active in German-occupied and satellite countries, the ICRC attempted to gain access to concentration camps and ghettos like Theresienstadt. In March 1943 Max Huber assured Saly Mayer that the ICRC would do what it could for Jewish victims and was exploring the possibility of sending ICRC delegations to Budapest, Bucharest, and Bratislava.25 At the same time the ICRC considered an intervention with the British government to allow more emigration to Palestine for ‘Israelites’ in Central and Eastern Europe. London should increase the visa quota to British controlled Palestine, for those with close relatives in Palestine and with an exit visa granted.26 In a Meeting of the Committee in November 1943 Burckhardt proposed that Schwarzenberg prepare missions for Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia. ‘The development of the Jewish problem makes it necessary and urgent to send a mission to Central and Eastern Europe’, Burckhardt stated.27
In January 1944, the US Ambassador to Switzerland, Leland Harrison, forwarded a message from the newly established WRB to ICRC president Max Huber at the ICRC in Geneva:
We are familiar with the report [...] to your Washington delegation concerning possible feeding programs in Romania, Theresienstadt, Slovakia and Croatia, and the need of funds therefore, and desire information as to the areas in which you could operate immediately, assuming that necessary funds are made available to you to provide food and medicines to Jews and other persecuted group in German occupied areas who are denied the facilities available to the rest of the population. Please advise where food, medicines and other supplies can be purchased and how much money is needed. We are prepared to see that funds are made available at once for necessary operations.28
On 11 February 1944, the US legation in Switzerland followed up with Max Huber that the War Refugee Board was requesting more information about the ICRC’s relief operations on behalf of Jews and other persecuted groups. At the top of the list were relief efforts in Croatia, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, and the Theresienstadt camp north of Prague.29 And indeed the ICRC followed up with rescue missions in these locations.
The Red Cross sent a delegate to Romania and Romanian-occupied territories, distributed foodstuffs, and in 1944 intervened with the Romanian government in favour of the remaining Jewish population. 1944 was also the year, when the ICRC became very active for the relief and protection of Hungarian Jews, as we will see later in this chapter.
Money was key, because all these plans and new efforts had to be financed. The JDC through Saly Mayer made the needed funds available, granting $100,000 (300,000 Swiss francs) for the project. The ICRC was to buy food and clothing and otherwise carry out the relief work. The WRB was to be fully informed about the action taken by Geneva.30 The US legation in
Switzerland promised full support when it stated: ‘In accordance with instructions received from the Department of State, the Legation will be pleased to offer you all possible cooperation in this matter.’31 The news made Schwarzenberg euphoric: ‘This is amazing; 100,000 dollars for free is fantastic. This changes everything; now one has to pursue this work seriously . . . I have to tell Huber that this has to get done now.’32 Schwarzenberg began to hope for more active interventions, perhaps even a proper office for Jewish affairs. Meanwhile, the ICRC started to give in to more demands by Jewish organizations and Allied governments. In February 1944 Mayer wrote to Max Huber that he was thankful for all the support given by the ICRC so far and shared his relief that the United States had at last officially acted. He also expressed his hope that the blockade restrictions against Nazi-controlled Europe might be liberalized in order to allow for more aid supplies and money for rescue operations.33 US support for Jewish organisations continued. In March 1944 the JDC received a license from the US government to dispatch $300,000 a month to Mayer in Switzerland. Mayer was basically given free rein to use the money wherever he deemed necessary, but he was instructed to inform the War Refugee Board about everything.34 The money provided by the JDC through the WRB buoyed up the activities of Jewish organizations. It also complicated the ICRC’s role in such activities. According to Schwarzenberg, Saly Mayer was willing to use legal and illegal means (maybe a reference to bribery or legally questionable protection papers) to save as many people as possible; the ICRC remained more cautious.35 It still put its energies into the food parcel scheme and hoped for its extension, with WRB support. The ICRC appealed again to the American Red Cross for lifting the blockade for food deliveries to concentration camps. This renewed attempt would have been quite understandable, if the WRB of the Treasury Department had not already allowed the transfer of $200,000 to the ICRC ‘for the purchase of supplies for these concentration camps’.36 In early 1944 the American Red Cross made clear that there was still no change of policy in Washington regarding the blockade: ‘The American Red Cross (AMRC) has followed the practice of not endeavouring to influence the decision of the Blockading Authorities [...]’ ‘I believe you have already approached the Blockading Authorities without successful results, so that it appears there is little further that we can do at this moment concerning this problem.’37 An internal AMRC memo stated at that time that the State Department was strictly against sending food supplies to concentration camps where ICRC delegates were not allowed access. 38 The US authorities wanted to make sure that food packages filled with precious coffee, cigarettes and meat would not fall into enemy hands. These were understandable concerns. Who could stop SS guards from taking advantage of the situation and simply taking the shipments for themselves? Distribution of Red Cross food parcels under the supervision of the ICRC was seen as the best way to prevent such an abuse of rescue aid. Access to the concentration camps and ghettos therefore seemed crucial.
Thus it was seen as a big step in the right direction when the Nazi authorities finally agreed to an ICRC inspection of the ghetto-camp in Terezin (Theresienstadt) near Prague. The camp had been the focus of relief operations for quite some time, not just on the part of the ICRC, but also for the Danish and Swedish Red Cross. The Swedish Red Cross had been sending large numbers of gift packages to Norwegian internees and Danish Jews in Theresienstadt for some time.39 The 23 June 1944 visit of a delegation of the ICRC and the Danish Red Cross was carefully orchestrated by the SS, who presented a very sanitized view of‘normal’ camp life. Occupied Denmark should be kept quiet and the vital imports from neutral Sweden continued. Therefore the well-being of Danish prisoners in Theresienstadt and elsewhere was of particular concern to the Nazi leadership in the final stages of the war. In preparation for the visit the SS was kept busy. Weak and sick people were deported to Auschwitz to reduce numbers in the completely overcrowded camp, houses painted, streets and parks cleaned, and flowers were planted. The delegates were shown a school, a soccer game, and a children’s theatre performed for them. The deception seemed to have worked, and the Nazis were very pleased with the ICRC’s favourable report of the good treatment of Jews in German camps. But this came at a time when the public in neutral and Allied countries was already well informed about the ongoing genocide. Encouraged by the successful propaganda trap they had laid for their visitors, the Nazis decided to produce a ‘documentary’ about Theresienstadt that became known as The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews. Most inmates appearing in the film were deported and murdered in Auschwitz shortly after the final scenes were shot. In Nazi propaganda Theresienstadt was portrayed as a ‘spa town’ where elderly German and Austrian Jews could life out their lives in peace. The example of Theresienstadt was meant to refute news about deportations and systematic killings in death factories.40 The ICRC’s 1944 report about Theresienstadt certainly discredited the organization as being either naive or complicit in a cruel fiction,41 even more so as the responsible ICRC delegate Maurice Rossel continued to defend his views many decades later. When in 1979 the French documentary film-maker Claude Lanzmann interviewed Rossel for his epic film Shoah, Rossel stated that he confirmed the excellent conditions in the camp and probably would do so today as well. And there was more. After his visit to Theresienstadt, Rossel gained access to Auschwitz but didn’t realize its function as a killing centre.42 In April 1945 the ICRC came back to the ghetto-camp Theresienstadt for another visit. The Nazi authorities, including Adolf Eichmann, who were hosting the Swiss, denied the genocide and showed them the propaganda film about Theresienstadt.43 While the ICRC endured the farce staged for them about Theresienstadt, British and American troops were liberating concentration camps such as Bergen- Belsen and Buchenwald. The Allied film footage about the reality of these camps shocked the world. On 2 May 1945 ICRC delegate Paul Dunant managed to move into the Theresienstadt ghetto and negotiated its protection under the ICRC flag. On 8 May 1945 he handed the surviving inmates over to the Czechoslovakian authorities.