Gerhart M. Riegner. Never Despair: Sixty Years in the Service of the Jewish People and the Cause of Human Rights. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006. 480 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-56663-696-4.
Reviewed by Michael Berkowitz
Published on H-German (November, 2008)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Interesting Times Indeed
Prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, Zionist leaders such as Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, Nahum Goldmann, and David Ben-Gurion were frequently described as "statesmen without a state." This moniker may be even more apt for Gerhart M. Riegner (1911-2001). Riegner helped to constitute and represent the World Jewish Congress (WJC), based in Geneva, Switzerland, beginning in 1936. In addition to holding key positions in the WJC after World War II, Riegner also served on the War Refugee Board (WRB), thus making him a significant observer of and interlocutor for European Jewry. He is best known for writing and dispatching the "Riegner Telegram" in August 1942 to Rabbi Stephen S. Wise in New York, which confirmed rumors of mass, systematic murder, perpetrated mainly against Jews: "RECEIVED ALARMING REPORT THAT IN FUEHRERS HEADQUARTERS PLAN DISCUSSED AND UNDER CONSIDERATION THAT ALL JEWS IN COUNTRIES OCCUPIED OR CONTROLLED GERMANY NUMBER 3-1/2 TO 4 MILLION SHOULD AFTER DEPORTATION AND CONCENTRATION IN EAST AT ONE BLOW EXTERMINATED TO RESOLVE ONCE FOR ALL JEWISH QUESTION IN EUROPE" (cited on p. 42). With the benefit of hindsight it is not difficult to see this statement, as terse and accurate as it was, as having been sent too late, and intended for a segment of the public--institutional, organized Jewry--that did not possess the means to intervene forcefully in the Nazi assault. Furthermore, a number of factors taken together contributed to protracted disbelief, paralysis, and delays in responding to the increasingly desperate situation. A subheading in the chapter recounting the response to the telegram could not be more stark: "Why We Failed" (p. 56).
The value of Riegner's perspective notwithstanding, his well-edited and lucid memoir, Never Despair: Fifty Years in the Service of the Jewish People and the Cause of Human Rights, does not reveal much that is new or offer a particularly fresh interpretive lens on the Holocaust. Indeed, the "Riegner Telegram" has been used and put properly into context by a number of scholars, including Arthur Morse, Raul Hilberg, and Richard Breitman. Although the WJC had an ambitious agenda--to represent and protect the entirety of the Jewish people--and in many respects was successful in its mission, it was, in the end, just another Jewish organization. The old joke that for every ten Jews there are eleven Jewish organizations applies here despite the cliché; indeed, it may be especially appropriate for evaluating the efforts of Riegner and the WJC. No matter how inclusive any organization claimed to be, including the Zionist organization and later, the State of Israel, historians are compelled to look closely at the extent to which these bodies really are as "representative" or as comprehensive as claimed. Due to the fragmented nature of Jewry--with the great exception of the strictures imposed on them from outside the Jewish realm, which act equally--any single organization, at best, can only be seen as accountable to a discrete constituency. Despite the grand titles and self-definitions of so-called major Jewish organizations, the case of the WJC reminds us that an overall Jewish governing body with a clear agenda that commands a plurality of Jews as individuals and communities has never existed outside the minds of antisemites. Confronting the harrowing question of how the Holocaust could have happened, Riegner avers: "I believe that one of the decisive factors was our total powerlessness, our absolute lack of political influence. I believe that never in our history have Jews been so bereft of power as during that period of our greatest need" (p. 64).
Although scholars and students will find some details in the story of the "Riegner Telegram" informative, the information in this memoir does not challenge the increasingly sophisticated historiography concerning "what was known" about the Holocaust, as recently supplemented by newly opened archives in eastern Europe. There is value, nevertheless, in reading Riegner's memoir in light of both the prewar and postwar periods. Although there is no shortage of memoirs by German Jews, some of which have been utilized superbly by scholars such as Marion Kaplan and Saul Friedlander, Riegner offers a number of insights on "Background and Family Origins"--such as a brief but interesting reflection on his lifetime "bachelorhood" (pp. 28-29). Historians might devote more serious attention to this category of social type. Although he is not concerned with revealing details of his private life, he is quite candid in admitting, for instance, that he owed his first position more to the fact that his "grandfather was a gentleman" than to his own qualities or accomplishments (p. 33).
Perhaps more enlightening than Riegner's recollections of his rather cocooned existence in Germany, Austria, and later Switzerland is his extensive reflection on the WJC's post-Second World War efforts to defend the rights of the Jewish remnant in Europe, to protect and normalize Jewish settlement in Palestine and Israel, and to apply lessons learned from the destruction of European Jewry to the universal defense of human rights. In particular, Riegner's autobiography informs us of an important fact that is too often taken for granted: the post-World War II acceptance of Jews as a legitimate entity in central and western Europe was not simply the result of the Allied victory over the Nazis accompanied by a change of heart among non-Jews. The postwar reconstruction of Europe was complemented by the strenuous efforts of Riegner and the WJC to build ongoing, constructive relations with integral forces such as churches, universities and student groups, nongovernmental organizations, and political parties. In part, the generally lessening importance of antisemitism among the preeminent causes of the European Right (outside the successor states of eastern and east central Europe) can be traced to such "diplomacy." Integration of Jews into the European body politic also was due, in no small part, to the obvious erasure of Jews as a significant presence due to the Holocaust, the containment and then demise of communism, and eventually, the specter of supposed new enemies--such as the imagined threat of Muslims, or the possibility of Turkey's integration into Europe. Nevertheless, the bridges built by Riegner and his organization are part of an infrastructure that is resilient, yet mainly invisible. The kind of fabulous, instantaneous transformation of Nazis into good Germans trumpeted by Daniel Goldhagen, to the extent that it can be said to have occurred, evolved over time--in no small part due to the efforts of Riegner, the WJC, and other Jewish organizations.
Like the more perceptive memoir of Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Riegner's autobiography is most compelling for capturing a life that comprises both pre- and postwar Europe. Here we have the thoughts and experiences of a middle-to-upper-class German Jew who tried to intervene in the Holocaust through his responsible yet severely constrained position in the WJC. He was simultaneously engaged and frustratingly detached. Later, Riegner assiduously strove to protect the Jews who survived and remained in Europe, and sought to ensure that such horrors could never be perpetrated on any other people. Riegner aspired, furthermore, to influence the post-World War II order in such a way as to undermine the preconditions for human rights abuses and genocide, such as gross exploitation and inequalities and affronts to equal protection and civil liberties. "Conservative jurists," Riegner asserts, "are the greatest enemies of the Jewish people and the obstacle to all progress," approvingly quoting Alexander Pekelis (p. 179). Indeed, one of the signal merits of Riegner's memoir is to remind us of the humanitarian and universal tradition embraced by many German Jews of his generation, which helped make him the formidable, principled, and effective servant of the Jewish people, and humanity in general, that he became.
. Riegner's balanced view of Stephen S. Wise may be contrasted with the perspective of David S. Wyman in his The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945 (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 69-72, 179-180; cf. Riegner, 70-72.
. Arthur D. Morse, While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy (New York: Hart, 1968), 3-11, 15-23, 33, 35, 45-46, 48, 73-76,78, 80-86. 98, 308-310, 382; Raul Hilberg, Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945 (New York: HarperCollins,1992), 223-241, 243, 246, 253, 317 n. 13, 322 n. 41, 329 n. 19; and Richard Breitman, Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998), 100-101, 139-146, 151-154, 172-176, 194-196, 200-211, 286 n. 3, 287 n. 20, 299 n. 13.
. Riegner remarks on the sympathetic hearing he received from "IvanMaiski, the Soviet Ambassador to London. Historically this is of considerable interest" (p. 52). It is consistent with the scholarship, for example, of David Bankier, in his "The Jewish Question in the [Communist] anti-Nazi Political Discourse: New Findings on the Attitudes Toward Antisemitism and Zionism," Annual Lecture of the John Najmann Chair of Holocaust Studies (Yad Vashem), delivered at the Imperial War Museum, London, June 6, 2008.
. Marion A. Kaplan, Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Saul Friedlaender, Nazi Germany and the Jews (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), and The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945 (New York: HarperCollins, 2007).
. Marcel Reich-Ranicki, The Author of Himself: The Life of Marcel Reich-Ranicki, trans. Ewald Osers (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001).
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