Gerhart Riegner

Gerhart Riegner (1911–2001) was one of the first persons to make Allied leaders aware of the Nazis’ plan to murder all the Jews in Europe. He did so with telegrams sent to the governments of Britain and the United States in 1942.

© dpa picture-alliance/United Archives
Gerhart Riegner, place and date unknown.

Riegner was a lawyer in Germany. He fled the country when the Nazis rose to power in 1933 and joined the World Jewish Congress in Geneva as a Legal Officer in 1936 and became head of its Swiss office in 1939.

© The National Archives of the UK, ref. FO371/30917
The telegram Riegner sent to the Foreign Office in London, 1942.

On 8 August, 1942, Riegner sent telegrams via British and American diplomats in Geneva to the Foreign Office in London and the US State Department. Riegner’s message stated that he had received an “alarming report” that the Nazis would exterminate the Jews “at one blow“, and that the action was due to start in the autumn of 1942 with the use of prussic acid (potassium cyanide/ Zyklon B). Riegner’s telegrams were among the first attempts to inform the allied governments about the Holocaust. These warnings were initially ignored by the Allies. One of Riegner’s sources of information for the telegrams was the German industrialist Eduard Schulte, Chief Executive Officer at the Silesian mining company Giesche. Through his work Schulte had various highlevel contacts with NSDAP and SS-officials.

“Never did I feel so strongly the sense of abandonment, powerlessness and loneliness as when I sent messages of disaster and horror to the free world and no one believed me.”

Gerhart Riegner
© Wiener Library Collections
Copy of a letter by Riegner to an editor of The Jerusalem Post about the identity of Riegner’s source for the information contained in his telegram, 1991.

After the war, Riegner continued to be active within the World Jewish Congress, and in this capacity, worked with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and contributed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He also wrote about religious philosophy and was particularly interested in Jewish-Catholic relations. His work continued until his death in Geneva in 2001.