Abstract and Keywords
During the course of the Second World War, accounts of the brutal treatment of Jews and other undesirable persons began to leak out of Nazi occupied Europe. While Nazi anti-Semitism was well documented before the war, few in the United States believed the reports of Nazi efforts to exterminate the Jews; accounts of death camps and other atrocities were dismissed as propaganda. Varian Fry (1907–1967), an American journalist who reported the rise of the Nazi regime in the 1930s, helped may Jews escape from occupied France in the early years of the war. Fry used the accounts of these survivors to write “The Massacre of the Jews,” published in The New Republic in December, 1942. Fry outlined the horrific scale of the Nazi atrocities as well as the widespread disbelief about the Holocaust among American government officials and opinion leaders.
Varian Fry, “The Massacre of the Jews,” New Republic (December 21, 1942), 816–19.
There are some things so horrible that decent men and women find them impossible to believe, so monstrous that the civilized world recoils incredulous before them. The recent reports of the systematic extermination of the Jews in Nazi Europe are of this order.
We are accustomed to horrors in the historical past, and accept them as a matter of course. The persecution of the Jews in Egypt and the Roman Empire, the slaughters of Genghis Khan, the religious mania which swept Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Indian massacres in America, and the equally brutal retaliations of the white men—all these we credit without question, as phenomena of ages less enlightened than our own. When such things occur in our own times, like the Armenian massacres, we put them down to the account of still half-barbarous peoples. But that such things could be done by contemporary western Europeans, heirs of the humanist tradition, seems hardly possible.
Our skepticism has been fortified by our experience with “atrocity stories” during the last war. We were treated, during that war, to many accounts of German atrocities. We were told of the rape of nuns, the forced prostitution of young Belgian girls, of German soldiers spearing infants on their bayonets, or deliberately and wantonly cutting off their hands. Later, when the bitterness of war had subsided, and Allied investigators were able to interview the populations of the formerly occupied countries, and scholars were let loose on the documents, most of these atrocities were found to have been invented. The natural reaction was to label all atrocity stories “propaganda” and refuse to believe them.
That habit of thought has lasted down to the present day. The Nazis have given us many reasons to change our thinking habits since they assumed power, but we have been slow to learn the new lesson. I remember how skeptical I was myself the first time a Nazi official told me that Hitler and Goebbels were bent on the physical annihilation of the Jews. On July 15, 1935, the S. A. staged its first pogrom in Berlin. I was in Berlin at the time and witnessed the whole thing. I saw the S. A. men, unmistakable despite their mufti, throwing chairs and tables through the plate-glass windows of Jewish-owned cafés, dragging Jewish men and women oat of buses and chasing them up the streets, or knocking them down and kicking them in the face and belly as they lay prostrate on the sidewalk. And I heard them chanting their terrible song:
- Wenn Judenblut vom Messer spritzt,
- Dann geht es nochmal so gut! 1
The next day, in a state of high indignation, I went to see “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, then chief of the Foreign Press Division of the Propaganda Ministry. On my way to his office, I learned that one of the victims of the previous night’s bestiality had already died of his injuries. Yet, when Hanfstaengl told me, in his cultured Harvard accent, that the “radicals” among the Nazi Party leaders intended to “solve” the “Jewish problem” by the physical extermination of the Jews, I only half believed him. It was not much more than a year after the Blood Bath of June 30, 1934; yet even then I could not believe that there were men in positions of power and authority in western Europe in the twentieth century who could seriously entertain such a monstrous idea.
I learned better in November, 1938, when the Nazi leaders openly encouraged the burning of synagogues, the pillage of Jewish homes and the murder of their inhabitants.
One reason the Western world failed to rouse itself more promptly to the Nazi menace was surely this tendency to dismiss as impossible fantasy the many warnings the Nazis themselves gave us. We made the terrible mistake of judging the Nazis by our own standards, failing even after the war had begun to realize how completely they had renounced, if indeed they had ever espoused, those standards. Even today, after more than three years of the Nazi kind of war in Europe, and more than one year of direct experience with it ourselves, there are still far too many among us who do not understand the nature of the enemy—an enemy who will stop at literally nothing to achieve his ends. And his ends are the enslavement or annihilation not only of the Jews but, after them, of all the non-German peoples of Europe and, if possible, the entire world.
The program is already far advanced. According to a report to the President by leaders of American Jewish groups, nearly 2,000,000 European Jews have already been slain since the war began, and the remaining 5,000,000 now living under Nazi control are scheduled to be destroyed as soon as Hitler’s blond butchers can get around to them. Of the 275,000 Jews who were living in Germany and Austria at the outbreak of the war, only 52,000 to 55,000 remain. The 170,000 Jews in Czecho-Slovakia have been reduced to 35,000. The figures for Poland, where the Nazi program has been pushed very rapidly, are uncertain. There were 3,300,000 Jews in Poland at the beginning of the war, but some 500,000 fled to Russia, leaving approximately 2,800,000 behind. By the beginning of the summer of 1942, this number had already been reduced to 2,200,000, and deportations and massacres since that time have been on an ever increasing scale. In the ghetto of Warsaw, in which 550,000 Jews once dwelt, there are today fewer than 50,000. In the city of Riga, Latvia, 8,000 Jews were killed in a single night. A week later 16,000 more were led into a woods, stripped and machine-gunned.
It is not merely central and eastern Europe which are being “purged,” or rendered “Judenrein,” as the Nazis like to say. The Netherlands has already given up 60,000 of its 180,000 Jews. Of the 85,000 who once lived in Belgium only 8,000 remain today, while of the 340,000 Jews of France, more than 65,000 have been deported. Even Norway has begun to ship her Jewish citizens eastward to the Nazi slaughter houses and starvation pens.
The methods employed by the Nazis are many. There is starvation: Jews all over Europe are kept on rations often only one-third or one-fourth what is allowed to non-Jews. Slow death is the inevitable consequence. There is deportation: Jews by the hundreds of thousands have been packed into cattle cars, without food, water or sanitary conveniences of any sort, and shipped the whole breadth of Europe. When the cars arrive at their destination, about a third of the passengers are already dead. There are the extermination centers, where Jews are destroyed by poison gas or electricity. There are specially constructed trucks, in which Jews are asphyxiated by carbon monoxide from the exhausts, on their way to burial trenches. There are the mines, in which they are worked to death, or poisoned by fumes of metals. There is burning alive, in crematoria, or buildings deliberately set on fire. There is the method of injecting air-bubbles into the blood stream: it is cheap, clean and efficient, producing clots, embolisms and death within a few hours. And there is the good old-fashioned system of standing the victims up, very often naked, and machine-gunning them, preferrably beside the graves they themselves have been forced to dig. It saves time, labor and transportation. …
Letters, reports, cables all fit together. They add up to the most appalling picture of mass murder in all human history. Nor is it only the Jews who are threatened. Polish authorities assert that many hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Poles have been slain with equal callousness, and soberly warn that the entire Polish people may be wiped out before this war is over. The decimation of the Greek people is a matter of record. The Nazis are evidently quite indifferent to it, if they do not actually welcome it. Thousands of French will die of hunger and cold this winter, and thousands more will never be born, either because the fathers who might have begotten them are being held in Nazi prison camps, or because the mothers are too undernourished to carry them. The same thing is true of many other countries of Europe. And by their executions of “hostages” the Nazis are systematically destroying the potential leaders of democratic movements in all the countries they have overrun.
We must face the terrible truth. Even though Hitler loses this war, he may win it anyway, at least as far as Europe is concerned. There are reports, apparently trustworthy, that the Nazis and the German army are prepared for eventual retreat, and that their plans call for the extermination of every living thing and the destruction of all physical property in the areas they may be forced to evacuate. When we remember that, even after the war of 1914–18 was hopelessly lost and the German army was retreating in confusion on the Western Front, it still found time, and the will, wantonly to destroy the factories and flood the mines in its path, we may well believe that this time it will be even more thorough, go even more berserk.
If this happens, we shall be confronted with the most frightful dilemma imaginable. Every man, woman and child in Europe will become a hostage, a means of blackmail. If we continue the war, they will die. Yet if we do not continue the war, the Nazis will have won all they can then hope to win—time. Time to regroup their forces, divide ours and strike again.
Our only course then will be to overwhelm them so rapidly that they will not be able to carry out their threats. For that we shall need all the strength we can possibly muster, and all the courage. The Nazis will certainly hope to cut off our allies one by one by threatening the total annihilation of their peoples if they continue to oppose them. We and our allies must be prepared to face the challenge unflinchingly. …
If we do any or all of these things, we should broadcast the news of them day and night to every country of Europe, in every European language. There is a report, which I have not been able to verify, that the OWI has banned mention of the massacres in its short-wave broadcasts. If this is true, it is a sadly mistaken policy. We have nothing to gain by “appeasing” the anti-Semites and the murderers. We have much to gain by using the facts to create resistance and eventually rebellion. The fact that the Nazis do not commit their massacres in western Europe, but transport their victims to the East before destroying them, is certain proof that they fear the effect on the local populations of the news of their crimes.
Finally, and it is a little thing, but at the same time a big thing, we can offer asylum now, without delay or red tape, to those few fortunate enough to escape from the Aryan paradise. We can do this without any risk to ourselves, because we can intern the refugees on arrival, and examine them at leisure before releasing them. If there is the slightest doubt about any of them, we can keep them interned for the duration of the war. Despite the fact that the urgency of the situation has never been greater, immigration into the United States in the year 1942 will have been less than ten percent of what it has been in “normal” years before Hitler, when some of the largest quotas were not filled. There have been bureaucratic delays in visa procedure which have literally condemned to death many stalwart democrats. These delays have caused an understandable bitterness among Jews and non-Jews in Europe, who have looked to us for help which did not come. …
This is a challenge which we cannot, must not, ignore.
1) According to Fry, why were accounts of Nazi atrocities against Jews and other people “incredible?” Why were Americans unable or unwilling to believe the accounts?
2) How did the American government respond to accounts of the Nazi massacre of the Jews and other people? What could have been done?
3) What responsibility did the United States have towards the victims of the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities?
(1) “When Jewish blood spurts from the knife, Then everything will be fine again.”