Learning About the Final Solution

Acting on the orders of Hitler and Himmler, the Nazis killed as many European Jews as they could between 1941 and 1945. When it became too difficult and too stressful (for the executioners, of course) to simply shoot them in batches, they looked for other methods. Ultimately they settled on the use of poison gas, and the death camps were established. By the time the Soviets advanced into Poland and the Americans and British advanced into the heart of Germany, the Germans had murdered millions of Jewish men, women and children. The exact count will never be precisely known, but six million has been a widely accepted number.

The world began to learn something about what was happening in the late spring of 1942. Both British and American newspapers published stories in June, but the stories were often downplayed or treated with skepticism by editorial writers. In August 1942, the World Jewish Congress office in Switzerland passed on to Britain and America information it had received from a German businessman to the effect that the Nazis had decided to carry out the wholesale killing of European Jews. This information was confirmed by other sources, the most important being official German communications that had been intercepted and decoded by Allied intelligence. Some of these communications included details as to where the Jews were being sent and how they were being killed. Because of security reasons, these facts were naturally not shared with the public, but by the middle of 1942, government officials were aware of Hitler's Final Solution.

In August 1943, the Polish government-in-exile asked the American and British air forces to consider bombing the rail lines leading to the death camps. This proposal was renewed several times in 1944 by the Polish government-in-exile and Jewish organizations. But it was always rejected on the grounds that the Allied air forces could do more to end the war sooner by carrying out its regular missions, and that bombing damage would do little to slow down the killings. (These decisions have since become a matter of continuing debate.)

Only after the war ended in Europe did the full extent of the Final Solution become common knowledge. The films and photographs of the death camps and concentration camps, made by photographers of the U.S. Army, probably did more than anything to convey the full extent of the tragedy to the American public.

Learning about the victims

If it was obvious by the fall of 1945 that the Nazis had murdered millions of Jews, it would still take many months, even years, before individual families could learn the fate of a loved one.

In the cases of those who Herman Stern had helped, few had not lost at least one family member:



Sources: Richard Breitman, Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned. What the British and Americans Knew (1998); Richard Breitman and Walter Laqueur, Breaking the Silence (1986); Walter Laqueur, The Terrible Secret: Suppression of the Truth about Hitler's Final Solution (1998 rev. ed.); Deborah Lipstadt, Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust (1986); Michael Neufield and Michael Berenbaum, The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It? (2000); Robert Ross, So It Was True: The American Protestant Press and the Nazi Persecution of the Jews (1980)
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