The Allies and the Holocaust: What they knew, when they knew it, and what they did about it

The idea that Germany, during World War II, would attempt to completely eradicate the entire Jewish population of the territories under their control was initially inconceivable to the Allies. Even though the Nazi’s hate of Jewish people and other groups of “undesirables” was well known, nobody could have imagined that Germany – a modern nation of cultured people, would perpetrate such a base, primitive crime against humanity. Additionally, from a warfighting standpoint it made no sense to the Allies that the Nazis would waste the immense amount of manpower and resources that they did in such an effort.

In May 1942, Leon Feiner, head of the Jewish Labor Bund underground group in Poland smuggled a report out to the Western Allies. It detailed mass murders by the Einsatzgruppen in Soviet territory, gassing vans at Chelmno in western Poland being used to murder the Jews of Lodz, and Polish Jews in sealed boxcars who disappeared into the forests of eastern Poland without a trace. It also spoke of Jews being sent to “Sobibor, near Wlodawa, where they were all murdered with gas, machine guns, and even being bayoneted…”[1] BBC radio broadcasted the Jewish Bund report in both English and Yiddish in the summer of 1942, and the UK Daily Telegraph ran an article under the headlines GERMANS MURDER SEVEN HUNDRED THOUSAND JEWS IN POLAND. The New York Times picked up the Telegraph articles, but editors were skeptical and buried them in the paper instead of running a front-page headline. American Jews noticed the story and demonstrated at Madison Square Garden against the Nazi atrocities. President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised that when the war was over, the Nazi criminals would be “called to account.”[2]

This began to change beginning in 1942 with several very accurate intelligence reports that filtered out of Nazi occupied territories in eastern Europe to London and Washington.

Jewish children being taken from Lodz ghetto to the Chelmno death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, 1942. Public Domain

In August 1942, Gerhard Riegner, a member of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva Switzerland, wired Jewish leaders in London and New York, transmitting the message through the British and American consuls in Geneva so that the Nazis would not intercept it. He had received information from a high ranking German industrialist with close ties to Nazi leaders that Hitler had issued an order to exterminate systematically all European Jews not just Polish Jews.[3] The telegram read in part as follows:


Image of the original telegram from Gerhart Riegner, Secretary of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, was received by the Foreign Office in August 1942. U.S. National Archives

Leaders in both London and Washington were both skeptical and asked Jewish leaders to sit on the information until it could be verified.

In October 1942 Richard Lichtheim, a Jewish-Zionist leader in Geneva, received a visit from two eyewitnesses fresh from Poland one of whom was a very reliable, well-known non-Jew. The two men later met with the U.S. Consul in Geneva, Leland Harrison. Their report included various written eyewitness accounts and three-page typed report on Hitler’s Final Solution to date country by country.

…only 4,000 Latvian Jews left alive, all Serbian Jews gone, 79,000 Slovak Jews deported presumed dead, 60,000 Dutch Jews deported to Poland most are dead, 50,000 French Jews deported presumed dead.[5]

Local collaborators gather Jewish children before their execution at Liepaja, Latvia. 1941. Yad Vashem

Washington and London were finally convinced. The British Foreign Office cabled the British ambassador in Washington:

We have little doubt that a policy of gradual extermination of all Jews, except highly skilled workers, is being carried out by the German authorities.”[6]

Both the State Department and the Foreign Office were disturbed however they were in the midst of fighting a war and feared that the news of the Final Solution would distract the Allies into wasting “a disproportionate amount of time dealing with wailing Jews.”[7]

Between December 1942 and July 1943, Allied governments received detailed eyewitness reports from Jan Karski, an intelligence operative of the Polish Government in Exile. Karski went undercover and witnessed the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto, brutal murders, and deportations of Jews to the Operation Reinhard death camps. He briefed President Roosevelt in person in July 1943. He did not mince words in his report which read in part:

The people are packed so tightly that those who die of suffocation remain in the crowd side by side with the still living and with those slowly dying from the fumes of lime and chlorine, for lack of air, water, and food… Whenever trains arrive, half the people arrive dead. Those surviving are sent to special camps at Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor. Once there, they … are mass-murdered.[8]

View of burning corpses of victims at Majdanek (located near Sobibor) from rooftops of nearby town of Lublin, October 1943. U.S. Holocaust Museum

Karski also demanded on behalf of the Jewish leaders in Poland that the Allies, among other things bomb the railways and death camps as well as negotiate with the Nazis for the freedom of the Jews. The Allied leaders were not willing to use air assets against targets that were not of a strategic nature. They flat out refused the idea of negotiating with the Nazis. The best solution they thought was to win the war as soon as possible.

In April-May 1944 Rudolf Vrba, a prisoner at Auschwitz, managed to escape along with two others and make his way to Slovakia. There he wrote a meticulous report that detailed the expansion of the railroad directly into Birkenau in preparation for receiving the Jews of Hungary as well as the information regarding the gas chambers. The report reached the Allies and the Jews of Hungary before they were deported to Auschwitz. Subsequently BBC radio broadcasted news about Auschwitz and the New York Times published three stories on the camps.[9] This did not cause any change in the Allied perspective regarding Nazi death camps or concentration camps; the Allied policy remained to win the war as fast as possible. No resources were to be allocated to bombing or otherwise disrupting the Nazi death camp system.

British (SAAF 60th Squadron) aerial reconnaissance photo of Auschwitz-Birkenau on August 23, 1944. At this time the frenzied mass murder of Hungarian Jews was underway at Auschwitz during summer 1944. In this image corpses of victims are being incinerated near out door pits because the crematoriums could not keep up. U.S. Holocaust Museum
One of four clandestinely taken photographs inside Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp during August 1944. Known as the Sonderkommando photographs, the image (taken from inside the gas chamber doorway or window to avoid detection) shows prisoners cremating corpses outdoors because the regular crematoria could not keep up with the numbers of people being murdered. Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum
Cropped and enlarged image of the photo above.

It was not until the Allies in the East and West began to liberate the Nazi concentration camps and death camps that there was true outrage from the West. Until images and newsreels of the camps were published the reports on Nazi perpetrated mass murder were just ink and paper. Once soldiers and war correspondents saw for themselves the horrors of the camps – emaciated and starving prisoners, piles of corpses, gas chambers and mounds of ashes the outrage was without limits. The Allies launched a massive police effort and began to investigate and bring to justice the perpetrators of the worst crime in history. Many Nazi perpetrators were caught and brought to justice in the aftermath of the war, while others escaped the dragnet and lived their lives under assumed names. Many of these were later tracked down by the Israeli Mossad or Nazi hunters like Simon Wiesenthal.


[1] Richard Rashke, Escape from Sobibor: Revised and Updated Edition (Delphinium Books. Kindle Edition, 2012), 84.

[2] Ibid. 84.

[3] Ibid. 84-85.

[4] Ibid. 85.

[5] Ibid. 85.

[6] Ibid. 85-86.

[7] Ibid. 86.

[8] Ibid. 83-84.

[9] Laurence Rees, Auschwitz: A New History (PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition, 2005), Kindle Locations 4540-4547.