Gerhart Riegner was born in Germany in 1911. When the anti-Semitic Nazi party came to power, he fled Germany to go to France and later Switzerland, where he trained as a lawyer. He was one of the founding members, in 1936, of the World Jewish Congress, and became their representative in Geneva, where he gathered as much information about what was going on in the rest of Europe as possible.

Early in World War II, it was known from many sources that German forces were rounding up and deporting, or sometimes just massacring, Jewish people from German-occupied territories. Newspapers such as The New York Times printed stories about this as early as October 1941. However, the first word to reach non-Nazis about the plan to exterminate all the Jewish people of Europe came from a German businessman to Gerhart Riegner in August 1942. On the 8th, Riegner informed the U.S. consulate in Geneva of this "final solution" plan of the Nazis, and three days later that information was telegraphed to the United States. (It was necessary to work through government agencies, as other communication methods were censored during the war.) Later in the month, a British politician found out about this and sent the news to an American rabbi, Stephen Wise. "The essential step was to inform the governments and the leaders of Jewish organizations. This was urgent," said Riegner.

However, no real action was taken on this information. It was not made public to anyone until November, and no major media made any mention of the Holocaust that was going on until late 1944, only a few months after President Franklin D. Roosevelt had created the War Refugee Board. Riegner said in 1995 that "I agree that even successful rescue activities in 1943 would not have stopped the process of annihilation. But one could have saved several hundred thousand Jews... by opening the frontiers of the Allies, and of the neutral countries, and of Palestine, by more energetic political action vis-a-vis Nazi Germany, by more imagination (like 'port frane' zones in USA) important numbers may have been saved."

As it was, the numbers Jewish immigrants were limited in the U.S. and elsewhere and some boats arriving in North America were actually sent back to Europe. Due to disbelief in the possibility of this genocide plan, or anti-Semitism, or something, the facts were ignored for more than two years, nearly to the point of Allied soldiers liberating concentration camps.

After the war, Riegner worked on making connections and communications between Jews and Christians. The World Jewish Congress tried to get Pope Pius XII to issue an encyclical on Jews just after the war, and helped draft documents concerning the Roman Catholic Church's views on Judaism released from Vatican II. The organization also dealt with Protestants through the World Council of Churches. Riegner was the secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress from 1965 to 1983, and retained influence and honorary rank in the organization after that. He also received the Legion of Honor from France in 1987.

His autobiography, Ne jamais désespérer: Soixantes années au service du peuple juif et des droits de l’homme (Never despair: sixty years in the service of the Jewish people and the rights of man) was published in 1999. He died December 3, 2001 in Geneva.

Sources: (eventual archive of the "Honorary Unsubscribe" feature on Riegner in the This Is True newsletter for 2 December 2001)

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