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When Did the World Find Out About the Holocaust?

Information regarding mass murders of Jews began to reach the free world soon after these actions began in the Soviet Union in late June 1941, and the volume of such reports increased with time. The early sources of information include German police reports intercepted by British intelligence; local eyewitnesses and escaped Jews reporting to the underground, Soviet, or neutral sources; and Hungarian soldiers on home leave, whose observations were reported by neutral sources.

As early as March 1942, reports of a Nazi plan to murder all the Jews – including details on methods, numbers, and locations – reached Allied and neutral leaders. The first is believed to be a dispatch from the Chilean consul in Prague that was written in November 1941 and obtained by British and American intelligence in March 1942. Information also came from the underground Jewish Socialist Bund party in the Warsaw ghetto in May; Gerhard Riegner’s cable from Switzerland in August; the eyewitness account of Polish underground courier Jan Karski in November; and the eyewitness accounts of 69 Polish Jews who reached Palestine in a civilian prisoner exchange between Germany and Britain in November.

According to historian Peter Black, the first media reference to the murder of Jews appeared in the Polish Home Army publication Biuletyn Informacyjny on February 19, 1942: “Several towns and villages report intensified action against the Jews by the occupiers [i.e., the Germans].  In Jadów bei Radzym (sic, Radzyn), in Izbica, Wartbrücken, Dombie, Zagórów, Turek und Tonningen, the mass murder of the Jews has begun. The people are allegedly taken away to work – and then shot or poisoned by gas.”

The information, Black notes, likely came from Szlamek Bajler – also known as Szlama Ber Winer and Yakov Grojanowski – who escaped to the Warsaw Ghetto from Chelmno in January 1942, less than two months after it began operations. 

On April 28, 1942, Biuletyn Informacyjny published a report that referred to the Belzec extermination camp. Compiled from a variety of sources, the report contained several inaccuracies, including the false claim that Jews were killed by electric shock.

The HISTORY channel’s website incorrectly says the first public account was published on June 1, 1942. It said the underground Polish Socialist newspaper Liberty Brigade reported that tens of thousands of Jews were being gassed at Chelmno. It is possible this was derived from the first report on Chelmno, which was written by Home Army commander General Stefan Rowecki on April 29, 1942. HISTORY wrongly attributes the information to Emanuel Ringelblum, who it says escaped from Chelmno after being forced to bury bodies as they were thrown out of gas-vans. But Ringelblum was not in Chelmno. He was told about the camp by Bajler.

Bajler was assigned to bury Jews murdered in the camp as a Sonderkommando and learned that he and the others digging graves were to be killed. On January 19, 1942, Bajler escaped through a small window of a truck. As he wrote later, his goals, aside from rescuing his own life, were to let the world know about what was happening in Chełmno. Through all that time, I was calling to God and my parents to help me save the Jewish nation. He found shelter at the home of the rabbi at Grabow before journeying on to the Warsaw Ghetto.

Jews in Koło being deported to Chełmno 

According to the Jewish Historical Institute, Hersz Wasser and his wife Bluma, who were members of the Oneg Shabbat group along with Ringelblum in the ghetto, wrote down Bajler’s testimony in February 1942 (the testimony was included in Oneg Shabbat’s report, “The events in Chelmno,” which was hidden in the Ringelblum Archive discovered on September 18, 1946). The Grojanowski Report (Bajler’s nom de guerre was Yakov Grojanowski) was later passed on to London

The report provided a detailed description of the method used to kill Jews. From his note on January 7, 1942:

It looked like a normal large lorry, in grey paint, with two hermetically closed rear doors. The inner walls were of steel metal. There weren’t any seats. The floor was covered by a wooden grating, as in public baths, with straw mats on top. Between the driver’s cab and the rear part were two peepholes. With a flashlight one could observe through these peepholes if the victims were already dead. Under the wooden grating were two tubes about 15 cms thick which came out of the cab. The tubes had small openings from which gas poured out. The gas generator was in the cab, where the same driver sat all the time. He wore a uniform of the SS death’s head units and was about forty years old. There were two such vans.
When the lorries approached we had to stand at a distance of 5 m from the ditch. The leader of the guard detail was a high-ranking SS man, an absolute sadist and murderer. He ordered that eight men were to open the doors of the lorry. The smell of gas that met us was overpowering.

The BBC published a report, “700,000 Jews killed in Poland,” on June 2, 1942. The information was also broadcast on the radio. The BBC had a different version of the story of how the information about Chelmno was discovered. The BBC said a Bund underground activist named Leon Feiner sent a report to London in May 1942 that documented the murder of Jews in towns and districts by month. Feiner estimated that 700,000 Jews had been murdered in Poland by May, with a description of the gas vans at Chelmno. The BBC report “did not stress the conclusion of the report: that the program to murder all the Jews was already being carried out.”

The entire Feiner report, dated May 22, was given to the press on June 25 by Samuel Zygelbojm, a Jewish representative in the Polish government in exile, who had smuggled the document to London on microfilm hidden inside a key.

The Daily Telegraph was one of the papers that published the information in an article that day with the headline: “Germans murder 700,000 Jews in Poland” and subhead: “TRAVELLING GAS CHAMBERS.” The article, which appeared on page five of the six-page issue, referred to “the greatest massacre in the world’s history” and included the death toll from massacres in seven towns and cities. For example, it noted that 50,000 Jews were murdered in Vilna in November 1941 and that 300,000 had been “slaughtered in this district and around Lithuanian Kovno.”

The New York Times did not publish a summary of the report until July 2 – on page six. Page one, historian Martin Gilbert noted, featured a story about the donation of a tennis shoe by the governor of New York to a scrap rubber drive,

Because the Gestapo was looking for Bajler, Ringelblum sent him to the Zamosc Ghetto, where Bajler’s sister-in-law lived. He subsequently sent postcards to Ringelblum about the existence of a death camp in Belzec, 44 kilometers (27 miles) south of the city. He was deported to the camp on April 14, 1942, along with some 3,000 Jews of the Zamość Ghetto, where he was murdered.

On December 17, 1942, the Allies issued a proclamation condemning the extermination of the Jewish people in Europe and declared that they would punish the perpetrators. Notwithstanding this, it remains unclear to what extent Allied and neutral leaders understood the full import of their information. The utter shock of senior Allied commanders who liberated camps at the end of the war may indicate that this understanding was not complete.

Sources: Yad Vashem.
Szlama Ber Winer, Wikipedia.
Emanuel Ringelblum, Holocaust Historical Society.
Martin Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies, (Rosetta Books, 1981).
Anna Majchrowska, This is probably the last letter I’m writing to you..., Jewish Historical Institute.
“700,000 Jews killed in Poland,” BBC, (June 2, 1942).
“Daily Telegraph’s holocaust article in 1942 that went unheralded,” The Guardian, (January 27, 2015).
lawrencebush, “June 1: Word of the Gassings,” Jewish Currents, (May 31, 2015).
News of Holocaust death camp killings becomes public for first time, History, (May 28, 2020).
Email from Peter Black, (June 22, 2023).

Photo: SS Unknown author, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.