The largely overlooked story of how Himmler ‘saved’ thousands of Jews at the end of WWII.
On November 3, 1944, Adolf Hitler’s deputy, Reichsfuhrer SS and General Plenipotentiary of Nazi Germany Heinrich Himmler, was traveling on a German military train from Breslau to Vienna. Sitting with him was his longtime friend, Dr. Jean-Marie Musy, the former president of the Swiss Confederation.
Their conversation that day set in process a remarkable saga that led to thousands – and possibly even tens of thousands – of European Jews being saved from Nazi extermination. It ranks as one of the more extraordinary stories of the war, and yet it is an all but unpublicized one.
Musy had known Himmler since the 1930s and had been the publisher of a pro-German newspaper, La Jeune Suisse. During that period he had worked to reduce the prominence of Jews in economic and public life. But by 1944, he had reversed his position, stopped his publication, and decided that the Nazis were criminals and murderers. Unbeknown to Himmler, Musy had gone so far as to switch his loyalties and become an emissary of the Irgun, the Revisionist Zionist movement.
As World War II was drawing to a close, Hitler ordered the extermination of all remaining Jews in Nazi death camps throughout Europe.
Unsurprisingly, the Irgun’s route to Musy, and via him to Himmler, was a convoluted one. It originated with Dr. Reuben Hecht, who worked as an Irgun representative in Zurich. Hecht forged a close relationship with the American consul general there, Samuel Edison Woods, and persuaded him to embrace Zionism. Woods, in turn, introduced Hecht to Yitzchak and Recha Sternbuch, an Orthodox Jewish couple who ran the Swiss branch of the Emergency Rescue Committee (Va’ad ha-Hatzalah) of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis. They established contacts with the Papal Nuncio to Switzerland and gradually gained influence with the broader Swiss diplomatic community. And in September 1944, they came into contact with Musy, recruited him to the Zionist cause and, astoundingly, proved able to negotiate with Himmler through him.
A 1974 conference at Yad Vashem, and the resulting documentation, indicated that these negotiations ultimately saved the lives of many thousands of Jews. As World War II was drawing to a close, Hitler ordered the extermination of all remaining Jews in Nazi death camps throughout Europe. But under pressure from Musy, Himmler – the monstrous architect of the Holocaust, now seeking to save his own skin and that of his comrades rather than go down with the ship as Hitler intended to do – countermanded the Fuhrer’s order.
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