When Himmler Resisted Hitler, and Saved Thousands of Jews
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.
Himmler’s late November 1944 countermand ordered a halt to the murder of Jews throughout the Reich and called for the destruction of the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. This order, it need hardly be stated, came far too late to save the millions upon millions of Jews and others whom the Nazis had murdered. Himmler, it also need hardly be stressed, was a central cog in that genocidal Nazi machine. His intervention to counter Hitler toward the very end of the war was entirely cynical and self-motivated. It was also not universally implemented. Hitler himself worked to ensure that his will not be subverted. And lower-level commanders took independent actions in the chaos at war’s end. Despite Himmler’s orders to the contrary, there were death marches which continued until the last day of the war.
Himmler’s countermand led Hitler to condemn his former faithful deputy for betrayal.
But scholarly data indicates that at least some of the Jews who were still alive in the camps when the war ended were there because of Himmler’s intervention – a countermand that led Hitler to condemn his former faithful deputy for betrayal.
Evidence of Himmler’s intervention and its consequences derives from a number of reliable sources – some of which were cited at the 1974 Yad Vashem conference – including testimony from the Nuremberg War Trials, the Rudolf Kastner War Trial, the Archives of the Holocaust, the Hecht Archive (which includes an enlightening interview of Hecht by Monty Noam Penkover, professor emeritus of Jewish History at the Machon Lander Graduate Center of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem), and US Foreign Service documents.
These documents indicate that Musy was able to persuade his old friend Himmler that, while the war was lost, there was still a narrow window of opportunity available to him: that if he worked against Hitler to keep camp inmates alive, stopping the death marches, gassings and executions, he could expect somewhat more favorable international treatment and a greater chance of post-war survival.
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