Deal with the devil

As WWII drew to a close, Hitler sought the rapid annihilation of every remaining Jew. A group of Revisionist Zionists enlisted Swiss politician Jean-Marie Musy to convince Heinrich Himmler to go against the Fuhrer’s orders. In a remarkable episode largely overlooked to this day, the effort was partially successful

Adolf Hitler (left) shakes hands with Heinrich Himmler somewhere in Germany on May 18, 1944. From left to right: Hitler, Minister Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Admiral Karl Doenitz, Himmler and Field Marshal General Erhard Milch. (AP)
Adolf Hitler (left) shakes hands with Heinrich Himmler somewhere in Germany on May 18, 1944. From left to right: Hitler, Minister Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Admiral Karl Doenitz, Himmler and Field Marshal General Erhard Milch. (AP)

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.

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.

Jean-Marie Musy (photo credit: Swiss ConfederationWikipedia Commons)
Jean-Marie Musy (photo credit: Swiss ConfederationWikipedia Commons)

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.

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.

Heinrich Himmler (photo credit: Friedrich Franz Bauer/Wikipedia Commons)
Heinrich Himmler (photo credit: Friedrich Franz Bauer/Wikipedia Commons)

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.

It was these issues that were discussed by Himmler and Musy on that November 3 journey to Vienna. Two weeks later, on November 18, Musy informed Himmler in writing that the United States government was prepared to participate in negotiations with him, through Musy, via its consul general in Zurich, Woods, over the possible transfer of hundreds of thousands of Jews from concentration camps in the Reich to freedom via Switzerland. On November 24, 1944, Himmler ordered gassings to stop and crematoria to be destroyed at Auschwitz and its 51 sub-camps.

Subsequently, a first trainload of 1,200 Jews from Theresienstadt concentration camp were indeed released, as agreed upon, but no other Jews were liberated in this manner under the Musy-Himmler agreement. Hitler intervened and halted the plan to move these Jews out of Nazi territory by train. Instead, a secondary plan evolved, by which many thousands of Jews were ultimately saved through Himmler’s intervention in Hitler’s evacuation plan and by stopping the complete destruction of the concentration camps late in the war.

Rudolf Kastner, photographed at Israel Radio in the 1950s (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rudolf Kastner, photographed at Israel Radio in the 1950s (photo credit: Courtesy)

Dr. Rudolf Kastner, the former president of the Hungarian Zionist Organization, said in a 1945 affidavit: “After the fall of 1944 Himmler granted several concessions. Thus he permitted the departure for Switzerland of 1,700 Hungarian Jews deported to Bergen-Belsen and also agreed to suspend the annihilation of the Jews of the Budapest ghetto. Himmler permitted the handing over to the Allies the Jews of Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt without a shot being fired, which in his eyes and the eyes of his colleagues was a very generous concession, and certainly one [for] which he expected some political concession be granted in return. In hopes of contact with the Western Allies, Himmler even made concessions without any economic returns. To this end Himmler may be ascribed the general prohibition dated 25 November 1944, concerning the further killing of Jews…. [Adolf] Eichmann, at first, did not obey this order.”

Hitler was unprepared for Himmler’s turnabout, which did not become completely clear to him until April 1945. Himmler had been known as der treue Heinrich, “the faithful Heinrich.” But though dedicated to the Fuhrer throughout the war, Himmler was not part of Hitler’s inner circle. And despite his unconditional obedience to Hitler — which lasted at least until late 1944 — Himmler preferred socializing with rank-and-file German soldiers. It was of great importance to Himmler that German concentration camp guards be treated as prisoners of war rather than being shot on the spot when Allied victors entered and took over the camps.

Hungarian Jews on the Judenrampe (Jewish ramp) after disembarking from the transport trains at Auschwitz-Birkenau, May 1944. To be sent rechts! – to the right – meant the person had been chosen as a laborer; links! – to the left – meant death in the gas chambers. (Photo credit: From the Auschwitz Album)
Hungarian Jews on the Judenrampe (Jewish ramp) after disembarking from the transport trains at Auschwitz-Birkenau, May 1944. To be sent rechts! – to the right – meant the person had been chosen as a laborer; links! – to the left – meant death in the gas chambers. (Photo credit: From the Auschwitz Album)

As Himmler issued orders to release trainloads of Jews, he was met with resistance and counter-commands from Hitler. Underlings faithful to the Fuhrer brought news of the release of the first trainload of Theresienstadt Jews to Hitler’s attention, and the transfers were halted. Now the secondary course of action went into effect — the effort to halt death marches and the preservation of camps marked for destruction. Himmler was able to partially prevail and keep some camps intact, preventing the immediate death of many prisoners.

The material that follows is drawn primarily from the documentary sources cited above. It comprises compelling testimony about the events and procedures used to influence Himmler to change his course of action.

Twisting Himmler’s arm until it broke

Himmler was no hero for his late wartime actions. He was guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. Nonetheless, the story is worth telling because of the noble efforts of those who twisted Himmler’s arm until it broke. They were not the only people who attempted to influence Himmler but they were possibly the most successful. And they may be the least well-known.

Many aspects of this fascinating story, which has received scant editorial notice, unfolded during testimony in the famous Kastner war trial. The trial itself sought to determine the innocence or guilt of one Jew but, en route, it revealed the audacious and at least partly successful effort to save Jews through negotiations with Himmler. Under questioning by the defense, Hecht revealed how emissaries of the Irgun persuaded former Nazi sympathizer Musy to join their cause and work through Himmler to try to subvert Hitler’s plan to exterminate those Jews remaining in concentration camps at the close of the war.

Reuben Hecht (photo credit: Hecht Museum)
Reuben Hecht (photo credit: Hecht Museum)

The Antwerp-born elder son of shipping magnate Jacob Hecht, Reuben Hecht left his family business and fortune to join the Irgun in 1939 as “Repatriation Commissioner.” He was sent to Switzerland, where he became involved in aiding illegal immigration to Palestine and in rescuing Jews trapped in Nazi Europe. Hecht built a close contact with US consul general Woods, who was one of the most successful intelligence gatherers of World War II.

The trial brought to light the connection of the Irgun to the highest levels of the United States government — even to the president himself. This was accomplished through a back channel which has also previously drawn little public attention in the annals of American diplomatic history. The general method of communication had been to transmit information through the official intelligence center in Bern. This office was headed by Allen Dulles, an opponent of Zionism, but Woods had a brother in the cabinet of the American president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, through whom he was able to directly transmit reports to the president, circumventing Dulles.

Woods’s transmissions detailed the expulsion of Jews from Switzerland and the conditions of Jews in concentration camps, and held suggestions for the rescue of Jews in Hungary and Bulgaria. Woods uncovered Hitler’s plan to invade Russia and relayed this information to Washington as well. Woods and Hecht collaborated in many areas, including the rescue of Allied airmen. While Hecht was assisting the Allies, Woods became a firm supporter of the Zionist cause.

In the first of a selection of key transcripts presented in this article, here is how the Irgun’s Hecht describes Woods’s transition to Prof. Penkover during an interview:

Reuben Hecht: I explained to him [Woods] Zionism, it was new to him, and he became fascinated, and the next day again, he had five, six hours for me, and so, slowly, he came to our camp, and he also asked me to find out how many German coal trains with weapons went through Switzerland, to Italy, and so on, a lot of the things which he could not receive. So there was a cooperation, and then I helped him to bring the American pilots and captains of the air force, who were interned in Switzerland, to bring them out to the Maquis [rural French resistance fighters] to France. They had to flee from the camp.

Monty Penkover: How many people are we talking about?

Hecht: There were always a few people. In all, there were many dozens. That was very important, because they were pilots and captains of bombers.

In 1941, Woods met Hecht in Zurich and, in 1944, introduced him to Yitzchak and Recha Sternbuch, who headed the Emergency Rescue Committee of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis.

Hecht: When I lived in Zurich, later, I made my job there, for the New Zionist Organization and others, and Hatzalah, and Irgun propaganda, and then Sam Woods once told me: “Why don’t you work with the Sternbuch group? Why are you not working with an organization which has other connections? The Jewish connection in America.” And he invited Sternbuch and me together in his office at the Consulate-General.

The connection between Hecht and Woods was based on mutual needs.

Hecht: He gave a lot of information which he received from me directly to America, not through the channels of Dulles… because with Dulles — he knew that with Dulles it was for months and months without being forwarded… Dulles didn’t even want it. Dulles was, I wouldn’t say an anti-Semite, I don’t know, but according to Woods, Dulles was not interested in the Jewish problem in Europe, because he thought that this is a nuisance for the Allied war effort… Now there were three Americans: McClelland, Dulles, who was an enemy, and Woods who was the strongest, I could even say, practically the only helping force.

The Kastner connection

Hecht’s testimony was part of the broader trial against Rudolph Kastner. Kastner’s detractors paint a far from heroic picture of him. They point to a deal with Eichmann, who said in an interview with Life magazine that Kastner “agreed to help keep the Jews from resisting deportation — and even keep order in the collection camps — if I would close my eyes and let a few hundred or a few thousand young Jews emigrate to Palestine. It was a good bargain.”

It has also been charged that Kastner was responsible for the capture and death of Jewish heroine Hannah Senesh, who, at age 22, parachuted behind enemy lines into Yugoslavia to help rescue Jews bound for Auschwitz. She was arrested after crossing into Hungary, imprisoned, tortured, and executed by firing squad on November 7, 1944. Her mother testified during the Kastner trial that Kastner deceived her, and that she felt that he had given away the location of her daughter’s unit and had responsibility in the mother’s imprisonment. She also claimed that he had advised her not to obtain a lawyer when Hannah was arrested.

At the war’s end, Kastner emigrated to Israel, where he became active in the Mapai Party editing its weekly paper, A Jövó, and working on the editorial staff of another, Uj Kelet. Knesset records show that Kastner “was a clerk at the Ministry of Trade and Industry and a candidate on behalf of Mapai in the elections for the Second Knesset.” In 1953, he was accused of collaboration with the Nazis in Hungary during the Holocaust. These charges were leveled by hotelier Malchiel Gruenwald in a self-published pamphlet. Gruenwald lost 52 relatives in Auschwitz. An Austro-Hungarian-born Jew like Kastner, he was caught up in a pogrom in Vienna in which his teeth were smashed, his tongue was slashed, and his arms and legs were broken. He was beaten unconscious and left for dead.

Gruenwald’s pamphlet resulted in a lawsuit by the Israeli government on Kastner’s behalf in which defendant Gruenwald was represented by Shmuel Tamir, formerly the Irgun’s chief of intelligence in Jerusalem. The government expected the trial to last four days. It went on for two years.

Gruenwald and Tamir accused Kastner of having failed to warn the Hungarian Jewish community about the transports to the death camps and the gas chambers despite knowledge to that effect. They accused him of saving friends and family at the cost of  the wider community and alleged that Kastner helped the SS avoid creating widespread panic among the Jews which would have slowed the transports. Jerusalem District Court Judge Benjamin Halevi ended the sensational libel trial by ruling in Gruenwald’s favor, stating that “Kastner sold his soul to the devil.” This verdict caused an uproar in the press, some of which clamored to defend him as a hero, others attacking him as a traitor. 

The turmoil spread to the government itself. Since the trial had implications for the Mapai party, the government decided to appeal to the Supreme Court on Kastner’s behalf. The Knesset website relates, “On May 28th 1955, Herut and Maki factions presented no-confidence motions, in which the General Zionists, a coalition member, abstained — leading to Prime Minister Sharett’s resignation.” Kastner fell into a depression which he described to reporters as “blacker than night, darker than hell.”

In early March 1957, Kastner was shot in an assassination attempt and died two weeks later. His murder is regarded as the first political assassination in the State of Israel. In January 1958, his sentence was posthumously overturned by the Supreme Court in a majority 3-2 decision in which, despite the verdict, all five justices ruled that Kastner had committed perjury in his 1947 testimony, which led to the acquittal of a senior SS officer. The court, however, also concluded that the lower court had erred seriously. One of the five judges, Shneur Zalman Cheshin, wrote: “On the basis of the extensive and diverse material which was compiled in the course of the hearing, it is easy to describe Kastner as blacker than black and place the mark of Cain on his forehead, but it is also possible to describe him as purer than the driven snow and regard him as ‘the righteous of our generation.’ A man who exposed himself to mortal danger in order to save others.”

Kastner has remained a controversial figure in Israel; to this day, no street has been named after him. His trial, however, was of great benefit to the state in that it brought to light wartime events that otherwise might never have been documented. Among them: the negotiations between Woods, Hecht, the Sternbuchs, the US government, the Irgun, Musy, and Heinrich Himmler.

The Musy channel

During the Kastner trial, on April 6, 1954, Hecht was interrogated as the seventeenth witness for the defense by advocate Tamir, who questioned him about his connection with Musy.

Shmuel Tamir: Did you work with a man by the name of Musy? Who was he?

Hecht: He was a Swiss Catholic politician, formerly the head of the Swiss Union, and a several-time member of the Swiss Government. He had very close connections with the Swiss parties, also with the Swiss Parliament. He knew Himmler many years before the War.

Tamir: Why did you choose him as your mediator between you and Himmler?

Hecht: In view of all our experiences, the Committee came to the realization that a person had to be obtained who could acquire Himmler’s confidence and needed not to fear retribution.

Tamir: What were the intentions of Musy, who was not a member of the Committee and was not a Jew. What were his intentions and his aims in this matter?

Hecht: It was impossible to find any Christian international personality who was ready to intervene for the benefit of the Jews before the National-Socialist regime. This had to be a man who would intervene, who could influence, who would take upon himself the risk of life of the many journeys connected with the matter.

Tamir: What did you understand about his aims? Why was he interested to do this?

Hecht: Musy was considered, towards the end of the War, as a very conservative politician, reactionary and Catholic. He was also a strong opponent of Communism in Europe. Therefore, we were convinced that he is the suitable man who could be received by Himmler and gain his confidence.

Musy first met with the Sternbuchs in October of 1944 and wrote to Himmler at that time, requesting a meeting. Two weeks later Himmler agreed and the November 3 meeting on the train to Vienna was set.

Hecht: When Musy informed Himmler that he wanted to talk with him on an important matter, he received within 14 days a message that Himmler would receive him. That was proof for his really having the right approach to Himmler.

Tamir again asked Hecht what Musy hoped to achieve in his talks with Himmler and what was discussed.

Hecht: Musy’s activity was entirely political — the intention was to explain to those German circles, who already understood that the War was lost, that the persecutions of the Jews created a terrible impression abroad, and to tell this to Himmler to his face. In addition, to make it clear to him that the catastrophic impression would be a bit less catastrophic if at least now the remaining 600,000-800,000 Jews would be released, who, according to the famous (earlier) order of Himmler were to be destroyed as well.

In order to enable the Musy-Himmler agreement, Musy attempted to arrange the transfer of medical materials to the Reich at the request of Himmler during their second meeting on January 15, 1945, at Wildbad in the Black Forest. The Nazis were in need of medicine, trucks and other material. Two days later, Himmler demanded from Musy five million Swiss francs worth of medicine and relief supplies in exchange for freeing and delivering  trainloads of Jewish concentration camp prisoners, promising the release of 1,200 to 1,800 Jewish prisoners every one to two weeks from Germany through Switzerland to final safe destinations.

Reuben Hecht was questioned by advocate Tamir about this agreement during the Kastner Trial.

Tamir: The negotiations between you and Himmler included the cessation of the annihilation in the camp? Did it contain anything in the matter of the trains which would leave for Switzerland?

Hecht: The beginning of the negotiations was to release all the Jews of the camps through Swiss passage to overseas, in trains of every week or two with 1,200 to 1,800 persons per train.

Musy and the Sternbuchs attempted to acquire the materials from emissaries in the  United States, particularly from the Va’ad, but found this problematic. Delivery of such materials was seen as aiding the enemy and therefore illegal. Cash payment also posed problems. 

Hecht: In the beginning Musy demanded from us, through Himmler, sums, and that was rejected. Afterwards came this political agreement instead of sums. That was immediately in the two last talks. Afterwards it was agreed that no money at all should be given, but an amount of 5 million Swiss francs should be deposited by Musy and Sternbuch, as a sign of the sincerity of their approach, and these, as Musy told us, should, after the release of all the Jews, be at the disposal of the International Red Cross for assistance to the Germans.

In exchange for the release, the United States was to provide surety in the form of cash held in escrow and a promise that, in exchange for not destroying the camps as Hitler commanded, Himmler would be guaranteed by the American army that the camp guards would receive treatment like the Wehrmacht soldiers, be regarded as war prisoners, and not be shot on the spot but rather brought before a military court. A promise came from the Americans that they would comply with this request under two conditions.

Hecht: The first condition was that the camp guards should wear army uniforms. The second, that it should be understood, in spite of this agreement, that each one personally would be responsible for war crimes. Meaning, that he would not be shot on the spot, but put before a court, and if it could be proved that he had killed people, he would be punished. We have proof that such an agreement was made.

A first ‘rescue train’ but no second

Negotiations with the United States continued through the war’s end. The Americans assured the Swiss government that refugees admitted to Swiss territory would be promptly evacuated to Allied territories overseas and that the cost of their upkeep and transport would be paid by the US.

Confirmation of the deal with Himmler is evident in the United States diplomatic correspondence, dated March 23, 1945, of Foreign Service Officer Roswell D. McClelland, on the “Subject: Musy’s negotiations with Himmler during the past few months with a view to obtaining liberation of Jewish deportees.”

In it McClelland writes: 

“As briefly as possible this is the story of Musy’s efforts to secure the release from Germany of Jewish deportees. Acting on behalf of an orthodox Jewish organization with headquarters in the United States Musy undertook the first of a series of trips to Germany to confer with his ‘old friend’ Heinrich Himmler early in November of 1944. Musy had volunteered, after having been approached by the Jewish circles in question to use his influence with Himmler to effect the release of Jewish deportees still remaining in German hands. Musy claimed that he would accomplish this with ‘political arguments,’ along the lines of pointing out to Himmler that it was in Germany’s interest (and in the Nazis’ interest) to make some humanitarian gesture at this point in the war which could only react favorably on the treatment meted out to the Nazis by the victorious Allies after the war.”

McClelland did not trust Musy and suspected that he was motivated by personal political and monetary gain, charging that he was a Nazi sympathizer and “a very dangerous individual.”

McClelland was no friend of the Zionists. His role in the entire episode was of interest to Professor Penkover when he interviewed Hecht on January 7-8, 1982. Hecht affirmed that McClelland had stalled efforts to bomb the railways leading to Auschwitz.

Hecht: It was one of the ideas of the Committee… that to bombard the railway crosspoints and the stations before Auschwitz and the crematoria could have saved hundreds of thousands of Jews. Because till they would repair it, especially if several times bombarded (sic). We also brought, through McClelland, these recommendations to Eisenhower, who was the Chief Commander of the Allies, our request to make bombardments against this and to make bombardments of the gas ovens, of the crematoria, because if a few hundred people would have been killed it is nothing against the thousands who were murdered every day. But McClelland was not very helpful and the answer of Eisenhower was: We are not fighting a Jewish war, this is not in the way of the war effort, and we do not want that the Germans think we are fighting the war for the Jews. And Eisenhower was not in favor at all, and McClelland was a bureaucrat, and the Americans put it down!

The Crematorium at Theresienstadt (photo credit: Samuel Wantman / Wikipedia Commons)
The Crematorium at Theresienstadt (photo credit: Samuel Wantman / Wikipedia Commons)

In early March, 1945, a second “rescue train” failed to arrive. On February 5, 1945, Himmler had promised Musy that trains, each carrying 1,200-1,500 Jews from Theresienstadt, would arrive in Switzerland on a weekly basis. However, Hitler reaffirmed his refusal to liberate Jews, demanding the continued evacuation of all concentration camp prisoners; thus, the killing of the half-million prisoners left in the concentration camps primarily by means of “death marches” in the spring of 1945.

Musy requested an immediate meeting with Hitler himself, but this was denied. In light of Hitler’s order, Musy and the Sternbuch Committee focused their efforts on getting Himmler to give an order that the camps were to surrender to the Allied Forces intact. Pressure from Musy caused Himmler to rescind Hitler’s evacuation order. Himmler wielded immense power which almost rivaled Hitler’s. Himmler was chief of German Police. He united the Gestapo and Criminal Police, thereby effectively removing police personnel, finances, actions, and operations from external judicial or administrative review and consolidating all power. He had the power to plan, initiate, and control the pace of German resettlement projects. He had exclusive responsibility over the security services, the judiciary, and the entire concentration camp system. He controlled military sectors, including the Waffen SS – which, by 1944, rivaled the German Army. In fact, Himmler was in charge of the planning and implementation of the “Final Solution.” However, pressured by Musy and others, Himmler rescinded prior death march orders on March 12, 1945, promising to hand over the camps, intact, to the Allies, thereby countermanding the orders of Hitler.

Himmler was exploring every available avenue of survival. He apparently believed Musy’s persuasive argument that releasing Jews would result in good press.  Advocate Tamir, questioning Hecht during the Kastner trial, asked how the Swiss press had reacted to the first rescue train, and whether Hecht had connections to the press. Hecht confirmed that he did.

Hecht: This began by there being a joint journalists’ conference with the Prime Minister, in which an official announcement to the press was laid down, which was given on behalf of the Prime Minister. (Hecht is referring to the president of the Swiss Confederation, Eduard Von Steiger.) The press reacted in different ways. The [part of the] press that had explanations from us showed understanding for the entire problem.

Tamir: And the remaining press?

Hecht: There were newspapers who brought negative and untrue information, like, for instance, that the action, so to speak, was done in order to bring a number of leading Nazis under American protection, or that for this action much money had been paid, and these reports harmed us very much.

Hecht found himself with the unpleasant task of going to the president of the Swiss Confederation, Von Steiger, and to socialist journalists who were opposed to writing positive things about the Nazi train agreement and explaining the Zionist position. He detailed this experience in his interview with Professor Penkover.

Hecht: I had to explain to them that, in order not to destroy the rest of the Jews, but to save them, we are ready to work with the devil, and we are also ready, in a certain way, to fulfill their demand — after it, everybody is free to say that this was blackmail. So I went to the Socialists — it was the most difficult thing, a Socialist newspaper — and explained to them, you don’t want to praise Himmler, so at least say that the German railways behaved very well by bringing these people not like cattle, to Auschwitz, but in normal, human railway trains without overfilling in a normal way, in a decent way, and without payment, which they did. Now I found a kind of half-fulfilling the demand and half-not-fulfilling the demand.

But we had a lot of enemies who came to the Germans, said to Himmler: Look, the Jews, even this they don’t fulfill. Even here they didn’t praise us. And here, Musy had to reconciliate, and he was able to do it. And we said: After the war, after it’s finished, you can tell the truth — it was blackmail. Now the trains were so important, not only because they saved a lot of hundreds of Jewish lives, but mainly it proved it would be able to bring hundreds or tens of thousands of Jews out of Germany, and here the Jewish organizations failed completely. They started to discuss, we want to pay them not money, or we don’t want to give them trucks. Sternbuch was ready, all of us, when McClelland and the Americans said: You are not allowed to give the Germans medical supplies and “trucks for Jews,” otherwise you’ll get on the Black List. We said: Okay, we are getting on the Black List. But in order to save Jews, we are ready to give them trucks.

Paying compliments to the devil in order to save Jews

This section of the testimony provides a fascinating look into the psychology of the negotiations with Himmler.

Tamir: Why is it to his advantage to release the Jews?

Hecht: We received then information from Musy that a struggle for power had developed between Hitler and Himmler. Hitler wanted to fight until the end and to annihilate the Jews, and Himmler wanted to approach the West. He had illusions in this matter that this was possible, and that he wanted to utilize. Our hope was to make clear to him that he had no hopes because of his atrocities toward the Jews, but if he ceases these atrocities now and releases the remnant of six hundred to eight hundred thousand Jews, this terrible impression would be somewhat reduced.

Tamir: And you thought that it would convince Himmler to tell him that he had no hopes, only that the terrible impression would be less terrible?

Hecht: No, this is a bit complicated.

Tamir: Your line was more far-reaching… you raised in him hopes on purpose?

Hecht: This is the same thing. We wanted to show him that by not annihilating Jews it could be that he had a chance to find a way by means of all these actions.

Tamir: What chance? Which way? I do not ask through what and by what means.

Hecht: To bring before the public through the press in America, which would see that the annihilation of the Jews had stopped.

Tamir: What chance would he have from this?

Hecht: That he would think he had a better chance to negotiate with the Allies in some way. This was his idea.

Tamir: Your line was to convince Himmler that by releasing the Jews he could get nearer to the Allies?

Hecht: I would formulate this differently. Our line was to free Jews and to exploit the illusion which seemed right to us for achieving this line.

Tamir: You wanted to mislead Himmler?

Hecht: It is difficult to answer the question.

Tamir: Did you tell Himmler the truth? Answer my question: Did you wish to mislead him or, on the contrary, awake in him illusions and hopes?

Hecht: We certainly had no intention to do Himmler any favor at all.

Tamir: I did not ask you whether you wanted to do Himmler a favor. Why do you evade answering every single question?

Hecht: It is difficult to reply to those questions yes or no.

Tamir: It is definitely possible to answer yes or no. Answer the question.

Hecht: We wanted to exploit the political situation in order to explain to Himmler that, by releasing the Jews, he was approaching more his political intentions.

Tamir: What were his political intentions which he would have approached more?

Hecht: He wanted to get in touch with the West, and for that he needed some point of connection. And proof for this is that the negotiations with the Jews served him in this.

Tamir: To approach the West — that means to divide between the Allies, between Russia and the West, is it not so?

Hecht: In our opinion no, but in Himmler’s opinion yes.

Tamir: So you misled him at least on this point?

Hecht: Yes. We knew from the Americans that this was out of the question, but they agreed that we should give him this answer.

Tamir: Did you think that you can deceive Himmler?

Hecht: Yes.

Tamir: And this without expertise in the international political situation?

Hecht: On the basis of talks with Woods, it was possible to assume this. He explained to us that if it is necessary to pay compliments to the devil in order to save Jews, it is allowed to do so. We shall do the reckoning with him later on.

Tamir: Instead of encouraging the Nazis with a hope of money, you wanted to awake a hope of political advantage?

Hecht: Yes, because in this manner, we wanted to solve the entire problem, whereas with money we were convinced that there would be every time additional expulsions in order to make additional extortions.

Tamir: And based on what did you believe that those Nazis, those criminals, after they murdered six million Jews, would fall into your trap?

Hecht: Because part of the Nazi criminals were in a great panic and were convinced that the War was lost.

Tamir: Among them was Himmler?

Hecht: Himmler, if I can believe Musy, understood that the war was lost.

Tamir: Since when did he understand this?

Hecht: Since the end of 1944. That was the basis which made this negotiation possible.

By April, 1945, Musy was told that Himmler had agreed to the non-evacuation of the camps (which violated the orders of Hitler) by bargaining for a guarantee of non-execution of the camp guards. The United States was consulted and agreed to the terms.

Tamir: Do you know anything, not from hearsay only, about Himmler’s command against the annihilation of the Jews in the camps?

Hecht: Through Musy’s connection with Himmler, we transmitted Himmler’s request to Eisenhower, that, under the condition of not fulfilling Hitler’s command, one would deal with the guards of the concentration camps as with prisoners of war. That was for us proof. In addition, the promise was given by Eisenhower that, if these guards would wear the uniform of the Wehrmacht, they would personally be responsible for all their crimes, but before a military court. This example, which I brought before (in previous testimony) about Bergen-Belsen, was for us additional proof, when the highest levels of the Wehrmacht alleged before Musy that the occupying armies had arranged a lynch-trial of the guards, and they applied again to the American Chief of Staff, in order to renew the… according to the Eisenhower-Himmler-Musy agreement.

The Court: All this went through the Committee?

Hecht: All this was discussed in the Committee at the time. An additional proof is that Musy junior arrived just at the moment in which, in spite of the agreement, one had to evacuate the camp — I think that was the Buchenwald camp — for the death march. And Musy was even told that about 40% of those participating in those marches would die on the road. This was told to the senior Musy. Musy junior went therefore immediately to Berlin to the Nazi head of foreign intelligence, Walter Schellenberg, and Schellenberg instructed, according to the Himmler-Musy agreement, by means of radio-telephone to Buchenwald, that they should cancel those evacuation orders and not carry them out.

Confirmation at Nuremberg

In testimony which he gave to Colonel John Harlan Amen, Chief Interrogator during the Nuremberg War Trials, on January 4, 1946, Schellenberg confirmed that Hitler had overruled Himmler’s command not to evacuate the camps. Himmler then countered Hitler’s order with a second command to stop the evacuations.

Walter Schellenberg (photo credit: Kurt Alber / Wikipedia Commons)
Walter Schellenberg (photo credit: Kurt Alber / Wikipedia Commons)

Walter Schellenberg: I mean, for instance, the fact that after the Reichsfuehrer SS (Himmler) very reluctantly agreed, through my persuasion, not to evacuate the concentration camps, Kaltenbrunner — by getting into direct contact with Hitler — circumvented this order of Himmler’s and broke his word in respect to international promises.

Ernst Kaltenbrunner was Chief of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt — Reich Main Security Office — and president of Interpol. He was one of the highest-ranking members of the SS to face trial at the Nuremberg Trials. He delivered Hitler’s orders.

John Amen: Do you know of any particular case in which Kaltenbrunner had ordered the evacuation of any one concentration camp, contrary to Himmler’s wishes?

Schellenberg: Yes.

Amen: Will you tell the Tribunal about that?

Schellenberg: I cannot give you the exact date, but I believe it was in the beginning of April 1945. The son of the former Swiss President, Musy, who had taken his father to Switzerland, returned by car to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, in order to fetch a Jewish family which I myself had set free. He found the camp in process of being evacuated under the most deplorable conditions. When he had, three days previously, driven his father to Switzerland, he was given definite assurance before he left that the camps would not be evacuated. Since this assurance was also intended for General Eisenhower, he was doubly disappointed at this breach of promise. Musy, Jr., called on me personally at my office. He was deeply offended and reproached me bitterly. I could not understand what had happened; and I at once contacted Himmler’s secretary, protesting against this sort of procedure. Shortly after, it was admitted that the facts, as depicted by Musy, Jr., were true, although it was still incomprehensible, because Himmler had not given these orders. I was assured that everything would be done to put an immediate halt to the evacuations. This was confirmed on the telephone personally by Himmler a few hours later.

I believe it was on the same day, after a meeting of office chiefs, that I informed Kaltenbrunner of the situation and expressed my profound concern at this new breach of international assurances. As I paused in the conversation, the Chief of the State Police, Gruppenfuehrer Muller, interrupted and explained that he had started the evacuation of the more important internees from the individual camps three days ago on Kaltenbrunner’s orders. Kaltenbrunner replied with these words: “Yes, that is correct. It was an order of the Fuhrer which was also recently confirmed by the Fuhrer in person. All the important internees are to be evacuated at his order to the south of the Reich.” He then turned to me mockingly and, speaking in dialect, said: “Tell your old gentleman (i.e., Musy, Sr.) that there are still enough left in the camps. With that you too can be satisfied.” I think this was on April 10, 1945.

When the commanders fled

Summing up these final days, Hecht spoke of Himmler in a January 1982 interview with Professor Penkover:

Hecht: He made a demand that all these leaders, these camp-beasts, will not be treated as war criminals, but as prisoners of war. This, in my opinion, was the biggest achievement of Musy’s action. Because this was the reason that, from a lot of these camps, the camp commanders fled in the night, and the next morning the people saw that the camps were open, and through this Musy-Himmler agreement the rest of the Jews, a few hundred thousand, were saved…. I think this was the most important thing.

Hitler turns on Himmler

Himmler’s betrayal enraged Hitler and resulted in Himmler’s dismissal from all posts in April 1945, and an order by Hitler for Himmler’s arrest. In his Last Will and Testament, Hitler accused Himmler of betrayal and treachery.

Hitler wrote:

“Before my death, I expel the former Reichsführer-SS and Minister of the Interior, Heinrich Himmler, from the party and from all offices of State…

“Göring and Himmler, quite apart from their disloyalty to my person, have done immeasurable harm to the country and the whole nation by secret negotiations with the enemy, which they conducted without my knowledge and against my wishes, and by illegally attempting to seize power in the State for themselves.”

Himmler's corpse in Allied custody after his suicide by poison, 1945 (photo credit: Sutton L (Sgt): No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit / Wikipedia Commons)
Himmler’s corpse in Allied custody after his suicide by poison, 1945 (photo credit: Sutton L (Sgt): No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit / Wikipedia Commons)

Unsuccessful in an attempt to hide after fleeing in disguise from Berlin to Flensburg, Himmler continued 120 miles south toward the Elbe River, and, on May 21, 1945, was arrested at a checkpoint on a bridge at Bremervorde. 

On May 23, 1945, in British custody at the 31st Civilian Interrogation Camp near Luneburg, Southeast of Hamburg, Heinrich Himmler bit into a cyanide pill and committed suicide.

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