Institute News

New book challenges conventional wisdom about why Nazis destroyed killing apparatus at Auschwitz

The killing apparatus at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp was destroyed in late 1944 not because Heinrich Himmler wanted to hide evidence of Nazi crimes, but because of a secret negotiated agreement between Himmler and a group of Orthodox Jews in Switzerland.

That’s the thesis of a new book by an award-winning journalist from Canada who interviewed Holocaust survivors for the nascent USC Shoah Foundation decades ago.

The book, In the Name of Humanity: The Secret Deal to End the Holocaust by journalist Max Wallace, hinges on his interview of Holocaust survivor Hermann Landau, who was also a rescuer: He served as the secretary of a Swiss-based Orthodox rescue committee, and was the last living eyewitness to an audacious scheme to deceive the Nazis.

Wallace -- recipient of Rolling Stone magazine’s Award for Investigative Journalism --  learned about Landau through a fellow interviewer at USC Shoah Foundation. He interviewed Landau for his book  in 2000. The interview inspired Wallace to later pore over thousands of documents that would also inform the book.

Wallace’s quest began 20 years ago when he interviewed Holocaust survivors for what was then called Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. (The Institute would not join the University of Southern California until 2006.) His interest in this chapter of the Holocaust was sparked when he was interviewing survivors in Montreal.

“The conventional narrative has always claimed that Heinrich Himmler ordered the killing apparatus destroyed [in November 1944] to hide evidence of Nazi crimes ahead of the approaching Red Army,” Wallace said in a recent interview with USC Shoah Foundation.

But he’d long had his doubts, following a line of thinking originated by prominent Holocaust historians Yehuda Bauer and Paul Lawrence Rose, which questioned the theory because of the Russians’ distance from the camps at the time– the Nazis, Wallace says, could easily have killed every Jew in the camp, but instead left more than 7,000 eyewitnesses when they evacuated in January 1945.

“Both historians suspected that the cessation of the exterminations was linked to the secret negotiations between Jews and Nazis that had been taking place since the Germans invaded Hungary in March 1944,” Wallace said.

After the Shoah Foundation contact sent him to speak with Landau in Canada, Wallace realized the theory had legs. 

“I worked primarily with archival documents on three continents, sifting through more than 200,000 documents,” Wallace said. Landau also clued Wallace in to a prominent ultra-Orthodox family from Switzerland, Recha and Isaac Sternbuch.

The Sternbuch family enlisted the former Swiss President Jean-Marie Musy to meet with Himmler and negotiate the freedom of the remaining Jews. Himmler had long wanted a separate peace with Western Allies so Germany could unite against a common enemy in Joseph Stalin, but the Allies had ruled out any prospects of a deal with the Nazis.

“Representing the Sternbuchs and the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, Musy met with Himmler in early November 1944 and perpetrated a mass deception,” Wallace said.

With the blessing of the Allied intelligence, he falsely informed the architect of genocide that the West was open to a separate peace – if, and only if, the Nazis first ended the genocide of the Jews. The Sternbuchs capitalized on this deception and launched their own illegal ransom scheme to provide the Germans with desperately needed tractors after learning that the Nazis had promised to destroy the facilities at Auschwitz if the delivery of tractors was “begun seriously.”

Just three weeks after Musy’s meeting with Himmler, the Auschwitz killing apparatus was destroyed, making the Sternbuchs heroes to the survivors.

“Recha Sternbuch certainly emerges as the heroine of the story,” Wallace said. “She was just an ordinary Jewish housewife in Switzerland until Hitler took power next door and she felt compelled to throw herself into rescue, saving thousands of Jews before and during the war.”

She and her husband transmitted the Sternuch cable in 1942, credited as the first document to alert the world to the Final Solution after Gerhart Riegner’s cable – sent one month earlier – was kept secret while the White House verified its contents. Together, they also saved thousands of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto by supplying forged passports and visas.

“As a secular Jew myself, I was most surprised to discover that the role of the Orthodox rescuers has been shamefully overlooked,” Wallace said. “While the mainstream Jewish establishment put their faith in President Roosevelt’s assurances and refused to engage in ransom because it was illegal, the Orthodox answered to a different set of laws and chose to heed the Torah commandment that saving a life take precedence over all else.”

Many of the book’s underpinnings come from documents discovered in the archives of the Vaad ha-Hatzalah, an Orthodox Jewish rescue group affiliated with the Union of Orthodox Rabbis. These documents, and other evidence found at the War Refugee Board, provided backing for this new insight into Himmler’s orders.

Another insight Wallace gleaned in his research concerns the Supreme Allied Headquarters’ refusal to listen to the International Red Cross at Bergen Belsen, which led to the deaths of many thousands of Jewish prisoners.

After the Germans suspended the Final Solution in November of 1944, these Jewish prisoners died from brutal death marches, hunger and disease. Musy won a concession from Himmler that allowed the International Red Cross to deliver food and relief supplies to concentration camps; and later, from the Nazis to allow  the Red Cross to station themselves in camps with the provision that they remain there until the end of the war.

When the Allies heard in February 1945 that prisoners at Bergen Belsen and other German camps were facing a rapidly escalating humanitarian crisis, Washington issued a directive to authorize vehicles for the Red Cross to deliver relief to the camps.

“But for weeks, Supreme Allied headquarters under Eisenhower’s command would only authorize fuel for relief to prisoners of war and blocked shipments to concentration camp prisoners,” Wallace said. “I found evidence that Anne Frank and thousands of other Belsen prisoners would likely have survived if these shipments had not been blocked.”

Although the ultimate blame for every concentration camp death rested with the Nazis whose policies placed Jewish prisoners there, Wallace says the tragedy of Bergen Belsen illustrated that “even at this late stage in the war, the fate of the European Jews had still hardly made a dent in the conscience of the Allied leaders.”

Wallace is currently working on his latest book, centered around the efforts of the alt-right to recruit children and young people into their ranks.