And the majority of the murdered Jews were killed in Belarus and Ukraine. Only a fraction of Jews with Russian Soviet nationality were killed. Among those who died in Belarus and Ukraine were Polish Jews who had fled the German invasion in September 1939 for the relative safety of the Soviet occupied part of Poland. Many of those Jews, regarded by Stalin as Poles first, and therefore politically unreliable, were deported deep into Siberia and Soviet Asia, where life was harsh, but survival was possible.
At some point in the summer of 1941 most historians believe Hitler gave his assent to the physical annihilation of the Jews. From the first day of Barbarossa, Germans had been killing Jews on a scale not known before. Himmler encouraged the eradication and presented the ever-growing number of "pieces" (as dead Jews were known) to Hitler who approved. The radical step to solve the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe" had been taken.
The Pope knew of the brutal and harsh regime inflicted on the ghetto Jews of Eastern Europe, but as yet, I believe, had no inkling that the invasion of Russia would lead to a dramatic change in German intent - from elimination through deportation, to elimination through murder. In this he was not alone. It took Churchill and FDR time to come to understand that what was happening "in the east" was quantifiably different to what had gone before.
Jews in German occupied Poland remained largely "safe" in the ghettos until the radicalisation action was extended to them. In late 1941 the death camps, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka were either built or in the process of being constructed, with the sole purpose of killing Jews. Gas chambers at Auschwitz had been trialled and were ready to use for large transports in early 1942.
Slovakia's government offered to deport its Jewish citizens at their own cost to German concentration camps. The Germans accepted the deal. Slovakia paid the cost of transportation, food, "medical care" and all the tasks necessary to move an anticipated 80,000 Jews from Slovakia to German control.
Watching the events unfold was the Holy See's charge d'affaires, Giuseppe Burzio. He reported what he saw to Rome. And he protested to the Slovakian government. This is is the first report published in ADSS where explicit details of Jewish deportation appear. Burzio's protests had a short term positive effect - the deportations were suspended (ADSS 8.324, 326). Burzio was also asked to continue to apply whatever pressure he could on priest-president Jozef Tiso (ADSS 8.332)
Nuncios Filippo Bernardini in Switzerland and Angelo Rotta in Hungary also wrote to Rome asking the Holy See to intervene for the Slovakian Jews (ADSS 8. 300, 303). Representatives of the Jewish community in Bratislava also wrote directly to the Pope through the Swiss nuncio (ADSS 8.303 attachment). Pius XII instructed the Secretariat of State to protest to the Slovakian legation to the Holy See (ADSS 8.305) as well as respond to Bernardini (ADSS 8.312). As the situation worsened, Rotta wrote again to Rome appealing for intervention to save the Slovakian Jews (ADSS 8.317). Further protests were made to the Slovakian legation in Rome (ADSS 8.322) as well as appeals made by the D'Arcy Osborne, the British minister to the Holy See (ADSS 8.328).
However, after several weeks delay the transports were ordered to proceed. Burzio reported on 31.03.1942 (ADSS 8.334) that the deportation commenced on 25.03.1942 and was conducted with great brutality. The first train left Slovakia and took its cargo of 999 Jewish girls and women to somewhere in Poland. Historians know the destination was Auschwitz where most of the women were gassed upon arrival. Transports left Slovakia until concerted protests finally led to a suspension in October 1942, by which time 58, 645 Jews had been sent to Poland. Most had been murdered shortly after reaching their destinations. Deportations were not resumed until 1944 in the wake of the failed anti-German Slovak uprising.
This is the first of a series of documents I intend to post from ADSS that helps us see something of what Rome saw and came to understand with ever-growing clarity through the first half of 1942.
Reference: Tel nr 19 (AES 2141/42)
Location and date: Pressburg (Bratislava) 09.03.1942
Summary statement: Deportation of Slovakian Jews to German-occupied Poland is imminent. Approaches to the President of the Council and other ministers have been without result.
Leaked news reports that a mass deportation of all Slovakian Jews – regardless of age, sex or religion – to Galicia and the Lublin region is imminent. Men will be deported separately to women and children. The first contingent will leave (?) next month.
I am assured that this atrocious plan is the work of the Prime Minister, [Vojtech / Adalbert] Tuka (1880-1946) in agreement with the Minister of the Interior, (Alexander Mach 1902-1980) without any pressure from Germany, which actually requires Slovakia pay 500 Marks and food for two weeks before the deportation.
On Saturday I met with the President of the Council of Ministers who confirmed the news, and has vehemently defended the legality of the measure and he has dared to say (he who is so ostentatiously Catholic) that he cannot see anything anti-Christian or inhuman.
The deportation of 80,000 people to Poland at the mercy of the Germans is the same as condemning most of them to death.