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What the Allies knew: information and the challenges of humanitarian intervention

Friday, February 19, 2016

Image: Rabbi Steven Wise speaking at the World Jewish Congress

New York, NY, February 18, 2016 – Film and panel discuss the failure of intervening democratic world’s failure to intervene against the extermination of the Jews in World War II and the challenges of humanitarian intervention

On March 23 at 5:30 pm, Centro Primo Levi with the Italian Academy at Columbia University, Columbia’s Alliance Program and Maison Française (with the Knapp Family Foundation) will present the film What the Allies Knew (2015) by Virginie Linhart, produced by Cinetevè, with historical supervision by Henry Rousso. Speakers will include, among others, Umberto Gentiloni (University of Rome and author of Bombardare Auschwitz?, 2015), Fabienne Serva-Schreiber (producer). Moderator: Yasmine Ergas (Columbia University)

While it has been generally accepted that the world learned about the mass murder of the Jews only in the wake of the final victory of the Allies in 1945, research has determined that information about these mass killings began to circulate as early as 1941, and that – by 1942 – leaders of the democratic world, as well as the Vatican, had extensive knowledge of the extermination project.

In England and the U.S., the media had been reporting for years on the mounting attack on Jewish rights, culture, property, and individuals. Political leaders and the press kept the events under the radar, but made a clear distinction between the dangerous development of Fascist and Nazi politics and the plight of the Jewish minority.

When the flow of refugees from Europe caused nations to question the international order and immigration policies, some relief was sought through the Evian conference; but this established only that very little could be done. The countries that could potentially receive the Jews who were being expelled from Europe were primarily concerned about their own economies and social unrest.

Jewish refugees became pawns in each European country where they managed to arrive, as well as in the farther lands where the luckiest ones were permitted to enter. These refugees (who were bereft of everything, and whose only ambition was to survival) often became assets to exploit militarily, politically, and economically. Those who did not succeed in leaving Europe were – in many cases – destined for death.

The long story of international indifference over the persecution and – later – the extermination of the Jews depended not on lack of information but on a broader set of factors including the fact that people – both leaders and the public at large – had never experienced totalitarianism and its radical alteration in the relationship between government and its citizens.

Our attempt to understand the experience of persecution during World War II resonates in part with current political situations. Today, citizens at all levels of society hear of world events as they happen. Violence, refugee crises, and war unfold before everybody’s eyes.

Yet the challenges of intervention remain, or are at least similarly divorced from the knowledge of facts. A panel of historians, media experts, and human-rights scholars will discuss the question of intervention in support of Jewish refugees and against the extermination project, as well as the ways in which that experience informed – or failed to inform – democratic societies in the post-war era.

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