This past Sunday was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, set aside to remember the millions of Jews murdered in Hitler’s death camps in World War II. The annual ceremony in Ottawa was not held on Yom Hashoah this year, because of the federal election. Instead, it will take place on June 14. Many governments failed in their duty to rescue Jews, and others, from the hands of the Nazis. But international non-governmental organizations, too, were found wanting. The failure of the Red Cross to help Jews during the Holocaust is the most shameful episode in its history. Founded in 1863 to provide aid to military casualties and prisoners of war, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), headquartered in neutral Geneva, Switzerland, by the 20th century faced a new challenge: how to deal with unprotected civilians targeted by totalitarian regimes such as Hitler’s Germany. In World War II, having failed to extend Geneva Convention protections to these new victims of war, it retreated into becoming a cautious and ineffectual organization. The ICRC opted for a strategy of not addressing the question of Jews directly. It made only general approaches concerning the victims of mass arrests or deportation, and then it made no reference to their religion or racial origins, although it was clear that the people in question were, for the most part, Jews. On April 29, 1942, the German Red Cross informed the ICRC that it would not communicate any information on “non-Aryan” detainees, and asked it to refrain from asking questions about them. This was accepted by the Geneva headquarters. Information about the persecution of Jews did, however, filter out of Germany and the German-occupied countries and reached the Allied governments. Some of this information also became known to the ICRC. Therefore, in the summer of 1942, the ICRC debated whether to launch a general appeal on violations of international humanitarian law. It prepared a draft, but decided in the end not to issue the appeal, believing that it would not achieve the desired results.

As reports of extermination camps began to spread in 1944, a Swiss ICRC delegate, Dr. Maurice Rossel, visited the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia at the invitation of the Nazis. His June 23 visit was carefully orchestrated. He walked through the ghetto under the escort of SS officers, but he did not have the opportunity to talk with the Jewish prisoners there. The Nazis had cleaned up the ghetto by lessening overcrowded conditions by sending prisoners to Auschwitz and adding a bank, shops and schools. The ruse worked. Dr. Rossel signed a report approving of the treatment of the Theresienstadt Jews. On Sept. 27, 1944, Dr. Rossel went to Auschwitz. There he spoke to the commander of the camp, but he was not authorized to go inside it. Again, there was no protest. In her memoir The Art of Darkness, published in 2002, Charlotte Opfermann wrote: “Why was the International Red Cross Commission duped during their so-called inspection of the [Theresienstadt] camp in June 1944? The commission wanted to be misled.”