Born in Berlin in 1911, Gerhart Riegner was a university student by the time the Nazis came to power. After finishing his studies in law in Heidelberg, he became a young magistrate. However, he was expelled from the court in 1933 following a Nazi decree banning Jews from occupying such positions. He decided to leave Germany, first resuming his studies in Paris before going to the Geneva Graduate Institute. He ended up staying in Switzerland for the rest of his life, where he participated in the creation of the World Jewish Congress and served as its Secretary General from 1965 to 1983. From his Geneva office, linked to eminent personalities such as Nahum Goldman or Stephen Wise, he was the vigilant witness of the rise of Nazism, of the horror of the Shoah, and of the birth, full of hope, of the State of Israel.
As early as 1941, Riegner accumulated clues about the extermination plan targeting European Jews. A German industrialist from Silesia, Eduard Schulte, visited him and informed him of the use of a prussic acid for the mass killing of Jews. He then alerted the nuncio in Bern, Philippe Bernardini, in a memorandum dated March 1942, which did not appear in the acts and documents of the Holy See on the war. On 1 August, he received confirmation of the threat from his friend, Benjamin Sagalowitz. Then, on the 3rd, he met Isidor Koppelmann, a business manager from Zurich linked to German industrial circles, who revealed to him the development of crematory ovens. On 8 August 1942, he gave Howard Elting, the American Vice-consul in Geneva, , a telegram text intended for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and World Jewish Congress leaders in New York (who never received it) in which the word “extermination” appears for the first time. The alarming telegram stated that at the Führer’s headquarters, a plan to exterminate all Jews living in countries occupied or controlled by Germany after deportation and concentration in the East would solve once and for all the Jewish question in Europe.
After the end of World War II, much of Riegner’s work was dedicated to relieving the plight of Jewish refugees, improving Christian-Jewish relations and furthering the cause of human rights, having also contributed to the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other important international covenants.