London, Sep. 21 (JTA) – The chief of the SS sought to win asylum for himself and 200 leading Nazis in the final days of World War II by offering cash and the freedom of 3,500 Jews, according to British intelligence documents released last Friday.
According to the documents, details of which have been held in the secret files of Britain's MI5 intelligence agency, the concentration camp inmates were to be sent to Switzerland in two trainloads. The offer was made by Heinrich Himmler and orchestrated by his intelligence chief, Walter Schellenberg. But the arrangement was aborted after the first trainload of 1,700 left Germany and Nazi security chief Ernst Kaltenbrunner reported the plan to Hitler, who ordered it halted immediately.
The MI5 file describes secret talks between Himmler and Switzerland during which the SS chief reportedly insisted that Jewish organizations deposit the 5 million Swiss francs in a numbered Swiss bank account. He said the money would be handed over to the International Red Cross "so that it could be used later as a fund for the relief of the suffering of the German civilian population." Schellenberg then contacted Gestapo chief Heinrich Mueller and the head of the Theresienstadt ghetto, "and, despite countless objections, succeeded in getting the final special train of 17 express coaches with a total of 1,700 Jews from Theresienstadt."
The MI5 report notes that there was widespread panic as the camp inmates were herded on to the train "as they could not believe it was not one of the notorious death trains to Auschwitz." "Even when it was on its way," added the report, "there was still a large number of mainly older people who could not really believe that they were indeed traveling to freedom." But the second trainload of 1,800 Jews from Bergen-Belsen failed to leave Germany before the plan was halted.
"Some time after the arrival of the original transport," noted the report, "messages had appeared in a Swiss newspaper that the release of the Jews had gained 200 leading Nazis rights of asylum in Switzerland. "These reports were passed to Kaltenbrunner who, by exercising his prerogative of personal interviews with the feuhrer, presented them in such a way that he succeeded in stopping the whole transaction." The file does not indicate whether any top Nazis actually gained asylum or whether any of the ransom was paid in exchange for the lives of the 1,700 Jews. The deal did not save Himmler, who was captured by British forces in May 1945 and committed suicide by biting into a vial of potassium cyanide before he could be interrogated.