Radio — a formidable propaganda weapon used by both the Allies and the Axis powers in World War II — was also wielded by forces perpetrating and resisting the persecution of the Jews of Europe.
In a day-long program held March 15 by the Institute of Judeo-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange, educators heard from two experts on wartime propaganda on the use of radio by America, its allies, and their enemies in the Second World War.
In the first of two speeches, Richard Lucas, a political scientist and freelance writer who lives in Short Hills, discussed “Berlin Calling — German Radio Broadcasts to America.”
Lucas is the author of Axis Sally: The American Voice of Nazi Germany.
“Axis Sally” was the stage name of two American-born women who broadcast pro-Nazi propaganda aimed at Allied troops and their families back in the United States.
The first was Mildred Gillars, who was born in Maine and studied at Ohio Wesleyan University before moving to Paris (where she had a relationship with a British Jew in 1931).
Three years later she moved to Dresden, where the Nazis give her a job on the radio.
“At first she was just spinning records and broadcasting to England and Ireland,” said Lucas. “Then she met up with Max Oscar Otto Koischwitz, a German-born American citizen who became a fulltime propagandist for the Nazis at Reich Radio in Berlin. He hired Gillars as an English-language broadcaster.”
Addressing American troops, Lucas said, Gillars “would say things like, ‘Boys, you need to throw down your guns and toddle off home. Instead of slaving in the hot sun, you should give up. It is better to be a prisoner.’”
“They would laugh at her,” said Lucas.
A second American-born woman also known as “Axis Sally” was Rita Zucca, who tried to appeal to American troops in Italy by playing American jazz records. After the war, she was found guilty of collaboration in an Italian military court. She was released after nine months of incarceration but was never allowed to return to the United States. She died in 1998.
Gillars was convicted of one count of treason for performing in a pro-Nazi radio drama. She spent 13 years at the Federal Reformatory for Women in Alderson, WV, and died in 1988.
Although Gillars insisted toward the end her life that she had “no idea what was going on” in terms of the Nazi “Final Solution,” Lucas argued, “There was no way she could not have known something was going on.”
Other American pro-Nazi broadcasters, including Frederick Kaltenbach, Robert Best, and Douglas Chandler, were found guilty of treason.
“They were some of the most virulent anti-Semitic broadcasters on Berlin radio,” said Lucas. “Chandler, Best, and Kaltenbach were motivated by pure anti-Semitism. That showed up in their broadcasts.”
In contrast, “Mildred Gillars was motivated by sheer opportunism and the sheer fact that she needed a job. The anti-Semitism took a back seat.”
In a separate talk, Holocaust scholar Laura Smith, who has a master’s degree from Seton Hall in Jewish-Christian studies, gave a mirror-image address, “Allied and Resistance Radio.”
After illustrating her talk with excerpts of dramatic radio addresses broadcast by British Prime Minster Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she spoke of government-sponsored underground broadcasting by Dutch, French, and English resistance forces.
But Smith encountered criticism from some members of the audience when she spoke of the roles of Pope Pius XII and Vatican Radio in challenging the Nazis and the slaughter of the Jews.
“Vatican Radio began to broadcast anti-Nazi propaganda in earnest in 1940,” Smith said. “In January of that year, Pope Pius XII ordered reporting on conditions in occupied Poland, and a month later, a Catholic priest became the first broadcaster in the world to report on the detention of Polish and Jewish prisoners in sealed ghettoes.”
Vatican Radio reported, Smith said, that “Jews and Poles are being herded to separate ghettoes, hermetically sealed and pitifully inadequate.”
Because of such warnings, British and American newspapers credited the Vatican with sounding an alert about Nazi persecution of Poles and Jews as early as 1940. In July 1942 Vatican Radio aired a protest by French bishops of the execution of 13,000 Jews “and as a result, international media took note,” Smith said.
But according to her, perhaps no wartime broadcaster was as outspoken about the anti-Semitic acts of the Nazis as Monsignor John Maria Oesterreicher.
Oesterreicher, born a Jew in Austria, became a Catholic clergyman and founded the Institute of Judeo-Christian Studies at Seton Hall in 1953.
During the war, he broadcast while in hiding with the stated intention to “arouse repulsion for the injustice of Hitler’s rule and…encourage subjugated Austrians to resist Nazi occupation…including the persecution of Jews,” said Smith.
She said the monsignor broadcast one incident of an old Jewish man begging a Nazi border guard to let him escape, saying, “You, too, are a human being.” The Nazi replied, “I am not a human being; I am a German.”
Smith said in another radio broadcast, in 1940, Oesterreicher warned, “The Nazis want to transform the world into one big concentration camp.”
Challenged by an audience member who cited allegations that Pope Pius XII remained largely silent about, and perhaps even supportive of, Hitler’s Nazi regime, Smith called such accusations a “slippery slope.”
Oesterreicher, she pointed out, was “broadcasting anonymously,” she said, “not as a representative of the Vatican” so his warnings would not have been credited to the Church. But, having said that, Smith added, “I still don’t think enough was said and done” by the Catholic Church to fight the Nazis.
In response to another audience member’s claiming, “There is a feeling the pope could have done more,” Smith said, “Sure,” adding that archives have been discovered that have shown that if the Vatican had been more outspoken, it would have led to “more persecution.” The pope, she said, “was trying to walk that balance.”
“The question of Pope Pius XII is very complex,” said Father Lawrence Frizzell, who chairs the Jewish-Christian studies department at Seton Hall. “From our perspective, in hindsight, we think much more could have been done. I always say, ‘Did Pius XII do enough?’ Nobody did enough.”