The Bombing of Auschwitz and Jewish Reaction to the Holocaust
Fact, Feelings and Reactions
Richard J. Garfunkel
June 16, 2009
In the ongoing discussion regarding the bombing of Auschwitz, I have included with this essay a declassified exchange of letters between John J. McCloy and John Pehle. John Pehle was the Executive Director of the War Refugee Board and John McCloy was the Assistant Secretary of War. For what it is worth, McCloy made his argument in 1944 about the problem of long-range bombing. Of course this does not mention the opposition of David Ben-Gurion and the members of the Jewish Agency. As to FDR's supposed vetoing or rejection of this effort, there is no evidence that FDR ever commented or was asked to comment of the efficacy of bombing Auschwitz. (Also please note the dates of the exchange of letters in the attachment!) Of course later it was determined, in opposition to McCloy’s letter that there were numerous raids from Foggia, Italy to the Auschwitz region a 2600 mile roundtrip! Yes there were many air reconnaissance photos taken over the area that included Auschwitz, and there were also numerous raids, late in 1944, directed at the various known industrial plants in the near vicinity, like the synthetic oil production plant at Monowitz. According to reports, “air reconnaissance photographs of the camp were taken accidentally during 1944 by aircraft seeking to photograph nearby military-industrial targets, but no effort was made to analyze them.” (According to Martin Gilbert in his book “Auschwitz and the Allies, page 302-3, the quality of the photos was poor.”)
But unfortunately when Allied long-range bombers were able to make flights from our airbase in Foggia, Italy, with long-range fighter support, they were unaware of what was going on down below in the “death camps.” Could they then have bombed the marshalling yards at Birkenau? Yes, they could have, but by that time all activity had really ceased and the Germans by November 29, 1944 were dismantling the crematoria at Auschwitz, and making efforts to re-locate, or kill the balance of the Jews that remained. By the December 27th roll call, 18,751 Jews remained. In fact during some of those late December days when the crematoria was being dismantled, errant bombs dropped by Allied raiders did hit Auschwitz killing some German guards.
Information regarding Auschwitz was available to the Allies during years 1940–1943 by accurate and frequent reports of Polish Army Captain Witold Pilecki. Pilecki was the only known person to volunteer to be imprisoned at Auschwitz concentration camp, spending 945 days at Auschwitz not only actively gathering evidence of genocide and supplying it to the British in London by Polish resistance movement but also organizing resistance structures at the camp.
His first report was smuggled outside in November 1940. He eventually escaped on April 27, 1943, but even his personal report of mass killings was dismissed as exaggeration by the Allies, as were his previous ones. This changed with receipt of the very detailed report of two prisoners, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler who escaped on April 7, 1944 which finally convinced most Allied leaders of the truth about Auschwitz in the middle of 1944.
Auschwitz-Birkenau claimed more victims than any other German Nazi extermination camp despite coming into use after all the others. In 1941, 1.1 million Jews were murdered, largely by mass shootings in the occupied territories. In 1942, 2.7 million Jews were murdered, many in Chelmno, Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka, the extermination camps built in occupied Poland specifically to destroy Poland's three million Jews. Only 200,000 were killed at Auschwitz. In 1943, some 500,000 Jews were killed, half of whom were killed in Auschwitz. With the destruction of Poland's Jews mostly complete, the other four camps were closed by the end of 1943. Auschwitz alone continued to operate, both as a giant slave labor complex and an extermination facility dedicated to the genocide of Jews from the rest of Nazi-occupied Europe
The busiest time for Auschwitz as an extermination camp was from April to June 1944, when it was the center for the massacre of Hungary's Jews. Hungary was an ally of Germany during the war but had resisted turning over its Jews to the Germans until Germany sent troops to occupy Hungary in March 1944. In 56 days from April until the end of June 1944, 436,000 Hungarian Jews, half of the pre-war population, were deported to Auschwitz and to their deaths. Jews continued to arrive from other parts of Nazi Europe as well. The incoming volume was so great that the SS at Auschwitz resorted to burning corpses in open-air pits as well as the crematoria. The total of over 400,000 Jews gassed during the Hungarian Action in early 1944 represented some two-thirds of all the 600,000 Jews exterminated in that year and a third of all the Jews killed at Auschwitz in the two and a half years that it operated as an extermination camp. According to Martin Gilbert, in his book “Auschwitz and the Allies,” epilogue, page 319, “…until the 3rd week of June 1944, the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau had kept their secret, both as the principal mass murder site of the Jews of Europe , and also as the destination of so many hundreds of deportation trains from France, Holland, Belgium …”
As to the photos, in fact, it was not until the 1970s that these aerial shots of Auschwitz were looked at carefully. (There were at least 20 million aerial photos taken by the Allies in WWII. When I saw the report of the photos on CBS with Walter Cronkite, there was no evidence that Auschwitz was the so-called “terminus.”) Starting with a plea from the Slovakian rabbi Weissmandl in May 1944, there was a growing campaign to persuade the Allies to bomb Auschwitz or the railway lines leading to it. At one point Winston Churchill ordered that such a plan be prepared, but he was told that bombing the camp would most likely kill prisoners without disrupting the killing operation, and that bombing the railway lines was not technically feasible. Later several nearby military targets were bombed. One bomb accidentally fell into the camp and killed some prisoners. The debate over what could have been done, or what should have been attempted even if success was unlikely, has continued heatedly ever since.
David Ben-Gurion, (1886-1973, Prime Minister of Israel 1949-63) the Chairman of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, and later the first Prime Minister of Israel, in June of 1944, responded to a proposal that the Allies be asked to bomb the extermination camps. At a meeting presided over by Ben-Gurion, the Jewish Agency voted eleven to one against the bombing option.
By early June, when over one-third of the remaining Hungarian Jewish community had been deported to Auschwitz, Jacob Rosenheim, a leader of the world’s orthodox Jews, and others wrote Morgenthau, the War Department and Joseph Pehle of the War Refugee Board imploring them to bomb the railway lines from Hungary to the death camp at Auschwitz.” Joseph Pehle, who was a great advocate for the Jews, wrote McCloy expressing his doubts about the about bombing of Auschwitz. The War Refugee Board determined that the bombing of the tracks would do little to stop the killing, because they would be swiftly repaired. Later McCloy used about the same language and rationale to veto any further requests to bomb Auschwitz itself. (The Conquerors, by Michael Beschloss, page 64.)
On August 9, 1944, the first such request came to John McCloy, (1895-1989) the Assistant Secretary of War (1941-5), regarding the bombing of Auschwitz, by Leon Kubowitzki, head of the Rescue Committee of the World Jewish Congress, in which he forwarded, without endorsement, a request from Mr. Ernest Frischer of the Czechoslovak State Council (in London exile.) Ironically Mr. Kubowitzki argued against the bombing of Auschwitz because “the first victims will be Jews.” With regard to whether John McCloy ever actually asked FDR about the bombing, there is no evidence of any meeting and no evidence in any of his extensive interviews or in his personal papers that the subject was brought up. But, in a recent book, The Conquerors by Michael Beschloss, the author asserts that John McCloy had told Henry Morgenthau III, that he had asked FDR about bombing the camps. (William vanden Heuval castigated Beschloss for his patchwork and shoddy work, in a long documented piece, and Beschloss apologized to him!)
For decades after World War II, McCloy insisted that he had never talked to the President on that subject. He told Washington Post reporter Morton Mintz in 1983 that he never talked with FDR about the subject. Even David Wyman in his 1984 book, The Abandonment of the Jews, wrote that the bombing requests “almost certainly” did not reach Roosevelt. Later McCloy, in an interview in 1986, three years before his death, had an unpublished exchange with Henry Morgenthau III, who was researching his book, Mostly Morganthaus, claimed that he had spoken to FDR about the bombing of Auschwitz, Supposedly FDR “made it very clear” to him that the bombing would do no good, and “we would have been accused of destroying Auschwitz by bombing these innocent people.” Of course McCloy was telling this to Morgenthau’s son, decades after his father, Henry Jr. had referred to him as an “oppressor of the Jews.” Maybe McCloy’s true feelings were exposed when he also stated to Morganthau’s son, “I didn’t want to bomb Auschwitz…It seemed to be a bunch of fanatic Jews who deemed that if you didn’t bomb, it was an indication of lack of venom against Hitler…” (The Conquerors, Michael Beschloss, page 65-7.)
The last selection took place on October 30, 1944. The next month, Heinrich Himmler ordered the crematoria destroyed before the Red Army reached the camp. The gas chambers of Birkenau were blown up by the SS in January 1945 in an attempt to hide the German crimes from the advancing Soviet troops. On January 20, the SS command sent orders to murder all the prisoners remaining in the camp, but in the chaos of the Nazi retreat the order was never carried out.
Ironically on January 17, 1945, Nazi personnel had started to evacuate the facility; nearly 60,000 prisoners, most of those remaining, were forced on a death march to the camp toward Wodzisław Śląski (German: Loslau). Some 20,000 Auschwitz prisoners made it to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, where they were liberated by the British in April 1945. Those too weak or sick to walk were left behind; about 7,500 prisoners were liberated by the 322nd Rifle Division of the Red Army on January 27, 1945. Among the artifacts of automated murder found by the Russians were 348,820 men's suits and 836,255 women's garments.
- April 1944 – November 1944 SS and Police authorities deport more than 585,000 Jews to Auschwitz.
- October 7, 1944 Members of the Jewish prisoner “special detachment” (Sonderkommando) that was forced to remove bodies from the gas chambers and operate the crematoria stage an uprising. They successfully blow up Crematorium IV and kill several guards. Women prisoners had smuggled gunpowder out of nearby factories to members of the Sonderkommando. The SS quickly suppresses the revolt and kills all the Sonderkommando members. On January 6, 1945, just weeks before Soviet forces liberate the camp, the SS will also hang four women who smuggled gunpowder into the camp.
- October 30, 1944 The last selections take place on the arrival ramp at Birkenau. 1,689 people from a transport from Terezin are sent to the gas chambers.
- November 25, 1944 As Soviet forces continue to approach, SS chief Heinrich Himmler orders the destruction of the Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chambers and crematoria. During this SS attempt to destroy the evidence of mass killings, prisoners will be forced to dismantle and dynamite the structures.
This is an email response from former Ambassador William vanden Heuval who was formerly the President of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute.
From: William Vanden Heuvel [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Tuesday, June 16, 2009 2:52 PM
To: Richard J. Garfunkel
Subject: RE: The Bombing of Auschwitz
Richard—a brilliant piece—thank you for writing this –look forward to discussing it further – an extraordinary piece of work–Bill
Below is a copy of my response to Mr. vanden Heuval regarding my own thoughts on why and how Jewish opinion evolved regarding the Holocaust.
From: Richard J. Garfunkel [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Tuesday, June 16, 2009 1:50 PM
To: William Vanden Heuvel
Subject: RE: The Bombing of Auschwitz
Bill- Thanks for your kind words. There is a strange, but understandable sense of post-traumatic stress syndrome in the Jewish consciousness. As anti-Semitism continually rears its head, for one reason or another, many in the Jewish community seek out to constantly test its friends. The trauma of the Holocaust continues to affect many in the Jewish world directly and indirectly. Though Jews are citizens of many lands, they have been singled out often as if they were a race or a separate people. In a sense it would like a person saying there are Italians in Westchester, and also Irish and Jews. This dualism as a people or a religion has existed almost forever. Maybe that is at the heart of anti-Semitism, the illusion of divided loyalties.
Amongst many Jews, besides “a never again” defiance and the will to survive, there is an innate insecurity and a heightened sense of the being the victim. Victimization brings on guilt, and often the question “why me?” constantly arises. In a sense, I believe that the victim often blames his/her friends for not standing up enough. Or the victim feels that he/she has done something wrong, so wrong that his/her friends never really are committed enough to be counted on. The anti-Semitism that always existed in Europe was waning in the wake of the Napoleonic Era as modernism and enlightenment crept into the middle of the 19th Century. But the cataclysm brought on by World War I, and the collapse of the ruling dynasties created a social turmoil in its wake. Whatever reforms brought on by Napoleon, Bismarck, the call for social justice, the freeing of the serfs, the outrage over the Dreyfus Affair, and the many other positive advances were disrupted by the war and its aftermath. The collapse of the old order brought violence, abject poverty, suffering and the rise of dictators of the right and the left. The Jews, were caught in the middle, and as a traditionally easy target, anti-Semitism arose with greater strength in Germany where chaos had reigned supreme with the collapse of its economy and social system.
After the WWII, the subject of the Holocaust was too difficult for many Jews to confront openly. They wanted to get on with their lives, and they again became pawns in the emerging Cold War. Nazi atrocities, after the Nuremburg Trials, were often forgotten as the West had to create the new will and commitment to confront the Soviets. West Germany was a lynchpin in that effort. As a result many escaped or ignored Nazi criminals were forgotten and even the ones in prison were released early to curry favor with the German population. Justice was never really achieved, especially in the Jewish mindset. German scientists were welcomed here and there was a new idea promulgated that not all Germans were Nazis, and that there were many, many good Germans. The complicity of a willing people (executioners), as characterized by Daniel Goldhagen, was often forgotten in the Cold War struggle.
Jewish intermarriage which was only around 4-5% in 1960, started to escalate in the middle and late sixties as Jews got involved with the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Vietnam War era and were allowed greater access to world class colleges and universities. Jews felt more comfortable with their image after the Six-Day War.
They were no longer seen by themselves, and others, as a weak, inbred people that would rather study, compromise, and teach rather than play sports, exercise, or even join the armed forces. (Jewish-American participation in WWII was at a higher percentage than any other ethnic group and over 50,000 Jews were decorated for heroism.) The Jewish self image as the helpless victim began to change within the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. As intermarriage in the following decade, or so, grew to alarming numbers, many Jews began to equate assimilation with liberalism. By the middle and late 1980’s Jewish scholars, rabbis, and authors began open up their thoughts on the Holocaust, its roots, causes and consequences. Many equated assimilation and intermarriage as a new threat to the survival of the Jewish People. Some even equated it to a new Holocaust.
Franklin Roosevelt, the greatest friend of the Jews, and the greatest achieving liberal became an easy target. He, this all-encompassing prince, who Jews had trusted, was characterized as having feet of clay. He, therefore, was excoriated for not doing enough. His kitchen cabinet, of German Jewish advisors, was looked down upon as not appealing to, or pressuring enough their “prince.”
These Jews were accused of abandoning their Eastern European co-religionists to protect themselves from the backlash of American anti-Semitism that had arisen partly from the large German-American population that had great influence before the Second World War.
The victim always is torn between guilt and victimization. On one hand they seek to understand what they did to incur such hatred, distrust and discrimination. They seek answers in their conduct. On the other hand, they again lash out at everyone who did not help enough. Did they aim their angst at the Southern Congressmen who opposed the opening of America’s doors or the expanding of the immigration quotas? Did they aim their criticism at the large German-American population that caught the virus of anti-Semitism from their cousins in Germany? Did they rail against the establishment Protestants who kept them out of the Ivy League schools, the Fortune 500 boardrooms, the elite law firms, the staffs at major hospitals or the Jewish Hollywood moguls who tread softly regarding the issue of the rise of Nazism? Many knew who was responsible. Many in the 1930’s and 1940’s knew who their only champion was. Many knew how difficult it was to balance the Nation’s needs with the cries from the persecuted people of Europe. Certainly with a permanent victory in Europe by the Nazis, all of Europe’s people would be enslaved, and any dissidents, religious or not, would be destroyed.
In the comfort of the 1980’s and beyond, certain Jews and other Holocaust exploiters like David Wyman found an easy target with the liberals, and their great symbol FDR. It was easy for them to consolidate all the blame in the name of the Roosevelt Administration. It was easy for them to ignore the fascists and Nazis and their responsibility and guilt. They wanted shared guilt/blame that would encompass everyone.
In the same way, they elevated the Japanese Internment way above even the incredible atrocities that the Japanese authored from the time of the Rape of Nanjing, to the use of germ warfare in their barbaric war against China, through their massive and criminal abuse of Allied prisoners and to their incredible violations of the Geneva Convention’s, “rules of war.” This self-flagellation regarding America has added to the social and spiritual divide the country has endured for decades. The constant re-visited question of the bombing of Auschwitz begs the questions. The Nazi war aim was to kill Jews and make Europe Judenrein, plain and simple. Could many more Jews have been saved?
Most probably yes! Could the Holocaust been prevented? Assuredly not! But not understanding history, the conditions, here and abroad, which led to the rise of the Nazis, the onset of WWII, the war itself, the isolation and prejudices of the American people, and the consequences of all of that, doesn’t focus an iota of guilt on FDR. Without his efforts, his wise and thoughtful understanding of the world and his leadership, the West would have certainly lost the war, and G-d only knows what the consequences would have been.
Response from William vanden Heuval:
From: William Vanden Heuvel [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Tuesday, June 16, 2009 11:24 AM
To: Richard J. Garfunkel
Subject: RE: The Bombing of Auschwitz
Dear Richard: thank you for this excellent work. The publication of the MacDonald Diaries are an important contribution to the point that FDR was looking for every possible means before the war to evacuate the threatened Jews from Europe. I wish the scholars who write on this subject did their research as well as you do yours. Best, Bill