Bombing Auschwitz

February 18, 2020 by  
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David Ben-Gurion did not oppose bombing the Auschwitz death camp, as William Rubinstein erroneously claims (JWire, Feb. 16). Apparently Rubinstein is not familiar with the recent research on this subject by a number of Holocaust scholars.

Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion speaking on the Knesset, Jan, 1, 1957. Credit: National Photo Archive via Wikimedia Commons.

Many years ago, there was some confusion regarding Ben-Gurion’s position, because of a discussion that took place on June 11, 1944, during a meeting of the Jewish Agency Executive, which Ben-Gurion chaired. (The Agency was the self-governing body of the Palestine Jewish community during the British Mandate period.) During the meeting, the idea of asking the Allies to bomb Auschwitz was raised. But it is clear from the transcript that the participants in the meeting did not know what Auschwitz was. Ben-Gurion said, “We do not know the real situation in Poland.” Several of the participants in the meeting objected to the idea of requesting bombing, on the grounds that Auschwitz was “a large labor camp.” Ben-Gurion concluded the meeting by stating that the consensus was not to ask the Allies to bomb “places where Jews are located.”

But that all changed two weeks later. In late June, the Jewish Agency leadership received a summary of an eyewitness report from two Auschwitz escapees, explaining that it was really a mass-murder camp and providing maps pinpointing the gas chambers and crematoria. The five-page summary of the escapees’ testimony was written by the Agency’s representative in Geneva, Richard Lichtheim. He wrote: “There IS a large labour camp in Birkenau…But apart of the labour-camps proper [there are] specially constructed buildings with gas-chambers and crematoriums….The total number of Jews killed in or near Birkenau is estimated at over one and a half million…”
Following the arrival of the escapees’ report, the Jewish Agency’s representatives in Washington, London, Geneva, Budapest, Istanbul, Cairo and Jerusalem began lobbying Allied officials to bomb Auschwitz and the railways and bridges leading to the camp. Although there is no record of the Agency Executive formally revisiting the issue, the fact that all of these Agency officials began promoting the bombing idea clearly indicated that Ben-Gurion and his colleagues had changed their minds once they learned that Auschwitz was a death camp, not a labor camp.
After all, could Jewish Agency officials throughout the world lobby for something that the Agency’s executive still opposed? Not only that, but the Agency officials who were lobbying in London for bombing were not some low-level rogue operatives; they were Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organization, and Moshe Shertok, head of the Agency’s Political Department—and both of them reported directly to Ben-Gurion about what they were doing. If they were acting in defiance of Ben-Gurion, would they be reporting to him about their lobbying? And wouldn’t Ben-Gurion have objected? (He never did.) Thus Israeli historians who have studied Ben-Gurion’s response to the Holocaust, such as professors Shabtai Teveth, Dina Porat, and Tuvia Frilling, all concluded that Ben-Gurion and his colleagues must have given off-the-record consent to promoting bombing.
An important new piece of evidence emerged in 2000. Following the downfall of the Soviet Union and the opening of many Soviet-era government archives, a team of Russian and Israeli historians published a collection of documents related to Israeli-Soviet relations. Among those documents was a 1944 letter from Eliahu Epstein, the Jewish Agency’s representative in Cairo, describing how he met in July with a Soviet diplomat and urged the Soviets to bomb Auschwitz. And who was Epstein’s letter addressed to? Ben-Gurion. If Epstein had been acting in defiance of Ben-Gurion and the Agency executive, why would he be reporting to Ben-Gurion about what he was doing? And, once again, there was no objection from Ben-Gurion in response.
The final piece of the puzzle was discovered in 2009, when the Central Zionist Archives, in Jerusalem, granted me access to the papers of the late Yitzhak Gruenbaum, who had been the chairman of the Jewish Agency’s Rescue Committee during the Holocaust years. (Gruenbaum’s papers had been closed to the public for 25 years while they were undergoing digitalization.)

One of a series of aerial reconnaissance photos of the Auschwitz concentration camp taken between April 4, 1944 and Jan. 14, 1945, but not examined until the 1970s. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

There I examined the transcripts of meetings of a Jewish Agency-related body called the Smaller Zionist Actions Committee, and the Jewish Agency’s rescue committee, in September and October 1944. In the meetings, Gruenbaum reviewed in detail the many efforts by Agency officials to promote bombing (something he obviously could not have done if the lobbying violated the Agency’s position). In his remarks, Greuenbaum cautioned that they should not “say such things explicitly and openly in a resolution.” That explained why there had never been an on-the-record reversal of the aforementioned June 11 vote even though Agency representatives lobbied actively for bombing from late June 1944 all the way through the beginning of 1945.

I shared this new information with colleagues at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. After an exhaustive two-year study of all the relevant documents, the Museum’s leadership issued a ten-page memorandum, on January 10, 2012, which concluded that as a result of the arrival of more details about Auschwitz in June 1944, Ben-Gurion changed his position on requesting bombing the death camp “from opposition to passive support” and “tacit support.” (p. 4)
While the question of Ben-Gurion’s position is interesting, the more significant issue is why the Roosevelt administration repeatedly refused the bombing requests that were made by Jewish Agency officials and other Jewish leaders.
The first requests for bombing had nothing to do with bombing the camp itself. In June 1944, the Orthodox group Agudath Israel, based in New York City, asked Roosevelt administration officials to bomb the railway lines and bridges over which hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were being deported, in cattle cars, to Auschwitz.
Agudath Israel’s request named the specific railway junctions and bridges that should be struck. The Germans sometimes were able to repair railways quickly, but bridges took much longer to rebuild. Since 12,000 Jews were being gassed to death in Auschwitz every day, any interruption of the deportations could have saved lives. Many of the subsequent bombing requests submitted by Jewish groups likewise supplied the names of the railway lines and bridges that should be targeted.
During the summer and fall of 1944, at least thirty different officials of Jewish organizations, as well as other Jewish public figures and journalists, called for bombing either the railways and bridges to Auschwitz, or the gas chambers and crematoria in the camp, or all of those targets.
Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy, acting on behalf of the administration, replied to the various requests with letters that used nearly identical language; it became almost a form letter. He wrote that the War Department had undertaken “a study” which concluded that any such bombings were “impracticable” because they would require “the diversion of considerable  air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations” elsewhere in Europe.
McCloy’s explanation was false. No such “study” was ever conducted. No “diversion” of airplanes would have been needed—because U.S. bombers were already striking German oil factories in the Auschwitz industrial zone, just a few miles from the gas chambers. The real reason for the rejections was that the Roosevelt administration had decided, as a matter of policy, to refrain from using even the most minimal resources for humanitarian objectives, such as interrupting genocide.
Some years ago, my colleagues and I at the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies learned that as a young man, George McGovern, the future U.S. senator and Democratic presidential nominee, was one of the pilots who bombed the oil factories at Auschwitz in 1944. We sent the filmmakers Haim Hecht and Stuart Erdheim to South Dakota to interview him. McGovern told them that bombing the railways and bridges would have been feasible. He noted that Allied pilots frequently bombed railways and bridges as part of the war effort, even though they were sometimes difficult to hit.
McGovern said that John McCloy’s “diversion” argument was just “a rationalization,” since he (McGovern) and other U.S. pilots were already flying over that area, and therefore would not have needed to be diverted. “Franklin Roosevelt was a great man and he was my political hero,” McGovern added. “But I think he made two great mistakes in World War Two.” One was the internment of more than 120,000 innocent Japanese-Americans, “without any proof of treason on their part”; the other “tragic mistake” was the decision “not to go after Auschwitz [and] not knocking out the rail lines that were taking people to their deaths in that terrible camp…God forgive us for that tragic miscalculation.”
Rafael Medoff, Ph.D.
The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies
Washington, D.C.

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