A biographical sketch of WWII air force pilot John Wenzel in a NY Times feature has shed new light on a running debate among Holocaust scholars over why Frank Delano Roosevelt abandoned the Jews of Europe.
Myths and illusions die hard.
More than eighty years after the Holocaust, some historians continue to insist that President Roosevelt was a great humanitarian who tried his best to save Jews from Hitler, but whose hands were tied by public and congressional opposition. They blame FDR’s catastrophic policy of inaction in the face of Nazi genocide against Jews on his cabinet and an anti-Semitic war department.
This is the view put forth by key exhibits in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and a new Holocaust documentary by historian Ken Burns.
Critics call this a historical whitewash. The say the U.S. refusal to loosen immigration quotas, to significantly help Jewish victims, or to even slow the pace of their extermination were decisions that came from the very highest rung of authority—FDR himself.
The iconic leader known as “The Boss,” king of the “Fireside Chats,” revered for his bold initiatives and shrewd leadership, was not inclined to cede ultimate authority to anyone when it came to setting war policy, the record shows.
Some of the fiercest criticism of FDR focuses on his refusal to heed the many pleas from Jewish and non-Jewish leaders, as well as officials in FDR’s own administration, to bomb the death camp crematoria as well as railway lines and bridges leading to the killing centers.
FDR loyalists defend this moral failure by invoking the argument that it would have been detrimental to the war effort to divert military supplies and resources from where they were urgently needed.
In addition, they argue, bombing the railways would have been futile inasmuch as the Germans “were able to repair railway lines fairly quickly,” a claim promoted by the 2022 documentary, “The U.S. and The Holocaust.”
Collapsing The Alibis
A NY Times interview with the above-mentioned John Wenzel of Brooklyn, who as a U.S. air force lieutenant during WWII carried out bombing missions over Nazi-occupied lands, exposes the hollowness of these two alibis defending FDR’s inaction.
The Times article quoted from some of Wenzel’s wartime letters describing some of the bombing campaigns he executed to destroy railway lines across Europe. Wenzel’s targets included “German railroad cars,” “a rail line,” and “stalled enemy train cars.” During one mission he was wounded while providing air support for soldiers “pushing toward a rail hub.”
These wartime accounts, writes Dr. Rafael Medoff, director of the Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and a prolific author, are consistent with the established history of how the Allies regularly bombed railway lines throughout Europe, despite the possibility of the Germans repairing them.
Wenzel’s saga—the story of an air force pilot and his men taking out the enemy’s railways from the skies—is actually a microcosm of an important branch of Allied military strategy aimed at disabling the enemy’s transportation and supply routes.
“Bombing railways,” writes Medoff, “consumed approximately 32 per cent of the bomb tonnage utilized in the Allies’ entire strategic air campaign in Europe.”
Saving Jewish lives through bombing the railways leading to the death camps would in no way have undermined the Allies’ military goals. Especially since German troops and weaponry often traveled on the same routes as the death trains, to claim such an operation would be an unjustified “diversion” from the war effort is obviously contrived.
‘There Is No Question We Should Have Gone After Auschwitz’
Historians have long known about Allied air force operations that took bombers along the same route as the deportation trains with their anguished Jewish victims.
Former U.S. Senator George McGovern piloted a B-24 Liberator in December 1944, and his squadron “bombed Nazi oil facilities less than five miles from Auschwitz,” according to the Washington Post. In 2005, he testified to this fact on camera with Israeli interviewers.
“There is no question we should have attempted to go after Auschwitz,” McGovern said.
“There was a pretty good chance we could have blasted those rail lines off the face of the earth, which would have interrupted the flow of people to those death chambers. We had a pretty good chance of knocking out those gas ovens.”
“The failure to bomb Auschwitz-Birkenau, the hugest of the Nazi killing sites,” wrote McGovern in his memoirs, “was a missed opportunity of monumental proportions.”
‘Allied Bombers Could Have Easily Knocked Out Mass-murder Apparatus’
McGovern’s remarks dovetailed with revelations by historian David Wyman, author of the pivotal work, The Abandonment of the Jews, published in 1984.
Based on exhaustive study of declassified military documents, Wyman’s book sparked a sea change in how Holocaust researchers viewed the subject of why Auschwitz wasn’t bombed. The book built on a thesis Wyman developed in his landmark 1978 essay in Commentary magazine, “Why Wasn’t Auschwitz Bombed?”
Wyman wrote that “mass murder continued at Auschwitz until the gas chambers closed down in late November 1944. Allied bombers-flying at their normal 20,000 to 26,000 feet could have easily knocked out the mass-murder apparatus,” the historian asserted.
By May 1944, the U.S. Fifteenth Air Force had turned its primary attention to oil targets, Wyman wrote. Wiping out Germany’s oil supplies “gradually strangled the Third Reich’s military operations” and helped bring about its defeat.
In late June, the U.S. Air Force trained its sights on Upper Silesia, where Germany had created a major synthetic oil industry. At least eight important oil targets were clustered there, with Auschwitz near the northeast end of the arc.
Beginning in early July, U.S. and British war planes carried out extensive air strikes in the area.
The area around Auschwitz, including Auschwitz itself was a virtual “hotbed of United States bombing activity” during July and August, wrote Wyman, in an astounding revelation.
Over A Thousand 500-Pound Explosive Bombs Dropped Less Than Five Miles from Gas Chambers
According to the Wyman report: “On Sunday, August 20, 1944, 127 Flying Fortresses, escorted by 100 Mustang fighters, dropped 1,336 500-pound high-explosive bombs on the factory areas of Auschwitz, less than five miles to the east of the gas chambers.”
“Again on September 13,” the report continues, “a force of heavy bombers rained destruction on the factory areas of Auschwitz. As before, no attempt was made to hit the killing installations which stood about five miles to the west.”
“Throughout the summer and fall, transports kept coming from many parts of Europe, carrying tens of thousands of Jews to their death. There is no question that bombing the gas chambers and crematoria would have saved many lives,” the author of “The Abandonment of the Jews” emphasized.
Yet, with U.S. planes raining bombs all around Auschwitz, the War Department issued the transparent falsehood that bombing Auschwitz would be possible only by diverting airpower from “decisive operations elsewhere.”
Prof. David Wyman’s The Abandonment of the Jews and other definitive research in the 70s and 80s found that FDR consciously neglected opportunities to find Jewish refugees a haven when it was still possible for them to emigrate, and that he turned his back on rescue opportunities during the Holocaust itself.
In one glaring example, Dr. Medoff notes that it was possible before the outbreak of war and even afterwards “to admit refugees to a U.S. territory such as the Virgin Islands.”
After the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, the governor and legislative assembly of the Virgin Islands publicly offered a haven to Jews fleeing the Nazis. The FDR administration worked from behind the scenes to restrict this offer of a haven, apprehensive that the refuges would sneak into the United States mainland, Medoff wrote.
Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. — the only Jew in Roosevelt’s cabinet — raised the possibility of offering the Virgin Islands as a haven for Jewish refugees when the St. Louis, a ship carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees from Germany, crossed the Atlantic in search of a safe harbor for them.
“FDR found a technicality on which he based his objections,” Dr. Medoff said. The Jews on the St. Louis were returned to Europe — where many were killed by the Nazis. [See sidebar]
Why Did They Lie?
Similarly, American Jewish leaders during the 1940s were repeatedly told that no ships were available to carry refugees, that all were needed for the war effort.
In fact, writes Medoff in one of numerous articles about America’s and FDR’s response to the Holocaust, “American ships that brought soldiers and war materials to Europe returned empty. They had to be loaded with ballast — rocks and rubble from blitzed British cities — so they wouldn’t tip over. Jewish refugees could have served as ballast.
“Why did the Roosevelt administration lie? We have to consider the possibility that Roosevelt’s very unflattering private views about Jews could have played some role,” the author says.
Over the past decade, he notes, historians have discovered statements Roosevelt made about Jews that are clearly anti-Semitic. Those private remarks conveyed his beliefs that Jews cannot be completely trusted, and that Jews have to be “spread out thin so they don’t dominate” any profession.
FDR, as a member of the Harvard University Board, played a role in the institution’s decision to impose a quota on Jewish students in the 1920s. He took pride in his role and boasted about it in a private conversation with then Secretary of State Morgenthau.
His comments were immortalized in Morgenthau’s private records, later published for posterity, writes Medoff.
Saving Animals, Works of Art, Historical Buildings… But Not Jews
Despite the claim made by the FDR administration that military resources could not be “diverted” for non-military objectives – the military did divert resources, just not for the Jews,” writes Dr. Medoff.
He cited an Air Force plan to bomb the Japanese city of Kyoto that was blocked by Secretary of War Henry Stimson because he admired the city’s artistic treasures.
In another example, Assistant Secretary of War McCloy diverted American bombers from striking the German city of Rothenburg in order to spare its famous medieval architecture.
And in yet another case, “Allied ships were diverted to bring thousands of Muslims on a religious pilgrimage to Mecca in 1943 – at the same time U.S. officials were saying no ships were available to take Jewish refugees out of Europe.”
In a truly bizarre inversion of morals, General George Patton even diverted U.S. troops to rescue 150 of the prized Lipizzaner dancing horses in Austria, in April 1945, the historian noted.
“Saving animals, works of art, historic buildings… all these justified the diversion of military resources. Only the saving of Jewish lives did not.”
Refuge Denied: The Voyage of The St. Louis
The telegram to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, June 2, 1939, read: “In the name of humanity we urge you to bring all possible influence on Cuban authorities to permit return of German liner St. Louis stranded at sea- instead of returning over 900 refugees to imprisonment and death Nazi Germany- urge Cuba give at least temporary shelter until another refuge found in Democratic country.”
The yellowed telegram, signed by American Jewish leaders can still be viewed today at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Alongside it is a second document, a plea to Roosevelt to suspend the immigration quota in order to admit the desperate refugees.
A third document carries the shattering response from the U.S. Immigration Dept. with two words stamped in red: REFUGE DENIED
The tragedy of the St. Louis is one of the more infamous chapters of the Holocaust. Sixty years after this heartrending odyssey, research by the American Jewish Historical society disclosed that despite the anti-Semitism that drove Cuban rejection of the refugees, all of them might have been allowed into the country if not for the irresponsible wrangling of Jewish organizations over the sum of $500,000 demanded by the Cuban government.
In April, 1939, Germany’s Hamburg-America Line announced a special voyage to Havana, Cuba on the luxury liner St. Louis, departing May 13. The 937 tickets were quickly sold out to Jews desperate to leave Germany.
Most of the passengers aboard the ship had been forced to sell all of their belongings to buy extravagantly priced tickets and visas. Some had come straight from concentration camps where they had been imprisoned after Kristallnacht, released on the condition that they forfeit all their possessions to the Reich and leave Germany.
From Cuba, the passengers would wait for their quota number in the United States to be called, enabling them to emigrate there.
The trip began as a luxury cruise for the approximately 300 men, 500 women and 150 children, recalled Herbert Karliner, 72, one of the passengers. As soon as the boat reached Havana on May 27, however, disaster struck.
Landing Permits Invalidated
Unknown to the Jewish passengers, their landing permits, pre-issued by the Cuban director of immigration, had already been invalidated by a corrupt Cuban government and they were denied entry into the country.
The Cuban rejection came as a shock to the Jewish refugees since, as of the late 1930’s, Cuba had been a haven for European Jews. In early 1939, 500 Jews a month were landing in Cuba.
With the spread of Nazi propaganda, however, Cuban President Federica Laredo Bru yielded to fascist pressure and without warning, reduced the quota for Jewish immigrants. In addition, Bru began invalidating previously issued visas and landing permits, announcing that prospective immigrants must post $500 to ensure that they would not become a public charge.
For a week, while the ship sat at anchor in sweltering heat, representatives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) negotiated with Cuban president Bru.
According to files archived at American Jewish Historical Society, the JDC’s representative, NY attorney Lawrence Berenson, in talks with Bru, tried to bargain him down on the price of $500 a head. Angered by this approach, the Cuban president rejected the JDC’s proposals and forced the ship to leave the harbor.
Captain Gustave Schroeder diverted the ship toward Miami, where it anchored 4 miles offshore, while talks resumed. In the meantime, the U.S. immigration office in Miami announced that under no circumstances would passengers be permitted to disembark on U.S. territory.
JDC Overplays Its Hand
Attorney Berenson met with the Cuban president again on June 5, making the fatal mistake of repeating his strategy of trying to chisel down the $500 bond for each passenger. The volatile Bru lost patience and summarily broke off the talks, ordering the St. Louis to depart.
The JDC, realizing it had disastrously overplayed its hand, rushed to deposit $500,000 in a Havana bank but it was too late. The Cuban president could not be budged. As for the Jewish negotiators, gross miscalculation or twisted priorities had laid waste to a momentous opportunity for saving over a thousand of their brothers and sisters.
President Roosevelt received a flood of telegrams and letters from Americans, pleading with him to intervene, writes History Channel.
For those aboard the St. Louis who had been released from German concentration camps on condition that they leave the country, return meant almost certain death. Other passengers had come to be reunited with parents, brothers and sisters who had already gained refuge in Cuba.
The White House took the position, however, that the Cuban affair was “an internal Cuban matter.” Anti-Semitism combined with isolationist tendencies created a wall of indifference in the administration to the plight of the refugees.
Panic Sets In
When the passengers realized they would not be allowed to disembark anywhere in the Americas, panic set in.
“We knew what would happen if we came back to Germany,” recalled Herbert Karliner in his oral testimony. He remembers standing with his mother, father, two sisters and a brother, on the deck of the St. Louis, watching as the Florida coast beckoned.
“We sent telegrams all over the world, hoping that some country would let us in,” Karliner said. He remembered that aboard the St. Louis, “I saw the coast of Miami Beach vividly. I was captivated by the palm trees. But the Coast Guard came by and chased our ship off… ”
As the boat prepared to return to Europe, desperate relatives packed into motorboats and approached the ship, shouting messages to loved ones. So shattered were passengers at the terrible prospect of returning to Nazi Germany, that many of them signed a suicide pact declaring that they would rather die than return.
Except for one man who slashed his wrists and jumped overboard, they did not carry out the pact.
Penniless Voyagers Sent Back To Death Trap
The penniless voyagers were sent back to Europe, terrified of what awaited them. When four European nations– Britain, Belgium, France and the Netherlands — agreed to provide them with temporary refuge, about half were saved from Hitler’s grasp for a brief time.
Britain took 288 passengers, France, 224, Belgium, 214 and the Netherlands, 181. Those who went to England were relatively safe. Those who went to France, Belgium and Holland, however, walked into a death trap. Within a year, the Nazis invaded those countries, trapping the Jews there.
Researchers have found documentation indicating that approximately 240 passengers were deported from Belgium, France, and the Netherlands to the Auschwitz and Sobibor killing centers in Poland. Only four of these are known to have survived.
They also determined that dozens more passengers had been deported to Theresienstadt, Majdanek and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps.
The Karliners were sent to France. Herbert and his brother were sent to a children’s home and survived. The rest of his family was arrested by French collaborators and sent to Auschwitz. They were never heard from again.
After a long saga, Karliner eventually made it to the United States. Later in life, while traveling in Europe, he was drawn to visit his hometown, a small town called Pieskretscham that he had last seen in 1939 when he fled with his family. He then learned that this little town was just 10 miles from Auschwitz, the death camp where his family and 2 million others perished.
“Can you fathom that,” he reflected sadly in an interview with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “We ran from there to escape death, went almost halfway around the world and were so close to safety! Only for my parents and sisters to be forced back there, to be murdered.”