The 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in Jerusalem, commemorated last week in Jerusalem, coincided with the broadcasting of a new BBC Holocaust documentary in the United States on a subject that still has the power to ignite bitter controversy.
The film, “Bombing Auschwitz,” creates a gripping drama around the Allies’ failure to heed appeals from Jewish leaders and rescue activists to bomb the crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The film presents this refusal not as the colossal humanitarian failure it was, but as one of the “greatest moral dilemmas of the 20th century.” The phrase implies the very high stakes at play on both sides of the equation, to bomb or not to bomb. But how true to the historical record is that portrayal?
The documentary captures the emerging awareness in the free world of the horrors and atrocities of Auschwitz. It then shifts to impassioned pleas from Jewish leaders (performed by actors) to the U.S. government to bomb the death camp. It climaxes with FDR’s “agonizing moral dilemma” about whether to allow a pressing humanitarian cause to undermine the war effort.
Should the Allies concentrate their resources on winning the war, or should they stop the industrialized slaughter at Auschwitz despite the risk of killing trapped prisoners, the documentary asks. And what of the military cost of diverting resources to help the Jews…?
The film punctuates this question by finishing it with the hyperbolic clause, “…when the outcome of World War II hung in the balance?”
Blending together live footage and interviews with actors “re-enacting” various scenes, the documentary dramatizes a fictitious “moral debate” between U.S. officials devoted to winning the war, and overemotional Jewish leaders who want to divert military resources to serve parochial Jewish interests.
Intended as a serious study, “the documentary deserves an award,” noted Dr. Rafael Medoff, founding director of the Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, “for creative fiction.”
As he makes clear in a review of the film in Jewish Star, “there was never a debate in the FDR administration on this important issue [of whether to bomb Auschwitz].” This was not a “moral dilemma” for FDR by any stretch of the imagination.
The president and his administration were strongly opposed, as a matter of principle, to taking any special action to aid Jewish refugees, Medoff clarified. FDR’s declared policy, until early 1944, was “rescue through victory;” meaning that rescue of Jews could be accomplished only through victory over the Germans on the battlefield.
In actual effect, however, “rescue through victory” meant no rescue. The vast majority of the Jews were dead by the time victory arrived.
Beginning in the late spring of 1944, representatives of Jewish organizations in the United States, Europe, and British Mandatory Palestine began urging Allied officials to take military action to interrupt the mass murder of Jews in Auschwitz.
About thirty different Jewish officials were involved, at one time or another, in advocating Allied intervention, writes Medoff in America’s Failure to Bomb Auschwitz. These Jewish advocates, however, did not know that their requests to the Roosevelt administration were virtually doomed from the start. They knew that the president repeatedly rejected the bombing, but did not understand why.
In an exclusive interview with Yated, Medoff spoke of the documentary’s whitewashing of FDR’s indifference to the Jews’ plight and entreaties for help. He noted other glaring distortions in the BBC documentary that collectively “make a shambles of the historical record,” he said.
Because the documentary is so closely linked to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, with one of the USHMM’s historians, Rebecca Erbedling, providing historical information throughout the film and accompanying many of its screenings across the country, the inaccurate and misleading segments are especially troubling.
Medoff singled out the documentary’s puzzling omission, during its segment on the bombing appeals issued by Jewish leaders, of requests to bomb not the death camp itself, but the railway lines and bridges leading to it. These proposals offered the best chance of slowing down the cattle trains deporting Jews to their death. Yet the film is strangely silent about these requests from Jewish leaders.
Rav Michoel Ber Weissmandl, zt”l, Rosh Yeshiva of Nitra and one of the most brilliant and daring rescue activists, urged this approach.
Roswell McClelland, the U.S. War Refugee Board’s representative in Switzerland, also advocated bombing the railways and bridges, writing to the WRB’s leaders on June 24, 1944: “It is urged by all sources of this information in Slovakia and Hungary that vital sections of these [rail] lines, especially bridges along ONE [the Csap, Kosice, Presov route] be bombed as the only possible means of slowing down or stopping future deportations.”
By emphasizing the bombing of rail bridges, McClelland sent the message that the best way to effectively interrupt rail traffic was to destroy targets such as bridges and viaducts, which were considerably more difficult to rebuild than train tracks.
While the documentary credits several Jewish organizations with issuing appeals to bomb the crematoria, nowhere is Agudath Israel mentioned, although the organization was the first to initiate the call for bombing.
The Agudah representative, Rabbi Meier Schenkolewski, was the only “bombing advocate” who persisted in lobbying two senior members of FDR’s cabinet until he won a meeting with them,” Medoff told Yated.
The BBC film is silent about Agudah’s efforts; one more instance of Orthodox rescue activists being written out of histories of the period.
Rabbi Weissmandl and the Auschwitz Protocols
On June 18, 1944, Moreinu Yaakov Rosenheim, president of Agudath Israel, wrote to the War Refugee Board, urging the bombing of the railways. His request was based on the urgent entreaties coming from Rabbi Michoel Ber Weissmandl,then in Nazi-occupied Bratislava.
Rabbi Weissmandl had written to rabbinic organizations in America and Canada to plead with the U.S. War Refugee Board and War Department to bomb the train tracks leading to Auschwitz, after receiving horrifying information from two escapees in April 1944 about the industrialized extermination of the Jews at Auschwitz.
19-year old Rudoph Vrba and 26-year old Alfred Wetzler, who had been imprisoned inside the death camp for two years, had managed a miraculous escape. They were determined to alert the world to the atrocities taking place there.
After a 13-day journey, they slipped across the Polish border to their native Slovakia. They made immediate contact with the Jewish Council (Judenrat) in Bratislava who ran the community’s affairs, serving as the liaison between the Jews and the Nazi occupiers. They also met separately with Rav Weissmandl, who was a member of the Working Group, an independent branch of the Council.
Vrba and Wetzler described the demonic world of Auschwitz, its murder apparatus and the staggering number of victims. They conveyed in detail how the Nazis had perfected their system of annihilating hundreds of thousands of Jews, how the brutal death factory produced thousands of corpses a day.
The two men had worked as camp registrars, keeping meticulous administrative records for the Nazis about all the prisoners, alive and dead. Their jobs gave them access to almost all parts of the camp, and they acquired a grasp of the entire layout of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
They described the specifics of tattooing, gassing, and cremation, as well as the elaborate Nazi deception that lulled the victims into thinking up until the very last minute that they were going to be resettled at this new ‘work camp.”
The escapees warned that preparations were being made for the murder of Hungarian Jewry. Prisoners had been put to work building a second ramp and another railway line leading straight to the gas chambers. Comments overheard from SS guards that they would soon get some “Hungarian sausage,” revealed where the next shipment of Jews was likely to come from.
Vrba’s and Weztler’s testimony became the bedrock of the infamous “Auschwitz Protocols” that eventually shattered the wall of silence about the Nazi genocide. Based on the escapees’ meticulous reproduction of the death facility with its gas chambers and crematoria, Rabbi Weissmandl attached maps of the camp’s interior as well as the roads and rail lines leading to and from Auschwitz.
He then smuggled copies to Issac and Recha Sternbuch in Switzerland, the Jewish Agency in Palestine-Israel and Agudath Israel and the Vaad Harabbonim/Agudath Israel in the United States. Along with these documents were Rav Weissmandl’s impassioned entreaties to galvanize the world’s conscience into disrupting the mass deportations and saving the remaining Jews of Europe.
Runaround and Sham
Following up on Moreinu Yaakov Rosenheim’s letter to the War Department, Rabbi Meier Schenkolewski on June 19 met in person with two senior members of President Roosevelt’s cabinet to plead for the bombing of the railways and bridges.
Secretary of State Cordell Hull passed the buck, telling the Agudath Israel emissary he needed to talk to the War Department. Secretary of War Henry Stimson, in turn, got Schenkolewski off his back by lying to him. Bombing the railways and bridges could not be undertaken by the United States, he said, because they were “within the competence of the Russian Military Command.”
In fact, American planes were already flying in the vicinity of Auschwitz, in preparation for attacks on other targets.
Meanwhile, War Refugee Board (WRB) director John Pehle relayed Rosenheim’s request to Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy who, acting on behalf of FDR, summarily rejected the Agudah leader’s request.
In his responses, McCloy said nothing about concerns over civilian casualties that might result from an air assault, (showing the documentary’s hype over the “moral dilemma” to be baseless).
McCloy wrote instead that the War Department had undertaken “a study” which concluded that 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.
Historians have searched in vain for archival evidence of McCloy’s supposed “study” of the bombing issue. The late David Wyman, leading historian on America’s response to the Holocaust, concluded there was no such study; it was a pretext aimed at legitimizing the administration’s policy of rejecting pleas to aid the doomed Jews. McCloy, it appears, employed many such pretexts and alibis.
His talk about “diversion of air support” was another sham excuse, Medoff writes. No diversion of planes would have been needed. U.S. bombers were already striking German oil factories in the Auschwitz industrial zone, just a few miles from the gas chambers.
Yet the “diversion argument” is presented in the documentary as a valid objection, as if bombing Auschwitz really would have undermined the war effort.
Almost 30 years later, on a visit to Yad Vashem in 1977 by U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance showed particular interest in a reproduction of one of the John McCloy letters from this period, commenting thoughtfully, according to news reports, “Even my country didn’t act.”1
A week ago, an elderly Polish Holocaust survivor accompanying a group of yeshiva students on a tour of Auschwitz, was asked to say a few words to the boys. Normally a quiet, reserved individual, the man broke down crying and sobbing with grief.
He wept over “the little children, the babies, and the mamehs, the bubbehs and zaidehs” whose images suddenly came alive before him as the years disappeared, and he once again stood watching in terror as they were all herded to their deaths.
“Roosevelt—he could have done something!” the old man screamed in despair, his whole body trembling in rage and anguish. “He could have saved Jews! But he didn’t want to save them. He wouldn’t do nothing to save them. Ah rosha! Azah ah rosha!”
Noted Holocaust author Elie Wiesel was imprisoned in Buna-Monowitz (Auschwitz III), the slave-labor camp of Auschwitz, when in August 1944 Allied planes bombed the IG Farben plant there. He later wrote of how elated the prisoners were when they caught sight of fighter bombs in the skies over Auschwitz; how they longed for a sign that the world knew and cared about their plight, “We were no longer afraid of death,” he wrote.
“At any rate, not of that death. Every bomb filled us with joy and gave us new confidence in life.”
Timeline of Appeals from Jewish Leaders to Bomb Auschwitz
December 17, 1942: The Allies publicly confirm in various news outlets that the Germans “are now implementing Hitler’s intention to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe…The number of victims of these bloody cruelties is reckoned in many hundreds of thousands…” In the weeks and months to follow, intelligence reports reaching Washington mention “Oswiecim” or “Auschwitz” as one of the killing centers in Poland.
March 12, 1944: The Germans occupy Hungary, home to 800,000 Jews, the last major European Jewish community, as yet untouched by the Nazis.
April 4, 1944: Allied planes begin carrying out photo reconnaissance missions in the area around Auschwitz, in preparation for attacking German oil factories and other industrial sites in the region, some of which were situated just a few miles from the gas chambers and crematoria.
April 7, 1944 (erev Shabbos and also erev Pesach): Two Auschwitz inmates, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, escape from the camp in the hope of alerting the world about Auschwitz.
April 24-27, 1944: Vrba and Wetzler reach local Jewish leaders in Slovakia and dictate a detailed report about Auschwitz, including maps pinpointing the gas chambers and crematoria. In the days to follow, the report is forwarded to various rescue activists, including Rabbi Michoel Ber Weissmandl. He forwards the information, together with a plea to bomb both Auschwitz and the railways and bridges leading to it, to Vaad Hatazala representatives in Switzerland, Yitzchok and Recha Sternbuch, and well as other contacts.
May 15, 1944: The deportations from Hungary begin. From May 15 to July 9, 440,000 Hungarian Jews arrive in Auschwitz.
June 2, 1944: The Sternbuchs forward the bombing appeal to the Agudas HaRabbonim in New York City. (The leaders of Agudath Israel, Agudas HaRabbonim, and the Vaad Hatzala overlap at this timeframe.) That same day, a similar bombing appeal is sent to U.S. government’s War Refugee Board, by Yitzchak Gruenbaum, chairman of the Rescue Committee of the Jewish Agency, in Jerusalem.
June 18, 1944: Moreinu Yaakov Rosenheim, president of Agudath Israel, submits the first request from an American Jewish organization to the American government, asking for the bombing of the railways and bridges (based on the Weissmandl/Sternbuch emergency telegrams). His letter is addressed to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., co-chairman of the War Refugee Board.
June 19, 1944: Rosenheim sends his deputy, Rabbi Meier Schenkolewski, to Washington to meet with government officials about the bombing request. Secretary of State Cordell Hull tells Schenkolewski the matter is not under his jurisdiction; it has to be discussed with the War Department. Secretary of War Henry Stimson tells Schenkolewski (falsely) that Auschwitz is an area where only the Soviets are operating, so the United States can’t do anything.
June 24, 1944: The executive director of the War Refugee Board, John Pehle, forwards Agudah’s request to Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy.
June 29, 1944: The U.S. Minister to Switzerland, Leland Harrison, sends a telegram to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, recommending the bombing of railways leading to Auschwitz and giving precise locations of desired bombing targets. Pehle receives the telegram and forwards it to Assistant Secretary McCloy.
July 3, 1944: Harrison Gephardt, executive assistant to Assistant Secretary McCloy, writes to McCloy regarding Agudah’s request: “I know you told me to ‘kill’ this, but since those instructions, we have received the attached letter from Mr. Pehle. I suggest that the attached reply be sent.” (Gephardt was referring to Pehle’s June 29 message from Leland Harrison.)
July 4, 1944: Assistant Secretary McCloy writes to Pehle (who forwarded it to Agudah) that bombing the railways is “impracticable” because it would require “the diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations…”
In a subsequent letter making the same excuse, McCloy claimed that the War Department reached this conclusion “after a study.” Historians concur that no such study was ever conducted.
Many other Jewish leaders and organizations appealed to the government to bomb the camp or the railways and bridges during the months that follow.
Ultimately, the Allies did carry out bombing operations over Auschwitz in November 1944. But by then, the death camp was no longer in operation. Except for 7000 very sick inmates, Auschwitz-Birkenau had been emptied. 30,000 to 40,000 surviving prisoners had been driven out on a death march. The Nazis themselves had destroyed the crematoria to erase evidence of their obscene crimes.
Part Two will look at how FDR kept American Jews passive during the Holocaust, by manipulating Reform leader Dr. Stephen Wise who abandoned his ideals for the privilege of being the president’s friend.
Special thanks to Dr. Rafael Medoff for sharing important material for this article.
1 America’s Failure to Bomb Auschwitz, Dr. Rafael Medoff and Prof. Bat-Ami Zucker.