Should the Allies Have Bombed Auschwitz: William J. vanden Heuvel vs. Rafael Medoff





In his recent book, The Conquerors, Michael Beschloss take Franklin Roosevelt and others to task for not bombing Auschwitz during World War II. In a recent edition of"Passport: The Newsletter of the Society For Historians of American Foreign Relations," William J. vanden Heuvel, co-chair of the Roosevelt Institute, harshly criticized Beschloss's account, contending that FDR had little choice but to conclude that the fastest way to bring the suffering of the Jews to an end was to end the war. In a subsequent newsletter, historian Rafael Medoff challenged vanden Heuvel's analysis.

  • William J. vanden Heuvel: In Praise of FDR

  • Rafael Medoff: We Should Have Bombed Auschwitz

    From: The Auschwitz Album, donated to Yad Vashem by Lilly Jacob-Zelmanovic Meier

  • William J. vanden Heuvel: In Praise of FDR
    Mr. vanden Heuvel is co-chair of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Instutute

    In his book, The Conquerors, and in numerous media/marketing appearances, Michael Beschloss has arrogantly"flunked" President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his handling of Hitler's attempted extermination of Europe's Jews. FDR, according to Beschloss, bears particular responsibility for remaining silent during the first two years of the Holocaust, for being unsympathetic to the Jewish cause, and for not ordering the bombing of Auschwitz.

    In making these assertions, Mr. Beschloss has joined a discredited group who would have our children believe that America was"indifferent" to the suffering of the Jews in World War II, that America was the passive accomplice in what Winston Churchill called"the greatest and most terrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world." For all of us, the shadow of doubt that enough was not done for the Jews during the war will always remain, although it is objectively clear that little more could have been done. But neither America nor American Jewry were passive observers of these events. Despite issues that bitterly divided them, primarily relating to Palestine, the Jewish community in America spoke the same words in pleading to do whatever was possible to reach out to Europe's Jews. Numerous plans were produced to rescue the Jews of Europe. Jewish leaders lobbied the Congress. Mass rallies were held across the country with overflow crowds throughout those years, praying, pleading for action to stop the genocide.

    As the famed military historian John Keegan has written:"The removal and transportation of Europe's Jews was a fact known to every inhabitant of the continent between 1942 and 1945." (1) Yet Mr. Beschloss would have us believe that Roosevelt made no attempt to draw the world's attention to these crimes in 1942 and 1943. He also makes repeated allegations that because he resented Jewish and other ethnic group pressures, President Roosevelt did not identify the Jews specifically in the repeated Allied warnings that the Nazis collectively and individually would be held accountable for their barbaric crimes. There was a time earlier in the war when it was thought best not to identify the Jews specifically in the reporting of the Nazi crimes. Beschloss would have us believe that this was done for the petty, ugly reason of resenting ethnic pressures. I thought of this on a recent visit to London's Holocaust Museum. There is a specific exhibit referring to a speech by Winston Churchill on August 24, 1941, where he reports that"a crime without a name" was being committed against"Russian patriots who defended their native soil." These words were written after the Prime Minister had been briefed regarding information provided by the Enigma code breakthrough on the slaughter of Jews by the Einsatzgruppen after the Nazi invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941. We now know that this is when the Holocaust began. The British exhibit then states:"Western leaders feared that drawing attention to the Jews would be seen as special pleading and would fuel Nazi propaganda." (America was not yet in the war). Winston Churchill may have been wrong in this conclusion, but it was the considered judgment of a great leader with vast sympathy for the Jewish cause, not Churchill's resentment against pressure from ethnic groups that influenced his words on this occasion.

    It is hard to believe that anyone would make the allegation that FDR chose to ignore the plight of the Jews in World War II. Time and again, beginning with his pledge to Rabbi Wise and other Jewish leaders in November 1942, President Roosevelt made clear through governmental statements and messages to the mass rallies organized in those years that the Nazis would be held collectively and individually accountable for their crimes against the Jews. In his book, Beschloss denies this, asserting that in spite of a growing body of evidence in the summer and fall of 1942 pointing towards the mass execution of the Jews, FDR chose to hide the extent of what he knew and remain"silent" on the issue in 1942 and 1943. In making this allegation, Mr. Beschloss quotes from the December 17, 1942 Allied Declaration on war crimes as evidence to support his argument that FDR preferred not to mention the Jews when speaking of Nazi atrocities, noting only the"mass executions" of"many hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children." But Beschloss is wrong. As James Cheeks has noted in an HNN review, the December 17th Declaration was written precisely to highlight the Nazis crimes against the Jews, as its title"German Policy of Extermination of the Jewish Race" make clear. Beschloss chooses to ignore this. He not only fails to mention the title of the document, but also its stark references to the horrors of the Nazi's brutal treatment of the Jews and the"solemn resolution" of the Allies"to ensure that those responsible for these crimes shall not escape retribution."

    With the Nazi coup against Admiral Horthy in March, 1944, a limited opportunity came to save the Jews of Hungary. President Roosevelt was deeply and personally involved in the effort to save them. This is the President's statement to the people of the United States and of Europe on March 24, 1944:

    In one of the blackest crimes of all history -- begun by the Nazis in the days of peace and multiplied by them a hundred times in time of war -- the wholesale systematic murder of the Jews of Europe goes on unabated every hour. As a result of the events of the last few days hundreds of thousands of Jews who, while living under persecution, have at least found a haven from death in Hungary and the Balkans, are now threatened with annihilation as Hitler's forces descend more heavily upon these lands. That these innocent people, who have already survived a decade of Hitler's fury, should perish on the very eve of triumph over the barbarism which their persecution symbolized, would be a major tragedy. It is therefore fitting that we should again proclaim our determination that none who participate in these acts of savagery shall go unpunished. The United Nations have made it clear that they will pursue the guilty and deliver them up in order that justice be done. That warning applies not only to the leaders but also to their functionaries and subordinates in Germany and in the satellite countries. All who knowingly take part in the deportation of Jews to their death in Poland or Norwegians and French to their death in Germany are equally guilty with the executioner. All who share the guilt shall share the punishment.

    The principal marketing thrust for Beschloss's book centers on the issue of whether or not the Allies should have bombed Auschwitz and on"new information" that the man who made the ultimate decision not to bomb Auschwitz"may not have been John McCloy but Franklin Roosevelt himself." This is important because apparently for Mr. Beschloss and some others whether Auschwitz should have been bombed is the defining question of World War II, a point of view frankly that is difficult to comprehend regarding a universal conflict in which 67 million people were killed, where nations were decimated, where democracy's survival was in the balance, where 16 million Americans were joined together in a military force that has never been equaled, and where our nation led the world into the nuclear age. Beschloss identifies this"new information" as a taped private conversation in 1986 between John McCloy and Henry Morgenthau III who was researching a family memoir. In his PBS interview, he says:"I came upon an interview, unpublished, that John McCloy did just before he died... where he actually conceded that he had taken this to Roosevelt and said 'do you want to bomb Auschwitz or not?' And he said that what Roosevelt said was, 'absolutely not...?'"

    I have read the transcript of the McCloy-Morgenthau interview. Nowhere does the above-cited conversation take place. In fact, the interview transcript could well be read to an opposite conclusion, that the President had nothing to do with the bombing decision, that it was never presented to him for decision. The interview between John McCloy and Henry Morgenthau III took place on October 8, 1986. On Page 11 of the transcript of that interview, Mr. McCloy was asked to characterize Secretary Morgenthau's style as an official.

    Henry Morgenthau III: How would you characterize his style as an official?

    John McCloy: I had no difficulty with him at all. The general view was that he was an..........., (2) but he was always in favor of the Jewish even irate at the treatment of the Jews and he was going to do everything in his power, he was vindictive in regard to that. Subtle, persistent and anywhere there was an antagonism to the ........ or the advance of Hitler.

    Henry Morgenthau III: But he didn't get involved in the bombing of Auschwitz that was all post facto.

    John McCloy: They came to me and wanted me to order the bombing of Auschwitz. He wasn't involved in that nor was the President . (italics added) ...

    Auschwitz was raised peripherally as the conversation with Mr. McCloy was about to end. McCloy was 88 years old -- never in all of the extensive interviews he gave in his life, nor in his papers, is there any indication of his ever discussing the bombing questions with the President. Henry Morgenthau III never cited the interview in the family memoir nor in his frequent public appearances where he participated in discussions related to the Holocaust. In reality, the transcript presents a painfully disjointed, obviously strained, totally ambiguous recollection that is hardly the source of important historical judgments. Perhaps Mr. McCloy discussed the bombing question to the President at some uncertain date to ascertain his opinions. There is no record of such a meeting in the voluminous records of the Roosevelt era in the Presidential Library at Hyde Park. But if an informal conversation took place, it is important to note that the opinion attributed to FDR reflects the viewpoint expressed by David Ben-Gurion (then Chairman of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, later first Prime Minister of Israel) in June 1944 when he responded to a proposal that the Allies be asked to bomb the extermination camps. At that meeting, presided over by Ben-Gurion, the Jewish Agency voted eleven to one against the bombing proposal. (3)

    The Holocaust is an enormously complicated tragedy. Today we have the photographs, the films, the diabolically precise records of the genocide but when I read David Ben Gurion in June 1944 saying:"We do not know the truth concerning the entire situation in Poland, and it seems that we will be unable to propose anything concerning this." -- I appreciate how helpless everyone must have felt as the news slowly leaked through the Nazi wall of secrecy as to the enormity of the crime. It is certainly appropriate -- and even necessary -- for contemporary generations to look at the horrendous dimensions of the Nazi slaughter and ask: Could we have prevented it? What more could have been done?

    Because these questions must be asked, historians must carefully seek the truth; they must present the context of the events. Today it is taken for granted that Hitler would be defeated but historians know that victory in World War II was far from assured. The Nazi war machine was the most powerful in world history. It took the combined might of the United States, the British Empire, the Soviet Union and countless other brave allies to destroy it. The bombing of Auschwitz was never mentioned before the summer of 1944. At that point, American forces were fully engaged with Japanese aggression across the total expanse of the Pacific Ocean. In Europe, the invasion of Normandy began on June 6th. Despite the fact that two-thirds of the Nazi armies were on the Russian front, D-Day and an Allied success were by no means assured. The German armies were holding our forces at bay in Italy, causing heavy casualties, making us fight for every road and hill. We were planning the invasion of southern France for August 15th. America and our allies were stretched dangerously across western and southern Europe. The Allied bombing strategy was totally directed toward destroying Nazi fuel supplies, their synthetic oil industries, the oil fields of Romania, and their communication and transport lines wherever possible.

    By making the bombing of Auschwitz such a central issue, Mr. Beschloss and others like him trivialize the meaning and the horror of the Holocaust. The unremitting, remorseless massacre of the Jews -- carefully concealed by the top secret security of the Nazi murderers -- continued because no one, no nation, no alliance of nations could do anything meaningful to close down the Death Camps -- except, as President Roosevelt said over and over again, by winning the war and destroying the Nazis with unconditional determination as soon as possible.

    Mr. Beschloss insists that"the sound of bombs exploding at Auschwitz would have constituted a moral statement for all time..." Were the countless Jewish leaders immoral who considered the possibility of bombing Auschwitz and rejected it? Were David Ben-Gurion and his ten colleagues of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem immoral because they voted against asking the Allies to bomb the Death Camps? Mainstream Jewish opinion was against the whole idea of bombing Auschwitz. The very thought of the Allied forces deliberately killing Jews -- to open the gates of Auschwitz so the survivors could run where? -- was abhorrent then as it should be now. Although only President Roosevelt or General Eisenhower could have ordered the bombing of Auschwitz, there is no record of any kind that indicates that either one was ever asked to issue such an order -- even though Jewish leaders of all persuasions had clear access to them both. United States Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, a key intelligence officer for the Air Force in Europe in World War II in an oral history interview in 1985 was incredulous that anyone would even suggest that Allied forces bomb Auschwitz."I am perfectly confident," he said,"that General Spaatz [the USAF Commander in Europe] would have resisted any proposal that we kill the Jewish inmates in order to put Auschwitz out of operation. It is not easy to think that a rational person would have made such a recommendation."

    When I first spoke on the subject of America and the Holocaust in Chicago in 1996, an 80-year-old man, an Auschwitz survivor, came up to me, eyes filled with tears, to thank me for having told"the truth." He had been a slave laborer at the Farben factory in Buna, near Auschwitz. He said that when the sirens announced the bombing raids, the Nazis forced the Jews to the rooftop while the Nazis took refuge in the cellars."Bomb Auschwitz," he said,"I never would have survived -- if the bombs did not kill us, the Nazis would have shot us down like dogs if we tried to escape." Is that an immoral position? The bombing raids on the IG Farben plants/Monowitz where this Auschwitz survivor was forced into slave labor succeeded in hitting 2.2% of damageable buildings. (4) These targets were far more vulnerable than the Auschwitz gas chambers and crematoria. And what if Allied bombing had destroyed the killing machinery at Auschwitz? What would the Nazis have done? They would have used machine guns and firing squads and grave-trenches as they did before. Or, as Rondall Rice has written, the SS might have begun the death marches back to the Reich a few months earlier --"destroying Hitler's grip on Europe was a guaranteed means for saving the remaining Jews."

    President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, General Eisenhower, General Marshall, the intelligence services of the Allied nations, every Jewish leader, the Jewish communities in America, in Britain, in Palestine, and yes, anyone who had a radio or newspaper in 1942 knew that Jews in colossal numbers were being murdered. They may have received the news with disbelief. There was no precedent for it in human history. The general information of the genocide was broadly available to anyone who would read or listen. But Auschwitz, like every extermination camp, was treated as a top-secret project by the Nazis. We publicized what we knew but the Nazis tried to keep as much information as possible away from everybody. As Martin Gilbert points out, the details and even the name of Auschwitz were not confirmed until the escape of two prisoners in April, 1944 -- two years after its murderous processes had begun.

    We should remember, as Professor Novick has reminded us in a book that deserves a significant audience, that it was only years after the war that the word"holocaust" came into general use to describe the Nazi genocide. (6) It is also important to note that no one -- no one, foresaw the events that became the Holocaust. In discussing those events, it is helpful to read the words of Louis de Jong, an eminent Dutch historian and Holocaust survivor who in a lecture at Harvard University in 1989 said:

    [There is] an aspect of the Holocaust which is of cardinal importance and which can never be sufficiently underlined: that the Holocaust, when it took place, was beyond the belief and the comprehension of almost all people living at the time, Jews included. Everyone knew that human history had been scarred by endless cruelties. But that thousands, nay millions, of human beings -- men, women and children, the old and the young, the healthy and the infirm -- would be killed, finished off, mechanically, industrially so to speak, would be exterminated like vermin -- that was a notion so alien to the human mind, an event so gruesome, so new, that the instinctive, indeed the natural, reaction of most people was: it can't be true... (7)

    Mr. Beschloss would have his audiences believe that President Roosevelt was besieged by Jewish leaders, led by Secretary Morgenthau, urging him to order the bombing of Auschwitz. Of course, that is not true. No mainstream Jewish leader or organization made such a request. In fact, there was considerable Jewish opposition to the suggestion of bombing Auschwitz both in the United States and Palestine. The first suggestion to John McCloy (the Assistant Secretary of War) regarding the bombing of Auschwitz, came on August 9, 1944, in a letter from Leon Kubowitzki, head of the Rescue Committee of the World Jewish Congress, in which he forwarded, without endorsement, a request to consider such bombing from Mr. Ernest Frischer of the Czechoslovak State Council (in exile in London). What is rarely cited, but what one is charged with knowing if one chooses to make historical judgments of those horribly painful years, is that in a letter dated July 1, 1944, from the same Leon Kubowitzki to the Executive Director of the War Refugees Board (John Pehle), Mr. Kubowitzki argued against bombing Auschwitz because"the first victims would be the Jews" and the Allied air assault would serve as"a welcome pretext for the Germans to assert that their Jewish victims have been massacred not by their killers, but by Allied bombing." The same argument is made in a Report of the Meeting ... of the War Refugee Board of August 16, 1944, which cites the opinion of the Jewish community against bombing. (8)

    Someday I hope to hear Mr. Beschloss and others broadcast that it is the killers who bear the responsibility for their deeds. We must remember, and our children must learn, that it was Hitler and his henchmen who imagined the Holocaust and the Nazis who carried it out. America was not an accomplice. America was not"passive." America destroyed Hitler and Nazism, the greatest threat ever to modern civilization -- and it was President Roosevelt who made America the arsenal of democracy, who was our Commander-in-Chief leading the greatest military force in history, who crafted the victorious alliance that won the war, and who inspired and guided the blueprint for the world in which we live.

    Professor William L. O'Neill, in his review of The Conquerors in The New Leader (November/December 2002), writes:

    Another puzzling feature is that Beschloss appears to detest Roosevelt. He represents him as a doddering old conniver much of the time, then concludes by writing that today's 'democratic, decentralized Germany is largely the country that Roosevelt imagined and worked for.' This statement goes against practically everything else Beschloss has to say about FDR. It is also true, making Beschloss' denigration of Roosevelt even harder to understand... Foremost scholars, while not excusing FDR's failings, put them in context. What one almost never sees is a book like this one, where FDR's personal shortcomings dominate the narrative and are followed by extravagant praise. Beschloss claims to have begun The Conquerors in 1992. The undigested state of his frequently excellent material suggests that he probably should have started sooner.

    Mr. Beschloss, is, of course, entitled to"detest" Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- many names come to mind of those who detested FDR during his lifetime.

    For me, Winston Churchill's judgment of President Roosevelt is preferable. Winston Churchill once said that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the greatest man he had ever known. President Roosevelt's life, he said,"must be regarded as one of the commanding events of human destiny."

    Notes:

    1. The Second World War , John Keegan, New York, 1989, p. 282.

    2. These blank spaces are exactly as they appear in the transcript of the interview.

    3. Meeting of the Executive of the Jewish Agency, Jerusalem, June 11, 1944.

    4. Bombers Over Auschwitz , by Irving Uttal, Lieutenant Colonel USAF (Ret.), 2002 (available from Colonel Uttal upon request).

    5. The Bombing of Auschwitz , Edited by Michael Neufeld and Michael Berenbaum, St. Martin's Press, 2000, p. 179.

    6. The Holocaust in American Life , by Peter Novick, Houghton Mifflin, 1999, p. 127 et seq.

    7. The Netherlands and Nazi Germany , by Louis de Jong, Harvard University Press, 1990.

    8. The Bombing of Auschwitz , op. cit., p. 274.

    Response of Rafael Medoff: We Should Have Bombed Auschwitz

    Dr. Medoff is Visiting Scholar, Jewish Studies Program, SUNY-Purchase; Associate Editor, American Jewish History; and Director, The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies

    In the March 2003 SHAFR newsletter, William J. vanden Heuvel of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute defends the refusal of the Roosevelt administration to bomb Auschwitz. He argues that the Allies had no choice but to"totally direct [their] bombing strategy toward destroying Nazi fuel supplies, their synthetic oil industries." 1 What vanden Heuvel neglects to mention, however, is that some of the oil facilities that the Allies struck were situated within a few miles of the Auschwitz gas chambers--meaning that the Allies could have easily bombed the gas chambers and crematoria used for the mass murder of Jews. On August 20, 1944, a fleet of U.S. bombers dropped more than one thousand bombs on the oil refineries in the factory areas of Auschwitz, less than five miles from the gas chambers. On September 13, American bombers struck the factory areas again; this time, stray bombs accidentally hit an SS barracks (killing fifteen Germans), a slave labor workshop (killing forty prisoners), and the railroad track leading to the gas chambers.

    U.S. bombers carried out similar raids on December 18, December 26, and January 19. The frequent Allied bombings of seven other synthetic oil refineries near Auschwitz in 1944-45 included a January 20 raid on Blechhammer, forty-five miles from the death camp, which made it possible for forty-two Jewish slave laborers to escape. 2 In his memoir, Night, Elie Wiesel recalls how he and other Auschwitz prisoners reacted when the bombers struck:"We were not afraid. And yet, if a bomb had fallen on the blocks, it alone would have claimed hundreds of victims on the spot. But we were no longer afraid of death; at any rate, not of that death. Every bomb that exploded filled us with joy and gave us new confidence in life. The raid lasted over an hour. If it could only have lasted ten times ten hours!" 3

    Similarly, when I interviewed former Auschwitz inmate Rabbi Menachem M. Rubin in 1997, he reiterated what he had written in a letter to van den Heuvel on December 27, 1996:"I stood in Auschwitz, looking skyward a number of times, as Allied planes passed overhead to bomb the nearby synthetics plant at Blechhammer. To drop a bomb on the crematoria would have been a simple and life-saving act. . . . By destroying a crematorium thousands would have been saved daily. The number of inmates possibly killed would have been much fewer than the number saved.” He also noted that “the people working in and around the gas chambers were condemned to be murdered anyway." 4 Vanden Heuvel, in his SHAFR article, makes no mention of Rabbi Rubin's letter to him. Yet he does mention one unnamed Auschwitz survivor whose reported remarks seem to coincide with vanden Heuvel's view that bombing death camps would have been wrong because some prisoners might have been accidentally harmed in the process of knocking out the gas chambers where twelve thousand Jews were being murdered daily in 1944. 5

    Officials of Roosevelt's War Department repeatedly rebuffed proposals by Jewish groups to bomb the death camps. Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy insisted that raiding the death camps would sap resources"essential" to Allied military operations elsewhere. Yet the administration was perfectly willing to divert military resources for an assortment of reasons far less compelling than the opportunity to knock out mass-murder camps. For example, an Air Force plan to bomb the Japanese city of Kyoto was blocked by Secretary of War Henry Stimson because of the city's artistic treasures. 6 Assistant Secretary of War McCloy, who was adamant about not diverting bombs to hit Auschwitz, personally intervened to divert American bombers from striking the German city of Rothenburg because he feared for the safety of the city's famous medieval architecture. 7

    The State Department, which strongly opposed the proposal by Jewish activists to create a government agency to rescue Jewish refugees from Hitler, in August 1943 established a government agency"for the protection and salvage of artistic and historic monuments in Europe." 8 General George Patton even diverted U.S. troops to rescue 150 prized Lipizzaner horses in Austria in April 1945. 9 Perhaps the Zionist leader Rabbi Meyer Berlin was not so far off the mark when he told U.S. Senator Robert Wagner in early 1943 that"if horses were being slaughtered as are the Jews of Poland, there would by now be a loud demand for organized action against such cruelty to animals. Somehow, when it concerns Jews everybody remains silent." 10

    The Roosevelt administration's decision to remain silent, like its decisions to rescue horses, art, and architecture, was conscious, deliberate, and committed to writing. Thanks to the research of David S. Wyman, published in his book The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945, there is no mystery as to why War Department officials repeatedly rebuffed behind-the-scenes proposals by Jewish groups that the United States bomb Auschwitz. Assistant Secretary of War McCloy claimed at the time that the War Department had undertaken"a study" that found that such bombing would require"the diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces." But Wyman's examination of the department's records shows that in fact no such study had been done. Rather, the War Department had already decided in February 1944 that it would not allow the armed forces to be used"for the purpose of rescuing victims of enemy oppression unless such rescues are the direct result of military operations conducted with the objective of defeating the armed forces of the enemy." 11

    Joseph Bendersky's recent study, The 'Jewish Threat': Anti-Semitic Politics of the U.S. Army, documents the widespread anti-Jewish prejudice among senior U.S. military officials throughout the past century and its impact on policy decisions--including the decision to refrain from bombing the death camps and the War Department's false claim to have studied the feasibility of the proposals. Bendersky finds that:

    at the time, the army never attempted to acquire intelligence or make the necessary operational assessments to determine whether such bombing was feasible. The army never pursued any systematic examination of the proposals presented to it; nor did it ask theater commanders what might be done. The quick and repetitious responses from the army without much inquiry into the intelligence or technical and operational aspects later interjected by critics of bombing suggest other reasons for these policy decisions, including indifference among highly placed officers to the plight of Jews. 12

    Vanden Heuvel misrepresents the position of the Jewish Agency (Palestine Jewry's autonomous governing agency during the British Mandate period) with regard to the bombing issue. He claims that at a meeting of the Jewish Agency Executive (JAE) in Jerusalem on June 11, 1944, JAE chairman David Ben-Gurion and his colleagues"voted eleven to one against the bombing proposal." What actually happened at the June 11 session is that Ben-Gurion opposed requesting an Allied attack on Auschwitz because"we do not know what the actual situation is in Poland"; similarly, his colleague Emil Shmorak opposed it because"we hear that in Oswiecim [the Polish name for Auschwitz] there is a large labor camp." 13 At that point, not realizing that it was a death camp, they saw no reason to bomb it.

    Eight days later, however, Richard Lichtheim, in the Jewish Agency's Geneva office, sent the Jewish Agency leadership in Jerusalem a detailed summary of the first eyewitness account of the mass-murder process (the account was produced by two Auschwitz escapees and is known as the Vrba-Wetzler report). Lichtheim noted that when the agency leadership had previously learned of the deportation of Jews to the Auschwitz-Birkenau region, they “believed that it was done to exploit more Jewish labour in the industrial centres of Upper-Silesia." What the Vrba-Wetzler report revealed, Lichtheim wrote to his JAE colleagues in Jerusalem, was that in addition to the"labour camp in Birkenau" there were also"large-scale killings" in Birkenau itself"with all the scientific apparatus needed for this purpose, i.e. . . . 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." 14

    Upon receiving this information, the Jewish Agency leadership promptly launched a concerted lobbying effort to persuade the Allies to bomb Auschwitz. Moshe Shertok, chief of the Jewish Agency's political department, and Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organization, who were stationed in London, lobbied the British. Yitzhak Gruenbaum, chairman of the JA's Rescue Committee in Jerusalem, repeatedly pressed his colleagues in the United States to lobby Washington, which they did, and agency representatives in Europe lobbied locally stationed American diplomats on the subject. 15

    There can be no doubt that Ben-Gurion and his JAE colleagues knew of these lobbying efforts: when officials of the British Foreign Office promised Shertok in early July that they would actively pursue the idea of bombing the death camps, Shertok immediately telegrammed Ben-Gurion to tell him that Shertok had asked Foreign Minister Anthony Eden to bomb"death camps and railway lines leading to Birkenau" and that Eden had"already asked [the] Air Ministry [to] explore [the] possibility [of] bombing camps [and] will now add railways." At the next JAE meeting, Ben-Gurion relayed the news from Shertok and cited it in support of speculation that recent Allied bombings of Hungarian railway stations"may have been undertaken in response to our proposals and demands." 16

    Recently discovered documents further demonstrate that the entire Jewish Agency leadership was involved in pressing the bombing idea. The first of the documents is a note dated June 20, 1944, from Yitzhak Gruenbaum to Chaim Barlas, the JA representative in Istanbul. The key sentence reads:"We have relayed to Moshe [Shertok, in London] a proposal from [Moshe] Krausz [the JA representative in Budapest] as well as ours to bring about the bombing of the rail lines connecting Hungary with Poland and of the death camps in Poland." The sentence demonstrates that Shertok's lobbying in London for the bombing was not undertaken independently of the JA headquarters in Jerusalem. Gruenbaum's use of the plural"we" and"ours" indicates that the instructions from Jerusalem were no longer the sole idea of Gruenbaum, but rather came from the Agency leadership, and the reference to a similar proposal from Krausz demonstrates that Gruenbaum was not the only JA official pushing the idea during that early stage of the bombing discussions. 17

    The second of these documents, which was published in a collection of documents released by the Israeli and Russian governments, is a report to Ben-Gurion by a JA official in Egypt, describing his attempts in July of 1944 to convince a Soviet diplomat in Cairo that the Allies should bomb the death camps. 18 The third document is the previously unpublished transcript of a session of the Jewish Agency Rescue Committee on September 29, 1944, in which Yitzhak Gruenbaum reports to his colleagues on the agency's efforts to promote the bombing proposal, with none of the committee members expressing any objections. 19

    Vanden Heuvel is equally mistaken in his claim that"mainstream Jewish opinion was against the whole idea of bombing Auschwitz." In fact, only one official of a Jewish organization is on record as having explicitly objected to the idea of bombing the camps (for fear of harming the inmates). That was A. Leon Kubowitzki of the World Jewish Congress, and even he repeatedly urged the Allies to use paratroopers to attack Auschwitz. In any event, Kubowitzki's objection was overruled. His superiors and colleagues at the World Jewish Congress (in New York, London, and Geneva) repeatedly lobbied the Soviets and the British to bomb Auschwitz. 20

    Many in the Jewish community publicly or privately advocated bombing the death camps or the railways leading to them. Between June and October 1944, such bombing proposals were put forth by, among others, the Orthodox group Agudath Israel; 21 the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe; 22 the Labor Zionists of America; 23 the U.S. Orthodox rescue group Vaad Hatzalah (both its New York headquarters and its Geneva representatives); 24 Slovak Jewish leaders Gisi Fleischmann and Rabbi Michael Weissmandel; 25 Czech Jewish leader Ernest Frischer; 26 Benjamin Akzin, a Jewish staff member of the U.S. government War Refugee Board; 27 the editors of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and the Independent Jewish Press Service; 28 and columnists for the New York Yiddish daily Morgen Zhurnal and Opinion, the Jewish monthly edited by American Jewish Congress president Stephen Wise. 29 The American Jewish Conference, a coalition of all leading U.S. Jewish organizations, called for"all measures" to be taken by the Allies to destroy the death camps. 30

    It is true that American Jewish leaders failed to protest vigorously when the Allies rejected their requests to bomb Auschwitz. Some Jewish leaders were intimidated by domestic anti-Semitism and were afraid they would be accused of interfering with the Allied war effort if they pressed for military action against Auschwitz. Marc Dollinger remarks in his recent study, Quest for Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America, that although"the deteriorating condition of European Jewry demanded that American Jewish leaders take more decisive action, even when that meant exceeding the limits of acceptable ethnic group expression," they did not do so for fear of" charges that their ethnic interests outweighed the need for victory," that Jews were"more self-interested than patriotic." 31 But the fact that Jewish leaders were reluctant to publicly press the bombing issue is not the same as saying they were opposed to the bombing of the death camps. They were not. Nor does their hesitancy mitigate the refusal of the Roosevelt administration to make any serious effort to interfere with the annihilation process.

    1. William vanden Heuvel. SHAFR Newsletter, March 2003.

    2. David S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews (New York, 1984), 299-300; Martin Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies (New York, 1981), 335.

    3. Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: 1969), 71.

    4. Menachem M. Rubin, Letter to William van den Heuvel, 27 Dec. 1996. Copy in the possession of the author.

    5. Vanden Heuvel,

    6. Godfrey Hodgson, The Colonel: The Life and Wars of Henry Stimson, 1867-1950 (New York, 1990), 322-4.

    7."Kyoto Addendum" (Letters), Amherst: The College & Its Alumni 28:3 (Winter 1976), 31.

    8."U.S. Group is Named to Save Europe's Art," New York Times, 21 Aug. 1943: 9.

    9. Carlo D'Este, Patton: A Genius for War (New York, 1990), 742-3.

    10."Confidential Memorandum by Rabbi Meyer Berlin," 24 Feb. 1943, 5. File: Harold P. Manson, I-62, Abba Hillel Silver Papers, The Temple, Cleveland.

    11. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews, 291-3.

    12. Joseph Bendersky, The 'Jewish Threat': Anti-Semitic Politics of the U.S.Army (New York, 2000), 344.

    13. Jewish Agency Executive [JAE] Minutes, 11 June 1944, Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem.

    14. L22/35, Central Zionist Archives.

    15. Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies, 245, 251-2; Dina Porat, The Blue and the Yellow Stars of

    David: The Zionist Leadership in Palestine and the Holocaust, 1939-1945 (Cambridge, MA, 1990), 218-9; Shabtai Teveth, Ben-Gurion and the Holocaust (New York, 1996), 218.

    16. JAE Minutes, 16 July 1944, Central Zionist Archives.

    17. The Gruenbaum-Barlas letter was mentioned for the first time in the footnotes of Shabtai Teveth's Ben-Gurion and the Holocaust, 281, note 16, but Teveth was citing it to make a different point and did not quote the entire sentence. The full text of the Gruenbaum-Barlas letter was published for the first time in Michael J. Neufeld and Michael Berenbaum, eds., The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the

    Allies Have Attempted It? (New York, 2000), 262.

    18. Epstein to Ben-Gurion, 3 September 1944, Eytan Bentsur et al., eds. Documents on Israeli-Soviet Relations 1941-1953 - Part I: 1941 - May 1949 (London and Portland, OR, 2000), 83. This document was actually first mentioned in Porat, The Blue and the Yellow Stars of David, 218. What Porat did not mention (since she had no particular reason to mention it), now revealed by the publication of the complete document for the first time, is that Epstein's report was addressed to David Ben-Gurion.

    19. JAE Minutes, 29 Sept. 1944, Central Zionist Archives.

    20. Goldmann to Masaryk, 3 July 1944, World Jewish Congress Papers, American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati; Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies, 321.

    21. John Pehle,"Memorandum for the Files," 24 June 1944, 16/15/peh, Benjamin Akzin Papers, Metzudat Ze'ev (Jabotinsky Archives), Tel Aviv; David S. Wyman,"Why Auschwitz Was Never Bombed," Commentary, May 1978, 37-8.

    22. Samuel Merlin,"A Year in the Service of Humanity: A Survey of the Activities of the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, July 1943 - August 1944" (New York: Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe), 25, Palestine Statehood Groups Papers, Yale University.

    23."Last Chance for Rescue" (editorial), Jewish Frontier 11 (Aug. 1944), 4.

    24. Akzin to Pehle, 2 Sept. 1944, 16/15/peh, Akzin Papers; Isaac Lewin,"Attempts at Rescuing European Jews with the Help of Polish Diplomatic Missions During World War II," The Polish Review 22:4 (1977), 3-23.

    25. Wyman,"Why Auschwitz Was Never Bombed," 38.

    26. Pehle to Kubowitzki, 3 Aug. 1944; Kubowitzki to Pehle, 9 Aug. 1944. Both in World Jewish Congress Papers.

    27. Akzin to Lesser, 29 June 1944, 16/15/peh, Akzin Papers.

    28."Reported Germans Willing to Exchange Hungarian Jews for Supplies," Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 20 July 1944, 1;"We and Hungarian Jewry" [editorial], Independent Jewish Press Service, 7 July 1944, 1-A;"Protests Register" (editorial), Independent Jewish Press Service, 21 July 1944, 3-A;

    "Devil's Barter" (editorial), Independent Jewish Press Service, 28 July 1944, 3-A.

    29. Jacob Fishman,"From Day to Day," Morgen Zhurnal , 27 June 1944, 1-2; Theodore N. Lewis,"Men and Events," Opinion 14:11 (Sept. 1944), 33-4.

    30."Huge Open-Air Demonstration in New York Demands Rescue of Jews from

    Europe," Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 1 August 1944, 2;"40,000 Here Seek Way to Save Jews," New York Times, 1 Aug. 1944, 17.

    31. Marc Dollinger, Quest for Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America (Princeton, 2000), 80.


    This piece was first published in Passport: The Newsletter of the Society For Historians of American Foreign Relations, and is reprinted with permission.


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    More Comments:


    Josh S Narins - 4/6/2004

    Just a quick thought.

    What does it mean when someone tries to drum up an argument that FDR was actually content with the death camps?


    Grant W Jones - 4/1/2004

    While we are indulging in a "why didn't they" line of speculation: why didn't the French march into Germany in 1935 after Hitler repudiated the Versailles Treaty?


    Jonathan Dresner - 3/31/2004

    Just a quick thought. The argument that bombing the camps would have slowed the Allied victory over Germany depends on the assumption that all Allied bombing of Germany was productive. Dresden, anyone?


    Ben H. Severance - 3/31/2004

    Auschwitz was just one of many death camps operated by the Nazis. Should the Allies not have orchestrated large-scale bombings of Treblinka, and Buchenwald, and Sobibor, among others? NO.

    As some of the other comments have rightly stated, the accuracy of strategic bombing in the 1940s would have killed as many Jews (and other inmates) as the gas chambers themselves. Moreover, in devoting military resources to taking out the camps instead of German war industries, or U-boat drydocks, or Wehrmacht staging areas, the Allies may have suffered greater casualties on the battlefield. Besides, the death camps were merely a perverted attempt at making the Final Solution more efficient. Their destruction would not have halted the genocide. After all, Einsatzgruppen had killed thousands on the Eastern Front with machine guns.

    The notion that FDR and the Allies were indifferent to the holocaust is absurd. FDR agreed to a "Germany first" policy, one based on unconditional surrender. FDR urged a second front, one that culminated in Operation Overlord. FDR approved strategic bombing. These decisions demonstrate a concerted effort to defeat Hitler and stop the murders. Everyone should also keep in mind that the U.S. was waging a full-scale war against Japan at the same time, so the luxury of dropping some bombs on the crematoriums in Auschwitz simply didn't rank high as a priority. Neglecting Auschwitz did not condemn Jews to their death. More Jews were saved simply by winning the war. Blame Hitler, not FDR for what did or didn't happen at Auschwitz.


    Richard Henry Morgan - 3/31/2004

    Exactly. Moreover, the critics of FDR might wish to read the Law of Land Warfare -- then they might understand the concept of killing civilians in the process of targetting a non-military target.


    Steve Brody - 3/30/2004

    The military measures precision with a term called "circular error probable," or CEP. That means the distance from the intended point of impact that at least 50 percent of munitions can be expected to land within.

    The CEP of bombs dropped from the WWII-era B-17 was 3,300 feet. Only half of the bombs dropped were expected to land within 3,300 feet of their intended target. Such low levels of precision would have led to massive casualties among the prisoners.

    Last year, Col. Gary Crowder, chief of strategy, concepts and doctrine for Air Combat Command, estimated that to have a high probability of destruction of a target of 60 (feet) by 100 feet, roughly the size of one of the gas chambers, you'd need about 1,500 B-17’s and about 9,000 bombs. To paraphrase an unnamed Viet Nam vet, “you’d have to destroy the camp in order to save it”.


    Steve Brody - 3/30/2004

    The military measures precision with a term called "circular error probable," or CEP. That means the distance from the intended point of impact that at least 50 percent of munitions can be expected to land within.

    The CEP of bombs dropped from the WWII-era B-17 was 3,300 feet. Only half of the bombs dropped were expected to land within 3,300 feet of their intended target. Such low levels of precision would have led to massive casualties among the prisoners.

    Last year, Col. Gary Crowder, chief of strategy, concepts and doctrine for Air Combat Command, estimated that to have a high probability of destruction of a target of 60 (feet) by 100 feet, roughly the size of one of the gas chambers, you'd need about 1,500 B-17’s and about 9,000 bombs. To paraphrase an unnamed Viet Nam vet, “you’d have to destroy the camp in order to save it”.


    Richard Henry Morgan - 3/30/2004

    A perusal of the aerial photos of Auschwitz reveals that a great majority of the gas chambers and crematoria were within the camp, and within yards of buildings housing camp prisoners. Those who look back now, are conditioned by photos of current precision-guided munitions. And those who advocated it at the time had no real military expertise. Just to bomb the chambers and the crematoria would have resulted, given the inaccuracy of bombing at the time, significant destruction of the camp itself, and the death of many of its prisoners.

    You might also want to consult the post-war Strategic Bombing Survey to get some idea of the turnaround time for re-establishing rail links. A bombing of rail links would not have sufficed. Nor even a series of bombings. It would have required a continuous bombing campaign, involving the diversion of considerable military assets from military targets. To speak of "bombing" Auschwitz or the rail lines as a discrete one-off operation is militarily jejeune.