Why Wasn't Auschwitz Bombed?

Given what happened in Birkenau during the summer of 1944, the failure to bomb has become a symbol of indifference.

Michael Berenbaum
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Michael Berenbaum

When President George W. Bush visited Yad Vashem last Friday, he paused before a photograph of Auschwitz, called over Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and said, "We should have bombed Auschwitz." We should applaud his sentiments, yet the issue is far more complex.

The question, ?Why wasn?t Auschwitz bombed?? is not only historical. It is also a moral question emblematic of the overall Allied response to the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust.

First to the historical issues: The question of bombing Auschwitz arose only in the summer of 1944, more than two years after the gassing of Jews had begun, by which time more than 90 percent of the Jews murdered in the Holocaust were already dead. It could not have arisen earlier, because not enough was known specifically about the camp, and Allied bombers were not in range to bomb the camps. By July, information about Auschwitz and its function was available - or could have been made available - to those undertaking the mission. German air defenses were weakened, and the accuracy of Allied bombing was increasing. All that was required was the political will.

That March, Germany had invaded Hungary. In April, Jews were ghettoized. Between May 15 and July 8, 437,402 Jews were deported from Hungary, overwhelmingly to Birkenau, the death camp of Auschwitz. To accommodate them, a railroad spur was built directly into Birkenau. Four out of five arriving Jews were sent directly to their death. Birkenau's gas chambers operated around the clock and its crematoria were so overtaxed that bodies were being burned in open fields. Any interruption in the killing process might have saved thousands of lives.

Yet bombing a concentration camp filled with innocent civilian prisoners also posed a moral dilemma to the Allies. To be willing to sacrifice the prisoners? lives, one had to perceive accurately camp conditions and presume that the loss of those killed in Allied bombings would be justified by the interruption of the camp?s killing process. In short, one had to accept the fact that those in the camps would soon die anyway. Such information was not available until the spring of 1944.

It is generally assumed that anti-Semitism or indifference to the plight of the Jews was the primary cause of the refusal to support bombing of the camps. Again, the issue is more complex. On June 11, the Jewish Agency Executive Committee, meeting in Jerusalem, refused to call for the bombing of Auschwitz. Jewish leadership in Palestine was clearly neither anti-Semitic nor indifferent to the situation of their brethren. David Ben-Gurion, chairman of the executive, said: "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 matter." What concerned Ben-Gurion and his colleagues was that bombing the camps could cause the death of many Jews or even one Jew. Although no specific documentation reversing the decision of June 11 has been found, by July, officials of the Jewish Agency in London were forcefully calling for the bombing.

By then, presumably, the heads of the Jewish community in Palestine, like the Allied representatives; but not the Allied leaders; had seen the report filed by Rudolph Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, two escapees from Birkenau, who documented the killing process and provided maps and other specific details, together with an urgent request to bomb the camps. Vrba, who escaped on April 7, worked at the camp?s ramp, and revealed theconstruction of the rail spur.

Anyone who had read the Vrba-Wetzler Report could perceive what was happening in the Auschwitz complex, and would therefore presumably be far more willing to risk Jewish lives on the ground in order to slow down or stop the gassing.

What is known is that Moshe Shertok (later Sharett), head of the Jewish Agency's political department, and Agency president Chaim Weizmann appealed to British foreign secretary Anthony Eden, who took the issue to prime minister Winston Churchill. Churchill told Eden on July 7, "Get anything out of the Air Force you can and invoke me if necessary." Yet the British never followed through on the bombing.

Requests were also made to U.S. officials to bomb Auschwitz. The Americans gave several reasons for their refusal: Military resources could not be diverted from the war effort, which was reaching its crescendo in the post-D-Day battles; bombing Auschwitz might prove ineffective, and might even provoke more vindictive German action. Nowhere did the Americans claim that Auschwitz was not within range of American bombers.

In fact, as early as May 1944, the U.S. Air Force had the capability to strike Auschwitz at will. The rail lines from Hungary were also well within range. On July 7, 1944, American bombers flew over the railway lines to Auschwitz. On August 20, 127 Flying Fortresses dropped 1,336 500-pound bombs on the I.G. Farben synthetic oil factory less than five miles east of Birkenau. The death camp remained untouched.

For three decades, the issue of bombing Auschwitz was a minor sidebar to the war and to the Holocaust. But in 1978, American historian David Wyman wrote an article in Commentary Magazine, entitled "Why Auschwitz Wasn?t Bombed.? The effect of that piece was reinforced by the startling photographs that were published a short time later by two leading CIA photo interpreters, Dino Brugioni and Robert Poirier, the very photographs President Bush saw on Friday. Developed with technology available in 1978, but not in 1944, these images seemingly gave a vivid demonstration of what American intelligence could have known about Birkenau, if only it had been interested. One photograph shows bombs dropping over the camp; because the pilot released the bombs early, it appeared as though bombs targeted for the I.G. Farben plant were dropped on Birkenau. Another visually details Jews on the way to the gas chambers.

Wyman?s claims gained considerable currency and the issue of bombing became synonymous with American indifference. In 1993, the issue was raised at a Washington, D.C. symposium linked to the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and attended by both Holocaust scholars and military historians of divergent points of view. Historians are uncomfortable with the counterfactual speculating, "What if..." But such is the debate over bombing Auschwitz.

We know that in the end, the pessimists won. They argued that nothing could be done; and nothing was done. The optimists did not even have their proposals considered. Given the reality of what happened in Birkenau during the summer of 1944, the failure to bomb has become a symbol of indifference to many. Inaction helped the Germans achieve their goals and left the victims with little power to defend themselves. And bombing was not offered even as a gesture of protest. It is always important for the president of the United States to believe that something can be done and more important, that something must be done to stop genocide.

Michael Berenbaum is co-editor, with Michael Neufeld, of "The Bombing ofAuschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It?" (University Press of Kansas).



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