• Isaac Simon

On The Question of Bombing Auschwitz (2018)

On The Question of Bombing Auschwitz by Isaac Simon



In April 2015, Holocaust Remembrance Day was marked in Israel with a two- day conference devoted to the question of whether the Allies should have bombed the death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was perhaps the most public recognition of a debate that has troubled historians for decades. The “still-incendiary question,” as The Times of Israel called it in its coverage of the conference, has resulted in two opinions in stark contrast: the Allies deliberately chose not to try to destroy Auschwitz because its leaders, namely Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, harbored antisemitic attitudes and were morally insensitive to the massacre of the Jews or the Allies could not feasibly launch effective air strikes against the death camp, at least not without risking the lives of its many Jewish prisoners. In this paper I will argue the latter position, that historians have made a compelling argument that the Allies failure to bomb Auschwitz was primarily due to the practical difficulties of such a mission and to the Allied strategy that winning the war took priority over making efforts to destroy the camps.

It should be noted at the beginning that the question being discussed in this paper is not whether the camps should have been bombed. I would argue that once it became feasible to bomb the camps with precision, such a mission should have been undertaken.

My argument, however, focuses on the debate over why Auschwitz was not bombed, on the question of antisemitism versus impracticality.

The argument criticizing FDR for his moral failure to order the bombing of Auschwitz, one that for some historians includes accusing FDR of antisemitism, has been most forcefully expressed by David Wyman. Wyman’s book, The Abandonment of the Jews,

was a bestseller in 1984. In his book Wyman argues that since the Allies were carrying out missions to attack the German oil industry at sites very close to the death camp at Auschwitz, they could have easily also dropped bombs there and saved the lives of many Jews. At the conference in Israel in 2015, retired UC-Davis Professor Alex Groth went further and claimed that Roosevelt and Churchill both possessed the antisemitism of their times and that this informed their lack of action against the camps. Groth told The Times of Israel, that both men “were knowing accomplices to this, that they furthered this by their policies, which they adopted and pursued throughout the war” (Ginsburg, 1).

Wyman does not go so far as to call FDR an accomplice to Hitler. His case is built on the idea that the Allies knew the killing was taking place and that reports had been given to the US government with details about how the camps were designed. In particular, Wyman discusses the work of two men who had escaped from Auschwitz—Alfred Wetzler and Rudolph Vrba. These men described in their report where crematoria and gas chambers were located. This information was given to the War Refugee Board in 1944. Wyman says that in addition to these reports, the US military had aerial pictures of the gas chambers and that these could have been used to plan an attack against the death camps. He argues that the war effort against the Germans would not have been distracted by an attempt to bomb Auschwitz because so many military flights were being made close by. “It would be no exaggeration,” he writes, “to characterize the area around Auschwitz, including Auschwitz itself, as a hot bed of United States bombing activity from August 7 to August 29. Yet on August 14 the War Department could write that bombing Auschwitz would be possible only by the diversion of airpower from decisive operations elsewhere” (Wyman, 300).

Historians who acknowledge that long-range missions by big bombers might not have been able to drop bombs with precision, have argued that smaller planes could have done the job. In The Jews Were Expendable, Monty Penkower makes this case. He writes, “a few Mitchell bombers flying at lower heights or some Lightening dive-bombers refueling at the island of Vis, could have accomplished the destruction” (Penkower, 218). Wyman and Penkower both argue that the leaders of the Allies either refused to believe that the Jews were the primary target of the Nazis or did not believe the Jews deserved extra help because so many people had been and were being killed throughout Europe.

Arguments like that made by David Wyman are attractive because they help us deal with the magnitude of the tragedy. We wonder how the world could have stood by and let this happen. But this position overlooks the fact that the primary goal of the Allies was to defeat the Germans, not save the Jews. I would argue that it is not just the win-the-war mission that got in the way, it was the difficulty of doing the job well, or even at all, that prevented to the Allies from bombing Auschwitz. Historians on the other side of this debate have made very convincing arguments that challenge Wyman’s conclusions.

In The Holocaust in American Life, Peter Novick challenges the idea that bombing the railroads leading to Auschwitz could have curtailed the killing. “The question of bombing the rail line,” he writes, “can be dismissed immediately. Massive experience had taught the Allies that bombing rail lines was hardly ever effective: the few hits scored could be quickly repaired” (Novick, 54). Wyman even agrees with this line of thought. He notes, “Railroad bombing had its problems and was the subject of long-lasting disputes within the Allied military…Even bridges, which were costly to hit, were often back in operation in three or four days” (Wyman, 300). Novick also points out that even though many missions were

being flown to attack German industry near Auschwitz, very few were successful. He claims that only one factory was damaged in six bombing missions on factories near the death camp (55).

But it is really the arguments made by James Kitchen that are the most persuasive. Kitchens argues that specific buildings inside the camps were difficult to see from planes flying overhead. He writes, “The Birkenau buildings were relatively soft targets of brick construction, each about a story or a story in a half high with large portions sunk below ground level. Their narrow aerial profile, however, made them quite difficult

targets…Dispersion and proximity to camp housing posed even greater problems” (Kitchens, 245). In other words, bombing Auschwitz might have killed many of the prisoners the mission would have been trying to save. Novick claims that one-third of the bombs that might have been dropped on Auschwitz would have been dropped on barracks where prisoners lived and missed their targets, namely, the crematoria and gas chambers (Novick 55).

Kitchens also makes the case that the reports written by Wetzler and Verba did not provide “useful targeting data” (Kitchen, 248). Kitchens says that while Wetzler and Verba painted a good picture of what was going on inside the camps, they did not give good measurements for the size of the gas chambers and crematoria and did not point out where German anti-aircraft guns were located. Kitchens is a military analyst and so he points out that the Wetzler report did not give information about things like high tension wires or towers and so the report was a long way from being a perfect document about how to bomb the camp. He therefore concludes that Wyman is wrong to say that because the War

Refugee Board had given the report to the Allies, it would have been definitely possible to successfully bomb the camp.

Kitchens also disagrees with the idea that smaller planes could have done the job even if large bombers could not. He states that smaller planes held just enough fuel to carry out bombing missions and get back safely. He also points out that large bombers required fighter jets as escorts on long bomb runs and that Allied leaders worried about planes being shot down and the loss of men. He concludes by writing, “Thus flying over 620 miles in radio silence, crossing the alps in some semblance of cohesion at low altitude, then sneaking through German air defenses with enough fuel to make a coordinated precision attack on five targets and return home beggars belief” (Kitchens, 260).

Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer makes a similar argument about efforts to bomb the camps. Bauer debated Alex Groth at the conference in Israel in 2015. His argument is summarized by Mitch Ginsburg who interviewed Bauer for The Times of Israel. Bauer noted that while the Allies could fly large bombers like the B-17 and B-24 from England to Poland, there was no long-range fighter jet to accompany them until late 1943. Furthermore, while the United States began bombing Germany in early 1943, it did not bomb locations east of Berlin until October of that year. Bauer points out that by that time, the camps at Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor and Chelmno had stopped operating (Ginsburg, 5).

At the conference in Israel, Bauer argued that if the Allies had bombed Auschwitz after gaining the capability to fly long-range missions with planes able to drop 500-pound bombs, the bombs necessary to destroy the gas chambers, it would not have saved the Jews. The trains taking prisoners to Auschwitz stopped on July 9, 1944 and between then and the closing of the death camp, 80,000 Jews were killed there. But Bauer points out that

after Auschwitz closed, another 400,000 Jews were killed before the war ended, most of them shot or killed on death marches (Ginsburg, 6). In other words, Germans were prepared to kill Jews, and did kill Jews, even if the murder at the camp was stopped.

In their book FDR and the Jews, historians Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman claim that after Auschwitz closed, 250,000 Jews (and not 400,000) were killed, but they argue the same point as Bauer—that even if the Allies had bombed the camp in the summer of 1944 the Nazis would have found other ways to kill the Jews (187). In their book, Breitman and Lichtman make several important arguments relevant to my argument here. First, they conclude that precision bombing was difficult and that knocking out rail lines would have been only a temporary interruption. Second, they argue that the decision to not target Auschwitz was not made by FDR, but by officials in the War Department who continually refused to divert efforts away from military missions so as to carry out a humanitarian one.

Breitman and Lichtman claim that by early 1944, destroying the killing facilities at Auschwitz was “logistically conceivable” (281). However, while the US government did not make this a priority, the Jewish community itself was split over the right thing to do. Some groups, such as Agudath Israel, called for the camp to be bombed. But, as Breitman and Lichtman write, “Major Jewish groups such as the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee, and the leading Zionist organizations did not publicly advocate for bombing missions” (287). Many leaders feared that Jewish prisoners would be killed by the bombing and some believed that if American planes were responsible for killing Jews, then Hitler would claim it was evidence that the Americans also had little use for the same people he was killing. Thus, while historians today can claim that bombing

Auschwitz made perfect sense and FDR failed his moral test by not ordering the mission, it was not at all clear to Jews back then what was the right thing to do.

A letter dated April 14, 1943 from Stephen S. Wise on behalf of the Joint Emergency Committee of the American Jewish Congress to Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles supports the argument made by Breitman and Lichtman that major Jewish groups did not call for the bombing of Auschwitz. In the letter Wise refers to the “anguish of the Jewish community of this country over the failure of the United Nations to act until now to rescue the Jews of Europe” (Wise, 2). But the “basic action to be undertaken immediately” to save the Jews does not include bombing the camps. Instead, the letter lists negotiating with the Axis powers, the creation of sanctuaries, and the delivering of food to starving populations (Wise, 2). These kinds of complications point to how difficult it is to simply claim FDR had a clear choice and abandoned the Jews.

Furthermore, to lay the blame on FDR overlooks the bureaucracy involved in waging the war. Breitman and Lichtman outline the complicated relationships between the War Department, itself split between the Operations Division and the Civil Affairs Division, the War Refugee Board, the White House and Jewish groups asking for action but afraid to look like they were telling the government what to do. In other words, it wasn’t as simple as deciding to bomb the camps and then carrying out the decision. Layers of government made or blocked these kinds of decisions and these departments also dealt with commanders on the ground in Europe who actually gave the orders to pilots or soldiers. In a summary of this issue, the Shoah Resource Center of Yad Vashem points out that the War Department never consulted with commanders at an air force base in Italy about the possibility of bombing Auschwitz. “At a crucial point in the pursuit of victory, the War

Department developed a blanket policy of noninvolvement, in direct defiance of the


president’s order—and when requests were made to bomb, the War Department kept


rejecting then with the statement that it would “divert military power from essential war operations” (Yad Vashem, 1).

Finally, I would argue that the refusal to bomb Auschwitz was not a reflection of FDR’s antisemitism. While Roosevelt was the product of a wealthy WASP environment, his political career placed him in close contact with Jews long before he became President.

Breitman and Lichtman argue that after being re-elected in 1936, FDR took an active role in trying to help the Jews of Europe, including easing immigration restrictions, coming up with a plan to resettle Jews, publically supporting a Jewish homeland in Palestine and pressuring the British to make Palestine open to Jewish immigration (Breitman and Lichtman, 3). Furthermore, it may be easy to forget now that in the 1930s, antisemites accused FDR of being too friendly to Jews and the most antisemitic groups even spread rumors that FDR himself was Jewish. They referred to the New Deal as the Jew Deal.

As the conference in Israel in 2015 makes clear, the issue of whether the Allies should have and could have bombed Auschwitz remains hotly debated. There appears to be general agreement that when it became possible to launch long-range bombing missions to Poland in the summer of 1944, the Allies should have given this at least one try. But that mission would have had its risks and its feasibility seems to still be in doubt. The failure to bomb Auschwitz did not amount to the American government abandoning the Jews. The failure to bomb Auschwitz was the result of factors that made the mission impractical and maybe impossible. Even more, the camps were not bombed because the aim of the American military was to end the war by defeating the Germans as quickly as possible.

Bombing Auschwitz or defeating Germany as soon as possible—we will never know which


could have or did save more Jews.


-Isaac Simon

Work Cited


Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman, FDR and the Jews, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Mitch Ginsburg, “Should the Allies have bombed Auschwitz? A still-incendiary question,”


The Times of Israel, April, 16, 2015, www.timesofisrael.com.


James H. Kitchens, “The Bombing of Auschwitz Re-Examined,” The Journal of Military History, Vol. 58, No. 2 (April 1994).

Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. Monty Noam Penkower, The Jews Were Expendable: Free World Diplomacy and the

Holocaust, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.



Stephen S. Wise, “Letter from American Jewish Congress to Sumner Welles,” Program For the Rescue of Jews From Nazi Occupied Europe, submitted to the Bermuda Refugee Conference by the Joint Emergency Committee for European Jewish Affairs, Archives of the American Jewish Committee, ajcarchives.org.

David Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945, New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.

Shoah Resource Center, “Bombing of Auschwitz,” Yad Vashem, yadvashem.org.

Bibliography


Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman, FDR and the Jews, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Mitch Ginsburg, “Should the Allies have bombed Auschwitz? A still-incendiary question,”


The Times of Israel, April, 16, 2015, www.timesofisrael.com.


James H. Kitchens, “The Bombing of Auschwitz Re-Examined,” The Journal of Military History, Vol. 58, No. 2 (April 1994).

Michael Neufeld and Michael Berenbaum, eds. The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It? New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Timothy Moy, Review of “The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should It Have Been Done?”


Technology and Culture, Vol. 43, No. 3.


Michael Neufeld and Michael Berenbaum, eds., The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It? New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. Monty Noam Penkower, The Jews Were Expendable: Free World Diplomacy and the

Holocaust, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.


Shoah Resource Center, “Bombing of Auschwitz,” Yad Vashem, yadvashem.org.


Stephen S. Wise, “Letter from American Jewish Congress to Sumner Welles,” Program For the Rescue of Jews From Nazi Occupied Europe, submitted to the Bermuda Refugee Conference by the Joint Emergency Committee for European Jewish Affairs, Archives of the American Jewish Committee, ajcarchives.org.

David Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945, New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.

David Wyman, “Why Auschwitz Was Not Bombed, Commentary, Volume 65, Number 5, May 1978, 37-46.

http://wymaninstitute.org


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