Israeli Planes Over Auschwitz–and the Allied Planes That Stayed Away

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

The Israeli planes that flew over Auschwitz this past week are a tragic reminder that Allied planes also flew over the notorious Nazi death camp–but failed to bomb the gas chambers and crematoria where an estimated 1.5-million Jews were murdered.

The Israeli planes were over Poland this past Thursday, September 4, to take part in an international celebration of the 85th anniversary of the creation of the Polish Air Force. Recognizing the symbolic significance of their presence, the Israeli Air Force arranged to have three of its fighter jets stage a special fly-over above the site of the Auschwitz death camp.

The event has evoked comments about how the Holocaust might have been averted if Arab and British opposition had not prevented the creation of a Jewish State in the 1930s. True enough.

But the sight of Israeli planes flying over Auschwitz should also cause us to ask why the Allied planes that flew over Auschwitz in 1944 and could have bombed the infamous gas chambers, instead bombed only the adjacent oil factories.

The answer is that Roosevelt administration knew about the mass murder of Jews in Auschwitz, but did not order U.S. planes to bomb the gas chambers, largely because saving Jews would have resulted in more pressure to let the refugees come to the United States.

This, despite the fact that many more Jewish refugees could have been admitted to the U.S. even within the strict limits of the existing immigration quotas. Those quotas were way underfilled, because U.S. immigration officials created extra bureaucratic obstacles to keep out all but a handful of refugees.

By 1944, the Roosevelt administration even had detailed aerial reconnaissance photographs of Auschwitz, showing the mass-murder machinery–photos that were taken because the War Department was interested in bombing the German oil factories in the region.

On August 20, 1944, 127 American ‘Flying Fortress’ bombers dropped more than 1300 bombs on German factories less than five miles from the gas chambers; on September 13, 96 American ‘Liberator’ bombers hit the factories again–and stray bombs accidentally struck an SS barracks and the railway line leading into the death camp. There were many other such bombing raids on German industrial sites in that region during the autumn of 1944 and the winter of 1944-1945. But the gas chambers and crematoria remained untouched.

In the new film “They Looked Away” (directed by Stuart Erdheim; narrated by Mike Wallace), Allied pilots who took part in those raids describe, in chilling detail, how they could have easily struck the murder facilities–but were never instructed to do so.

In his famous memoir, ‘Night’, Elie Wiesel recalled 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 [the prisoners’ barracks], 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!”

In Washington, a number of Jewish organizations privately urged the Roosevelt administration to bomb the gas chambers. Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy rebuffed the requests on the grounds that they would divert resources that were “essential” to Allied military operations in Europe.

But the fact is that during World War Two, American military resources were repeatedly diverted for reasons far less important than the saving of human lives.

The same John McCloy who refused to divert a few bombs to hit the gas chambers later 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.

Similarly, the State Department, which opposed any U.S. government action to rescue Jews from Hitler, in 1943 established a special government commission “for the protection and salvage of artistic and historic monuments in Europe.”

And General George Patton even diverted U.S. troops to rescue 150 prized Lipizzaner horses in Austria in April 1945.

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: “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.”

September 2003