by Dr. Rafael Medoff
Israelis remember Benjamin Akzin (1904-1985) as a distinguished academic who served as dean of the Hebrew University Faculty of Law, president of Haifa University, and recipient of the 1967 Israel Prize. What is less well known about Akzin is that he was the first person to propose to the Roosevelt administration that it bomb the Auschwitz death camp. This week marks the 60th anniversary of a desperate plea that could have changed the course of history–but was rebuffed for political reasons.
After completing doctorates in political science and law at the universities of Vienna and Paris, the Latvian-born Akzin traveled to the United States in the 1930s to complete a third doctorate, at Harvard.
Akzin was active in the Revisionists’ New Zionist Organization of America, and in 1940 he became one of the first Zionist lobbyists in Washington, when the NZOA sent him to Capitol Hill to seek support for Jewish statehood. After a stint with the legal department of the Library of Congress, Akzin landed a position on the staff of the War Refugee Board, a refugee rescue agency established by President Roosevelt in 1944 under pressure from Congress, Jewish activists, and the Treasury Department.
Roosevelt had never intended the WRB to be much more than an election-year gesture to avoid an embarrassing public confrontation with refugee advocates. Thus the WRB was given no government funding. Yet with funds contributed by Jewish groups and a small but dedicated staff –composed largely of the same Treasury Department officials who helped lobby for the board’s creation– it energetically used every means at its disposal to save Jews from the Holocaust. Among other things, the WRB financed and facilitated the life-saving work of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who sheltered Jews in Budapest to keep them from deportation. Historians estimate that the WRB’s efforts played a major role in saving about 200,000 Jews and 20,000 non-Jews.
The one area of the War Refugee Board’s activity that has attracted the most public attention in recent years is its unsuccessful attempts to bring about the U.S. bombing of Auschwitz. It was Benjamin Akzin who initiated this effort.
Shortly after the German occupation of Hungary in the spring of 1944, the WRB learned of preparations for the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. At about the same time, it also received the first detailed information about the mass-murder process, including specific geographical descriptions of the camp’s layout, provided by two escapees. This information, combined with the Allies’ recently-attained control of the skies over Europe, made it possible for the first time to seriously consider using Allied air power to interfere with the Nazi genocide.
In June, the WRB received appeals from Jewish leaders in Europe, asking the U.S. to bomb the railroad lines from Hungary to Poland, which were being used for the deportations. WRB director John Pehle forwarded the appeals to Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy. In a note to his assistant, McCloy instructed him to “kill” Pehle’s request by rejecting the bombing proposal as “impracticable” because it would require “considerable diversion” of planes needed for the war effort.
But Benjamin Akzin refused to take no for an answer. In a memorandum to his WRB colleagues at the end of June, he made the case for bombing. This was the first time that a government official presented a complete, carefully-reasoned proposal for bombing.
Akzin went beyond the idea of hitting the railroad lines and argued that the Allies should bomb Auschwitz itself. Destroying the camp, he wrote, would “slow down the systematic slaughter, at least temporarily,” since “it would require some time” for the Germans to rebuild the murder-machinery, and “with German manpower and material resources gravely depleted,” the Germans might not even be able to “equip new large-scale extermination centers” at all.
Bombing the camps “would presumably cause many deaths among their personnel–certainly among the most ruthless and despicable of the Nazis,” Akzin wrote. He acknowledged that some of the Jewish prisoners might also be killed in such raids, “but such Jews are doomed to death anyhow,” and the destruction of the camps … might save the lives of future victims.” (Elie Wiesel later wrote that he and fellow inmates at Auschwitz prayed the Allies would bomb the camp, even though they might be killed as a result.)
Akzin emphasized the military value of raids in that region, pointing out that “the important mining and manufacturing centers of Katowice and Chorzow” were just fourteen miles from Auschwitz, and they “play an important part in the industrial armament of Germany. Therefore, the destruction of these camps could be achieved without deflecting aerial strength from an important zone of military objectives.”
Thanks in part to Akzin’s persistence, the WRB continued to press the War Department on the bombing issue in the months to follow. But each time Pehle presented a bombing request, it was rejected on the grounds that the Department had already conducted a “study” and found that it was not militarily feasible. That claim was false. No such study had been done. In fact, the War Department had already secretly decided, back in February 1944, that as a matter of principle it would never use military resources “for the purposes of rescuing victims of enemy oppression.”
This policy was in accord with the policies of President Roosevelt and his State Department, who feared that saving Jews would create pressure to bring them to the United States. One internal State Department official specifically warned against the “danger” that the Nazis “might agree to turn over to the United States and to Great Britain a large number of Jewish refugees.”
Ironically, beginning in August 1944, U.S. bombers repeatedly bombed German synthetic oil factories in the Auschwitz complex, including some that were less than five miles from the gas chambers. Dropping a few bombs on the mass-murder machinery was certainly militarily feasible, but the Roosevelt administration considered it politically undesirable. Tragically, Benjamin Akzin’s desperate appeals fell on deaf ears.