The Day the Americans Bombed Auschwitz

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Much has been written and said in recent years about the failure of the Roosevelt administration to order the bombing of Auschwitz. What is not widely known is that sixty years ago this month, U.S. bombers did strike Auschwitz.

Auschwitz is most infamous for its Birkenau section, where the gas chambers and crematoria were situated. An estimated 1.6-million people were murdered there. Less well known is that Auschwitz also contained dozens of slave labor camps. One was known as Buna-Monowitz, where the Germans had set up factories for the production of synthetic oil, which was crucial to their war effort. In the summer of 1944, U.S. and British bombers began hitting the oil factories. On August 20, they dropped over 1300 bombs on the oil factories of Auschwitz, less than five miles from the gas chambers.

Throughout that summer, American Jewish organizations repeatedly asked the Roosevelt administration to order the bombing of Auschwitz. The War Department rejected the requests as “impracticable” because they would require “considerable diversion” of planes needed for the war effort. U.S. officials claimed the War Department had conducted a “study” and found that bombing Auschwitz was not militarily feasible. That claim was false. No such study had been done.

The real reason for the refusal was that 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 memo 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, the very same month that the Americans were bombing the Auschwitz oil factories while claiming they could not divert planes to hit the gas chambers, they were diverting planes for another purpose.

In August 1944, the Polish Home Army rose up against the Germans in Warsaw. That valiant but hopeless eight-week revolt will be commemorated this week in Poland with nationwide commemorative ceremonies. World leaders, including U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, will attend. A feature story in the New York Times this weekend –the start of what will surely be an international media focus on the event– described how the Soviet Army, which was situated less than ten kilometers from Warsaw, failed to help the Poles.

What the Times did not mention is that while the Russians refused to help, the Americans and the British did try. In August and September, British planes flew numerous missions to drop supplies into Warsaw. Even though Royal Air Force commanders concluded that the effort had “achieved practically nothing,” President Roosevelt ordered U.S. planes to take part. The largest air-drop took place on September 18, when a fleet of 107 U.S. bombers dropped more than 1,200 containers of arms and supplies into Warsaw. Less than 300 of the containers reached the Polish fighters; the Germans confiscated the rest.

An internal Roosevelt administration assessment of the effort noted that the U.S. knew beforehand that “the Partisan fight was a losing one” and “large numbers of planes would be tied up for long periods of time and lost to the main strategic effort against Germany.” The Roosevelt administration was willing to divert planes from the war effort to aid a revolt that was doomed to defeat–while at the very same time, falsely claiming it could not spare a few bombs to hit the Auschwitz gas chambers because that would divert resources from the war effort.

The Poles were viewed by FDR as an ally–and as a people whose relatives in America constituted an important voting bloc in a presidential election year. Roosevelt administration officials feared Polish-American voters would turn against FDR in November if they believed he was ready to abandon Polish aspirations for independence and permit the Soviet occupation of postwar Poland. In his private diary that summer, senior State Department official Breckinridge Long wrote that Polish-Americans were “popping off in a nationalistic (Polish) direction” and “they may hold the balance of power in votes in Illinois, Ohio, and New York–and Pennsylvania…”

By contrast, Roosevelt believed (correctly) that he had the Jewish vote in his pocket. Convinced the vast majority of American Jews would vote for him anyway, FDR felt no political pressure to bomb the gas chambers, or loosen America’s tight immigration procedures, or even to ask England to open Palestine to Jewish refugees.

August will be a month of remembrance. The brave Polish revolt against the Germans, and the noble Allied effort to aid the rebels, deserve to be remembered with pride. The Allies’ refusal to bomb the Auschwitz gas chambers while bombing the nearby oil factories, and their claims about not being able to divert planes even while they did divert planes to the hopeless Warsaw uprising, should be remembered with shame.

August 2004