Dr. Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and Haim Hecht of Israel Television interviewed former New York City Mayor Ed Koch shortly before the January 2005 events commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Allies’ liberation of Auschwitz. Excerpts from the interview were broadcast on Israel Television.
International leaders gathered at the site of the Auschwitz death camp on January 27 to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of its liberation. But their readiness to mark the occasion should not be allowed to obscure the international community’s own culpability in the Holocaust, warns former New York Mayor Ed Koch.
“It would be a small atonement, but the world leaders who attend the Auschwitz ceremony should get down on their knees and ask God to forgive them for how their countries acted during the Holocaust,” said an emotional Koch, his eyes welling up with tears. “The deaths of millions of Jews has to weigh on the consciences of the many nations that could have made a difference by giving refuge to Jews.”
Koch recently turned 80, and is as feisty and outspoken as ever. Although out of office since 1989, he remains in the spotlight as a columnist, radio show host, and political elder statesman. Last year, he led the U.S. government delegation to the international conference on antisemitism held in Berlin, and helped shape the conference’s strong resolutions.
The gathering at the Auschwitz site will be an appropriate time to recall the Allies’ refusal to bomb the death camp, Koch noted. “There is no question that many lives would have been saved if the Allies had bombed the railways leading to Auschwitz, or the gas chamber,” he said. The former mayor dismissed the claim by some defenders of President Franklin Roosevelt that bombing Auschwitz would have required the diversion of planes that were needed elsewhere in Europe. “The real reason,” he said, “was the lack of interest, by every country, including the U.S., in saving the Jews.” Indeed, in late 1944, Allied warplanes repeatedly bombed German oil factories adjacent to Auschwitz, some of them less than five miles from the gas chambers, but were never given the order to attack the mass-murder facilities.
Koch described his response when he read a newspaper report, last year, about Israeli planes conducting a fly-over above Auschwitz. “I applauded, even though I was alone in the room,” he recalled. “It said to me that never again, so long as there is a State of Israel, will the Jews be abandoned as they were during the Holocaust.”
Koch did not mince words with regard to President Roosevelt. “I am sure he is in purgatory, for his sin of abandoning the Jews,” he said. “Yes, there was alot of antisemitism in America in those years, but that is no excuse for Roosevelt’s inaction, which was vile. A leader has to lead. He has to try to change minds. He led the Free World to victory in the war, and that should not be minimized, but he lied to the world when he claimed, at the Evian and Bermuda refugee conferences, that arrangements would be made to shelter the Jews. America failed in its moral responsibility.”
According to Koch, FDR himself “undoubtedly shared in the social antisemitism of that era–yes, Jews can live, but not on his block; yes, Jews can send their kids to school, but not to his children’s school.” Roosevelt “probably did not object to the quotas that limited the entry of Jews into prestigious universities,” Koch said.
Koch was also critical of the American Jewish leadership’s response to the Holocaust. “Jewish leaders did not do enough,” he said. “Did they get arrested? Maybe they would have, if some other group was being persecuted. They should have stormed the gates of the White House to demand action. But they were afraid of antisemitism–afraid they would ‘make things worse’. Only a few people, like Ben Hecht, spoke out.”
Hecht, the most prominent screenwriter in Hollywood, was involved with the Bergson group, a maverick political action committee that lobbied for rescue. He authored numerous full-page newspaper advertisements urging the Allies to intervene against the Nazi genocide.
One of the most important lessons of the world’s abandonment of the Jews, Koch said, is that need for the international community to act quickly and forcefully against contemporary instances of genocide. “I have contempt for the United Nations” for its slow response to the massacres in Sudan, he said. “We have an obligation to act whenever we have the ability to make a difference.”