by Dr. Rafael Medoff
Sixty years ago next week, General George S. Patton ordered U.S. troops to attack a German position in Hostau, Czechoslovakia, to rescue 150 innocent prisoners. The prisoners for whom Patton was willing to risk his soldiers’ lives were not, however, Jewish refugees or other innocent hostages of the Nazis. They were horses.
Patton’s rescue of the prized Lipizzaner horses might be regarded as nothing more than an oddity of history, if not for the fact that in recent years, public attention has been focused on another issue related to the propriety of diverting military resources for non-military objectives: the refusal of the Roosevelt administration to bomb the railroad lines to Auschwitz or the gas chambers and crematoria there, where an estimated 1.5-million Jews were murdered.
During the spring, summer, and autumn of 1944, Jewish organizations repeatedly asked U.S. officials to bomb the death camps or the railways leading to them. The War Department rejected the requests, claiming it had undertaken “a study” which found that such bombing raids would require “the diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations elsewhere…”
Today, we know from the War Department’s files that no such study was ever conducted. The rejections were based on a secret War Department policy to never divert any attention or resources to helping refugees.
Ironically, the Roosevelt administration did divert resources and alter military plans on various occasions because of non-military considerations. They just wouldn’t do it to save Jews.
For example, a U.S. Air Force plan to bomb the Japanese city of Kyoto was blocked by Secretary of War Henry Stimson because of the city’s artistic treasures. Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy –who was particularly adamant about not diverting U.S. bombers to hit Auschwitz–personally intervened to divert bombers from striking the German city of Rothenburg, because of its famous medieval architecture.
In 1943, the State Department, which opposed any U.S. government action to rescue Jews from Hitler, did establish its own rescue agency–a government commission “for the protection and salvage of artistic and historic monuments in Europe.”
The following year, FDR ordered air-drops of supplies to the Polish Home Army rebels in Warsaw, even though his advisers warned that “the [Polish Home Army] fight was a losing one,” that “large numbers of planes would be tied up for long periods of time and lost to the main strategic effort against Germany,” and that most of the supplies would be confiscated by the Germans.
And while the administration was claiming that bombing Auschwitz would necessitate “considerable diversion” of U.S. air power, in fact in the summer and autumn of 1944, Allied plans repeatedly bombed German oil factories close to Auschwitz, some of them less than five miles from the gas chambers. How much of a “diversion” would it have required to have a few of those planes fly five more miles and drop some bombs on the gas chambers?
The reason the Allies did not take any meaningful steps to help the Jews in Europe was that they did not want to have large numbers of Jewish refugees on their hands. Roosevelt did want to bring more refugees to America. England did not want more Jews going to Mandatory Palestine.
In March 1943, British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden met with President Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and other senior U.S. officials at the White House. When Hull raised the issue of perhaps helping the 60,000 Jews in Bulgaria, Eden replied “that the whole problem of the Jews in Europe is very difficult and that we should move very cautiously about offering to take all Jews out of a country like Bulgaria. If we do that, then the Jews of the world will be wanting us to make similar offers in Poland and Germany.” None of the U.S. officials disagreed.
In a similar vein, a State Department official, later that year wrote in an internal memorandum: ‘There was always the danger that the German government might agree to turn over the United States and to Great Britain a large number of Jewish refugees. In the event of our admission of inability to take care of these people, the onus for their continued persecution would have been largely transferred from the German government to the Allied nations.”
As we reflect on the sixtieth anniversary of General Patton’s rescue of the Lipizzaner horses, perhaps it is worth recalling the bitter –and prescient– remark made by the Zionist leader Rabbi Meyer Berlin to 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…”