Why We Rescued Horses Instead of Jews

by Dr. Rafael Medoff and Benyamin Korn

The visit of the famed Lipizzaner dancing horses to the MCI Center last weekend offered a rare opportunity to enjoy showmanship that has not graced America’s shores for more than fifteen years.  But the day was also tinged with sadness, because the history of the Lipizzaner stallions has become intertwined with the tragic history of America’s response to the Holocaust.

As the advertisements for the Lipizzaners’ D.C. appearance point out, the troupe’s 2005 tour of the United States marks “the 60th anniversary of General Patton and the 2nd Cavalry’s World War II rescue of the 425-year-old Lipizzaner breed.”  The horses’ managing director, Armin Aigner, explains: “This is an appropriate time to say ‘thank you’ to America.”  Sixty years ago this spring, General George S. Patton was informed that the famous steeds were being held prisoner by the Germans at a site near the Czech-Austrian border.  Aware of the horses’ famed performing talents, he sent in the 2nd Cavalry to save them.

The question of whether it was appropriate to risk U.S. soldiers’ lives to rescue horses has been raised in recent years in the context of a public debate on another issue involving the propriety of diverting military resources for non-military objectives:  the refusal of the Roosevelt administration expend U.S. military resources 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 because of non-military considerations on various occasions, in addition to the Lipizzaner mission.  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 was moved 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 him it would tie up large numbers of planes and 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 real problem was that the Allies did not want to have tens of thousands 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 voiced disagreement.

In a similar vein, a State Department official later that year wrote in an internal memorandum:  ‘There was always the danger” –note that he considered it a ‘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.”

The Zionist leader Rabbi Meyer Berlin was tragically prescient when he remarked 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…”

The point is not to gainsay America’s rescue of the Lipizzaners.  Indeed, we join the Lipizanners’ managers in celebrating the anniversary of their liberation from the Nazis and the saving of this cultural treasure for future generations.  But at the same time, let us learn from our history, and teach the next generation that rescuing human beings is a higher moral priority than rescuing horses.

(As published in the Washington Jewish Week, Nov. 25, 2005)

November 2005