by Dr. Rafael Medoff
She probably didn’t realize it, but Oprah Winfrey has just opened the door for millions of Americans to learn about America’s failure to bomb the Auschwitz death camp.
On her January 16 show, Oprah announced her latest selection for the Oprah Winfrey Book Club: Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” one of the most famous works of Holocaust literature. Being chosen for Oprah’s book club “has meant huge sales for the selected titles,” the Associated Press points out. Within hours of Oprah’s announcement, the paperback edition of “Night” hit number one on the Amazon.com sales list.
Oprah announced her choice on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and she remarked: “Like Dr. King, I have a dream of my own, too–that the powerful message of this little book would be engraved on every human heart and will never be forgotten again. That you who read this book will feel as I do that these 120 pages … should be required reading for all humanity.”
Wiesel’s book is an extraordinary document of human courage and suffering, which brings the reader as close as an outsider can come to glimpsing the horrors of the Holocaust.
Less well known is that “Night” also contains some of the most important eyewitness testimony to America’s ability to bomb the death camps–and its failure to do so.
By the summer of 1944, the Roosevelt administration had detailed information about the mass-murder process at Auschwitz, including the location of the gas chambers and crematoria, 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.
The U.S. also had detailed aerial reconnaissance photographs of Auschwitz, which showed the precise locations of the mass-murder machinery–photos that were taken because the War Department was interested in bombing the German oil factories in the region.
On August 20, 1944, U.S. bombers dropped more than 1300 bombs on German factories within the enormous Auschwitz complex, less than five miles from the gas chambers where an estimated 1.6-million Jews were murdered. During the days before and after that first bombing raid, more than 70,000 Jews were deported from the Lodz Ghetto to Auschwitz, with most of them gassed immediately upon their arrival.
In “Night” (pp.70-71 of the paperback edition), Elie Wiesel describes how he and other Auschwitz prisoners reacted when the bombers struck: “We were not afraid. And yet, if a bomb had fallen on the blocks [the prisoners’ barracks], it alone would have claimed hundreds of victims on the spot. But we were no longer afraid of death; at any rate, not of that death. Every bomb that exploded filled us with joy and gave us new confidence in life. The raid lasted over an hour. If it could only have lasted ten times ten hours!”
There were additional such bombing raids on German industrial sites in that region during the autumn of 1944 and the winter of 1944-1945. But the gas chambers and crematoria remained untouched.
George McGovern, the future U.S. Senator and Democratic presidential nominee, was one of the pilots. On December 26, his 455th Bomb Group dropped fifty tons of bombs on the Auschwitz oil plants.
“There is no question we should have attempted … to go after Auschwitz,” McGovern said in a recent interview. “There was a pretty good chance we could have blasted those rail lines off the face of the earth, which would have interrupted the flow of people to those death chambers, and we had a pretty good chance of knocking out those gas ovens.”
Jewish organizations repeatedly asked the Roosevelt administration to order the bombing of Auschwitz and the railroad lines leading to the camp. The War Department rejected the proposals as “impracticable,” claiming such raids would require “considerable diversion” of planes needed for the war effort. U.S. officials claimed to have conducted a “study” which found that bombing Auschwitz was not militarily feasible. But no evidence of the alleged study has ever been found.
Ironically, military resources were diverted for various other non-military reasons. Secretary of War Henry Stimson blocked the Air Force’s plan to bomb the Japanese city of Kyoto, because of its artistic treasures, and his deputy John McCloy –who rebuffed many of the requests to bomb Auschwitz– diverted U.S. bombers from striking the German city of Rothenburg, because of its famous medieval architecture. General George Patton even diverted U.S. troops in order to rescue 150 Lipizzaner stallions in Austria.
Contemporary apologists for President Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust claim that U.S. planes were incapable of reaching Auschwitz. Anyone who reads Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” with its riveting eyewitness account of one of the U.S. bombing attacks on the Auschwitz oil factories, will understand that America was entirely capable of bombing the mass-murder machinery nearby. Thanks to Oprah Winfrey, millions of Americans will now know the truth about the U.S. failure to bomb the Auschwitz gas chambers.