Sophie’s Choice–and Roosevelt’s

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

William Styron, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who died this week at 81, will always be remembered for Sophie’s Choice, his bestselling 1979 novel about the Holocaust. Later made into a major motion picture starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, it told the story of a woman in Auschwitz who was forced to choose which of her two children would be taken by a sadistic Nazi doctor. What is not well known is that Sophie’s Choice itself was inspired in part by another book, one which raised searing questions about a different Holocaust choice–the Roosevelt administration’s choice to refrain from bombing Auschwitz.

Styron’s obituary in the New York Times reported that the novelist was “haunted for decades” by Five Chimneys, a Holocaust memoir by Auschwitz survivor Olga Lengyel, published in 1947. Like the future “Sophie,” Lengyel was a non-Jewish woman who ended up in Auschwitz through a series of unfortunate circumstances. Five Chimneys played a key role in shaping Styron’s perspective on the Holocaust and influenced the eventual composition of Sophie’s Choice.

Lengyel’s book was released just two years after the liberation of Auschwitz. It was one of the first published memoirs by a Holocaust survivor. It was also the first postwar book to raise the question of the Allies’ refusal to bomb the Nazi death camp.

“All of the internees of Auschwitz-Birkenau had one dream, to escape,” she wrote. “We hoped that whoever escaped from the inferno would tell the world what was happening at Birkenau, that someone might come to our aid at last. If the Allies could blow up the crematory oven! The pace of the extermination would at least be slowed.”

Later memoirs by other Auschwitz survivors likewise focused attention on the bombing issue. The best known of these was Elie Wiesel’s Night (1960), in which he described a U.S. bombing raid near Auschwitz that he witnessed as a teenager, when he was assigned to a slave labor battalion outside the main camp: “[I]f 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!”

Pelagia Lewinska, in her 1968 memoir, Twenty Months at Auschwitz, recalled the “joyous experience” of hearing the sirens warning of the approach of U.S. bombers. “At such times,” she wrote “we kept telling ourselves: Maybe they will drop leaflets, maybe they will destroy our camp…”

The American planes to which Wiesel and Lewinska referred were targeting German synthetic oil factories situated in the Auschwitz region. Some were less than five miles from the gas chambers. George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, was one of the young pilots who carried out such raids. “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.”

But the planes which flew so nearby, aiming at the oil sites, were never instructed to drop a few bombs on the mass-murder machinery. This is not just a matter of postwar conjecture about what might have been. It was a real option that was proposed at the time. Jewish leaders in 1944 repeatedly asked Roosevelt administration officials to bomb the Auschwitz gas chambers or the railways leading to them. The administration rejected the requests on the grounds that they would require “considerable diversion” of planes needed elsewhere. In fact, no “diversion” of military resources would have been necessary because, as Wiesel and his fellow-prisoners saw, U.S. planes were already flying over Auschwitz to strike the oil facilities.

U.S. officials even told Jewish leaders they had conducted a “study” which found that bombing Auschwitz was not militarily feasible. But no evidence of the alleged study was ever found.

The Roosevelt administration’s consideration of the bombing proposal did not resemble the dilemma faced by William Styron’s Sophie. She was a helpless victim, trapped in an impossible situation in which either choice –the sacrifice of one of her children or the other– was wrong. By contrast, President Roosevelt’s choice was between right and wrong–between taking action to save Jews and refraining from acting for fear of losing votes. Tragically, FDR made the wrong choice.

November 2006