In Memoriam, Shmuel Katz, Israeli Political Activist and First to Expose Allies’ Failure to Bomb Auschwitz

By Dr. Rafael Medoff

Israeli political activist and author Shmuel Katz, who died in Tel Aviv on May 9 at age 93, will be remembered for his role in the fight to create Israel, and his pioneering efforts to counter anti-Israel propaganda.

What is not well known is that Katz also authored the first book to expose the Allies’ failure to bomb the Auschwitz death camp–thereby launching a public debate that still has not subsided, more than forty years later.

* * *

Katz, who was born in South Africa, immigrated to British Mandatory Palestine in 1936. He became active in the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the underground militia fighting for Jewish statehood, eventually rising to become a member of the Irgun High Command and its primary spokesman to the world media. Katz was a founder of Menachem Begin’s Herut Party, was elected to the first Knesset as one of its representatives, and served as an adviser to Begin when the latter became prime minister in 1977.

Katz’s best-known book was Battleground: Fact and Fantasy in Palestine. First published in 1973, Battleground underwent numerous reprintings as it became a staple for pro-Israel activists, especially on college campuses. More recently, Katz authored a critically-acclaimed two-volume biography of Revisionist Zionist leader Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and a history of Nili, the Zionist espionage group that helped the British capture Palestine from the Turks in World War One.

Katz’s first book, Days of Fire, was noteworthy as well. Published in Hebrew in 1966 and in English shortly afterwards, Days of Fire was the first English-language history of the Irgun. It was also the first book to expose the Allies’ failure to bomb Auschwitz.

Using documents from British and Zionist archives, Katz recounted how Jewish Agency leaders approached British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden in July 1944, requesting an Allied air attack on Auschwitz and the railroad lines over which hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were being transported to their doom. “It was fifty-seven days, September 1, before the British Foreign Office sent its reply, a period during which the majority of the Jews of Hungary were exterminated,” Katz wrote. “The bombing, stated the Foreign Office, was impossible because of ‘the very great technical difficulties involved’.”

Katz proceeded to expose the disingenuousness of the British excuse. He pointed out that during that same summer of 1944, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the Royal Air Force (RAF) to air lift supplies to the Polish Home Army forces fighting the Germans in Warsaw. Despite the likelihood of the supplies being intercepted by the Nazis, Churchill did not allow “technical difficulties” to prevent the mission. A total of 181 air drops were undertaken by British planes, flying from the Foggia air base in Allied-occupied Italy.

“The appeal of the Jewish Agency leaders [to bomb Auschwitz] was far less exacting,” Katz pointed out. “The death camp at Auschwitz was 200 miles nearer than Warsaw to the base at Foggia. The railway line from Budapest and Budapest itself were within easy range.” Katz also noted that in a postwar interview, the wartime Chief of RAF Bomber Command, Air Marshal Arthur Harris, denied that such an operation would have been impossible. Harris said he did not recall ever being asked to do it.

Days of Fire also featured a full-page map showing the precise distance from the Foggia air base to Budapest, Auschwitz, and Warsaw. The map vividly demonstrated that the “technical difficulties” excuse British officials gave in 1944 for not striking Auschwitz was simply untenable.

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Katz about his pioneering role in bringing the bombing issue to public attention.

“Back in the mid-1960s, not much was known about the ability of the Allies to attack Auschwitz,” Katz recalled. “Later, of course, historians such as David Wyman revealed the full story of the American and British raids on oil targets next to Auschwitz, and the private discussions among the officials who rejected the appeals to bomb the death camp. But fortunately I was able to locate a few documents about the British government’s rejection and bring it up in my book, so people would start thinking about it.”

Although Days of Fire was primarily an account of the Jewish revolt against the British in Palestine, Katz noted, the bombing issue was very relevant . “What was happening to the Jews in Europe in 1944 was an important factor in the Irgun’s decision to launch its war for independence,” Katz told me. “It helped shape [Irgun commander] Menachem Begin’s thinking. It intensified our sense of urgency. Nobody knew how long World War Two and the slaughter of the Jews would continue. We were fighting to create a Jewish homeland that would be a haven for the Jews who could escape from the Nazis. We felt as if we were engaged in a life-and-death struggle for the entire Jewish people.”

May 2008