By Dr. Rafael Medoff
“I heard the American planes flying overhead and saw the windows in the factory shatter–those planes were so close to the gas chambers, but they never bombed them.”
So says Holocaust survivor Lidia Vago in new eyewitness testimony about the U.S. bombers that struck German industrial targets adjacent to the Auschwitz death camp in late August and early September of 1944.
On the 64th anniversary of the American air raids near Auschwitz, Mrs. Vago has come forward with her account of that experience, which remains the subject of debate and controversy more than six decades later.
Vago, who lives in Tel Aviv, is the widow of the renowned European Jewish historian Bela Vago, who passed away last year.
Lidia and her family were deported from Rumania to Auschwitz in June 1944, shortly before her twentieth birthday. Her mother was among those sent to the gas chambers immediately upon arrival.
Lidia was assigned to a slave labor battalion that was marched several miles each morning to a nearby German factory. They worked twelve hours daily, manufacturing fuses for hand grenades.
Beginning on August 20, 1944, U.S. planes repeatedly bombed German oil factories and other military targets in the vicinity of the death camp, some of them less than five miles from the gas chambers. “Each time the Americans bombed the area, the air-raid sirens would sound,” Mrs. Vago recalled in an interview. “The SS men all ran to shelters, but of course the Jews were left unprotected.”
“Our building was never directly hit, but the windows and the glass part of the ceiling shattered from the force of the explosions nearby,” she says. “Of course we were scared–but we were also very, very happy. Even though we knew that we or other prisoners might be killed by the bombings, we knew that we were all going to be killed by the Germans anyway, so we hoped and prayed that the Allies would bomb the gas chambers and the crematoria. That would have stopped the mass murders.”
In October, Mrs. Vago and other slave laborers were assigned to another work detail. “There I met some Polish Jewish girls who knew more details about the bombing raids,” she notes. “They told us that in the bombing of September 13, part of the railway line leading into the camp was damaged, and also that an SS barracks was hit and some of the SS men were killed.” Those bombs had been dropped accidentally by U.S. planes that were targeting the oil factories nearby.
One of the planes that bombed targets close to Auschwitz in late 1944 was piloted by young George S. McGovern, the future U.S. senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee. The African-American pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen also took part in some of the raids. But neither McGovern nor the Tuskegee fliers were ever told that they were flying over a mass-murder camp.
McGovern said in a recent interview with filmmaker Stuart Erdheim that if his commanders had asked for volunteers to bomb the death camp, “whole crews would have volunteered,” because most GIs understood that the war against the Nazis was not just a military struggle but a moral one. In his view, they would have recognized the importance of trying to save the lives of Hitler’s Jewish captives, even if it meant endangering their own lives on a risky bombing raid. It is worth recalling that the Allied air drops of supplies to the Polish Home Army rebels in Warsaw in August 1944 were carried out by volunteer crews, who agreed to undertake the missions despite the hazards of flying their planes to areas outside their normal range.
In recent years, some defenders of America’s response to the Holocaust have argued that Auschwitz was too distant and difficult a target for American planes to reach and bomb. But the experiences of Lidia Vago, George McGovern, and the Tuskegee Airmen demonstrate that U.S. bombers were already in the skies over Auschwitz–and could have interrupted the mass murder if only they had been instructed to do so. Tragically, the Roosevelt administration, although fully informed about what was happening in Auschwitz, declined as a matter of principle to use even a minimal amount of military resources to save the Jews.