By: Dr. Rafael Medoff
On a hot August morning in 1944, the Jews imprisoned in the Nazi slave labor camp known as Hasag Pelcery, less than fifty miles from Auschwitz, suddenly heard a roaring sound in the sky above.
“I looked up and saw something unbelievable,” Sigmund Rolat, 79, recalled this week. “American planes, right above us. It seemed like a miracle.” Rolat and his fellow-prisoners cheered.
But for the prisoners of Hasag Pelcery, and for the Jews in the nearby Auschwitz death camp, no miracle was at hand. The American planes were on their way to bomb German oil factories, some of them less than five miles from the gas chambers and crematoria–yet they were never sent to strike the mass murder-machinery or the railways leading into Auschwitz.
Rolat today is a prominent businessman and philanthropist in Manhattan who is the moving force behind the forthcoming Museum of the History of the Jews of Poland and leader of the World Society of Czestochowa Jews.
In 1943, at age 13, he and other Jewish children were about to be taken to the Czestochowa cemetery to be executed by the Nazis, when the Polish director of a local munitions factory singled them for work in the plant. One of the other children was a little girl named Marysia Kozak; today her son, David Miliband, is England’s Foreign Secretary.
Rolat, Kozak and the others were taken to Hasag Pelcery, the largest of three Czestochowa factories used by the Germans. Yisrael Meir Lau, later Israel’s chief rabbi and today the chairman of Yad Vashem, was a prisoner in the nearby Hasag Warta, which manufactured steel products for the German war effort.
Rolat and the other slave laborers lived in crude barracks guarded by Ukrainians. “If you didn’t move fast enough, they beat you,” he recalled. “If you said the wrong thing, they beat you. If they had any excuse at all, they beat you.” Every day was a nightmare of violence and degradation. The last thing the prisoners expected to see were American planes overheard.
The next morning, 4,000 miles away, a front-page article in the New York Times matter-of-factly reported that a major Allied air offensive against German oil factories was underway, with the latest targets including “the former Vacuum Oil Company refinery at Czestochowa and the I.G. Farbenindustrie synthetic oil and rubber plant at Oswiecim…” Oswiecim is the Polish name for Auschwitz.
Five years ago, Rolat tried to shed some light on the Allies’ failure to bomb Auschwitz–with the help of former U.S. Senator and 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George S. McGovern. When the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies learned that McGovern had been one of the pilots in the American planes that flew near Auschwitz in 1944, Rolat, a member of the Institute’s board, traveled to South Dakota to speak with him in person about it.
He was accompanied by Stuart Erdheim, director of “They Looked Away,” a documentary about the U.S. failure to bomb Auschwitz; and Chaim Hecht, an Israel Television producer and radio talk show host, who was working on a tv segment called “One Flight for Us,” about the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
In World War II, McGovern flew a B-24 “Liberator” plane, as part of the 455th Bomb Group. Their targets included the oil plants at Monowitz, an industrial section of Auschwitz. “There is no question we should have attempted … to go after Auschwitz,” he told Rolat. “ 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.”
McGovern was an ardent admirer of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but in his meeting with Rolat, he did not mince words about FDR’s response to the Holocaust. “Franklin Roosevelt was a great man and he was my political hero,” he said. “But I think he made two great mistakes in World War Two.” One was the internment of Japanese-Americans; the other was the decision “not to go after Auschwitz … God forgive us for that tragic miscalculation.”
George McGovern and Sigmund Rolat come from different worlds, but they are both eyewitnesses –one in the skies above, one on the ground below– to the tragic reality of American planes coming within striking distance of Auschwitz, yet never receiving the orders to attack it.