By: Dr. Rafael Medoff
The Auschwitz death camp was the last place on earth one would have expected to find Jews celebrating in August 1944. But sixty-five years ago this week, a “mass festivity” erupted among the prisoners–as American planes swept across the sky, dropping more than one thousand bombs on German targets below.
But not on the gas chambers or crematoria. They had a different target.
This week, on the 65th anniversary of that remarkable day, Dr. Tomas Radil, a scientist based in Prague recalled those extraordinary but all-too-brief celebrations.
Radil grew up in a town close to the Czech-Hungarian border. After the German occupation of Hungary in the spring of 1944, he and his family were deported to Auschwitz. Less than 14 years old at the time, Radil was taken to Birkenau, the mass murder section of Auschwitz, where he was housed with one thousand other teenage boys.
On the morning of August 20, 1944, a fleet of 127 American bombers known as Flying Fortresses approached Auschwitz. They were escorted by 100 Mustang fighters, piloted by the famous all-African American unit known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Auschwitz was a huge complex, some seven miles wide. It included factories that produced synthetic oil for the German war effort, less than five miles from the gas chambers. The American planes dropped more than 1,300 bombs, each of them weighing some 500 pounds, on the oil plants.
Radil and his fellow-prisoners in Birkenau watched in amazement as the planes bombed the camp’s industrial zone. “The first one was a fantastic mass festivity among the prisoners,” he recalls. “Hundreds of prisoners were shouting loudly and joyfully, not being afraid at all of any potential bombing while watching the American aircraft flying above.”
Weren’t they afraid they might be hit by the bombs? “The danger of being killed by the bombs was ridiculously small in comparison with the danger of being murdered by the Nazis in the camp,” Radil said. “For the first time, it was the Germans who were scared–it was big fun for the prisoners.”
But the prisoners’ joy was short-lived. Happiness turned to gloom as the planes flew away. The gas chambers and crematoria, which they could have reached in seconds, were left untouched. The mass murder in Auschwitz-Birkenau continued.
Radil also witnessed a second U.S. attack near the Auschwitz main camp, which20took place sometime that autumn. “I only barely survived a second American bombing raid,” he recalls. “We were outside the main camp, on some sort of work assignment, when bombing began. An SS man on a bicycle, who was in charge of us, tried to get us back into the camp.
“The SS man was frightened and in a big hurry. He wanted to get to shelter–but he couldn’t leave us behind, or we might escape. I couldn’t run–I could barely breath, there was something wrong with my lungs. A few months later, after the liberation, I was diagnosed as having tuberculosis. We knew what his ‘solution’ would be to the problem of me not moving fast enough–if I stopped, or if I fell, he would shoot me. Somehow, with the help of those around me and the very last bit of energy I still had, I managed to make it back to the camp.
For the SS, it was a time of fear. For us, it was a time of hope.”
But once again, the American planes that could have so easily reached and bombed the gas chambers, were never given the order to do so. Jewish organizations that asked the Roosevelt administration to order the bombing of the death camp were told that the U.S. could not divert planes from the battlefield.
Yet the very same month they were bombing the Auschwitz oil factories, the Americans and British did divert planes for another purpose: they airlifted supplies to the Polish Home Army for its revolt against the Germans in Warsaw. Even though President Roosevelt’s own advisers warned that the revolt “was a losing one” and “large numbers of planes would be tied up for long periods of time and lost to the main strategic effort against Germany,” FDR sent U.S. planes to Warsaw. In the end, less than 300 of the 1,200 containers reached the Polish fighters; the Germans confiscated the rest.