By: Dr. Rafael Medoff
Breckinridge Long, the State Department official in charge of refugee matters in the 1940s, did not think much of Jews. He called them “exponents of Communism and chaos.”
Long did not think much of Poles, either. In a 1944 diary entry complaining about Polish-American pressure on the Roosevelt administration, he wrote, “by temperament they are not a reasonable race.”
Yet when it came to U.S. military strategy, the Jews and the Poles were treated very differently. Roosevelt administration officials adamantly rejected the idea of using U.S. planes to stop the mass murder of European Jews. Yet they rushed to send U.S. planes on a hopeless mission to aid the Polish underground.
Documents which I discovered while researching the American presidential election of 1944 help clarify this disturbing discrepancy and shed light on the role of Jewish and Polish voters in the most enduring question of the Holocaust: why the U.S. refused to bomb Auschwitz.
* * *
The day after Easter Sunday is a Polish holiday, dating back to medieval times, known as “Dyngus Day.” In Polish-American communities, it is celebrated with parties, polka contests, and an ancient tradition in which young men and women flirtatiously swat each other with willows and sprinkle water on one another.
In a city like Buffalo, NY, with its huge Polish-American community, politicians who attended Dyngus Day gatherings on April 10, 1944, knew that the swatters and sprinklers of April would also be voters come November. The holiday was at once a cultural celebration and a de facto reminder of Polish-American political power.
That same day, four thousand miles away, two young Jews staged one of the very few successful escapes from Auschwitz. While hiding in a woodpile on the outskirts of the death camp, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler heard Allied planes flying overhead. Soon those planes would figure prominently in the fate of both Jews and Poles.
Over the course of the next eleven days, Vrba and Wetzler walked eighty miles across southwestern Poland. They crossed into Slovakia, where they met with local Jewish leaders and dictated a thirty-page report that came to be known as the “Auschwitz Protocols.” They provided details of the mass-murder process and drew maps pinpointing the location of the gas chambers and crematoria.
In response to the Auschwitz Protocols, rescue activists in Slovakia, led by Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandel, sent a series of letters to Allied officials and Jewish leaders in the Free World, urging the bombing of “the death halls” of Auschwitz and the railway lines leading to the camp.
The bombing requests reached the West at a time when the Allies were, in fact, well positioned to carry out such raids. By early 1944, the Allies had established control over the skies of Europe, and throughout the spring, U.S. planes flew repeated reconnaissance missions in the area around Auschwitz. Allied military planners were very inter ested in that region because the Nazis were using its rich coal deposits for the manufacture of synthetic oil for their war effort.
Polish-Americans, too, were extremely interested in what was happening in Poland, but not for the same reason. As Soviet troops advanced into eastern Poland in early 1944, Polish-Americans grew increasingly concerned that the Russians would seek to permanently occupy part of the country. The Dyngus Day celebrations in Buffalo and other Polish-American communities that spring were tinged with apprehension, especially after a February 22 statement by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill acquiescing in Soviet demands for changes in the Soviet-Polish border. “We Poles are wild as a result of Mr. Churchill’s statement,” declared Victor Alski, editor of Pittsburczanin, a Pittsburgh Catholic weekly. “It seems to us that Mr. Churchill is ready to sell the Poles down the river.”
Determined to make sure that President Roosevelt did not follow in Churchill’s steps on Poland, the leading Polish-American organizations announced plans to hold the first-ever Polish American Congress, in Buffalo, on the weekend of May 29-30.
Nervous Roosevelt administration officials feared that the growing Polish-American agitation could help the Republicans in that November’s presidential election. A memo by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) warned that the Buffalo gathering “is expected to draw 5,000 delegates…to demonstrate ‘in defense of Poland’….This is counted upon in a year of presidential election to impel the Administration toward action of some kind favorable to Poland.”
The OSS staff recognized that the people who had flocked to the Dyngus Day celebrations a few weeks earlier were a potent political force. But the OSS underestimated the depth of Polish-American anger. In the end, 10,000 took part in the Buffalo event–more than 2,600 delegates from 26 states, as well as nearly 7,000 other attendees.
The State Department’s Breckinridge Long watched these developments with considerable alarm. “This Polish question is a great problem for us here,” he wrote in his diary on June 13. “Detroit, Chicago, Buffalo, etc contain great settlements which are especially articulate in an election year….Their Buffalo convention popped off in a nationalistic direction….The appeal to former allegiance apparently had a deciding effect on the delegates….[A] solution (or a position) satisfactory to the Poles here seems difficult–and they may hold the balance of power in votes” in key electoral states.
President Roosevelt, too, was keenly aware of the important role Polish-American votes might play in the 1944 presidential election. At the Teheran conference the previous autumn, FDR privately told Stalin that while he agreed with Soviet demands for border adjustments that would give Polish territory to the USSR, he was unwilling, because of “internal American politics,” to do anything soon on the subject. According t o the transcript of the meeting, Roosevelt explained “that there were in the United States from six to seven millions Americans of Polish extraction, and as a practical man, he did not wish to lose their vote[s].”
DEPORTATIONS FROM HUNGARY
Meanwhile, the mass deportation of Hungary’s Jews to Auschwitz was underway. Between May 15 and July 6, the Germans sent some 440,000 Hungarian Jews to the death camp, where most of them were quickly gassed. At its peak, the daily murder rate reached 12,000.
In June and July, leaders of the World Jewish Congress, the Jewish Agency, Agudath Israel, the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe (the Bergson Group) and others asked the Roosevelt administration to bomb Auschwitz or the railway lines leading to it.
All of these requests were met with essentially the same reply, authored by Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy. He claimed the bombing proposal was “impracticable” because it would require “diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations.” He also claimed the War Department’s opposition to bombing was based on “a study” of the issue. In fact, no such study was ever undertaken. McCloy’s position actually was based on the War Department’s standing policy that no military resources should be allocated for “rescuing victims of enemy oppression.”
Yet while the administration was claiming that it could not “divert” planes from the battlefront, American bombers flew close to, and in some cases directly over, Auschwitz on numerous occasions that summer.
On August 7, for example, U.S. bombers attacked the Trzebinia oil refineries, just thirteen miles from Auschwitz. A detour to strike the death camp would have taken them just minutes.
On August 20, a squadron of 127 U.S. bombers, accompanied by 100 Mustangs piloted by the famous all-African American unit known as the Tuskegee Airmen, struck oil factories less than five miles from the gas chambers.
Elie Wiesel, then age 16, was part of a slave labor battalion working on the outskirts of Auschwitz when the planes struck. In his bestselling book, “Night,” Wiesel described how he and his fellow-prisoners reacted: “We were not afraid. And yet, if 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!”
DIVERTING PLANES–TO WARSAW
While U.S. officials were insisting they could not “divert” planes to Auschwitz, they found plenty of reasons to divert them to Warsaw.
In August 1944, the Polish Home Army rose up against the Germans in Warsaw. Beginning on August 8, Britain’s Royal Air Force air-dropped supplies to the Polish rebels. The flight route between the Allied air base in Italy and Warsaw took the planes within a few miles of Auschwitz. They flew that route twenty-two times during the two weeks to follow.
The British pressed the U.S. to do its share of air-drops. But an internal Roosevelt administration assessment of the British effort warned that “the [Polish] Partisan fight 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.” England’s own air force commanders concluded that the air-drops had “achieved practically nothing” because the Germans were intercepting most of the supplies.
Nonetheless, President Roosevelt ordered U.S. planes to take part in the mission. The largest air-drop took place on September 18, when a fleet of 107 U.S. bombers dropped more than 1,200 containers of weapons and supplies into Warsaw. Less than 300 of the containers reached the Polish fighters; the Germans confiscated the rest.
The Roosevelt administration was willing to divert planes from the war effort to aid a revolt that it knew was doomed to defeat–while at the same time, falsely claiming it could not spare a few bombs to hit the Auschwitz gas chambers because that would divert resources from the war effort.
Developments on the political front may help explain some of the decisions that were made on the battlefront.
The presidential election was ninety days away, and the Democrats were worried. The Republicans had scored well in the 1942 midterm congressional elections. If the GOP could hold on to the states it won in the 1940 presidential race, and if the states that went Republican in the 1942 senatorial and gubernatorial races remained Republican in 194 4, the GOP’s candidate would win 323 electoral votes–twenty more than the number needed to capture the White House. FDR himself estimated in one private conversation that of the anticipated 50 million voters, 20 million each were solid for the Democrats and the Republicans, and the other ten million were up for grabs.
Since Republican candidate Thomas Dewey was the governor of New York, Democratic Party officials were seriously concerned that Dewey might be able to win his home state, which had the most electoral votes of any state and could be the key to the election. “New York State’s electoral votes are by no means certain for the Dem. Party,” one party official noted in an internal memo. Another warned that Dewey could carry upstate New York “by 625,000 to 650,000 votes….I deem it imperative that everything be done to cut this down in order to [e]nsure carrying the state for Roosevelt.” He felt the situation was sufficiently dire to warrant FDR making a special campaign trip to New York. As late as October 2, just weeks before election day, one Democratic Party activist warned FDR aide David Niles that “if nothing happens between now and election date, Dewey will carry NY state.”
During the weeks that the president and his aides were discussing the merits of taking part in the Warsaw air-drops, Dewey publicly criticized the administration for not standing up unequivocally for an independent Poland. “The rights of small nations and minorities must not be lost in a cynical peace,” the Republican candidate warned.
Polish-Americans were not afraid to flex some political muscle. Archbishop Edward Mooney of Detroit, an important leader of Catholic Polish-Americans, let it be known that he was prepared to endorse Gov. Dewey if Roosevelt failed to air-drop supplies to the Polish fighters in Warsaw. Monsignor Kaczynski, the Polish government-in-exile’s liaison to the American Catholic Episcopate relayed Mooney’s threat to Joseph Dasher, head of the Polish Section of the OSS.
Kaczynski told Dasher that “even token aid to Warsaw would create [a] favorable impression….Poles would be appeased and possible far-reaching Catholic political actions avoided.”
Dasher gave the information to the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, John Winant. He, in turn, passed the message to FDR aide Harry Hopkins–with a note saying he himself (Ambassador Winant) had just had a similar conversation with Archbishop Francis Spellman of New York.
The White House got the message. The president could not risk being seen by Polish-American voters as abandoning Poland.
Abandoning the Jews, however, did not seem to carry with it much political risk. Roosevelt believed, correctly, that he had the Jewish vote in his pocket. The overwhelming majority of Jewish voters supported FDR in 1932, 1936, and 1940, and there was little evidence that would change in 1944. In their book ‘Growing Up Jewish in America,’ Harvey and Myrna Frommer quote theatrical producer Arthur Cohen saying, “Jewish people are not suppose to worship graven images, but my mother used to kiss this little bust of Franklin Roosevelt that was on top of the big old radio.” Thanks to that kind of adoration, the president thus felt no political pressure to bomb the gas chambers or take any other serious steps to rescue Jews from the Holocaust.
Timeworn stereotypes denigrate Poles as unsophisticated, and Jews as clever political operators. But in 1944, Polish-Americans showed that they understood far better than Jewish-Americans how to exercise effective political pressure.
(As published in the Jewish Press, September 4, 2009)