A Failed Attempt to Alter FDR’s Record

by Rafael Medoff

Why would the Franklin D. Roosevelt presidential library be interested in housing the papers of a Holocaust survivor? And why would it choose the one survivor most closely linked to the wartime requests to bomb Auschwitz − the very requests Roosevelt’s administration notoriously rejected?

These were among the intriguing questions surrounding the International Conference on the Auschwitz Reports and the Holocaust in Hungary, sponsored earlier this month in New York by the Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt Institute and the City University of New York’s Rosenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies.

The Auschwitz Reports, compiled by Auschwitz escapees Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler in April 1944, are the centerpiece of Vrba’s papers, which were acquired recently by the Roosevelt Institute, a foundation that sponsors the presidential library, in Hyde Park, New York, where the papers will be housed. The Reports, which included maps pinpointing the gas chambers and crematoria, led to requests by Jewish organizations to the Roosevelt administration to bomb the death camp in the summer and autumn of 1944. In his autobiography, “I Cannot Forgive” ‏(1964‏), Vrba again raised the issue of the Allies’ failure to bomb the camp.

Ordinarily this is not the kind of issue the Roosevelt Institute would want to spotlight. But at the recent conference, the institute’s chairman emeritus, attorney William J. van den Heuvel, hinted at the cynical logic behind his sudden interest in Vrba. Van den Heuvel repeatedly referred to the fact that some Hungarian Jewish leaders who received Vrba’s report, such as Rudolf Kastner, failed to warn Hungary’s Jews about the meaning of the impending deportations to Auschwitz. The implication was obvious: Who can blame FDR for abandoning the Jews if their own leaders abandoned them?

That’s not all. “Until the Vrba-Wetzler Report, the real purpose of Auschwitz-Birkenau remained a secret to the outside world,” van den Heuvel erroneously claimed ‏(in fact, several Polish escapees revealed its purpose the previous year, just in less detail‏). “What did the world know about Auschwitz in the spring of 1944? It’s extraordinary to understand how little was known.” Get it? The Vrba report reached the Allies only in May 1944, just six months before the Auschwitz gas chambers were shut down − so how can anybody criticize Roosevelt for not intervening if he did not even know of Auschwitz until the war’s final hour?

This distasteful attempt to use Vrba, the very symbol of the failure to bomb Auschwitz, as a weapon in defense of FDR, might have succeeded − except that the speakers at the conference neglected to fall in line.

The biggest name on the marquee was Prof. Richard Breitman, editor of the journal Holocaust & Genocide Studies. He noted that the administration declined bombing requests on the grounds that “the best way to way to save lives” was “to win the war as quickly as possible.” But “this argument becomes far less convincing when one realizes that by the late summer of 1944, American bombers were already bombing targets in the vicinity of Auschwitz-Birkenau.” They were striking German oil factories adjacent to the death camp, some of them less than five miles from the gas chambers.

Jewish groups that asked the Roosevelt administration to bomb the camp were told a study had been conducted that found that attacking Auschwitz would require diverting bombers from other parts of Europe. But no evidence of any such study has ever been located, Breitman pointed out: “There was no effort [by the administration] to scrutinize the logistics, to calculate the likelihood of destroying the target, what the collateral damage would be, what the anti-aircraft situation would be.” Breitman’s bottom line: “In my view, if a successful bombing raid on the gas chambers and crematoria had been carried out, it would have saved lives.”

Dr. Zoltan Tibori-Szabo, who was flown in from Romania for the conference, pointed out the contradiction between the Roosevelt administration refusing to use even minimal military resources for this particular humanitarian purpose, and its use of military resources for other nonmilitary aims.

“It is a fact,” he noted, “that the American military decided not to bomb the railroad lines leading to Auschwitz because of military and strategic issues, yet it is also true that it was a whole unit of American military that was directed to Austria to save the Lippizzaner horses.”

The Roosevelt Institute’s claim that FDR didn’t know about Auschwitz until Vrba did not fare much better. Prof. Randolph Braham, director of the CUNY Holocaust institute, declared: “The leaders of the world … were fully familiar with the details of Auschwitz. This was even before Rudi escaped.”

Tibori-Szabo seconded that point, and in great detail: He cited 11 other instances in which escapees from Auschwitz ‏(most of them Polish political prisoners‏) brought news of the death camp to the outside world in 1941-1943, that is, prior to Vrba. A number of similar reports to the Allies by Polish escapees from Auschwitz in 1943 are quoted in Prof. Breitman’s 1998 book, “Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew.”

All in all, it was not the best of days for Roosevelt’s defenders. Sure, you can lead historians to a conference ‏(especially if honoraria, airfare and comfortable accommodations are provided‏). You can use those scholars’ credentials to lend luster to the event and to the soon-to-be-published proceedings. But don’t expect those scholars to revise the historical record to suit the sponsor’s agenda.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington D.C. www.WymanInstitute.org.

(As published in Ha’aretz – April 29, 2011)

April 2011