The Day they Bombed Auschwitz

by Rafael Medoff

Much has been written about America’s failure to bomb Auschwitz. But seventy years ago this summer, U.S. planes did bomb Auschwitz–and a teenage prisoner named Elie Wiesel was one of the eyewitnesses.

During the spring and summer of 1944, American Jewish leaders repeatedly asked Roosevelt administration officials –including cabinet members– to order the bombing of the gas chambers at Auschwitz, as well the railways over which hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were being deported to the death camp.

U.S. officials replied that such bombings were “impracticable” because they would have required “diverting” planes from the battlefield. Contemporary defenders of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust make the same claim. But a new book about Allied bombing strategy in World War II says otherwise.

The book is called The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe, 1940-1945, by the British historian Richard Overy, of the University of Exeter. He has authored numerous other books on World War II, and recently won MIT’s Doolittle Award for his lifetime contribution to aviation history.

“There is no doubt,” Avery writes, that Auschwitz “could have been bombed.” How do we know? Because it WAS bombed. Since the Auschwitz complex included an industrial zone where the Germans were manufacturing synthetic oil for the war effort, “Auschwitz had been on the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces’ target list since at least Decmeber 1943, when plans were drawn up for attacks on German oil and chemical plants in eastern Europe,” Prof. Overy points out.

In other words, while the Roosevelt administration was saying that it couldn’t bomb Auschwitz because it would have to take planes away from the battlefield, in fact Auschwitz was already part of the battlefield.

On August 7, U.S. bombers attacked the Trzebinia oil refineries, just thirteen miles from the gas chambers.

On August 20, a squadron of 127 U.S. bombers, accompanied by 100 Mustangs piloted by the all-African American unit known as the Tuskegee Airmen, struck oil factories less than five miles from the gas chambers.

Elie Wiesel, age 16, was a slave laborer in one section of the huge Auschwitz complex. He witnessed the August 20 raid. Many years later, in his best-selling book ‘Night’, Wiesel wrote: “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!” 

There were additional Allied bombing raids on the Auschwitz oil factories throughout the autumn. “The raids showed that operations over Auschwitz were indeed feasible,” Prof. Overy concludes.

There was one more reason Allied bombers flew close to Auschwitz in 1944: to re-supply the Polish Home Army forces that were fighting the Germans in Warsaw. On August 8, Britain’s Royal Air Force began air-dropping supplies to the Poles. The flight route between the Allied air base in Italy and Warsaw took the planes within a few miles of Auschwitz. They would fly that route twenty-two times during the two weeks to follow.  

In September –seventy years ago this week– President Roosevelt ordered U.S. planes to take part in the Warsaw airlift mission. The last and 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.

Dropping a few bombs on Auschwitz or the railway lines, however, would have conflicted with the president’s view that no resources should be expended on humanitarian objectives, because the war against the Jews was a sideshow that was not America’s concern. And so the president who presented himself to the public as the champion of the “forgotten man,” as someone who embodied humane values and cared about the downtrodden, turned his back on the most compelling moral challenge of our times.

September 2014