by Rafael Medoff
It is sometimes assumed that public criticism of the Allies’ failure to bomb Auschwitz began only in the late 1960s, when historians first began writing on the subject.
But a powerful new documentary film, to be screened in Jerusalem later this month, sheds light on a rabbi who publicly raised the issue just months after the war ended—and he did so in the presence of General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The Rumanian-born hasidic sage Rabbi Yekutiel Yehudah Halberstam, better known as the Klausenberger Rebbe, was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 along with his wife and nine of their eleven children. He managed to survive the rigors of service in a slave labor brigade in Warsaw, as well as several death marches on the eve of the Allies’ liberation of Europe.
Rebbetzin Halberstam, and ten of their children, were murdered by the Nazis. Only their eldest son survived the Holocaust, but he died in a Displaced Persons camp shortly afterwards.
The rebbe ended up in Feldafing, a DP camp operated by the American occupation forces near Munich. That’s where he was on Yom Kippur in 1945, when
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe and future president of the United States, was visiting the region.
Earlier this year, I spoke with Moshe Reich, whose father in law, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Barminka, was an aide to the Klausenberger Rebbe. Reich (who has since passed away) shared with me his father-in-law’s eyewitness account of the Rebbe’s encounter with Eisenhower that Yom Kippur.
According to Barminka, the Communist and Zionist DPs were at odds over who should have the honor of greeting General Eisenhower and speaking at the welcoming ceremony. The compromise choice was the Rebbe. On Yom Kippur afternoon, the Rebbe ascended the podium where Eisenhower was seated.
Both the Communists and the Zionists wanted to focus on postwar issues, rather than the Holocaust, but the Rebbe had other ideas. He spoke at length about what the Jews endured at the hands of the Nazis, then declared:
“The Americans and England share in the guilt along with Hitler, because the Americans knew, for at least several years [what was happening in the death campus]. And they had the ability to bomb the railway lines [leading to Auschwitz] and they could have bombed the places [where Jews were being murdered]. A million Jews could have been saved—[including] all the Jews of Hungary. If the Americans had intervened just a little bit earlier, it wouldn’t have happened.”
The rebbe made his remarks in Yiddish. A simultaneous translation to English was provided to General Eisenhower by Lieutenant Mayer Birnbaum, a young Orthodox Jewish soldier from Brooklyn who had been assigned to the American forces governing the DP camps. “Lieutenant Birnbaum told me that Eisenhower had tears in his eyes when the rebbe finished,” Moshe Reich said.
“At the time, the Rebbe didn’t know the details about the requests that had been made to the Allies to bomb Auschwitz,” Reich noted in our conversation. “He spoke in general about the obvious fact that they were bombing in the area and could have hit Auschwitz. But after the war, [the Rebbe learned] about the efforts to get the Americans to bomb Auschwitz, and the Rebbe mentioned the issue a number of times over the years to his hasidim.”
A hasidic rebbe lecturing the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces about the failure to bomb Auschwitz was not exactly an everyday occurrence. Yet for some reason, our major Holocaust institutions do not deem it worthy of mention.
The website of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum describes Eisenhower’s visit to Feldafing, but does not report what the Rebbe said as the general sat a few feet away. Yad Vashem’s website quotes excerpts from what it calls “the Rebbe’s sermon on Yom Kippur,” but makes no mention of the Rebbe’s remarks about not bombing Auschwitz.
Fortunately, a new documentary film about the Klausenberger Rebbe helps fill the vacuum that Holocaust museums have left. The English-subtitled version of “Astir Panai – Hidden Face,” a documentary by Eyal Datz, will premiere at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on October 18 (followed by Q & A with the director), with a second screening on October 22.
The Allies’ refusal to bomb Auschwitz constitutes one of the most catastrophic moral failures in recent history. Apologists for President Franklin D. Roosevelt often say that FDR shouldn’t be blamed, because nobody at the time thought bombing the death camps was a serious option and nobody really brought up the issue until many decades later. “Astir Panai” helps shatter that myth.
(As published in the Jerusalem Post – October 15, 2018)