by Rafael Medoff
While most of the American news media looked away, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 1944 repeatedly publicized appeals to the Allies to bomb Auschwitz and the railways leading to it.
The Roosevelt administration’s refusal to strike Auschwitz was among the issues raised in Wolf Blitzer’s recent CNN special about the Holocaust, and will be discussed in Ken Burns’s upcoming documentary film on America’s response to the Holocaust.
During the spring and summer of 1944, as hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were being deported to Auschwitz, at least thirty officials of Jewish organizations or institutions urged the Roosevelt administration to carry out air strikes on the railways and bridges over which the deportations were taking place, or to undertake precision strikes on the gas chambers and crematoria themselves.
Nahum Goldmann, head of the World Jewish Congress, and Rabbi Jacob Rosenheim, president of the Orthodox advocacy group Agudath Israel, were particularly active in pressing the Roosevelt administration on the bombing proposals.
Usually such pleas were made behind closed doors. On occasion, however, the bombing idea spilled out into public view.
On July 10, the JTA published a dispatch from London, reporting that recent escapees from Auschwitz were urging: “The crematoria in Oswiecim [Auschwitz] and Birkenau, easily recognisable [sic] by their chimneys and watch-towers, as well as the main railway lines connection Slovakia and Carpatho-Ruthenia with Poland, especially the bridge at Cop, should be bombed.”
On the day the JTA article appeared, and during the several days before and after that date, eight trainloads of Jewish deportees from Hungary arrived in Auschwitz. More than 30,000 Jews were gassed in that four-day span. Those were the last trains to come from Hungary, but deportations of Jews to Auschwitz from other countries continued.
The JTA’s mention of “the bridge at Cop” is significant because some contemporary pundits have argued that the Germans were capable of quickly repairing damaged railways. But bridges that were bombed could take days, even weeks, to repair—which is why the Allies frequently bombed bridges throughout Europe.
Four days later, the JTA again highlighted the issue of the railways leading to Auschwitz. It reported that in a radio broadcast to Europe, a leader of the International Federation of Transport Workers had urged railway workers in Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia “to prevent the deportation of Hungarian Jews to [Nazi] death camps [in Poland] by sabotaging rail equipment being used to transport the Jews.”
Wolf Blitzer’s late father David, who was a prisoner in Auschwitz, remarked on the railways issue in excerpts from his 1983 oral history interview, which were aired in CNN’s August 26 program. “Every day, thousands of people were burned and gassed in the camps, only because [the Germans] had the possibility to bring those trainloads of people,” the elder Blitzer recalled. “If those rails had been bombarded, they couldn’t have done it so perfectly.”
On July 20, 1944, the JTA raised the bombing issue again. This time, it reported that “liberal circles [in London] are demanding that Britain and the United States act to save the Jews of Hungary by, first, bombing the extermination camps of Oswiecim and Birkenau in Poland…”
Some other Jewish publications picked up the cry. Editorials or columns calling for bombing Auschwitz or the railways and bridges appeared in the National Jewish Ledger (in Washington, D.C.), the national Jewish magazine Opinion, the New York City Yiddish-language daily Morgen Zhurnal, the Independent Jewish Press Service, and Jewish Frontier, the monthly published by the Labor Zionists of America.
Unbeknownst to the American Jewish community, however, the Roosevelt administration had already made the fateful decision that would shape U.S. policy on bombing Auschwitz.
In memoranda and policy meetings in early February 1944,
senior officials of the War Department (today the Defense Department) decided that as a matter of principle, the U.S. would not use military resources “for rescuing victims of enemy oppression.” The officials claimed “the most effective relief which can be given victims of enemy persecution is to insure the speedy defeat of the Axis.”
Four months later, when Jewish leaders first began urging the administration to bomb the railways to Auschwitz, Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy used language directly from the February decision. “The most effective relief to victims of enemy persecution is the early defat of the Axis,” McCloy wrote. Bombing the railways to Auschwitz was “impracticable,” he claimed, because it would require “diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations.”
The truth, however, was that no “diversion” would have been necessary, because American bombers were already preparing to strike German oil factories located in the Auschwitz industrial zone. On July 8—two days before the first of the three JTA articles was published—Allied planes carried out their fourth reconnaissance mission over the oil factories.
In his book Night, Elie Wiesel described how he and other Jewish slave laborers in the oil factories were “filled with joy” when U.S. bombers struck on August 20, 1944. Even though the prisoners’ lives were endangered, they were ecstatic at the possibility that the mass-murder machinery nearby would be destroyed.
Despite the efforts of the JTA and others to publicize the issue, despite the behind-the-scenes pleas by Jewish leaders, and despite the fervent prayers of Elie Wiesel, David Blitzer, and other prisoners, the die had been cast long before. The Roosevelt administration had decided it would not bomb Auschwitz or the railways, and it never wavered from that tragic decision.