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Jewish World Review April 23, 2001 / 30 Nissan, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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The Verdict of History

Painful debates over Allied inaction during the Holocaust continue to fester -- IN April of 1998, Benjamin Netanyahu, then prime minister of Israel, caused a stir when he spoke about the failure of the Allies to bomb the Auschwitz death camp during the Holocaust.

In a speech, which was delivered at the site of the death camp itself during Yom HaHolocaust observances, Netanyahu said: "All that was needed was to bomb the train tracks. The Allies bombed the targets nearby. The pilots only had to nudge their cross hairs Ö You think they didnít know? They knew. They didnít bomb because at the time the Jews didnít have a state, nor the political force to protect themselves."

At the time, Netanyahu was attacked for what his critics considered using the Holocaust to make a point about the importance of the contemporary State of Israel. Prominent Jewish historian Deborah Lipstadt dismissed his statement for what she called his "facile reasoning," and said he was using "history as a political tool."

While Lipstadt may have been right about the simplistic nature of Netanyahuís analysis, there is no question that the issue of what was or was not possible to aid the rescue of the doomed victims of the Nazis remains a subject of heated debate.

Fifty-six years ago, World War II ended amid jubilation by the civilized peoples of the world. Nazism was crushed, and Adolf Hitlerís Germany lay in ruins. The Allies had indeed conquered, but at the time of their victory, there were few Jews left to cheer their triumph.

But recriminations about the Alliesí failure to take action to save the Jews who perished in Europe would have to wait a while. It was not until the 1960s, with the publication of Arthur Morseís ground-breaking classic, While Six Million Died, that the first series of conversations began to center on whether U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt actually deserved the status of hero that the World War II generation had accorded him.

That debate continued into the 1980s with a number of other important works, such as David Wymanís The Abandonment of the Jews, and other works. Chief among the complaints of those who have wondered why the Allies did so little to aid Holocaust victims has been the question of whether or not Allied air power could have been used to halt the Auschwitz death factory.

Historians such as Wyman have claimed that the rail lines that brought victims to Auschwitz could have been interdicted, and that bombing the concentration camp itself was feasible. Defenders of Roosevelt and the Allies have dismissed this accusation as anachronistic and militarily impossible.

And it is to that quandary that one of the latest books on this issue is devoted.

"The Bombing of Auschwitz", a collection of essays on this subject edited by historians Michael J. Neufeld and Michael Berenbaum, and published by St. Martinís Press last year, brings together writers on both sides of the issue. The bombing of Auschwitz is one of those great "what ifís" of history and, as such, must be regarded in the same light as many other "counterfactual" writings that ponder other hypothetical scenarios of history.

But this book comes at a time when a counterattack by FDR loyalists remains in full bloom. Roosevelt defenders, such as historian Arthur Schlessinger, have done their best to minimize the presidentís knowledge of genocide and to dismiss rescue schemes as unrealistic. Nevertheless, evidence of Rooseveltís indifference to the issue of rescue always existed. The testimony of the late Polish gentile hero Jan Karski ó based on his own interview with FDR when he gave the president an eyewitness account of the death camp at Treblinka ó is particularly damning.

Until prodded by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau in 1944, Roosevelt showed no interest in the subject, despite the fact that he was aware of the magnitude of the atrocities. Morgenthauís intervention (which was itself prompted by an activist campaign by a small group of American Jews who were viewed by contemporary Jewish leaders as irresponsible dissidents) led to the creation of the War Refugee Board. That body helped save many Hungarian Jews in the waning days of the Holocaust.

It should be remembered that once American and British forces liberated southern Italy in early 1944, the death camps came within range of Allied airplanes. Though most of the Six Million had already perished by this time, Hungarian Jewry had eluded Hitlerís grasp. The summer of 1944 was the moment when the German effort to murder this remnant might have been subjected to more intense opposition, whether by diplomacy or military power.

The essays in Neufeld and Berenbaumís book deconstruct the issue of bombing Auschwitz in great detail. Some of the authors make strong points about the limitations of Americaís vaunted "pinpoint" bombing capabilities, the ease with which rail lines and other facilities could have been repaired, and whether these efforts might have, as the Pentagon feared at the time, diverted resources away from essential military efforts, such as the Normandy campaign.

All of this makes sense, especially those arguments supporting the idea that the effects of the American strategic bombing campaign were vastly overrated at the time.

But to admit this is to miss the point about the Auschwitz debate. There was no political will in Washington to make the decision to prioritize rescue, no matter how effective such raids would have been.

At the time, the skeptics of bombing said winning the war as soon as possible was the best form of rescue. Yet that did not stop the Allies from wasting massive resources on efforts that were just as peripheral to the victory of the Allied armies as the rescue of Jews. For instance, outside of Yugoslavia, resistance movements played a minimal role in the war against Germany. But the political benefits of aiding these almost completely ineffective groups overwhelmed the sound military arguments against wasting blood and treasure in this way.

We can never know how many lives that bombing Auschwitz would have saved or cost. But the Jews of Europe were outside of what historians now call "the universe of obligation" that dictated Allied strategy.

One of the key pieces of evidence has been the publication of American reconnaissance- and bombing-mission photos of the actual Auschwitz camp and factories. Though there has been a spirited debate over how many people could have seen these photos when they were taken, they remain chilling reminders of the fact that had the Allies wanted to bomb Auschwitz, they could have done so. After all, it happened once by accident ó an incident that bolstered the hopes of inmates even as it endangered their own lives.

Perhaps Netanyahu simplified the issue when he said that if there had been a Jewish state in 1944, Auschwitz would have been bombed. Yet the bottom line of this controversy remains the cold, hard fact that no one who could have used military power to save Jews at Auschwitz even tried. Accuse him, if you like, of using the issue to make a contemporary political point. But what other conclusion can we draw from all of the ink spilled on this subject, other than that the greatest tragedy of the Jews was that during the Holocaust, the absence of Jewish power tilted the equation irrevocably toward Allied indifference to our cries for help?

David Wyman closed his treatment of this issue in The Abandonment of the Jews by noting that, in the fall of í44, Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz smuggled explosives into the camp. "Those few wretched Jews then attempted what the Allied powers with their vast might would not. On Oct. 7, in a suicidal uprising, they blew up one of the crematorium buildings."

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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