Holocaust expert explains why Auschwitz was never bombed

Anti-Semitism and indifference to the plight of Jews were not among the primary reasons the Allies didn't bomb Auschwitz. But that does not comfort Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, the former president and CEO of the Survivors of the Shoah Foundation.

Berenbaum sought to answer "Why Wasn't Auschwitz Bombed?" before a crowd of 200 at Sonoma State University on March 25 as part of the Rohnert Park campus' 20th annual Holocaust lecture series.

Late in the war, the Allies began to gather information on the nature and function of the concentration camps, according to Berenbaum.

"German air defenses were weakened, and the accuracy of Allied bombing was increasing. All that was required was the political will to effectuate the bombing," said the adjunct professor of theology and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

Among the reasons why the bombing didn't occur, Berenbaum maintained was that the political will never materialized, and no Allied government or military officials emerged to plead the case for bombing.

The Allies' focus was on winning the war, he continued, and the United States had decided that "Army units would not be 'employed for the purpose of rescuing victims of enemy oppression.'" The Allies adhered to this rigid policy even when it concerned their own citizens.

Berenbaum offered another reason: American officials believed that "military resources could not be diverted from the war effort; bombing Auschwitz might prove ineffective, and might provoke even more vindictive German action.

Nonetheless, "on Aug. 20, 1944, 127 Flying Fortresses, with an escort of 100 Mustang fighter crafts, dropped 1,336 500-pound bombs on the I.G. Farben synthetic oil factory less than five miles east of Birkenau, the death camp at Auschwitz.

The Allies had the military resources to bombard Auschwitz, he maintained. The U.S. Air Force "was capable of striking the railroad lines to Auschwitz and the vicinity, but for bombing to be effective it had to be sustained, and for it to be feasible it had to be undertaken by day in good weather and between July and October 1944." The window of opportunity closed in the fall with the onset of chilly and foggy weather.

Berenbaum said that ultimately the Allies believed that the best way save Jews and other victims of the Nazis, according to an internal U.S. War Department memo, "was to insure the speedy defeat of the Axis."

Another reason for the Allies' failure to act, Berenbaum stated, was the lack of pressure from the organized American Jewish community. While some Zionists, recent immigrant groups and Orthodox Jews clamored to rescue Jews at all costs, the "established Jewish leadership was reluctant to press for organized military activity for fear of being too overt and encouraging perceptions within the political leadership that World War II was a 'Jewish war.'"

Even David Ben-Gurion, chairman of the Jewish Agency's executive committee and later Israel's first premier, was initially against intervention on behalf of Jews in Poland. Berenbaum quoted Ben-Gurion, who said in June 1944 "that we do not know the truth concerning the entire situation in Poland and it seems that we will be unable to propose anything concerning this matter."

Berenbaum said that after the release of a highly detailed report in July 1944 by two Auschwitz escapees, Rudolph Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, the Jewish Agency was "much more willing to risk Jewish lives on the ground rather than permit the gassing to proceed." But the Allies were not prepared to sacrifice the "innocent and unjustly imprisoned civilian population at Auschwitz" without guarantees that it would "interrupt the killing process." And in the end, no bombing occurred.

America's refusal to act nagged at Berenbaum throughout his talk. He said that by the summer of 1944 "the gas chambers at Auschwitz were operating around the clock, and the crematoria were so overtaxed that bodies were being burned in open fields with body fat fueling the flames. Any interruption in the killing process might possibly have saved thousands of lives."

Deanna Chase, a third year psychology student, added that Berenbaum "challenged us to think about the United States' role in ending genocide. I think America could've done more."

Berenbaum's talk was the Robert K. Harris Memorial Lecture, honoring a World War II veteran who died in 1993. Harris was a Sonoma County educator largely responsible for the yearly programs that institutionalized the study of the Holocaust in the region.

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.