Looking away

An elderly woman looks into a movie camera and says: “We didn’t understand why nobody was helping us.”

Sixty years later, historians still don’t understand why the Allied forces ignored Nazi killing centers while attacking industrial targets just a few miles away.

A new Alden Films documentary called “They Looked Away” confronts that question. Using archival footage and the testimony of survivors — including Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel — scholars, retired flight commanders and photo analysts — the film seeks to unravel a web of excuses, avoidance and outright fabrications woven around the problem from 1942 to 1944.

The film focuses on the notorious concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. If the fast-moving 53-minute documentary reminds you of “60 Minutes,” it may not be an accident. Mike Wallace is the narrator and the format is very like that of a “60 Minutes” report.

Nobody comes right out and says ignoring Auschwitz was an anti-Semitic act, but no fewer than five historians of the period — not all of them Jewish — decry the fact that politicians “looked away.”

Both President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill were aware of the situation at Auschwitz and the other Nazi killing fields. In early 1942, they issued a joint statement condemning the extermination of the Jews. After that, they seemed to forget about it. Nothing was done. While Roosevelt repeatedly told Jewish leaders that the best way to save lives was to end the war, planes and personnel were diverted from the war effort more than once for humanitarian reasons. But not to bomb the camps.

British Foreign Office official William Cavendish-Bentinck is quoted as saying: “The Jews were exaggerating their situation” and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State John McCloy officially quoted a feasibility study on destroying the camps that turned out to be fictitious.

In fact, according to retired U.S. Air Force and Royal Air Force personnel interviewed in the film, bombing the crematoria at Auschwitz was entirely feasible. Precision bombing had developed to such a degree that the I.G. Farben plant, five miles away, was destroyed in 1944 with no loss of life except to those within the plant (many of them prisoners at nearby Auschwitz).

Nor was there an attempt to bomb the rail lines leading to and from the camp. While the conventional reasoning was that tracks could be repaired in a matter of days, the bridges on the line leading to Auschwitz were a different matter. The documentary speculates that, if those bridges were destroyed as late as 1944, hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews might have been saved.

Was it incompetence, ignorance or indifference that kept the Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau firmly off the agenda of the Allied Forces? This well-made film doesn’t give any firm answers. The evidence presented, however, gives you plenty of material to make up your own mind.

“They Looked Away” is available for $49.95 through www.aldenfilms.com, (732) 462-3522.