The debate over whether the Allies could have bombed the gas chamber-crematoria complexes of Auschwitz -Birkenau, or the rail lines leading to them had its origins in 1944.
In September 1944, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada pleaded with the U.S. War Refugee Board and War Department to bomb the railway lines headed to Auschwitz as news of mass deportations of Hungarian Jews began to reach the States. The Allies never bombed the lines nor the camps and to this day, one of the longstanding controversies about World War II regards the question of whether the Allies could, and should, have bombed Auschwitz.
In his seminal work, The Abandonment Of The Jews, David Wyman argued that the failure to bomb the camp was a result of the Allies' indifference to the fate of the Jews rather than the practical impossibility of the operation.1 Several recent studies have suggested that it was not possible to bomb the camp.2 However, in perhaps the most exhaustive analysis of the issue, Stuart Erdheim proves otherwise.3
One argument for why the Allies never bombed the camps. is that the leaders did not know about the Final Solution early enough to make plans for bombing runs and that they didn't have reliable intelligence about the camps location.
The fact is, however, that the Allies had information about the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews as early as 1942. In June 1944, the United States received detailed information about the layout of Auschwitz-Birkenau from Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wexler, two Jews who had escaped the camps that April. In fact, in his research, Erdheim cites Richard Breitman who concluded that prior to 1944 “there was enough generally accurate information about Auschwitz-Birkenau to preclude the argument that the Allies did not bomb the camp because they got the necessary information too late.”4
Erdheim also insists that bombing the camp would have been “no more complex than numerous other missions.” He says P-38 or Mosquito fighters could have been used without causing significant collateral damage and that both heavy and medium bombers had the range to attack the camp as well.5
Some defenders of the Allied policy argue Auschwitz should not have been bombed, even if it were possible, because many of the prisoners would have been killed. Prisoners would surely have died in any raid, but Erdheim notes that Birkenau prisoners worked outside the camp, so the number of casualties would not have been as high as some critics suggest. Moreover, the focus, should have been on the number of Jews who might have been saved as a result of the bombing rather the number who would have been killed during the raid itself.6
In fact, on June 11, 1944, the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, during a meeting chaired by David Ben-Gurion, voted against requesting that Auschwitz be bombed. Their reasoning: “It is forbidden for us to take responsibility for a bombing that could very well cause the death of even one Jew.” At the time, the Jewish Agency mistakenly believed Auschwitz was a slave labor camp.
In fact, until May 1944, Jews in the United States and Palestine were primarily interested in securing temporary shelter for refugees and permission for Jews to emigrate; and to Palestine. The position of Ben-Gurion and Jewish organizations shifted, however, after Allied air forces gained control of the skies over Europe and they learned the truth about the camps from the report of Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler. Afterward, at least 28 Jewish officials ask the Allies to bomb the camp and railway leading to it in the months that followed.
For example, on July 29, 1944, Golda Meir, then a member of the Histadrut executive committee, along with her colleague, Heschel Frumkin, cabled their U.S. representative, Israel Mereminski, about the information they had received about trains arriving each day at Auschwitz containing 12,000 people to be exterminated. They asked Mereminski to lobby the U.S. government to bomb the railway as well as the camp itself. Mereminkski replied that he contacted the War Refugee Board, which forwarded the request to bomb the camp “to competent authorities.”
About the same time, the Jewish Frontier, the monthly magazine of the U.S. Labor Zionist movement, published (in its August 1944 edition) an unsigned editorial calling for “Allied bombings of the death camps and the roads leading to them...” According to a report by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, this was the only time “ an official organ of an American Jewish organization publicly calling for bombing the camps” (other requests were made privately by other Jewish groups).6a
Both the British Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, and the U.S. Assistant Secretary of War, John McCloy, concluded at the time that Auschwitz could not be bombed. Erdheim notes, however, that this determination was made without following normal procedures to make such a decision. “The 'could not' assessment, in short,” Erdheim says, “appeared the most expedient way to implement the already established policy of not using the military to aid 'refugees.'”7
Yet another argument for not bombing the camps was that it would have made no difference in the grand scheme of the Holocaust and the Final Solution; Jews still would have been killed by the millions. Erdheim notes, however, that destroying Crematoria II and III at Birkenau would have eliminated 75 percent of its killing capacity at a time when it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to rebuild them.
Erdheim also rejects the idea that the Nazi's could have simply sent the Jews to another camp:
Without the extermination facilities, the SS undoubtedly would have been forced to slow or altogether halt the deportations (which in the spring/summer of 1944 amounted to 70-80,000 Hungarian Jews a week) while they resorted to other, less efficient means of killing and body disposal.8
Another argument used by McCloy and others for not bombing Auschwitz, was that it would have required a “diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations.” Erdheim's response to this claim is that if Churchill or Roosevelt had ordered an attack, it would not have been considered a diversion.9
Doris Kearns Goodwin, a noted Roosevelt historian, once said that she thought bombing Auschwitz would have been worthwhile “if it had saved only one Jew. FDR somehow missed seeing how big an issue it was.” With the kind of political will and moral courage the Allies exhibited in other missions throughout the war, it is plain that the failure to bomb Birkenau, the site of mankind's greatest abomination, was a missed opportunity of monumental proportions.10
Former U.S. Senator George McGovern piloted a B-24 Liberator in December 1944, and his squadron bombed Nazi oil facilities less than five miles from Auschwitz. In 2005, he said “There is no question we should have attempted ... to go after Auschwitz. There was a pretty good chance we could have blasted those rail lines off the face of the Earth, which would have interrupted the flow of people to those death chambers, and we had a pretty good chance of knocking out those gas ovens.”
Reflecting the ongoing controversy, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum historian Peter Black's response to McGovern's argument was that had the rail lines been destroyed, the Nazis might have shot the Jews instead. He also said the government couldn't pinpoint where the gas chambers were and would have had to carpet-bomb the camp.11
The focus on bombing Auschwitz may actually be misplaced, since that was just one of hundreds of concentration camps (albeit perhaps the worst). Many Jews could have been saved by bombing other camps as well. The Allies did bomb Buchenwald, for example, but not for the purpose of saving Jews.12
Sources: 1David S. Wyman, The Abandonment Of The Jews, (NY: Pantheon Books, 1984).
2See, for example, James H. Kitchens III, “The Bombing of Auschwitz Reexamined,” The Journal of Military History (April 1994), pp. 233-66; Richard H. Levy, “The Bombing of Auschwitz Revisited: A Critical Analysis,” in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, (Winter 1996), pp. 267-98 and William D. Rubinstein, The Myth of Rescue, (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 157-181.
3Stuart G. Erdheim, “Could the Allies Have Bombed Auschwitz-Birkenau?” Holocaust and Genocide Studies, (Fall 1997), pp. 129-170.
4Richard Breitman, “Allied Knowledge of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943-1944” in Verne E. Newton, ed., FDR and the Holocaust, (NY: St. Martin's Press, 1996), p. 180, cited in Erdheim, p. 137.
5Erdheim, pp. p. 130, 155.
6Erdheim, pp. 133, 146.
6aRafael Medoff, “Golda Meir and the Campaign for an Allied Bombing of Auschwitz,” The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, (September 2011).
7Erdheim, p. 154.
8Erdheim, p. 156
9Erdheim, p. 154.
10Erdheim, p. 157.
11Washington Post, (January 30, 2005).
12Mitchell G. Bard, Forgotten Victims: The Abandonment of Americans in Hitler's Camps, (CO: Westview Press, 1994), pp. 50-51.
Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved; M.J. Neufeld and M. Berenbaum (eds.), The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It? (2000); D.A. Wyman, "Why Auschwitz Was Never Bombed," in: Commentary, 65 (May 1978), 37–46; idem, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941–1945 (1984); D.A. Brugioni and R.G. Poirier, The Holocaust Revisited: A Retrospective Analysis of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Complex, CIA Report 79–10001 (1979); M. Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies (1981); J.R. White, "Target Auschwitz: Historical and Hypothetical Responses to Allied Attack," in: Holocaust and Genocide Studies 16:1 (Spring 2002), 54–76.