At his recent speech to the American Israel public affairs comittee (AIPAC) Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu read a quote from a letter from the World Jewish Congress to the US war department requesting that the allies bomb Auschwitz. The second paragraph of the letter, dated 9th August 1944, contains the lines:
"Germans are now exhuming and burning corpses in an effort to conceal their crimes. This could be prevented by destruction of crematoria and then Germans might possibly stop further mass exterminations especially since so little time is left to them. Bombing of railway communications in this same area would also be of importance and of military interest."
The reply said that the war department "appreciates the humanitarian motives which promoted the suggested operation" but added:
"After a study it became apparent that such an operation could be executed only by the diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations elsewhere and would in any case be of such doubtful efficacy that it would not warrant the use of our resources."
It sounds harsh to say so but attempting to bomb Auschwitz would have been unlikely to succeed in stopping the mass murders being carried out in the camps. It is easy to think of Auschwitz as one large prison camp surrounded by barbed wire fences and watchtowers, however the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum says that
"At its peak in the summer of 1944, Auschwitz covered about 40 sq. km. in the core area, and more than 40 branch camps dispersed within a radius of several hundred kilometers."
There were seven gas chambers at Auschwitz and although one could hold 2,500 people, the gas chamber at Stammlager measured 17 x 4.5 metres, the chances of hitting these targets was remote. There was no such thing as 'precision bombing' in the second world war, a US bombing survey reported in 1945 that any bomb landing within 1,000 feet of its target was regarded to have landed inside the 'target area'
"While accuracy improved during the war, Survey studies show that…..only about 20% of the bombs aimed at precision targets fell within this target area."
For the same reasons the chances of hitting the railway line to Auschwitz was small and damage to tracks can be repaired. Railway tracks can be surprisingly resilient, the railway out of Hiroshima was running even after the atomic bomb was dropped on the city in 1945 (Tsutomu Yamaguchi survived the Hiroshima bomb on 6th August 1945 and then travelled by train to Nagasaki where he survived the second atomic bomb three days later), when Dresden was bombed on 13-15 February 1945 over 1300 allied planes dropped 3,900 tons of bombs on the city, despite this within three days trains were running to Leipzig 70 miles away.
In his book The Myth of Rescue WD Rubinstein says that
"The bombing of Auschwitz, or any other camp in eastern Europe was, in fact, logistically impossible for the allied bombers before December 1943. Only from that time with the capture of Foggia airbase in southern Italy, did it become logistically possible for the allies to mount any air strike of any kind against Auschwitz. Prior to late 1943 Auschwitz (and the other extermination camps, all situated in Poland were simply to far away for allied bombers, necessarily accompanied by fighter interceptors for protection, to raid"
Professor Yehuda Bauer of the International Center for Holocaust Studies of Yad Vashem (the holocaust museum and memorial in jerusalem) says that:
"between the decision to mass-murder the Jewish people in Europe (which was taken sometime in 1941,) and 1944, the Americans and the British could not have done anything militarily, or in any other way, to stop the Germans from killing Jews."
If any there had been an attempt to bomb Auschwitz before December 1943 it would have meant setting out (presumably from southern England) and avoiding the air defences of occupied France or Belguim flying over Germany and then Czechoslovakia, where they would hope to target buildings spread over a large area in southern Poland. It would have taken a direct hit, possibly by more than one bomb, to destroy the gas chambers and the chances of this happening with the technology available were very very small.
The mass murder of an entires race whether it be Jews, gypsies or slavs was to evil and preposterous to believe, allied leades were understandably reluctant to believe reports of death camps in eastern Europe. Professor Yehuda Bauer says that:
"The killing of a whole people was unprecedented in history. It is not really surprising that people had difficulty in accepting the notion that that was happening in Europe."
However, in April 1944 prisoners , Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, managed to escape from Auschwitz and told Jewish officials in Slovakia of the gas chambers, crematoriums and conditions at Auschwitz. Their evidence – which became known as the Wetzler-Vrba report - became the first credible report that mass killings were taking place. In a review Alfred Wetzler's book Escape From Hell historian Sir Martin Gilbert says the Wetzler-Vrba report told
"for the first time the truth about the camp as a place of mass murder"
The report Vrba and Wetzler complied included a map of Auschwitz, details of the gas chambers and crematoriums and they even had a label from a canister of Zyklon gas which was used in the gas chambers.
With this new information and after the capture of Foggia airbase in southern Italy in December 1943 it can be argued that the allies should have bombed Auschwitz but it has to be remembered that at this time not one major Jewish organisation advocated the bombing of Auschwitz mainly because it would mean the death of the thousands of jews imprisoned in the camps, (See The Myth of Rescue p.158) bombing the railway tracks was put forward but not the camps. A. Leon Kubowitzki head of the rescue department of the World Jewish Congress wrote a letter to the War Refugee Board and said:
"The destruction of the death installations cannot be done by bombing from the air, as the first victims would be the Jews who are gathered in these camps"
At a meeting of the Jewish Agency held in June 1944 where the rescue of Jews from the camps was discussed David Ben-Gurion (who later became Israel's first prime minister) said
"We don’t know what really is the situation in Poland, and it seems that we could not offer (propose ) anything with regard to this matter….The view of the board is that we should not ask the Allies to bomb places where there are Jews."
One Dr Schmorek added:
"We cannot take upon ourselves the responsibility of a bombing which would cause the death of a single Jew"
Could the allies have done more to save jews? Professor Yehuda Bauer says they could have done so by amongst other things
"providing havens in neutral countries, and by promising the neutral countries that they would pay for any Jewish refugees who would enter countries like Switzerland, Sweden, Portugal, Spain, Turkey….The Allies could have dropped leaflets on German cities together with the bombs, informing the German population that they would be held responsible after the war for murdering the Jews. The Poles asked the British to do that for Poles and Jews in 1943, but the British refused. The British said that they were not in the business of dropping leaflets, but of dropping bombs"
Even if had all the gas chambers in the camps had been destroyed this does not mean the murder of the jews would have stopped, the nazis would have just reverted to shooting their victims. Had those being murdered in the gas chambers been British or American the reaction of the allies may have been different particularly if they had been soldiers held as prisoners of war. It is easy to say that a decision not to bomb Auschwitz was down to ant-semitism, the phrase used by the US war department that an attack would require "diversion of considerable air support" and "would not warrant the use of our resources" does sounds very dismissive, but there were many reasons why Auschwitz was not bombed but it is easy to ignore these reasons and guarantee yourself a round of applause at in front of an AIPAC audience.