President Bush, during a visit to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, purportedly made statements that questioned the United States’ decision to not bomb Auschwitz or the nearby “rail lines” which brought millions of Jews to their awaited fate, of torture, then extermination, during the latter part of WWII. Source – AP
Throughout German-occupied Europe, the Germans arrested those who resisted their domination and those they judged to be racially inferior or politically unacceptable. People arrested for resisting German rule were mostly sent to forced-labor or concentration camps. The Germans deported Jews from all over occupied Europe to extermination camps in Poland, where they were systematically killed, and also to concentration camps, where they were used for forced labor. Transit camps such as Westerbork, Gurs, Mechelen, and Drancy in western Europe and concentration camps like Bolzano and Fossoli di Carpi in Italy were used as collection centers for Jews, who were then deported by rail to the extermination camps. According to SS reports, there were more than 700,000 prisoners registered in the concentration camps in January 1945. Source – Jewish Virtual Library
Tom Segev, a leading Israeli Holocaust scholar, said the remarks by Bush appeared “spontaneous” and that this was “the first time a U. S. President had made this acknowledgment.”
Bush twice had tears in his eyes during an hour-long tour of the museum, said Shalev, who guided Bush through the exhibits.
Upon viewing an aerial shot of Auschwitz, taken during the war by U.S. forces, he said Bush called the decision not to bomb it “complex.” He then called over Rice to discuss President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision, clearly pondering the options before rendering an opinion of his own, Shalev said.
Shalev quoted Bush as asking Rice, “Why didn’t Roosevelt bomb it?” He said Rice and Bush discussed the matter further and then the president delivered his verdict.
“We should have bombed it,” Shalev, speaking in Hebrew, quoted Bush as saying.
Briefing reporters later on Air Force One, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Bush was referring to the rail lines and not the nearby Nazi-German death camp where an estimated 1.1 to 1.5 million men, women, and children perished.
“It is clear now that the U.S. knew a lot about it,” Segev said. “It’s possible that bombing at least the railway to the camps may have saved the lives of the Jews of Hungary. They were the very last ones who were sent to Auschwitz at a time when everybody knew what was going on.”
At the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in 1993, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel famously asked, “Why weren’t the railways leading to Birkenau bombed by allied bombers? As long as I live I will not understand that.”
The Chairman of the museum, Avner Shalev, remarked later that evening that Bush was “not specific about what the Allies should have bombed.”
In 1944, Roosevelt’s assistant secretary of war wrote about the United States’ decision to not take any action during the latter part of WWII when the “evidence” of Nazi death camps was now “clear.” And yet, the first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau, opened its gates in March of 1933.
“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 be warrant use of our resources,” he wrote in an Aug. 14, 1944, letter.
Reactions to Bush’s statement varied:
A professor of Jewish Thought at Israel’s Hebrew University, Eliezer Schweid, said the bombing was “irrelevant in retrospect”.
The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington:
“The refusal to bomb Auschwitz was part of a broader policy by the Roosevelt administration to refrain from taking action to rescue or shelter Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. Tragically, the United States turned away from one of history’s most compelling moral challenges,” said Rafael Medoff, the institute’s director.
Whether the Allies should have bombed Auschwitz has been a long standing controversy from WWII, according to Mitchell Bard of the Jewish Virtual Library.
David Wyman’s The Abandonment Of The Jews argues that the failure of the Allies to take action against Auschwitz was “longstanding indifference to the fate of the Jews rather than the practicality impossibility of the operation.”
Other arguments were that the Allies were unaware of the Nazis systematically “relocating” entire populations of Jews from newly occupied territories until late in the war.
One argument is that the Allies did not know about the Final Solution early enough to make plans to bomb the camps and they didn’t have reliable intelligence about their location. In fact, the Allies began had information about the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews by 1942. As early as June 1944, the United States had detailed information about the layout of Auschwitz from Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wexler, who had escaped that April. In fact, he cites Richard Breitman, who concluded that prior to 1994 “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.” Source – Jewish Virtual Library
The Jews were not relocated to other cities, instead they were loaded on cattle cars, shipped to concentration camps located next to quaint little towns such as Dachau in Germany and Auschwitz in Poland.
Both the British Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, and the U.S. Assistant Secretary of War, John McCloy, concluded 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.’” Source – Jewish Virtual Library
The argument that bombing the train lines would have been impossible was countered by the view of former Senator George McGovern, the pilot of a B-24 mission in 1944 that bombed Nazi oil facilities a mere 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 thos death chambers, and we had a pretty good chance of knocking out those gas ovens.” Source – Jewish Virtual Library
This was the second trip Bush has made to the memorial, the first time in 1998, while he was Governor of Texas. During this trip he spoke about the “horror” and “evil” of the Holocaust.
“I was most impressed that people in the face of horror and evil would not forsake their God. In the face of unspeakable crimes against humanity, brave souls — young and old — stood strong for what they believe,” Bush said.
“I wish as many people as possible would come to this place. It is a sobering reminder that evil exists, and a call that when evil exists we must resist it,” he said.
The debate over whether the Allies should have bombed Auschwitz or the rail lines that led to it will continue. But in the words of noted Roosevelt historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, who believed 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.
Image – Artfiles
Image – Auschwitz Railroad Lines
Source – AP – Bush indicates bombing at Auschwitz might have saved lives
Source – Jewish Virtual Library – Could The Allies Have