Another Second World War programme, this one about the very difficult question of whether, having learnt about the atrocities taking place at Auschwitz-Birkenau from two incredibly brave men who managed to escape, the Allies should have tried to destroy the gas chambers by bombing the site. Those in favour felt that doing so might save the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews whom the Nazis were planning to exterminate, and also that it would make a strong moral point. Of those opposed, some were concerned about the risk of killing tens of thousands of prisoners in the process, whilst others, the majority, felt that it was more important to concentrate on winning the war. There are no easy answers, but this programme asked a lot of important questions.
It was presented as a docu-drama. I think that that format does work better than the rather dry format of a professor sitting behind a dusty old desk, but it did feel quite strange to see something as horrific as the two escapees describing their experiences at Auschwitz being shown as a “drama”. One of them was played by David Moorst from Peterloo … and I know that this sounds daft, but hearing all these horrors described, as if by an eye-witness, in a Lancashire accent, really hit me particularly hard. What courageous men Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, the two Slovakian Jews who, in April 1944, somehow managed to escape from Auschwitz and make it from Nazi-occupied Poland into the Slovak Republic, a Nazi client state, were. Why are their names not better-known? We should all know those names. And how courageous also were the people working for the Jewish underground in the Slovak Republic and elsewhere. Before going to Budapest earlier this year, I read a lot about their work in Hungary. Incredible.
One of the underground leaders interrogated them about what was going on – and we’re talking a real inquisition. How horrific for them to be grilled like that, after everything they’d been through already, but obviously they had to make sure that the report was convincing, and that people wouldn’t just dismiss it as some kind of propaganda or even fantasy … because it was so far outside the scope of human experience that people were going to struggle even to begin to take it in.
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of what the Nazis had done. I honestly don’t know whether someone – a family member, or maybe even a teacher – told me, or I read about it, or I just somehow gradually absorbed it as little kids do. But I feel that I’ve always known about it, and that everyone around me has always known about it. It’s hard to try to comprehend how people in 1944 and 1945 felt when they found out what was going on, because this was something new to history. Mass shootings, prison camps – people knew about these, both in the context of the Second World War and in the context of previous dark periods in history. But to find out about these extermination camps, about the industrial killings of thousands of people a day – how did they process that information? And that was why the report had to be so detailed, and to be factual rather than emotive. People would struggle to believe it otherwise.
The first report, the Auschwitz Protocol, was prepared by the end of April 1944, and a copy of it was somehow transferred to the American-run War Refugee Council in Switzerland. I’m not quite clear on what was going on with post coming out of Switzerland at this time, but apparently they couldn’t get the full report out, so an edited version was distributed – but it said more than enough.
The rest of the programme alternated between what was going on with the report and what was happening to the Hungarian Jews, which worked very well: it really got across the message of what was going on. I visited the Budapest Ghetto only a few months ago, and I read quite a few books about it beforehand, but actually seeing the deportations on film – there was a lot of film, from both Hungary and from Auschwitz – was really horrible . And there were interviews with survivors. They genuinely had no idea what they were going to. They smelt a strange smell when they arrived at Auschwitz, but thought it was some sort of industrial process, or even a bakery. They were separated from other family members on arrival, but just assumed they’d been sent to a different barracks: it was only later that they realised that they’d been murdered.
Meanwhile, the British, other Commonwealth and American forces were preparing for the D-Day landings, the Americans were also advancing on Japan, and the Soviets were advancing through Eastern Europe. Everything was happening at once.
The report reached Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary, in London. It also reached the War Refugee Board in Washington. The people at the Swiss end were urging the Allied authorities to bomb Auschwitz, or to bomb the railway lines which led to it: they were in no doubt that this was what had to be done. In London, Eden called in Chaim Weizmann and Moshe Shertok. Weizmann, the future first president of Israel, was born in what’s now Belarus but lived in Manchester for decades and was very involved with the “Manchester School of Zionists”, whose other members were mostly old girls of my old school and old boys of our “brother” school (sorry, I do know that that’s irrelevant), and is a very familiar name … well, to me, anyway. Shertok, later the second prime minister of Israel, had spent most of his life in what was then Palestine. It’s quite interesting that Eden called in Jewish Agency/Zionist leaders. Somehow, I would have expected the Foreign Office to call in someone more from the Anglo-Jewish Establishment. I don’t know why. Anyway, that’s beside the point.
They were in favour of bombing Auschwitz. Although it’s all a bit confusing and a lot of changing of minds seems to have gone at various points, it seems that so was Eden, and so, when the report was passed to him, was Churchill. We were shown some of Churchill’s letters: it was clear how deeply, deeply shocked, distressed and traumatised he was by the news. It does seem that there were some people at Westminster who dismissed the report as some sort of attempt to try to guilt-trip Britain into letting refugees in, but Churchill and Eden were certainly not amongst them.
The Allies did have pictures of the Auschwitz-Birkenau. The airmen who’d taken them could have had no idea what they were photographing, presumably thinking it was an industrial site, but, putting them together with the drawings made by Vrba and Wetzler, it was pretty clear where the gas chambers were. But obviously there was no sort of precision bombing then, and any sort of air raids would probably have killed many or all of the prisoners. Forty prisoners were killed when Allied bombs aimed at a nearby factory hit the site in the September.
However, no-one seems to have been willing or able to make a decision, even over something so big and even when so many big decisions were being made about so many things. British and American Air Force leaders were consulted, and the commander of the US Air Forces in Europe seems to have supported the idea. The British Air Ministry seems to have argued against it, because of “operational reasons”, but it’s not clear whether this meant in terms of actually being able to hit the site or concerns about killing prisoners or anything else. It’s all very vague and very unclear.
Over in Washington, nobody even told Roosevelt. I find that really weird. OK, you can’t bother the president with everything, but this was pretty big, to say the least. And, yes, he was in poor health – but then why not tell the vice-president, or the Secretary of State? It doesn’t seem to have got much past some fairly junior minister at the War Office. Someone must have told Roosevelt at some point, but we don’t seem to know when. And yet the news was getting out – there were rumours flying about. In fact, the news had spread sufficiently for a huge demonstration to be held in Madison Square Garden, in August 1944.
The full text of the report eventually reached the US, and presumably Britain as well. In Washington, the War Refugee Board was definitely in favour of bombing, but the War Department wasn’t. And, in London, Weizmann was told that bomb attacks on Auschwitz weren’t possible. Frustrated at the lack of action, the War Refugee Board linked the report to the press. The word “Genocide” appeared emblazoned across the front page of the New York Times.
Nothing was done.
As we know, Auschwitz-Birkenau was eventually liberated by the Soviets on 27th January 1945.
About 140,000 Hungarian Jews survived. The Soviets liberated around 6,000 people at the camp, although some of them were too ill for their lives to be saved. 15,000 others, maybe more, died whilst being marched away from the camps as the Nazis tried to cover up what had been going on. Some were transferred to other camps, and were liberated there.
The BBC interviewed a number of prominent Holocaust historians, including Deborah Lipstadt. Most of them seemed to feel that the Allies should have bombed Auschwitz-Birkenau – but not so much because it would have done any good as because it would have sent a message to the Nazis, and to history, that what they were doing was morally unacceptable – to put it ridiculously mildly.
I don’t know. I can certainly see the argument that bombing the camp would have killed tens of thousands of innocent people. I don’t know that it would have done much good anyway – there were other death camps, and the Nazis had other ways of killing people. But not on that scale, though? Could bombing Auschwitz-Birkenau have saved tens, even hundreds, of thousands of lives?
And I don’t claim to be a military expert, but, if there were air raids being made close enough to the site for it to be hit by accident, and given the scale of the bombing on Germany and elsewhere at the time, how much could it have affected the war effort if a number of raids had been made on Auschwitz rather than on other targets? But I am presumably missing something major, because the general verdict seems to be that the reason no action was taken was that it was considered more important to focus on winning the war. I can certainly see the argument that winning the war sooner rather than later would save lives. And, whilst I hear the argument that bombing Auschwitz-Birkenau would have made a moral statement, it’s easy to talk about moral statements seventy-five years on, when you’re not trying to win a war that’s already been going on for five years.
There aren’t any easy answers, but I wish we knew what the answers that were reached actually were. The questions were asked. The issues were raised and discussed. It’s not as if it was a subject that just never arose. It was decided not to bomb Auschwitz: that’s the only answer we really have. I’m sure that the people who made that decision had very good reasons for it, and felt that it was the right choice. And talking about it now isn’t going to make any difference. But I want to know exactly what those reasons were, and which of them carried the most weight. And, for all the discussion, and all the speculation, no-one can give me a definitive answer on that. I really wish they could.