Many like to refer to the oft-quoted admonition by the British political thinker Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” without necessarily applying it to modern events, such as the Holocaust.
On January 27, we shall be commemorating the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, the most heinous place ever designed by human beings. Yet, the question remains whether everything was done at the time to try and diminish the horrific effects of this place of mass murder, the answer to which is quite unsettling.
On May 31, 1944, the Hassidic Rabbi Michael Dov- Ber Weissmandl, from his hideout in Slovakia, sent a message appealing for the bombing of the camp, or at least the railway tracks leading to it. He noted that “as of yesterday, that is, May 30, 1944, 190,446 Jews have gone this route [from Hungary].
“Auschwitz is a huge murder factory,” he wrote. “They are all gassed there and cremated, except for a very tiny portion. Two or three percent are spared to perform necessary labor... and these, too, when their strength dwindles, are exterminated and replaced by others.”
Then, he pointed out what could be done to diminish the scale of this destruction process, by pinpointing the railway lines leading the doomed Jews to Auschwitz, namely: Kosice-Kysak-Presov-Orlova, Legene-Laborce and Cadca-Zilina.
Weissmandl ended his plea that every day more than 10,000 Jews are destroyed. “Do you not fear the day of judgment and reckoning in this world and in the world to come? Should you say you did what you could, we say this is not so... Since you have not acted, we know this is not true. For God’s sake, do something now and quickly.” As we know, nothing was done.
Two years earlier, on December 17, 1942, British foreign secretary Anthony Eden had declared in Parliament his government’s confirmation that the Nazi regime was carrying out a program of mass extermination, and that two million Jews had already been murdered.
Yet, a year after the war’s end, on August 1, 1946, during a debate on Palestine in Parliament, Winston Churchill declaimed knowledge of the Holocaust, stating: “I must say that I had no idea, when war came to an end, of the horrible massacres which had occurred; the millions and millions that have been slaughtered. That dawned on us gradually after the war was over.”
Yet, two years earlier, in July 1944, he reportedly told Eden: “There is no doubt that this is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world, and it had been done by scientific machinery by nominally civilized men in the name of a great state and one of the leading races of Europe.”
So, he knew in the midst of the war what was happening to the Jews in Hungary, as spelled out by Rabbi Weissmandl, although disclaiming this fact after the war. Also raising questioning eyebrows, is that in Churchill’s six-volume History of the Second World War, there is not a single reference – not one sentence – about the extermination of European Jewry. Not even a reference to his own government’s declaration in Parliament, on December 17, 1942, about the extermination of two million Jews. There is only one footnote, in the last volume of Churchill’s monumental work, on the earlier quoted “greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world.”
Recent research has shown that British and American planes stationed in Italy, in 1944, could easily have struck Auschwitz. In fact, they were flying missions nearby, and as far as Warsaw, to help the Polish rebels in their rebellion of August-September 1944.
But even before that, as early as the summer months of 1942, Allied planes could have struck at the three main assembly places in the Netherlands, Belgium and France (Westerbork, Malines and Drancy, respectively) – a short distance of roughly 325 kilometers from England – where thousands of Jews were regularly deported to the death camps in Poland. Never were these three centers touched by Allied planes that flew hundreds of miles further to bomb targets inside Germany.
AS POINTED OUT by Alexander Groth, in his book Accomplices: Churchill, Roosevelt and the Holocaust, the bombing would have sent a powerful message that the Allies were expressing solidarity with the Jews, that they were willing to interfere with Hitler’s criminal program of mass extermination. It might have given some inmates an opportunity to escape. These things would have been accomplished even if there had been some casualties among the prisoners themselves in consequence of an Allied air strike.
It is suggested by some that Churchill actually wished to bomb Auschwitz, but allowed himself to be overruled by lower-rank officials. This is hardly a credible argument, having in mind a man known to be pugnacious at times and admittedly one of the most powerful prime ministers in British history – who courageously stood up to Hitler when Britain stood alone with a defeated army saved at the last moments from the clutches of the Germans in the Dunkirk evacuation.
Was it, rather, because the Jewish tragedy did not figure high on Churchill’s list of priorities? In this matter, as well as Eichmann’s offer to free a million Jews in return for some needed supplies, Churchill instructed Eden to desist from any negotiations with the Germans.
Offers by Romania and Bulgaria (allied to Nazi Germany) in 1943 to free thousands of Jews if the Allied nations were willing to accept them were also turned down, “for lack of transportation.” The “transportation” obstacle did not prevent some 400,000 German prisoners of war from being shipped to camps in the United States during World War II.
What’s more, British parliamentarian Eleanor Rathbone, a Gentile and a staunch admirer of Churchill, wrote to him in March 1943 to ask the prime minister for an interview of “a few minutes,” to discuss “the problem of rescue measures for the victims of Nazi massacres.”
She emphasized that his personal intervention was necessary, in order to break the bureaucratic stalemate, “without the slightest damage to the war effort.”
But Churchill shied off a possible confrontation and instructed his staff: “I cannot do this, so get me out of it with the utmost civility.”
As put by historian Henry Feingold, the British Foreign Office “maintained a... cold-blooded preference for a [Nazi] policy of extermination rather than extrusion.”
According to Feingold, extermination of Jews was more convenient for Britain. Both the short-term and long-term effects were more favorable. The Foreign Office, simply put, did not want to have a “Jewish problem” with the Arabs.
On May 1, 1943, Szmuel Zygielbojm, a Jewish representative in the Polish government-in-exile in London, committed suicide. He left a note, in which he accused the Allied nations and their governments “who up to this day... by looking on passively upon this murder of defenseless millions – tortured children, women, and men – they have become partners to the responsibility.”
In summary, recalling Burke’s admonition of good men doing nothing as a precondition for evil to prosper, we are left wondering what led the “good guys,” Britain and the US who were fighting the evil Nazis, from withholding and denying aid to the Jews?
Was it as alluded to by George Steiner in The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., a fictional construction of a post-war Adolf Hitler, who after his capture by a Jewish team declared in his defense: “When I turned on the Jew, no one came to his rescue. No one. France, England, Russia, even Jew-ridden America did nothing. They were glad that the exterminators had come. Oh they did not say so openly, I allow you that. But secretly they rejoiced.”The author, formerly of Yad Vashem, teaches Holocaust studies at Yeshiva University-Stern College and Touro College in New York.