Many people refer to the oft-quoted admonition by British political thinker Edmund Burke – “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” – without applying it to modern events, such as the Holocaust.
On January 27, we shall again commemorate the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the most heinous place ever designed by human beings.
Yet the question remains: was everything done at the time to try to diminish the mass murder at that place? The answer is quite unsettling.
On May 31, 1944, Rabbi Michael Dov-Ber Weissmandl, a hassid of Nitra, wrote from his hideout in Slovakia to appeal for the bombing of the camp, or at least the railway tracks leading to it: “As of yesterday, that is, May 30, 1944, 190,446 Jews [from Hungary] have gone this route. Auschwitz is a huge murder factory.
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.”
Weissmandl then said what could be done to lessen the destruction, by pinpointing the railway lines of Kosice-Kysak- Presov-Orlova, Legene- Laborce and Cadca-Zilina that led to Auschwitz. He ended his plea by saying every day more than 10,000 Jews were being destroyed.
“Do you not fear the day of judgment and reckoning in this world and in the world to come?” he wrote. “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.
Nearly 18 months earlier, on December 17, 1942, then-British foreign secretary Anthony Eden told Parliament that his government had confirmed the Nazi regime’s program of mass extermination, and that two million Jews had already been murdered. Yet, nearly a year after the war ended, during a debate about Palestine in that same hall on August 1, 1946, Winston Churchill denied knowledge of the Holocaust by saying: “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.”
Two years earlier, however, 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 he denied this fact after the war. 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. He does not even mention that December 17, 1942, declaration to Parliament about the “greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world,” except in footnote in the last volume of his monumental work.
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 away as Warsaw to help the Polish rebellion of August-September 1944. In fact, as early as the summer of 1942, Allied planes could have struck at Westerbork, Malines and Drancy – three main assembly locations in Holland, Belgium and France from where thousands of Jews were regularly deported to the death camps in Poland – barely 322 km. from England.
Never were these three centers touched by Allied planes that flew hundreds of kilometers further to bomb targets inside Germany.
In his study Accomplices, Alexander Groth shows that bombing the assembly points would have sent a powerful message that the Allies were in solidarity with the Jews, and willing to interfere with Hitler’s criminal program of mass extermination. An Allied air strike might also have given some death-camp inmates an opportunity to escape, even if it caused some casualties among the prisoners.
Some have suggested that Churchill wanted to bomb Auschwitz, but allowed himself to be overruled by lower- rank officials. This is hardly a credible argument about one of the most pugnacious and powerful prime ministers in British history, who faced Hitler when England stood alone, whose defeated army was saved at the last moment from the Germans at Dunkirk.
Was it rather that the Jewish tragedy was not high on Churchill’s list of priorities? In this and in regard to 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.
NAZI-ALLIED Romania and Bulgaria offered in 1943 to free thousands of Jews if the Allied nations would accept them.
Those offers were turned down “for lack of transportation,” an obstacle that did not prevent some 400,000 German prisoners of war from being shipped to camps in the United States during the war. What’s more, British parliamentarian Eleanor Rathbone, a gentile and staunch admirer of Churchill, wrote in March 1943 to ask the prime minister for “a few minutes” to discuss “the problem of rescue measures for the victims of Nazi massacres.” She emphasized that his personal intervention was needed to break the bureaucratic stalemate, “without the slightest damage to the war effort.”
But Churchill shied away from a possible confrontation and instructed his staff: “I cannot do this, so get me out of it with the utmost civility.”
As historian Henry Feingold put it, the British Foreign Office literally “maintained a...
cold-blooded preference for a [Nazi] policy of extermination rather than extrusion.”
Extermination of Jews was more convenient for Britain, but the short- and long-term effects were even 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 that accused the Allied governments, saying: “By looking on passively upon this murder of defenseless millions – tortured children, women, and men – they have become partners to the responsibility.”
Recalling Burke’s admonition of good men doing nothing for evil to prosper, we are left to wonder: what led the US and British “good guys” to fight the evil Nazis, but withhold their aid to the Jews? Perhaps it as alluded to in The Portage to San Cristobal of AH by George Steiner.
In the book, a fictional postwar Hitler is captured by Jews and declares 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 in Jerusalem, currently teaches courses on the Holocaust at Yeshiva University-Stern College and Touro College in New York.