The U.S. Holocaust Museum vs. Elie Wiesel

It’s all too easy to make excuses for why governments fail to act against genocide.

Elie Wiesel participates in a discussion on Capitol Hill in Washington, on March 2, 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS/GARY CAMERON)
Elie Wiesel participates in a discussion on Capitol Hill in Washington, on March 2, 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS/GARY CAMERON)
A staff historian at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum is suggesting, incredibly, that the Roosevelt administration was right to refuse to bomb Auschwitz. The late Elie Wiesel, the museum’s founding chairman, argued the opposite. Whose side will the current museum leadership take? Museum staffer Rebecca Erbelding told The Times of Israel (April 15): “I’m extremely cautious about saying that bombing the gas chambers would have saved a lot of lives... [bombing] would have killed a lot of people. There were about 100,000 people in Auschwitz [in 1944]. And so if the [US] had carpet bombed the camp, most of the camp would have died.”
Dr. Erbelding’s use of the term “carpet bombing” is a red herring. The requests Jewish leaders made for bombings were typically for precision strikes on the railway lines leading to the death camps, or the gas chambers and crematoria, not “carpet bombing” of entire camps.
For example, the request that the War Refugee Board forwarded to senior Roosevelt administration officials on October 3, 1944, stated that rescue advocates were asking for “bombing the extermination chambers and German barracks at [the] largest Polish concentration camps which, they say, are subject to precision bombing since they are sufficiently detached from the concentration camps.”
In another such request, made several weeks later, War Refugee Board director John Pehle pointed to the Amiens Prison raid as evidence that a precision air strike on Auschwitz was feasible. Swooping low over that German prison, British planes had bombed the walls and guards’ quarters, enabling more than 250 Allied POWs to escape into the French countryside.
American planes even carried out a successful precision strike on a military target in a Nazi concentration camp. In August 1944, they bombed the V-2 rocket factory in Buchenwald, destroying the munitions site while sparing the adjacent prisoners’ barracks. The commander of the raid later recalled that he was specifically instructed to avoid hitting the prisoners’ area.
A few of the requests to bomb the death camps spoke in general terms about destroying the camps. But that does not mean someone who was calling for “bombing Auschwitz” was demanding a specific military strategy of carpet-bombing, as Ebelding implies. Obviously the military authorities would have been the ones to decide which type of bombing was most effective.
What did the prisoners themselves think? In his famous book Night, Elie Wiesel described how he and other Auschwitz prisoners reacted when US bombers struck the oil factories in the camp’s slave labor section in August 1944: “We were not afraid. And yet, if a bomb had fallen on the blocks [the prisoners’ barracks], it alone would have claimed hundreds of victims on the spot. But we were no longer afraid of death; at any rate, not of that death. Every bomb that exploded filled us with joy and gave us new confidence in life. The raid lasted over an hour. If it could only have lasted ten times ten hours!” Similar sentiments were expressed by Gerhart Riegner, the World Jewish Congress official in Switzerland who was the first to alert the Allies that the Germans intended to systematically murder all European Jews with poison gas.
In a postwar interview, Riegner explained that he and his colleagues urged the Roosevelt administration to bomb Auschwitz because although some prisoners would be killed, “nevertheless we came to the conclusion we had to recommend it, because the people would die anyhow... If every day thousands of people are automatically put to death the only chance to save some Jews is to put the death machine out of order....”
Wiesel and Riegner were stating the obvious. It is preposterous to suggest it was preferable to refrain from bombing Auschwitz lest some prisoners be killed – thereby leaving all of the prisoners to be murdered by the Nazis.
In any event, the reason the Roosevelt administration rejected the bombing requests was not because of possible civilian casualties. War Department officials replied to such requests by claiming they had conducted a “study” which found bombing was “impracticable” because it required “considerable diversion” of planes needed for the war effort.
But no evidence of the alleged study has ever been found, and the “diversion” argument clearly was false, since US planes were already flying over Auschwitz to bomb its oil factories. The real reason for the refusals was that the administration was not willing to expend even minimal resources to interrupt the mass murder of the Jews, which was a non-military objective.
What about the US refusal to bomb the railway lines or bridges over which hundreds of thousands of Jews were deported to their deaths? Such strikes would not have risked killing any prisoners – and hitting enemy transportation lines was part of the war effort.
Rebecca Erbelding of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum has an excuse for that, too. “Had the [Allies] bombed the rail lines, they certainly could have stopped the gassing for a day or two,” she said. “But prison labor was repairing train lines fairly quickly. So it would have had to be a continuous bombing of rail lines for it to be successful.”
Erbelding dismisses the value of stopping gassing “for a day or two,” but when one considers that 12,000 Jews were being gassed daily at Auschwitz, even a brief interruption would have affected a lot of lives. Moreover, bridges could not be repaired as quickly as railways.
If fear of killing Jewish prisoners really was the issue, US officials could have targeted the handful of key bridges on the route to Auschwitz, which would have interrupted the mass deportations for many days or even weeks. Some of the requests for bombing actually named specific bridges. But they were ignored.
It’s all too easy to make excuses for why governments fail to act against genocide. We’ve heard the excuses that were made for the international community’s failure to interrupt the mass murder in Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur. No doubt similar excuses will be made with regard to Syria.
But there is no excuse for the US Holocaust Museum, a government-supported institute, to permit one of its representatives to make misleading statements regarding the Roosevelt administration’s failure to bomb Auschwitz.
If the museum’s leadership does not disavow Erbelding’s assertions, the public will conclude that it endorses them. That would dishonor the memory of Elie Wiesel and all the other Auschwitz inmates who prayed for the American planes that never came.
The author is the founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and author or editor of 19 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust.