For some, International Holocaust Memorial Day, can be personal.
According to the laws of probability, my father, Martin Freiberg – born February 2, 1931, in Magdeburg, Germany – should never have survived the genocide. No single factor alone can explain how, against the odds, he did not end up being one of the million and a half Jewish children murdered by the Nazis. Nonetheless, he often attributed his survival to the Royal Air Force’s January 16, 1945 bombing of Magdeburg.
My grandfather, Joachim Freiberg, who in World War I had served as a soldier in the German army of Kaiser Wilhelm, spent World War II as a slave laborer in Magdeburg’s sewers. The family lived in a separate Judenhaus, suffering persecution, abuse and hunger, and fearing what the Nazis euphemistically called “deportation to the East.”
As my father told it, the family’s highly precarious existence as Jews in Nazi Germany changed following the RAF’s raid. That night, much of Magdeburg was destroyed by British bombers – the death toll reaching between 2,000 and 2,500 people.
Exploiting the pandemonium in the immediate aftermath of the attack, my family literally ripped off their obligatory yellow Jewish stars, fled the dangers of Magdeburg for the anonymity of the countryside, and made their way to Uetz.
Many years later, my father wrote that they “managed to blend in with the forced laborers and work with them in the fields.” Agricultural manpower was “in short supply and people didn’t ask too many questions.”
The family was liberated on Friday, April 13, 1945, by the US Army’s 102nd Infantry Division (the Ozarks) – in my father’s reminisces, “a very lucky day.”
Was the bombing of Magdeburg justified?
On the 75th anniversary of Magdeburg’s bombing in January 2020, hundreds of far-right demonstrators gathered in the streets of the city to decry RAF “war crimes.” Criticism, however, has not been limited to neo-Nazis: reputable historians have debated both the efficacy and morality of the British and American bombings of German cities.
In post-war Britain, there was unease over the estimated 300,000 to 600,000 civilians killed in Allied air raids – epitomized in the July-August 1943 attacks on Hamburg that left an estimated 34,000 to 43,000 dead, and the February 1945 raids on Dresden where between 25,000 and 35,000 people were incinerated.
In 1940, during the difficult days of the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill described the RAF’s bombing offensive as “the means of victory.” But after the war was won, when praising the forces that had brought about the defeat of Nazi Germany, Churchill conspicuously left out Bomber Command – its personnel denied the special recognition of a campaign medal awarded to others.
The London memorial honoring the 55,573 airmen of Bomber Command who died in the war was thus only unveiled in June 2012, following a long public campaign to recognize their sacrifice.
Bomber Command, an all-volunteer force, had one of the highest casualty rates of any Allied fighting unit. Of the 125,000 men who served, 44% met their death in the skies over Europe. Only 30% were not killed, injured or taken prisoner. In the January 1945 attack on Magdeburg that saved my family, 68 airmen lost their lives.
IN 2016, shortly after assuming the post of Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, I inquired whether I could attend the annual Bomber Command commemoration. The organizers were welcoming but asked why I was interested in being there; after all, I was not the ambassador of one of the Allied nations – Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, New Zealand or Poland – from where numerous Bomber Command volunteers originated.
When I shared my father’s story, it was arranged for me to meet Harry Irons, then aged 93, who in 1945 was one of the airmen who took part in the raid on Magdeburg. Following that meeting, I was quoted in the newspapers saying: “If it wasn’t for people like Harry, my father and all the Jews in Europe would have been murdered. This man lied about his age so he could fight the Nazis, and many of his comrades were killed. He deserves my appreciation and respect. By coming to say thank you I have done right by my father.” When Irons passed away in 2018, I represented my family at the funeral.
“If it wasn’t for people like Harry, my father and all the Jews in Europe would have been murdered. This man lied about his age so he could fight the Nazis, and many of his comrades were killed. He deserves my appreciation and respect. By coming to say thank you I have done right by my father.”Mark Regev in a 2016 newspaper
Harry Irons was Britain at its best. But the British government’s wartime policy was not particularly supportive of the Jews. Though London knew about Auschwitz and other extermination camps, and despite Churchill’s instruction to “get anything out of the Air Force you can and invoke me, if necessary” to stop the genocide, no such operation ever materialized.
Furthermore, in May 1939, with World War II imminent, London’s infamous Palestine White Paper blocked the gates of the homeland to Jews seeking to escape the impending inferno.
In an act of cynical realpolitik, Whitehall calculated that Jews had no alternative but to support Britain in its upcoming conflict with Germany. But London was unsure of the Arabs and, to safeguard the Suez Canal and the flow of Middle East oil, it appeased Arab opinion – leaving millions of Jews trapped in Europe to face Hitler’s Final Solution. (When, in 2019, UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt described the White Paper as a “black moment” in British history, it was London’s first expression of contrition.)
During the catastrophic years of the Holocaust, European Jews stood defenseless against a systematic state-orchestrated program of genocide. And though Jews in the free world pleaded with Allied leaders to bomb the death camps and the railway lines leading to them, nothing was done.
As Israel’s 75th Independence Day approaches, the Jewish people can surely celebrate the revolutionary transformation in their circumstances. Unlike my father’s generation, Jews are no longer stateless and helpless – forced to beg others for protection. Now, while honoring the memory of those who, like Harry Irons, risked their lives to defeat the Nazis, Jews have their own country and a proven capability to defend themselves.
Mae West, the proto-feminist wartime siren film star, whose likeness was enthusiastically painted on Allied bombers, once famously quipped: “I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.”
My German-born father’s perspective can be best expressed by paraphrasing those words: “Jews have been weak, and Jews have been strong. Strong is better.”
Today, as nations around the world commemorate the Holocaust, they should appreciate that Israel has no reason to apologize for being strong.
The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is chair of the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy at Reichman University. Connect with him on LinkedIn, @Ambassador Mark Regev