A US Ford 'Liberator' shown over Kiel, Germany, January 4, 1944. On July 10, 1944, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on an appeal by Auschwitz escapees for the Allies to bomb the death camp. (United States Army Air Forces/Design by Mollie Suss)

Ken Burns’ documentary on the Holocaust may be hard on America, but not hard enough

JTA – This week, seventy-eight years ago, David Ben-Gurion stood up in front of Asefat Hanivharim, the elected congregation of Palestinian Jewry, and delivered an explosive “J’accuse” against the Allies for abandoning the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust.

The words of the soon-to-be Israel’s first prime minister take on added meaning with the forthcoming release of Ken Burns’ three-part, six-hour PBS documentary “USA and the Holocaust“. Its official website states that the film “dispels” the “myth” that America “looked at it with callous indifference” during the Holocaust.

On the contrary, Ben-Gurion told the assembled leaders of the Jewish community in Jerusalem on September 12, 1944: “Since millions of Jews have been sent to the slaughter—young and old, babies and newborns, mothers and daughters—the world leaders, those who shouted slogans about democracy and socialism , looked away from the bloodshed and did not take rescue action – did not even try to save them.

Two months earlier, Ben-Gurion spoke in the same vein at a ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of Theodor Herzl’s death. Addressing his allies, he thundered: “What have you allowed to be done against a defenseless people while you have stood by and let them bleed, never lifting a finger to help?…. Why do you defile our pain and anger with empty expressions of sympathy that sound like mockery in the ears of the millions who are daily burned and buried alive in the hellish centers of Europe?”

These words were not said after the fact. While Ben-Gurion was speaking, the Holocaust was still raging. Every day trainloads of deported Jews were sent to Auschwitz. On the day of Herzl’s speech, July 10, three trainloads of deported Hungarian Jews arrived at Auschwitz. During four days of that week, more than 30,000 Jews were gassed.

Weeks earlier in the summer, Ben-Gurion and his colleagues in the leadership of the Jewish Agency for Palestine mistakenly believed that Auschwitz was a labor camp. But when they learned in late June that it was in fact an extermination camp, they persuaded Allied diplomats in Europe, the Middle East, and the United States to bomb the railroads and bridges leading to Auschwitz, or the gas chambers, or both. other.

Future Israeli President Chaim Weizmann and future Prime Ministers Moshe Shertok (Sharet) and Golda Meyerson (Meir) were among those who promoted the proposal in meetings with Allied officials. In early September, shortly before the aforementioned meeting, Asefat Hanivkharim, Jewish Agency spokesman Eliyahu Epstein (Elat) informed Ben-Gurion of his unsuccessful attempts to convince a Soviet diplomat in Cairo that the Allies should bomb the death camps.

Roosevelt administration officials falsely claimed that the only way to hit the railroads or the death camp was to “draw” planes away from outlying war zones, thereby undermining the war effort. This statement is repeated in Burns’ film as if it were fact. In fact, American planes had already flown over Auschwitz, bombing oil refineries in the industrial area of ​​the death camp (where Elie Wiesel was among the slaves) less than five miles from the gas chambers. One such raid took place on September 13, 1944, the day after Ben-Gurion’s address to the Jerusalem congregation.

In Ken Burns’ film, interviewees belittle proposals to bomb the railroads on the grounds that the Germans could repair them quickly. But this was true of all American railroad bombings in Europe, but it never stopped the Roosevelt administration and its allies from attacking them as part of the war effort.

George McGovern, future US Senator and 1972 Democratic presidential candidate, was one of the young pilots who flew these raids (including the Auschwitz oil refinery bombings). In an interview in 2004 McGovern argued that even if the railroad tracks could be repaired, the damage would have delayed deportation and saved lives..

“[I]It would help us if we bombed the railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz. The purpose of these railroad tracks was to take people to their deaths, and we could even use long-range fighters to sit right on the tracks and knock them off their feet,” McGovern said. Regarding the crossroads through which the trains passed on their way to Auschwitz, he said: “We had to hit this crossroads and disable it. We had to hit the railroad tracks, even if we had to go back several times.”

It is also important to remember that there were bridges on these tracks and the bridges could not be repaired quickly. Some of the requests put forward by the Jewish groups at the same time actually named bridges that should be looked at. These prayers were not a secret. On July 10, 1944, the Jewish Telegraph Agency reported that recent fugitives from Auschwitz called for the following: “The crematoria at Auschwitz [Auschwitz] and Birkenau, easily recognizable [sic] their chimneys and watchtowers, as well as the main railway lines connecting Slovakia and Carpatho-Little Russia with Poland, especially the bridge at Kop, should be bombed.”

Discussing Allied options, film commentator Ken Burns argues that the bombing of Auschwitz could have been a bad idea because some of the prisoners could have been hurt. This argument is disingenuous for two reasons. First, the United States could have bombed the railroad tracks and bridges leading to Auschwitz without endangering the prisoners. Secondly, the presence of these prisoners was not the reason why the Allies denied the bombing requests; note that they bombed these oil plants in broad daylight, although there were probably slaves there. Similarly, the United States bombed a rocket factory at the Buchenwald concentration camp on the afternoon of August 1944, although there were workers there; many were indeed killed, but the Allies considered the attack justified despite this risk.

Nahum Goldmann, the Jewish Agency representative in Washington and co-chairman of the World Jewish Congress, repeatedly asked US officials to bomb Auschwitz as well as the railroads, and heard their excuses about not wanting to “divert” planes from the war effort.

Three days after Ben-Gurion’s speech in Jerusalem, Ernest Frischer of the Czech government-in-exile informed Goldman and the World Jewish Congress that the Allies had bombed “fuel plants … at Auschwitz and Birkenau”, not far from “the place of extermination.” installations”. Goldmann pointed this fact out to Allied officials, but to no avail. They were, as Ben-Gurion put it, not even willing to “lift a finger” to save the Jews.

In a recent JTA interview Burns argued that President Roosevelt “couldn’t wave a magic wand.” but did his best to help the Jews during the Holocaust. Ben-Gurion, who really lived through those days and witnessed Roosevelt’s rejection of the Jews, understood the reality much more clearly.

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A US Ford 'Liberator' shown over Kiel, Germany, January 4, 1944. On July 10, 1944, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on an appeal by Auschwitz escapees for the Allies to bomb the death camp. (United States Army Air Forces/Design by Mollie Suss)

Ken Burns’ documentary on the Holocaust may be hard on America, but not hard enough

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