Photo: A child from Ruthenian ghetto of Berehovo in Hungarian-occupied Czechoslovakia, being held in a birch grove with other deportees before being killed in a gas chamber in Birkenau; photo taken in early June or July 1944 by SS Sergeant Ernst Hoffman; in collection of Beate Klarsfeld Foundation.
775 words/4 minute read
The BBC recently screened a programme called “Should We Bomb Auschwitz?” With trepidation, and Martin’s book Auschwitz and the Allies in hand, I watched it. (Martin, with Rex Bloomstein, had made a film of the same name for the BBC in the 1980s based on Martin’s book, which deals at length with this question and the answers arrived at by both the Americans and the British.) By the end of the programme, I realised that the focus was less on a depiction of the historical events and more on the “moral question”, the “Should” in the title.
The programme begins with the escape from Auschwitz of Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, two Slovak Jewish prisoners, in April 1944. Having watched trains come for two years from all over Europe, full of Jews, they realised those on the trains did not know what awaited them. Vrba and Wetzler were keen to get the word out that this “unknown destination” that was “somewhere in the East” was a killing factory. They succeeded in getting the news to the Jewish organisations in Slovakia and the programme depicts how the news was received in Slovakia, and how it reached the American War Refugee Board in Switzerland and then in the United States.
The BBC programme could then have described for its viewers that the news was also sent to Hungary where the Jewish communities there had so far escaped deportation. From Budapest the news travelled to Switzerland where a British agent, Elizabeth Wiskemann sent to London an “open” cable that the Hungarians could read. Wiskemann requested a bombing raid of the railway lines, the death camp facilities, and government buildings in Budapest. On July 2 an Allied bombing raid was coincidentally carried out on Budapest. Though unassociated with the cable, it brought the Hungarian deportations to Auschwitz to a halt.
The BBC programme could have described for its viewers that there were two more Jewish escapees from Auschwitz, Czeslaw Mordowicz and Arnost Rosin who reached Slovakia in May, and corroborated the Vrba Wetzler Report. The reports of these four Jewish escapees, along with that of Jerzy Tabeau, the “Polish Major” who escaped in November 1943, and who had also described the murder of the Jews in his 1944 statement, became known at the Auschwitz Report, or the Auschwitz Chronicle. In the BBC programme, it is called the “full Auschwitz Report” which was released to the American media in November 1944. Finally, the BBC programme could have mentioned that in January 1945 Auschwitz was evacuated and on the 27th of January was liberated by the Soviet army. Bombing the camp in November 1944 might well have done not much good.
The moral question is a valid one, though history shows it was not going to be very useful by the time the idea of bombing the camp had received enough attention to be undertaken. The context of the war itself, and whether diverting resources would have taken much away from the war effort and benefitted those on the ground is a theoretical discussion. Directly or indirectly, the Jews of Budapest were saved from deportation by these Auschwitz reports. The War Refugee Board, which seemed ineffectual in the BBC programme, did send Raoul Wallenberg to Budapest to coordinate diplomatic efforts to save the 120,000 Jews in Budapest from the Nazi-sympathising Arrow Cross.
Can we separate the moral questions of history from the history itself? Doesn’t knowing the history, the “cause and effect” of events, the chronology, the context, and the complexity have to be determined before values can be assigned to it? What are we meant to learn from “Should We Bomb Auschwitz?” Are we being manipulated into being outraged when being told the facts might give us a more solid understanding of the history and a better way to evaluate moral behaviour?
And what have we learned from the history and the supposed inaction of the past that we can apply to our world situation today? Where is our outrage when it comes to Syria, to Yemen, to Afghanistan – conflicts we hear about on the nightly news, and have for years already? What will future generations say about the present unwillingness to save human life? What is the purpose of knowing about Auschwitz if we have not learned to change our attitudes to others, change our behaviour when others are threatened, prevail on our leaders to take action? How will the next generations judge us? We don’t have the excuse that we didn’t know.
“The lessons” of the Holocaust have not been learned if the reaction to the destruction of human life is the same.
(For those interested in the bombing of Auschwitz question, Martin has written extensively. This is the condensed version. It is such an important piece that it was the first of his “Blogs” I put on the website: https://www.martingilbert.com/blog/bombing-auschwitz-fact-myth/.)
From Esther Gilbert