Answering Pope Francis's question about Auschwitz
“The great powers had photographs of the railway routes that the trains took to... Auschwitz,” Pope Francis remarked this week.
“Tell me,” he asked, “why didn’t they bomb them?”
The pontiff’s question is not merely a matter of historical curiosity. It raises issues of morality, diplomacy, and American foreign policy with profound implications for our own times.
The reason the Allies had photos of the railways leading to Auschwitz is that throughout the spring of 1944, Allied planes conducted surveillance of the area in preparation for bombing German oil factories, some of which were less than five miles from the gas chambers and crematoria.
Yet when Jewish organizations asked the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration to bomb the railway lines or the death camp itself, U.S. officials replied that such an operation was not feasible because it would require “diverting” planes from the battlefield. That was false; those oil factories were very much a part of the battlefield.
Ironically, the administration did repeatedly divert military resources or change military plans for other non-military objectives—just not for the Jews. For example, an Air Force plan to bomb the Japanese city of Kyoto was blocked by Secretary of War Henry Stimson because he admired the city’s artistic treasures. Assistant Secretary of War McCloy diverted American bombers from striking the German city of Rothenburg in order to spare its famous medieval architecture. Allied ships were diverted to bring thousands of Muslims on a religious pilgrimage to Mecca in 1943—at the same time U.S. officials were saying no ships were available to take Jewish refugees out of Europe.
The Roosevelt administration opposed calls by Jewish groups to create a government agency to rescue Jewish refugees—but it established a government agency “for the protection and salvage of artistic and historic monuments in Europe.” (That episode was chronicled in the recent George Clooney film, “Monuments Men.”) General George Patton even diverted U.S. troops to rescue 150 of the prized Lipizzaner dancing horses in Austria, in April 1945.
Along these same lines, Pope Francis might ask Vatican historians about Allied policy concerning the bombing of Rome. In the summer of 1943, the Allied High Command was anxious to bomb Rome, since it was, as the New York Times put it, “a railway and communications center for Germany and Italian war material.” But Roosevelt feared Catholic voters would blame him if religious sites were damaged or if many civilians were harmed, so a slew of changes and restrictions were imposed on the military.
Leaflets were dropped on the city the day before the attack, warning that bombing was imminent, thus surrendering the advantage of surprise. The bombing was carried out in broad daylight, increasing the danger to the pilots’ lives, in order to make it easier to avoid religious shrines. The bombing crews were given maps showing religious and cultural buildings to be avoided, with the words “Must Not Be Harmed” stamped in large red letters. The bombardiers were ordered to refrain from dropping bombs if there was “any doubt” as to where the bombs would land.
Why the double standard? Why was the Roosevelt administration willing to undertake diversions from standard military policy when medieval artwork, or dancing horses, or Catholic shrines were in danger, but—as Pope Francis noted this week—it refused to “divert” a few bombs to strike the railways that were bringing hundreds of thousands of Jews to their deaths?
Internal memoranda between senior officials of the Roosevelt State Department during 1941-1943—the peak of the Holocaust—provide the tragic answer. One official, Cavendish Cannon, opposed rescuing Jews from Rumania because it was “likely to bring about new pressure for an asylum in the western hemisphere... a migration of the Rumanian Jews would therefore open the question of similar treatment for Jews in Hungary and, by extension, all countries where there has been intense persecution.” His colleague Robert Alexander opposed rescuing Jews on the grounds that it would “take the burden and the curse off Hitler.” And R. Borden Reams warned of “the danger that the German government might agree to turn over to the United States and to Great Britain a large number of Jewish refugees.” An administration that viewed Jewish refugees as a “curse” and a “burden” was not going to take any steps that would leave it with large numbers of Jewish refugees on its hands.
Pope Francis made his Auschwitz remark while speaking to a group of young people about why they “find it hard to trust the world.” He was right—but why cite only the 1940s? Young people today see how the international community lets the architect of the Darfur genocide walk free, accuses Israel of war crimes for defending itself against war crimes, and yawns as the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons against civilians. It’s no easier to “trust the world” today than it was during the Holocaust.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is the founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. He recently won a Simon Rockower Award for Excellence in Jewish Journalism.