The Labor Zionist movement and the bombing of Auschwitz
The Labor Zionist movement and the bombing of Auschwitz

Labor Zionist leaders in Palestine, Europe, and the United States repeatedly urged the Roosevelt administration and its allies to bomb the railway tracks and bridges leading to Auschwitz or the gas chambers and crematoria in the camp itself.

Labor Zionist representatives were not the only Jewish officials to press for bombing; but they were among the earliest and most active of the bombing advocates.

Sadly, the bombing never happened.

One of the first Jewish officials known to have lobbied for bombing was Yitzhak Gruenbaum, chairman of the Rescue Committee of the Jewish Agency (and a future Minister of the Interior in Israel). He raised the issue in a telegram to the U.S. government’s War Refugee Board on June 2, 1944.

Yitzhak Greenbaum, Interior minister in the Temporary Government

“There has been a definite German decision to proceed as rapidly as possible with systematic deportation of Hungarian Jews to [death camps in] Poland,” Gruenbaum wrote. “Every day a transport is to be sent and 8,000 from Carpatho Russia have already been taken. Suggest deportation would be much impeded if railways between Budapest and Poland could be bombed.”

The deportations of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz had begun two weeks earlier, on May 15. They continued through July 9. Some 440,000 Jews were transported in cattle cars over those rail lines to their doom. By that time, the Allies controlled the skies of Europe. They frequently bombed railways and bridges, because the Germans used them to transport troops and military supplies. Railway tracks sometimes could be repaired relatively quickly; bridges, however, took much longer to fix.

The majority of Hungary's Jewish population was murdered in Auschwitz between May and July 1944

Confusion at the Jewish Agency

On June 11, Gruenbaum reported on his efforts at a Jewish Agency Executive meeting, in Jerusalem. JAE chairman and future prime minister David Ben-Gurion presided over the meeting.

Prime Minister David Ben Gurion meets Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt in his home in Tel Aviv

It is obvious from the transcript that the members of the Executive did not yet understand that Auschwitz was a death camp. Although some internal Jewish Agency documents prior to June 1944 had mentioned mass murder in Auschwitz, the information was not fully understood or absorbed by all the members of the executive. Thus Ben-Gurion remarked at the meeting that he opposed asking the Allies to bomb Auschwitz because "we do not know what the actual situation is in Poland."

Another member of the executive, Emil Schmorak, agreed, saying they should not request bombing because "It is said that in Oswiecim [the Polish name for Auschwitz] there is a large labor camp. We cannot take on the responsibility for a bombing that could cause the death of even one Jew."

No vote was taken, but Ben-Gurion concluded the discussion by summarizing what he said was the consensus of the participants: “It is the position of the Executive not to propose to the Allies the bombing of places where Jews are located."

Two weeks later, however, Ben-Gurion and his colleagues learned the truth about Auschwitz.

During the last week of June 1944, they received a letter from the head of the Jewish Agency's office in Geneva, Richard Lichtheim, summarizing detailed information about Auschwitz that had been provided by two recent escapees from the camp, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler.

Lichtheim explained that the information revealed that the Agency's previous belief about Auschwitz being a labor camp was wrong:

"We now know exactly what has happened and where it has happened. There IS [emphasis in original] a labor camp in [the] Birkenau [section of Auschwitz] just as in many other places of Upper Silesia, and there ARE [emphasis in original] still many thousands of Jews working there and in the neighboring places (Jawischowitz etc). But apart from the labor-camps proper [there are] specially constructed buildings with gas-chambers and crematoriums….The total number of Jews killed in or near Birkenau is estimated at over one and a half million….12,000 Jews are now deported from Hungary every day. They are also sent to Birkenau. It is estimated that of a total of one million 800,000 Jews or more so far sent to Upper-Silesia 90% of the men and 95% of the women have been killed immediately…”

During the weeks following receipt of the report, Jewish Agency officials in Europe, the Middle East, and the United States actively promoted the bombing proposal. The president of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization, Chaim Weizmann, together with the head of the Agency’s Political Department (and future Israeli prime minster) Moshe Shertok, met with British Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs George Hall on June 30 and urged that the "death camps should be bombed."

On July 6 1944, Weizmann and Shertok met with British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, and urged the bombing of both "the death-camps at Birkenau and other places” and “the railway lines leading to Birkenau.” Shertok later sent Ben-Gurion a telegram reporting on the meeting.

Concurrently with Shertok and Weizmann's meeting with Eden,, other Jewish Agency representatives met with American, British, and Soviet officials to make the case for Allied air strikes on Auschwitz or the rail lines leading to the camp. Advocates of the strikes included Nahum Goldmann (cochairman of the World Jewish Congress) in Washington; Joseph Linton (later an Israeli ambassador, under several Labor governments) and Berl Locker (a longtime Poale Zion leader) in London; Richard Lichtheim and Chaim Pozner (former head of the Labor Zionists in Danzig) in Geneva; Eliahu Epstein (later Elath, Ben-Gurion’s first ambassador to the United States) in Cairo; Moshe Krausz in Budapest; and Chaim Barlas in Istanbul.

Golda's position

While the Jewish Agency pursued advocacy for the bombing, the Histadrut labor movement also acted to advance the cause, Many reports about the ongoing massacres in Europe were sent to Histadrut headquarters in Tel Aviv. The information was often handled by Golda Meir (then known as Goldie Myerson), chair of the Histadrut's political department. She had become a member of the Histadrut's executive board in 1934 and was also responsible for the Histadrut's ties to the United States, including contacts with its American representative, Israel Mereminski.

Golda Meir visiting a transit camp, 1950

Golda frequently sent the information she received about Auschwitz to Mereminski, in New York, who in turn provided it to leaders of the War Refugee Board. The board was a small government agency that had been established by President Roosevelt in early 1944, under strong pressure from members of Congress, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., and Jewish activists.

On July 29, 1944, Golda and another Histadrut executive committee member, Heschel Frumkin, cabled Mereminski that they had received “horrible details concerning Hungarian Jews deported to Poland," which they said were provided to them in "a letter from Lvov [Poland] underground." They reported that "four trains arrive at Oswienzim daily, consisting of forty-five coaches each containing twelve thousand people to be exterminated." The message asked that the Allies be urged to undertake "the bombing of Oswienzim and railway transporting Jews" to the death camp.

The War Refugee Board undertook rescue activities in Europe that involved financial transactions or delicate negotiations, such as bribing Nazi officials, paying underground groups to shelter Jews, and financing the work of Raoul Wallenberg in Nazi-occupied Budapest. The board did not have the authority to utilize military resources; so when it received requests to bomb Auschwitz, it forwarded them to the War Department (today known as the Defense Department).

Mereminski replied to Golda that he had contacted the War Refugee Board concerning her request for "destruction of gas chambers, crematories, and so forth,” and the board in turn had submitted the proposal “to competent authorities.”

Almost simultaneously, Jewish Frontier, the monthly magazine of the U.S. Labor Zionist movement, published an unsigned editorial calling for "Allied bombings of the death camps and the roads leading to them…"

This editorial, which appeared in the magazine’s August 1944 edition, is the only known instance of an official organ of an American Jewish organization publicly calling for bombing of the camps; other Jewish groups confined their appeals to private channels. It seems likely that the editorial grew out of discussions among Mereminski and his colleagues regarding Golda’s telegram.

The "diversion" lie

The Labor Zionists’ requests, like the other Jewish pleas for bombing Auschwitz or the railways, were rejected by the Roosevelt administration.

The real reason for the rejections [of the request to bomb] was the Roosevelt administration’s policy of refraining from using even the most minimal resources for humanitarian objectives, such as interrupting genocide.
Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy was assigned to write the rejection letters. He informed the Jewish groups that the War Department had undertaken “a study” which concluded that any such bombings were “impracticable” because they would require “the diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations” elsewhere in Europe.

McCloy’s explanation was false. No such “study” was ever conducted. No “diversion” of airplanes would have been necessary — because U.S. bombers were already striking German oil factories in the Auschwitz industrial zone, just a few miles from the gas chambers.

The real reason for the rejections was the Roosevelt administration’s policy of refraining from using even the most minimal resources for humanitarian objectives, such as interrupting genocide.

President Roosevelt’s public persona is anchored in his image as a liberal humanitarian, someone who cared about the downtrodden and the mistreated. In his first presidential campaign, he presented himself as the champion of “the forgotten man.” But when it came to the plight of Europe’s Jews during the Holocaust, it was Roosevelt who did the forgetting.

Dr. Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, DC, and author of more than 20 books about the Holocaust and Jewish history.

This essay originally appeared in Davar, the Labor Party publication, on February 26, 2020, and is reprinted by permission of the author