Description: The allies were receiving accurate information about the murder of European Jewry at a very early stage. However, even though they formally denounced Nazi atrocities against the Jews in 1942, the "Final Solution" continued to unfold, largely uninterrupted. Why did allied leaders stand by as millions were being killed? In this episode of "On the Holocaust", Yad Vashem's podcast, Dr. David Silberklang will continue to explore the free world's response to the Holocaust.
The Allies and the Holocaust Part II - Transcription:
[00:05] Nate Nelson: Hi, I’m Nate Nelson. Welcome back to “On the Holocaust” from Yad Vashem. A quick note before we begin: This episode of our program contains the second part of a larger discussion I had with Dr. David Silberklang on the Allied response to the Holocaust. If you haven’t done so yet, pause here and listen to our Part I episode, as the material discussed here follows from the material covered there. Thanks.
By 1942, the Allied powers - led by the UK, USSR and more recently, the US - had reliable information that Germany was carrying out a systematic extermination of Europe’s Jews. Through testimony from concentration camp escapees, underground resistance fighters and Jan Karski - who willingly entered a Nazi concentration camp in order to gather information to report to London - it had become clear: a genocide unlike the world had ever seen was underway. What did the Allied leaders do with this information? In this episode of our program, Dr. David Silberklang, Senior Historian at the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, explains what the Allies did and, crucially, did not do in response to learning about the Holocaust. It’s a moral quandary, which some of these nations still reckon to this day.
[01:41] Welcome back, David. In our last episode, we established that the Allies had a proper grasp of what was being done to the Jews during the Holocaust. So the question that’s been hanging over this discussion, I feel, is: did they understand what was going on, and then simply stand aside, or were there factors that prevented them from taking serious action?
Dr. Silberklang: I would say that, when we were talking earlier about information versus knowledge, You know - when did they get information, when did they grasp it and really understand it; knowledge - here, part of the question that you’re raising is a parallel question. The question of the willingness to try to do something - are they willing or not willing to even make an effort? Try to rescue some Jews, here? - and their ability to do things. We have to keep ourselves clear on that. Because in December 1942, when the Allies issues that joint declaration, and even for the next many months after that, we can say clearly that the Allies, all of them, were simply too far away with their technology of those days, too far away to have considered undertaking any kind of real action that would stop the murder. There are things they could have done - they could have opened their doors, say the western allies, to refugees that might have succeeded in escaping, and make their way to a neutral country. But to actually intervene to put a stop to the murder, they were simply too far away. They had no airplanes that could get to where the main murder sites were. They couldn’t send a commando unit to do something, and even if they could, where would they take anyone that they liberated from the some murder site, when there’s a few thousand kilometers of German-held territory in every direction? So that’s one thing we need to keep clear. And we have to ask ourselves, when were Allied armies close enough to the main sites of murder, so that they might be able to consider intervening? And that’s a much later stage in the war, not December 1942 or the first part of 1943.
But alongside that is the question of willingness. Do they try - in the aftermath of issuing this joint declaration - did the Allies create some kind of high-powered senior commission of military people, and government people, whose job it was to look for ways to try to rescue the Jews, and they pore over the the maps and look for ways, and after days and weeks of looking at all this - throw up their arms in the despair and say, “My God, there’s nothing we can do!” Or, did they never create any such team to look into ways of trying to rescue Jews? And that’s, then, that tension between the willingness and the ability. The answer for the immediate aftermath of the joint declaration of December 1942 is - no, they did not create such a committee. It took a long time until anything like that was created, and when it was created it was in a limited capacity in what it could do. And that was the American agency known as the War Refugee Board, which President Roosevelt created under pressure, public pressure and especially internal government pressure from his treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau Jr., he created that only in January 1944. And until it got organized, it wasn’t really doing anything until spring of 1944. So all this time went by, nearly a year and a half, between the Allied joint declaration and the first government agency of some sort that was in place and had authority to try to do something on behalf of Jews whose lives were in danger.
[05:57] Nelson: What were the factors, other than how distant they were from the scene, that influenced the Allied leadership to not take action to directly help or support the Jews? And what could they have done? Should they have decided at that point to at least try to help?
[06:11] Dr. Silberklang: There were a number of factors that came into play here. Military is not insignificant. I mean, the fact that they just can’t get there, and that of course until somewhere in 1943 the Allies are still losing the war, it’s only after the battle of Stalingrad that it’s clear - which ended with the German surrender February 2nd, 1943 - only then is it clear to the Allies that they’re probably going to win the war. We have to remember, between February 2nd, 1943 and the German surrender, more than two years went by, right? They surrender May 8th of 1945. So the turning [of] the tide of war doesn’t mean, “OK, now it’s all over.” The western allies, the time at which they were finally, maybe, close enough to consider - geographically close enough - to consider sending airplanes, or something, is only the spring of 1944.
The Soviets were closer to the murder scenes at an earlier point, maybe already by the summer or fall of 1943, they were within air distance, of reaching some of the murder sites that were closer to where their armed forces were. But by that time, of course, even more Jews had been killed. We know that six million Jews, approximately, were killed. They didn’t know that that would be the number. But we also know, and we need to bear it in mind, that by the end of 1942, when that Allied declaration was issued, four million, roughly, were already dead. In other words, the Germans had accomplished most of what they were going to accomplish before the Allies were within striking distance. But the Allies didn’t know that. Part of what they’re considering here is not only military capabilities, but also the fact that what they’re there to do is win the war. And the Soviets were not out to rescue anybody. For them, rescue means we win the war, we defeat the Germans and their allies, and then everybody’s rescued, and whoever dies along the way - well, that’s the price you pay.
For the western allies, their perspective was, we win the war - we rescue everybody. We can’t single out anybody. Maybe the Germans single people out and say “they’re better” or “they’re worse”; we don’t do that. We care about all human beings, and the only way to rescue humanity from the evil that is the Nazis, is to win the war as quickly as possible, without any kind of diversions or other thoughts there. That was their official position. With that in mind, they also were not going to, say, negotiate with Germany. In the course of 1943, and especially in 1944, various officials in Germany, senior officials, were hinting to the Allies, “We can negotiate. We’ll strike a separate peace with you. We’ll sell you Jews. We’ll stop killing Jews if we get something in return.” The Allies were not going to play that game, an effort by the Germans to break up the Allied coalition. Right? If the western allies will negotiate then the Soviets will be angry, then there are no allies. They saw through all of that. The problem with all of that was if they don’t negotiate, or even pretend to negotiate with the Germans to stop killing Jews, and the Allies will pretend at least that they might pay a ransom, then they don’t have any cards. If you wait until the war is over - this was part of what the Jews were arguing - if you wait until the war is over, there won’t be any Jews left to rescue, because the Germans are out to kill them all. So we have to do something before the war is over. And that’s part of the tension. Were the Allies going to put their main effort, and it was clear all along, their main effort will always be to fight the war and win it as early as possible.
[10:07] Nelson: You know I think it’s worth mentioning, now that you bring up the Soviets: More often than not, when we reference the Allies, we’re talking more about the US and UK. But as you mentioned, the Soviets were even closer to the Holocaust, at least geographically speaking, than the western powers were at this time. So let’s talk more about what the Soviets did, and did not do, to help the Jews. And perhaps more to the point, why is it that when we ask tough moral questions about what the Allied powers should have done, we speak so often of America’s failings, or the British not doing enough, and so little scrutiny is dedicated to the USSR?
[10:44] Dr. Silberkang: The answer to the first question, what do the Soviets do directly towards rescue - almost nothing. That was not their agenda. Although, of course, when they liberated some place, a town or city that had been under German occupation, where lots of people had been killed, once they liberated, they sent in people whose job it was to record accounts, interview whoever’s there and say what happened here. And they wanted to know what happened there. They wanted to go and arrest whoever might have been involved, if they’re still in the vicinity, or if they had captured them as prisoners or something like that. But rescue of civilian populations, and that includes the Jews, was not their agenda. Their agenda was - defeat Germany and liberate their country and, in the end occupy Germany and so on. So that’s not going to happen.
Why don’t we talk about that? Why don’t we ask them questions - did the Allies then, or people who were pushing the Allies to rescue Jews, which a lot of people were doing all along - “you’ve got to do something to rescue these Jews” - were they addressing that to the Soviets. Well first of all the scholars: It’s interesting. If you look at who’s researched Allied responses to the Holocaust, you will find that to date, all of them are western scholars. They’re Americans, they’re British, they’re Canadian, they’re Israeli. None of them is from the Former Soviet Union. It’s not a question you ask there. Now, the western scholars who asked these questions, how they’re approaching their subject, and many of them are in a sense holding up a mirror to their own society, and asking, “Have we lived up, as a society - a western, democratic, liberal society, based on humanist principles, with humanitarian concerns - have we lived up to our own principles, to our own standards?” And most of the historians - not all of them but most of them - have reached the conclusion, “No, we did not.”
So, there’s this expectation that the Allies - yes, they’re fighting the war, that was their main national interest, of course, but within that there’s room for other things to happen. There always is room for other considerations, and they had other considerations. Did they put this humanitarian concern of rescuing these millions of people, or whatever they could rescue out of that - did they make that one of their high concerns? And they come to the conclusion that no, they did not. But those same scholars would never have imagined that Stalin would have troubled his mind over humanitarian concerns. And what we know about Stalin, they’re probably right. But the fact of the matter is, that until the research is done about Stalin and his regime, we can’t be 100% sure. And that research, because archives were inaccessible in the Soviet Union, and even [in] post-Soviet countries, the archives on the Soviet government were inaccessible for quite a number of years. So that research is in its infancy. It’s begun, but it will take a long time until it catches up to the research on the West.
[14:03] Nelson: So any discussion of what the Allies were able or willing to do to help the Jews has to take into account one commonly discussed question: Should the Allies have bombed the Auschwitz concentration camp? David, what were the reasons the Allies might have considered, or shied away from doing this?
[14:22] Dr. Silberklang: In the question of the bombing of Auschwitz, let’s, also here, put it in context: Where the Allies had received a lot of information about the murder of the Jews and the totality of the murder of the Jews, by the end of 1942, as we described it, gradually coming in, until finally the people are putting the picture together, they actually did not have that kind of information about Auschwitz specifically. The name had come up, but they didn’t really get that kind of information about Auschwitz being this huge murder center until much, much later. And the information about Auschwitz, as what we know Auschwitz to have been, it became this in 1943 and 1944 - the largest murder center the Nazis had created - that came initially from two Jews, Slovakian Jews who had been prisoners in Auscwhitz since 1942, and had escaped in April 1944. They made it back to Slovakia. They wrote a long, detailed report - thirty pages in Slovak, it was translated into German and Hungarian - and then that was sent out. One copy in Hungarian to Hungarian Jewish leaders, to warn them, “They’re coming after you now.” And the other, in German, sent through various secret channels to neutral Switzerland, and then from there, through the American and British diplomatic pouches, to the two governments. But that information about Auschwitz didn’t reach the Allies, the western allies, until mid-June of 1944. That’s pretty late in the game.
But there’s, of course, more to the story. Because parallel to these escapees, and writing the report and getting the information out, the Allies, the western allies, because they had taken over southern Italy in the summer of 1943 - completing that by the end of the summer of 1943 - they now moved the Americans, in particular now moved their forward air force bases to attack Germany, into Italy. They took over Italian air force bases, adapted them, and now they’re using that as their springboard. Using those places as their springboard, they marked a target that we know now, but they didn’t know then, as part of the Auschwitz complex. And that target, actually two targets, were forced labor camps that were part of the Auschwitz complex, in which the German industries were producing synthetic rubber and synthetic oil for the German war effort. And those factories were the second largest of their kind in Europe. So it’s a major military target: one of them in a place called Monowitz, the other in a place called Blechhammer, both of which are under the authority of Auschwitz, and Auschwitz prisoners are the forced laborers there. People like Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi and so on.
So the Allies are targeting these places that they heard about from intelligence sources. But they didn’t know, when they sent out reconnaissance aircraft, beginning in April of 1944, to take aerial photographs, and then in the summer of 1944 they sent out their first bombers on bombing missions to bomb these places. And on the way, the reconnaissance aircraft and the bombers flew right over the death camp. But of course the pilots didn’t know what they’re flying over, the bombardier didn’t know what he’s flying over, the photographer didn’t know what he’s flying over, and it seems that the Allied leaders didn’t know what they were flying over. So we have now, in our hands, aerial photographs that the reconnaissance aircraft took from spring 1944 into November of 1944; we have aerial photographs that were taken of the bombing, including one day in September 13, 1944, when one of the planes dropped bombs too soon, and recorded that in the log. “We dropped the bombs too soon on an unknown target.” That target was Auschwitz. They didn’t know that. And then we have to ask ourselves, how is it that at one and the same time, the very same days in history, they’re looking at these reports and getting requests, “Bomb the rail lines to the camp. Bomb the camp itself. Put these gas chambers and crematoria out of commission.” And they say, the Allied leaders, “But we don’t know exactly where this camp is, the report isn’t sufficient intelligence information to know exactly what to bomb,” when they actually have taken photographs of the very same place. How did they not know that they’re photographing in the very same coordinates in Poland that these people are talking about? The fact of the matter is, they didn’t. How could they not? It seems like the right hand and the left didn’t actually have a conversation.
[19:14] Nelson: Before we talk more about the Allied response for not bombing the camp, I’m wondering about the inmates’ perspective. Do we know how they felt when they saw the Allied bombers? What were their hopes or expectations?
[19:27] Dr. Silberklang: Of course, most of the prisoners in Auschwitz when the planes flew over didn’t survive, but some did. And some, in their accounts, have actually related to that, “We saw the planes fly over. We were hopeful, we were waiting to be bombed.” There are various people like that. One of them is a survivor named Shalom Lindenbaum, who after the war moved to Israel, became Professor of Literature at one of the universities here. And in his account of what happened, he says, “We ceased to work. And the German soldiers and civilians ran to their shelters.” This is September 13th of 1944. “Most of us, that is the prisoners, didn’t. We had nothing to lose. Only expected to enjoy the destruction of the big factory which we were building for the IG Farben industry. This happy feeling didn’t change also after the Americans indeed began to bomb, and obviously we had casualties, too. Wounded and dead. How beautiful was it, to see squadron after squadron burst from the sky, drop bombs, destroy the buildings and kill also members of the Herrenvolk,” that is, the master race. “Those bombardments elevated our morale and paradoxically awakened probably some hopes of surviving, of escaping from this hell. In our wild imagination we also saw coordination between the Allies and the indeed small underground movement in the camp with which I was in touch. We imagined a coordinated destruction and escape, destruction from above by the bombers, and from our hands while escaping, and even if we have to be living bombs, to be killed. Unfortunately this never occurred.”
[21:16] Nelson: I can imagine this deep sense of disappointment, described by Lindenbaum, must have been felt by many others at the camp and by those on the outside who were attempting to bring about some form of action by the Allies. To me this reinforces even more the question that you asked earlier of why, knowing what they knew at the time, the Allies didn’t bomb the camp.
[21:36] Dr. Silberklang: One of the reasons that the Allies, the Allies gave several reasons why they weren’t going to bomb, when they were reacting to these official requests from a variety of Jewish leaders and other government officials who were not Jewish, who were pushing them, and public figures, pushing them, “Bomb the camp, bomb the camp! We have information about Auschwitz.” And they gave several reasons. One of which was that the camp was too far away for their bombers to reach, which we know is not true. The question we have and we don’t any clear answer to, is - did they know that that was not true, or did they believe that and simply were bungling - they didn’t realize that they’re already flying in there, but maybe they really believed they couldn’t reach it; we don’t know for sure. They said it would be of doubtful efficacy, that is, they’ll bomb but they can’t really destroy all of the murder installation, they can’t really rescue all those people, and therefore the Germans would just keep killing them and it would only be a symbolic act. But they also said - in the end what will happen, when they bomb and can’t pinpoint only the gas chambers, then they’ll end up bombing barracks, which means that they themselves will be killing these prisoners. They said, “We don’t want to kill the prisoners - we want to win the war and rescue the prisoners.” They didn’t know what Shalom Lindenbaum is telling us, that the prisoners are looking up and saying, “Please, bomb us! We don’t care if we’re killed. Just put this place out of business, so no one else will be killed here.” They didn’t know that, even though they’re being told that, but they didn’t know that. And therefore they said, since bombing would be only a symbolic act, what’s the real way to rescue people? Not through symbolic acts, they argued, but rather through serious winning the war. And therefore, if the only way to really rescue people is to win the war, what they have to do is pour all their energies into the war effort and that means that there can be no diversion from the war effort. That was their argument. And for the people advocating rescue, it was difficult to argue against this - although they tried.
[23:45] Nelson: So the way you describe it, this reasoning sounds entirely logical. Was it fair, though, do you think?
[23:52] Dr. Silberklang: When the Allies made the argument, why they’re not going to try to bomb the camp - and it was a compelling argument, that if you’re not part of the Allied government or military it’s hard to argue against - the question, though, that arises is, were they consistent with that? Anyone who turned to them and said, “Help us,” did they say the same things? We don’t know the full answer, because no one’s done the research, but we do know about some cases. For example, in Poland, the Polish underground had decided that they’re going to have an uprising against the Germans in Warsaw beginning August 1st, 1944. And when they decided to do that, and the uprising lasted almost two full months - the Germans defeated the Poles in that, and leveled most of Warsaw as punishment against Poland for that uprising - when they did that, the Red Army was standing there, across the river, across the Vistula river, staring at the old city of Warsaw. And the Poles knew that the Soviets will not intervene to help them because the Soviet political interest was that the Germans and Poles fight it out, the Soviet estimate was the Germans will defeat the Poles, there will be a power vacuum and then the Soviets can simply walk in and take over, which they did. So the Poles turned to the western allies, “Help us!” And the western allies did help them. They airlifted, with unmanned parachutes, all sorts of military supplies to the Poles to help them. Even though their intelligence sources said that most of that equipment will never reach the Polish fighters, and even if it did it won’t help them, the Germans will still defeat them. Yet they did it, this diversion from the war effort, for two reasons. One was because they felt for the Poles. After all, Britain had said that they would come to the help of Poland if they were attacked, and they didn’t. They declared war and didn’t do anything. So they said, “Look, the Poles are long-suffering.” Which they were. They’d been under this harsh, brutal occupation by the Germans for so long, “we have to do something. Make a gesture so they know who their friends are.” But that’s the second part of their calculation: “so the Poles know who their friends are after the war.” Because it was clear that after the war, even if Poland would be in the Soviet sphere of influence, they would still be a country, an independent country with an economy and military and diplomats, etc. - they need to know who their friends are. In other words, postwar realpolitik came into play, and that impacted on what happened with the Jews, too. Because it was clear, in 1944 and in the beginning of 1945, that the Jews, in postwar realpolitik, were nothing. They had no country, had no economy - they’re people. And the Allies care about people. But they’ll be rescued as a minority in all the other countries, and that’s how they’ll be rescued. But they had nothing to offer in the postwar realpolitik to either of the two blocs that were developing - the Western Bloc and the Communist Bloc. And that’s unfortunately part of what happened.
[26:48] Nelson: That’s a very difficult reality to hear - that the “usefulness” of the Jewish people would have factored into how much aid they received. It reminds me, as we, sort of, come to the conclusion of our discussion here, of the man we talked about in our last episode, Jan Karski. It was because he risked his life, helping people whom he really didn’t have to help, that the Allied nations heard what was really going on in the concentration camps, and were forced to face the tough questions that we’ve been revisiting here.
To that end, there’s a story from his journey to the west that I think sums up the themes of our episodes quite well. David, could you describe what happened when Karski met with the Supreme Court Justice, Felix Frankfurter?
[27:32] Dr. Silberklang: Karski, after he was in Britain, went on to the United States. He met, both in Britain and the United States, with lots of different kinds of people, and he said, a lot of them - the people he met, officials and ordinary people - were asking him about Jews. “Tell us about the Jews.” There were people showing interest. Frankfurter met with Karski in July 1943, in the offices of the Polish ambassador to Washington, and when Frankfurter met Karski he said, “I just want to hear about the Jews. Don’t tell me about the war, I’m Roosevelt’s personal friend, I know all about the war - more than you know. Tell me about Jews. You saw them, you talked to them, tell me.” Karski said that by the time he had met Frankfurter, he had been asked so many times, by different people, about the Jews, that he understood already what elements of the story most interested people, and he boiled it down to sixteen-seventeen minutes of his “opening shot.” So he gave that to Frankfurter. Frankfurter became agitated as he spoke, began pacing back and forth across the ambassador’s office, and then Karski finished his story, and Frankfurter kept pacing - according to the ambassador who was watching, on his wrist watch - two whole minutes. This tense silence, he’s pacing back and forth and back and forth. And finally Frankfurter stopped, turned to Karski, looked him straight in the eye, and said, “When a man like me talks to a man like you, he must be perfectly candid. Young man, I cannot believe you.” And Karski and the ambassador were taken aback. The ambassador intervened and said, “But Felix, how can you say that? My government stands behind every word this man says. How can you call him a liar?” And Frankfurter said, “Oh no. I didn’t mean to call him a liar. I merely meant to say that I’m unable to believe him.”
And I think that in that phrase, that sentence by Frankfurter, we have another one of those elements that’s important to understand regarding the Allies - the leaders and the ordinary people. “Unable to understand.” When did they really get it? I would argue that they really understood it, only after it was all over. And I think that, too, is one of the factors you have to take into account.
[29:49] Nelson: David, what should we take away from this story for our own lives? What lessons can we find in the Allied response to the Holocaust that may still be relevant to us today?
[29:57] Dr. Silberklang: I think that one of the main things we take away from this is - responsibility. That when some terrible event is happening, whether it’s a natural disaster or this horrible crime, it doesn’t have to be the Holocaust, doesn’t have to be a “Final Solution,” for the rest of the world to care. It could be, quote on quote, “just another genocide” - we have too many of those. Or just a huge crime. Responsibility. We need to be out there. Humanity - we’re all responsible for each other. We have to be out there and try to prevent mass crimes from happening. If they happen we have to try to stop them. We can’t just sit back and say, “Well, it’s too complicated.” It is complicated - we have to figure out how to do something about it. There has to be this basic sense of caring, of human beings for each other. And leaders of governments have to understand that, to quote Harry Truman, or adapt him - the buck stops with them. It stops with the leaders. They can’t pass the buck. It stops with our governments. But not only does it stop with our governments, it also stops with each of us, to push our governments to do something when these terrible events happen. And we can’t wait, just to say, “Well, it’s not quite the Holocaust, so I guess we shouldn’t be involved.” It doesn’t have to be a Holocaust to shake us up.
[31:20] Nelson: Thank you Dr. SIlberklang, for summarizing what the Allies did during the Holocaust to try and help save the Jews, why they did it and, crucially, what they did not do. This has been “On the Holocaust” from Yad Vashem, I’m Nate Nelson. Thank you for listening.