Commentary Magazine


Getting Out

To the Editor:

Walter Laqueur evidently had apoplexy when he reviewed my book, The Myth of Rescue [October 1997], and, like most splenetic reviews, his is full of nonsense and distortion about what I have actually said, the better to rebut what is not there.

Mr. Laqueur claims that “Rubinstein repeats an old canard—namely, that the existence of Auschwitz was unknown in the West until the summer of 1944, [which] has been authoritatively refuted at least 100 times.” Leaving aside the truth of Mr. Laqueur’s claim about the knowledge of Auschwitz, which is more problematical than he thinks, I do no such thing. My point is entirely different, namely, that no one anywhere in the West proposed bombing Auschwitz, or the railway lines to Auschwitz, until May 1944, and when these ideas were first proposed, the response of the Jewish community was surprisingly lukewarm, if not overtly hostile: bombing Auschwitz or the railway lines to Auschwitz was not seen by anyone as a panacea. Indeed, so far as I am aware, these proposals were not mentioned by any postwar historian or commentator on the Holocaust as a lost opportunity until the 1970′s, when they emerged, literally out of nowhere, chiefly through the writings of David Wyman, as the best-known example of the Allies’ failure to do more. Prior to May or June 1944, absolutely no one proposed bombing Auschwitz.

Shortly after its founding in January 1944, the U.S. War Refugee Board asked every important American Jewish and pro-refugee organization to propose measures for rescuing Europe’s Jews. By March 1944, it had received over 120 such suggestions (nearly all of them entirely useless), not one of which proposed bombing Auschwitz or the railway lines to Auschwitz.

A month after the bombing was first suggested, on June 11, 1944, the Executive of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, headed by David Ben-Gurion, debated whether the Allies should be approached to “bomb the death camps in Poland, such as Auschwitz, Treblinka, etc.” Of the twelve members of the Executive present at the debate only one, Yitzhak Gruenbaum, supported this proposal. Eleven, however, including Ben-Gurion, concurred with the view of Dr. Emil Schmorek that “we cannot take upon ourselves the responsibility of a bombing that would cause the death of a single Jew.”

Mr. Laqueur also claims that my figures for Jewish emigration from Nazi Germany are wrong and that the “the real figures can be found in Saul Friedländer’s Nazi Germany and the Jews.” My statistics come from Herbert A. Strauss’s comprehensive study of this question, originally published in the 1980-81 Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook. So far as I am aware, Friedländer presents only one relevant statistic in his book: on p. 317, he states that 190,000 Jews remained in the Old Reich (pre-1933 Germany) at the end of 1939. This is virtually identical to Strauss’s figure of 185,100 Jews remaining in the same territories in September 1939. Both Strauss and I carefully note that some German Jews emigrated to places like France and the Netherlands, from which many were subsequently deported to their deaths. But a German Jew fleeing to France in 1938 could no more have known that Hitler would defeat and occupy France in the summer of 1940, install a fascist government there, and initiate a policy of imprisoning Jews within Europe (the reverse of the Nazi policy of expelling Jews from Germany) prior to deporting them to death camps in Poland than a Jew emigrating to Britain could have known that Britain would not be invaded and thus that he would survive.

Nowhere do I assert, as Mr. Laqueur mendaciously claims, that “everyone who wanted to find a haven could.” Obviously there were high barriers to free emigration, as there have been everywhere in the world since the 1920′s. The point is, first, that no one foresaw the fate of those who remained behind in Nazi-occupied Europe, and, secondly, the pace of emigration of Jews from Nazi Germany (other Jews in Europe were, of course, not under Nazi occupation and not refugees prior to the outbreak of the war) was manifestly quickening in the last two years prior to September 1939, so that while 23,000 Jews emigrated from the pre-1933 boundaries of Germany in 1937, 40,000 did so in 1938, and 78,000 in 1939. After 1939, significant further emigration was blocked by the outbreak of the war and a fundamental change in Nazi policy to one of imprisoning Europe’s Jews prior to genocide rather than expelling them.

William D. Rubinstein
University of Wales
Aberystwyth, UK

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To the Editor:

I had always assumed that the attempt to impute culpability for the tragedies of the Holocaust to Western leaders was a particularly vile canard of Communist agitprop. Perhaps someone at COMMENTARY could have reminded Walter Laqueur that there was a war going on, and going badly, with the outcome highly uncertain and information flows befogged by despair and hysteria.

Allied bombers were suffering more than 50 percent losses at the time (those lost included both my father and my godfather, Walter Rosen). The most vital military targets of the enemy proved difficult to find and treacherous to destroy and were repaired with astonishing speed. The key Romanian oil fields resisted constant attacks until mid-1944; railway targets were restored in hours.

The idea that some slyly unexpressed but apparently egregious Allied anti-Semitism prevented a magically surgical action to balk the prime Hitlerian war aim is unworthy of a “distinguished historian.” Surely COMMENTARY is above the current masochistic American itch to blame the virtuous for the persistence of evil and tragedy in the world.

George Gilder
Tyringham, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

I was pleased to read Walter Laqueur’s review of The Myth of Rescue. Mr. Laqueur is familiar with the relevant material and was able to bring a critical eye to Rubinstein’s book. If there is anything I would take issue with in the review, however, it is Mr. Laqueur’s concession to Rubinstein on the question of the bombing of Auschwitz. In claiming that operational difficulties made it impossible for the Allies to bomb Auschwitz, Mr. Laqueur says Rubinstein may have a point, though he immediately adds that the point does not go “very far at all.” But even this qualified concession, as I show in my article, “Could the Allies Have Bombed Auschwitz-Birkenau?” (Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Fall 1997), is unnecessary.

I cannot go into all the evidence I cite in my article, so I will limit myself here to a few examples. To begin with, and as Mr. Laqueur also notes, Rubinstein seems to have done no archival research for his book, and on this subject he has relied almost exclusively and uncritically on an article by James Kitchens III in the Journal of Military History (“The Bombing of Auschwitz Reexamined,” April 1994). But this article is flawed both in its understanding of military operations in general and in respect to a mission against Birkenau, where the death camp at Auschwitz was located, in particular.

Kitchens claims that Birkenau was a “well-nigh invulnerable target,” defended by German radar and 79 heavy anti-aircraft (AA) guns. While it is true that the Germans used radar to track Allied bomber formations, a review of mission reports from this period reveals that Allied raids to Upper Silesia, where Auschwitz is situated, encountered minimal Luftwaffe resistance. Allied crews reported that the few enemy aircraft that did appear were flown by inexperienced and unaggressive pilots. One intelligence report even surmised that the negligible fighter resistance may have been due to German fuel shortages. Whatever the reason, the hard-pressed German air force was not seriously defending the area.

In addition, the 79 German AA guns were placed so as to defend the I.G Farben plant But this so-called “impenetrable shield” was able to bring down only one plane out of 127 bombers attacking the plant on August 20, 1944. This was a loss rate far below the average for the Fifteenth Air Force, which carried out the raid. Moreover, since Birkenau was located approximately five miles away from the Farben factory, bombers attacking the death camp would have been out of range of many of the German guns.

Thus, as I demonstrate at greater length in my article, Birkenau could have been effectively attacked with minimum collateral damage had there been the will to do so. This is also the opinion of Leonard Cheshire, one of the most decorated British pilots of World War II, who was awarded Britain’s highest military decoration, the Victoria Cross.

Ironically, just prior to the rejection by the Allies of Shmuel Zygielbojm’s request to attack the rail lines to Auschwitz, in the spring of 1943, SS Chief Himmler, fearing an attack on Birkenau, ordered the installation of escape-prevention measures. If Himmler was concerned about an Allied air raid, he need not have worried.

Stuart G. Erdheim
New York City

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To the Editor:

I am puzzled by the fact that, as Walter Laqueur notes in his review, William D. Rubinstein’s The Myth of Rescue has been praised by such figures as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. I cannot believe that anyone other than persons who purposely aim to distort the truth would praise this book.

I thought it was by now well-known that affidavits of support were required of persons who wanted to emigrate to the U.S. With few exceptions, death awaited those who had no relatives here, who could not get past the State Department’s infamous use of the “public-charge provisions” of the immigration law, or who registered to emigrate after the quota for their country had been filled.

It is a cruel lie to claim that more Jews could not have been saved. If Mr. Rubinstein is interested, I can supply him with the names of my grandfather, my aunt, family friends, and others who desperately tried to leave Germany—they were all slaughtered.

Ellen Blumenthal Sehgal
Chevy Chase, Maryland

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Walter Laqueur writes:

William D. Rubinstein has written a book that another reviewer, in the Times Literary Supplement, called “absurd and pernicious.” I certainly share these sentiments and have no wish to enter into a debate with the author now.

As for George Gilder, I wish he had read my review with a little more attention. First, it is a complete distortion of what I wrote to say that I hold “slyly unexpressed . . . egregious Allied anti-Semitism” responsible for the inaction of the Western powers. Second, of course I am aware that the war was not going well for the Allies in 1941-42, but the years in question are 1943 and especially 1944, and no one I know has said the war was going against the Allies then. On the feasibility of bombing Auschwitz-Birkenau, I refer Mr. Gilder to Stuart G. Erdheim’s letter.

Finally, we have the personal testimony of Ellen Blumenthal Sehgal, whose experience, sadly, was only all too common.

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