- New Perspectives on How America, and American Jewry, Responded to the Holocaust
The final essay in the new volume FDR and the Holocaust begins with a dramatic announcement by the editor that after the essay was completed, its author, Richard Levy, received “important” new information supposedly showing that in 1944, a significant number of Jewish leaders were opposed to the idea of the Allies bombing Auschwitz (for fear that inmates might be harmed). The last-minute insertion is presented as if it constitutes significant additional evidence to bolster Levy’s contention that if Jewish leaders themselves opposed bombing Auschwitz, it is unfair to criticize the Roosevelt administration for not having bombed it. Rather than boost Levy’s thesis, however, the “new” information that narrowly beat the printer’s deadline ironically sheds light on the flawed research that mars FDR and the Holocaust, and raises broader questions about the validity of some other recent attempts to revise the history of American, and American Jewish, responses to the Holocaust.
The Jewish leaders upon whom Levy’s case rests were the members of the Jewish Agency Executive (JAE) in Jerusalem. His “discovery” is that at a JAE meeting on 11 June 1944, some members of the Executive opposed a proposal by the chair of the JAE Rescue Committee, Yitzhak Gruenbaum, to ask the Allies to bomb Auschwitz. Levy writes: “Therefore no appeal to bomb the death camps was transmitted from Jerusalem to Washington [and] nothing further on the subject of bombing either the railways or the death camps was heard from the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem until 13 September.” 1
Yet the original (Hebrew) transcript of the JAE meeting reveals there is far more to the story than Levy allows. The reason Jewish Agency chairman David Ben-Gurion opposed requesting an attack on Auschwitz was that “we do not know what the actual situation is in Poland”; similarly, his JAE colleague Emil Shmorak opposed it because “we hear that in Oswiecim [the Polish name for Auschwitz] there is a large labor [End Page 253] camp.” 2 In other words, their initial reluctance to ask for air strikes on Auschwitz stemmed from the fact that they did not yet grasp what was happening at Auschwitz; if Richard Levy had examined other JAE minutes prior to the June 11 meeting, he would have seen that the JAE members possessed only hazy information about the various death camps. It was only during the last week of June that they received a report by two recent escapees from Auschwitz, known as the Vrba-Wetzler report, which provided the first fully detailed explanation of the extent and methods of the mass killings there.
According to Levy, “there is no indication that the [Jewish Agency] ever changed its collective mind.” One wonders if Levy ever checked the relevant documents to determine if the Agency had changed its mind. Had he examined the minutes of subsequent JAE meetings, the correspondence of Jewish Agency leaders in London, or even the relevant secondary literature, he would have discovered that after the Vrba-Wetzler report arrived in Jerusalem, the Jewish Agency office in London promptly launched a concerted lobbying effort to persuade the British to bomb Auschwitz. 3 The British Foreign Office assured the JAE’s Moshe Shertok in July that they were actively pursuing the idea; he telegrammed Ben-Gurion in Jerusalem, who announced it at a JAE meeting the next day. In his remarks, Ben-Gurion also speculated hopefully that recent Allied bombings which had damaged Hungarian railway stations “may have been undertaken in response to our proposals and demands.” Neither Ben-Gurion nor other JAE members were any longer expressing concerns that such bombings would harm civilian inmates; now that they understood what was happening at Auschwitz, they pressed vigorously for Allied air strikes—so vigorously, in fact, that when the deportations from Hungary to Auschwitz were halted in August, and the British asked Agency headquarters in London to withdraw its bombing request, the Agency refused to do so. 4 In short, Levy’s claim of Jewish Agency opposition to the bombing of Auschwitz crumbles when confronted by the historical record. [End Page 254]
But what is...