In his criticism of my essay 1 on the bombing of Auschwitz, Medoff 2 relies on the oldest trick in the book. The trick, which is more commonly found in works of propaganda than of scholarship, starts with a deliberate misquotation. The text is carefully arranged to contain an obvious error, where the original had none. The planted error is then “discovered” with suitable expressions of horror. Finally, the discovery of the planted error is used to cast doubt on the credibility of the whole.
At different times in 1944, and in different places, people associated with the Jewish Agency expressed differing views on the proposal to bomb the Nazi death camps, especially Auschwitz. Without exception all these differing views are presented and analyzed in my essay. I also comment on the absence of a consistent view. In Jerusalem, the Jewish Agency Executive (JAE) met under Ben-Gurion’s chairmanship on June 11, 1944. Gruenbaum presented a spirited argument in favor of bombing Auschwitz. He also defended his request to the U.S. Consul in Jerusalem to transmit a bombing request to Washington. Four members of the JAE spoke against the proposal, Ben-Gurion summarized in support of these four, and the remaining six members did not object to Ben-Gurion’s summary.
A translation of the full text of the relevant agenda item is appended to my essay. Medoff first quotes from this or another translation, then describes the full text as an abbreviated excerpt. The proposed bombing of Auschwitz was not discussed by the JAE in Jerusalem at any other time. Accordingly I wrote:
“There is no indication that the committee in Jerusalem ever changed its collective mind, and some that it did not.”
Medoff misquotes me as follows:
“there is no indication that the [Jewish Agency] ever changed its collective mind.”
Gruenbaum’s continued support of the bombing proposal and the efforts of Weizmann and Shertok in London can both be described as “Jewish Agency” but not as “the committee in Jerusalem.” Thus [End Page 101] Medoff’s corrupt quotation allows him to “discover that I have made two serious errors. Both the above instances are fully described in my text but not, of course, in the context of the committee in Jerusalem. After the “discovery” of the planted errors the rest of his technique is standard. It consists of doubt cast on the credibility of the whole and ad hominem remarks.
Medoff and some others would like to believe that the JAE did in fact change its collective mind, especially after the gruesome but credible details in the Vrba-Wetzler report were circulated. Medoff cites Porat 3 who wrote that “the JAE reversed its decision.” But Porat, in a book filled with citations, offers none in support of this assertion. Much more honest is Teveth. Like Porat, Teveth 4 believes that the JAE reversed itself, but he goes on to say that “. . . there is no mention of this change of mind in the JAE’s record.” Teveth then speculates about why, if the JAE changed its mind, there is no record of the fact. The best he can do is to say that “. . . dread of every being charged with responsibility for massacre of Jews. . . . continued to guide the JAE.” So if the JAE now favored the bombing of Auschwitz, it wouldn’t say so in writing for fear of being held responsible for the likely consequences.
I cannot agree with Teveth’s interpretation. The simple facts are that the positions of the members of the JAE on June 11 are on record. When, at the end of the month, much more precise, gruesome and credible intelligence about Auschwitz became available, nothing would have been more natural than for the members of the JAE to change their views about bombing the camp in the light of the new information. No such change in the collective mind of the committee is on record. Nor are any of the eleven individual members of the JAE who opposed Gruenbaum on June 11 known to have subsequently changed their minds.
I stand by my version of these events, and regret that Medoff has seen fit to introduce cheap tactics into a serious historical debate.
Richard H. Levy
To the Editor:
Because they have examined the relevant original documents, the distinguished historians Dina Porat and Shabtai Teveth, of Tel Aviv University, have concluded that the Jewish Agency leadership supported, and lobbied for, an Allied bombing of Auschwitz.
Because he has not examined the relevant original documents, Mr. Richard Levy, a retired engineer in Seattle, contends, erroneously, that the Jewish Agency leadership opposed an Allied bombing of Auschwitz.
Mr. Levy points out that at one meeting of the Jewish Agency Executive (JAE) in Jerusalem, on June 11, 1944, David Ben-Gurion and several others expressed fears that Jewish inmates might be killed if the Allies bombed Auschwitz. But time did not freeze on June 11. The subsequent sequence of events explains why the JAE members changed their minds. If Mr. Levy had examined those events, he would understand what happened.
The documentary record of the events preceding and following June 11 shows that the reason some JAE members initially criticized the idea of bombing Auschwitz was because they thought it was a “labor camp.” But their attitude soon changed. On June 19, Richard Lichtheim, in the Jewish Agency’s Geneva office, sent the JAE-Jerusalem a detailed summary of the first eyewitness account, by two Auschwitz escapees, of the mass-murder process (the account is known as the Vrba-Wetzler report). Lichtheim noted that when the Agency leadership had previously learned of the deportation of Jews to the Auschwitz-Birkenau region, “we believed that it was done to exploit more Jewish labour in the industrial centres of Upper-Silesia.” What the Vrba-Wetzler report revealed, Lichtheim wrote to his JAE colleagues in Jerusalem, was that in addition to the “labour camp in Birkenau” there were also “large-scale killings” in Birkenau itself “with all the scientific apparatus needed for this purpose, i.e. in 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.” (If Mr. Levy was interested, he could have found Lichtheim’s letter at the Central Zionist Archives [L22/135].)
Because of this new information, the attitude of the Jewish Agency changed entirely. In late June and early July, the Jewish Agency leaders in London, Moshe Shertok and Chaim Weizmann, repeatedly lobbied British officials to bomb Auschwitz. When the British Foreign Office informed Shertok that they were actively pursuing the bombing idea, Shertok telegrammed the news to Ben-Gurion that same day. The telegram listed the requests Shertok had made to Foreign Minister [End Page 103] Anthony Eden, including “Death camps and railway lines leading to Birkenau should be bombed.” Shertok then reported that Eden said he “already asked Air Ministry explore possibility bombing camps will now add railways.”
Shertok was chief of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department; Ben-Gurion was chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive. Shertok was Ben-Gurion’s subordinate. If, as Richard Levy claims, Ben-Gurion continued to oppose bombing Auschwitz (even after he realized it was a death camp), how is it conceivable that his loyal deputy, Shertok, was lobbying for the British to bomb it? If Shertok was defying Ben-Gurion (as Levy implies), how is it that Shertok hurried to telegram Ben-Gurion the news that his lobbying was succeeding? If Ben-Gurion was opposed to Shertok’s lobbying, why did he announce Shertok’s success at the next meeting of the Jewish Agency Executive? Indeed, he presented the news from Shertok as evidence supporting speculation that recent Allied bombings of Hungarian railway stations (from which Jews were being deported) might have been the result of the Jewish Agency’s pressure. And if any other members of the Jewish Agency Executive still opposed bombing Auschwitz—as Richard Levy claims—how is that none of them expressed any objection to Shertok’s lobbying, at subsequent meetings of the Jewish Agency Executive?
The answer, as Dina Porat and Shabtai Teveth have pointed out, is obvious. Once the Vrba-Wetzler report revealed the truth about Auschwitz, the JAE members in Jerusalem ceased their objections and the JA leadership in London pressed for bombing.
This is the difference between serious historians such as Porat and Teveth examining original documents, and a retired engineer such as Levy citing one document and never examining any of the other relevant documents to understand the sequence of events.
Purchase College, The State University of New York
I have recently seen Rafael Medoff’s article “New Perspectives on How America, and American Jewry, Responded to the Holocaust,” American Jewish History, LXXXIV, No. 3, pp. 253–66, and am compelled to reply to certain comments made in that essay. Some readers may recognize that I am one of two authors (the other being Richard Levy) of whom Medoff is severely critical. I must object as strenuously as possible to several points that Medoff offers and ask that, in the interest of equity and scholarly inquiry, you grant a little space for disputation of those points.
At the beginning of his critique (top, p. 255) of FDR and the Holocaust (New York: St. Martin’s, 1966), Medoff suggests that “some of the contributors [such as Henry Feingold and Richard Breitman] . . . are reputable scholars,” while inferring that Richard Levy and myself are not. He asserts that part of my “curious arguments” arise out of my “wandering in unfamiliar territory” since my doctorate is in early modern Europe. Medoff is correct about my degree but quite wrong about unfamiliar territory. I have been a student of air power for thirty-five years, more than eleven of them spent as a reference archivist at the Air Force Historical Research Center (now Agency, or AFHRA). The Agency holds about 70 million pages, or ca. 3.5 linear miles, of archival materials, most of them manuscript unit histories and supporting documents, preserving the history of the Army Air Forces (USAAF) and the Air Force (USAF). The bulk of the AFHRA’s holdings date from 1942; perhaps 40–45 percent of its files are of World War II vintage. The institution is very probably the world’s largest repository for military aviation archives. For well over a decade, my daily duties required an intimate knowledge of its holdings and the ability to relate them to the 3000 or so inquiries received each year. One could fairly say, therefore, between 1985 and 1996 I was well educated in military aviation in general and USAAF operations in particular.
Although Medoff does not use my Department of Defense employment to disparage my motives, others have. To the above, therefore, I must add that none of the research that went into my “Bombing of Auschwitz Re-examined” was Air Force sponsored, supported, or even encouraged. The research and writing were performed on my own time, and all travel related to subsequent presentations was on personal leave and was funded either by myself or by host forums. Moreover, I have never spoken or written about the Auschwitz bombing question in an Air Force function or venue. The stimulus for my research was, and always [End Page 105] has been, a desire to sustain my scholarly development and to explore a grave historical conundrum.
As Medoff should know, The Journal of Military History, where my FDR essay and subsequent letters first appeared, is a professionally refereed and well-respected forum, at least as respectable as American Jewish History. I know this because I have written a number of reviews for JMH and have served it as a manuscript referee for many years. By characterizing me as less than “reputable,” therefore, Medoff not only casts aspersions on me but also defames the JMH, editor Verne Newton, and the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute which republished my original JMH article.
If, as Medoff unmistakably infers, writing out of one’s degree field is “disreputable,” one must then ask, did David Wyman’s degree in Jewish refugee history disqualify him from discussing the bombing question (in Abandonment of the Jews (New York: Pantheon, 1984))? Indeed, what credentials in air power history lend Medoff any credibility on the subject? Ostensibly, Medoff should know that our discipline resolves controversies not by personal denigration but by the systematic marshaling of primary evidence, accurate and equitable analysis of previous scholarship, and critical thinking, that is, by the keenest application of one’s faculties and historical education to identify the truth. One’s reputation in this process is earned by quality of evidence, sophistication of research, cogency of argument, and intellectual integrity; it is not automatically conferred by one’s alma mater, possession of a doctoral degree, degree field, religion, quantity of publications, or life circumstances. All of the latter are pertinent, of course, but none matters supremely. Thus it is apropos to ask, why did Medoff distort my theses out of recognition and where is his documentary evidence contradicting mine?
In “The Bombing of Auschwitz Reexamined,” I did not argue, as Medoff states, “that Allied bombers were physically incapable of reaching Auschwitz.” Rather, I made it clear then—and always have since—that no Allied aircraft except B-17s and B-24s could have bombed Auschwitz-Birkenau because of range and other considerations; these types could have dropped bombs only in a highly inaccurate manner with horrible results predictable from hundreds of previous missions. Following my original essay, Richard Levy has been able to rule out the notorious “Mosquito scenario” even more decisively than I was able to do. My propositions about illegality under international law and dubious morality were not “fallback arguments” but rather were discrete, yet interrelated, dimensions of the problem. For clarity’s sake, [End Page 106] therefore, it seemed logical to insert them after the complex technical and tactical constraints.
Medoff seems to think that post-article letters in the JMH (Vol. LX, No. 1 (January 1996), pp. 205–15) enable one “to understand the fatal errors in his [i.e., my] claims.” Nothing of the sort is remotely true, as the letters themselves show. The JMH editor fairly and objectively offered an opportunity to reply to all meaningful letters received. I did so, and readers can—and should—judge for themselves who makes the more convincing arguments. Even the “average reader” that Medoff seems so ready to deprecate can easily grasp the major issues and reach historically valid conclusions about the reasons why Auschwitz-Birkenau could not, and should not, have been bombed.
Before closing, I would like to add one observation which has never been fully appreciated in the death-camp bombing controversy. In part, Medoff and many others of his age group, through no fault of their own, may suffer from their generational perspective. As younger persons, they may understandably but very mistakenly imagine that high-level command and control in World War II was exercised as it was in Vietnam, that is, they may be convinced that World War II was a war “run from the White House.” It wasn’t and often could not be. I sense a widespread ignorance of the fact that neither President Roosevelt nor his advisors nor the Pentagon could simply make a long-distance call to General Spaatz in Italy and order him to bomb Auschwitz the next day! Or the next day, or the next day, or the next day, or the next week, for that matter. Intelligence deficits, technological limitations, and the weather would have prohibited action for weeks at a minimum (as I wrote, a bare minimum of three weeks in the case of Amiens Prison, a much closer, infinitely simpler, and far better known target).
In addition to military constraints, there were long chain-of-command and bureaucratic relationships to consider. A new broad-scope synthesis by Richard Levy in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, X, No. 3 (Winter 1996), pp. 267–98, makes these factors abundantly clear. Levy also rightly reminds us that only President Roosevelt could have ordered politically risky death camp operations, yet it seems highly unlikely that FDR was ever asked to do so. I also would question whether, if asked, FDR would have unilaterally directed—“micro-managed”—such raids over the advice of the Air Staff and field commanders. The sole known example of such executive arbitraire known to this writer in the air war arena was a directive to support the Warsaw uprising in September 1944. President Roosevelt may have interfered with or directed other military operations, but those instances appear rare indeed. The bottom line is [End Page 107] this: World War II was a wholly different war from Vietnam and it was directed in a wholly different style. Modern historians—especially younger and non-military specialists—often do not appreciate this. Awareness of historical settings and generational differences and their ramifications, properly integrated into the debate, would perhaps yield more and better understanding about the (non)bombing of Auschwitz.
Finally, I would like to gently suggest that the Jerusalem Report, a bi-weekly English-language news and current events periodical, offered one of the finest, most approachable summaries of death camp bombing yet prepared in David Horovitz’s 1995 cover story “Why the Allies Didn’t Bomb Auschwitz” (12 January 1995). From the scholarly standpoint, it is extremely important to note that this article relied on Hebrew University’s Martin van Crefeld, one of the world’s most distinguished military historians, as one of its three principal sources. Professor van Crefeld categorically rejected any possibility of bombing Auschwitz-Birkenau without enormous casualties and little enduring effect. Despite its popular format, I would warmly recommend this article to any and all who really want to understand the bombing question.
Thank you for the opportunity to express my views in your journal. I hope what I have written corrects some misapprehensions and encourages independent thinking. As with all controversies, the best advice is for the interested to dispassionately read all significant works and make up their own minds.
James H. Kitchens, III
To the Editor:
James Kitchens, in his essay “The Bombing of Auschwitz Re-Examined” (FDR and the Holocaust, pp. 182–217) and elsewhere, attempts to prove that none of the types of aircraft available to the Allies could have reached and successfully bombed Auschwitz. He concludes that “Any Allied option to frustrate the Holocaust from the air was illusory.”
Yet in the case of each type of aircraft that he analyzes, Kitchens fails to reach any definitive conclusion. Regarding B-25s, for example, Kitchens asserts (p. 198) that they “likely” would have been shot down, although he concedes that “conjecture precludes surety.” He believes that P-38s probably would not have worked (p. 199) because a long-range divebombing raid by P-38s on a different target, the Ploesti oil refineries, archived only “modest success” (Kitchens does not explain that Ploesti, unlike Auschwitz, was the third most heavily-defended site in Nazi-occupied Europe). Kitchens speculates that using DH-98 Mosquitos to hit death camps “might have” resulted in the delay of other Allied bombing missions, and he asserts (without evidence) that Allied leaders “probably had [such missions] in mind” when they rejected appeals to bomb Auschwitz (p. 201). Doubt and speculation riddle Kitchens’ claims: “Likely” . . . “conjecture” . . . “might have” . . . “probably.”
Kitchens also argues against using B-17s and B-24s. He does, however, admit that it would have been “technically feasible” for B-17s and B-24s to reach and bomb Auschwitz. The reason he must concede this point is because those aircraft were, in fact, used to bomb German synthetic oil factories near Auschwitz. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1944, B-17s and B-24s repeatedly struck oil factories within 45 miles of Auschwitz. Indeed, on August 20, Allied B-17s bombed targets less than five miles from the gas chambers, and on September 13, B-24s hit them again. Incredibly, nowhere in Kitchens’ 34-page essay does he explain the nature or significance of these bombing raids.*
Thus Kitchens is left only with his fallback argument: that it would have been “immoral” to bomb Auschwitz since, in knocking out the mass-murder apparatus, some of the pioneers might have been killed. Jewish leaders at the time were well aware of this danger, yet argued that it was a necessary risk since the prisoners would be murdered shortly in [End Page 109] any event. As Nahum Goldmann, chairman of the World Jewish Congress executive committee, put it (in his plea to the Allied High Command to bomb Auschwitz), “They were destined to being gassed anyhow.” What did the inmates themselves think? In Night, Elie Wiesel describes the feelings of the prisoners during that August 20 raid: “We were not afraid. And yet, if a bomb had fallen on the blocks [barracks], it alone would have claimed hundreds of victims on the spot. But we were no longer afraid of death; at any rate, not of that death. Every bomb that exploded filled us with joy and gave us new confidence in life” (p. 71).
In any event, Kitchens’ technical arguments about the various types of bombers miss the real point. The reason there is uncertainty today about which bombers would have been best suited to bomb Auschwitz—the reason that, in the end, Kitchens can only speculate—is because the War Department never studied the feasibility of bombing at the time. Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy repeatedly rejected requests to bomb Auschwitz as “impracticable.” In fact, the practicality of bombing the death camps had never been studied by the War Department; McCloy’s position was based on a secret decision by War Department officials, in February 1944, to refrain from participating in any special action on behalf of refugees on the grounds that “We are over there to win the war and not to take care of refugees.”
It does not matter whether the Defense Department agency where Kitchens once worked holds 70 million, or 700 million, documents. It does not matter that there were differences between World War II and the Vietnam War. Nor does it matter which religion an author practices (Kitchens, in his letter, makes the odd claim that “one’s religion” is “pertinent” in weighing historical evidence). What matters is that Kitchens’ claims about bombing Auschwitz are not substantiated by the evidence he has presented. He cannot expect to be taken seriously when he declares that “any Allied option to frustrate the Holocaust from the air was illusory,” never explaining that the Allies did bomb oil factories 5 miles from the gas chambers. He cannot expect to be taken seriously when he contends that technical obstacles prevented the bombing of Auschwitz, never mentioning the War Department decision that was the real reason for not bombing it. Are the fatal flaws in Kitchen’s theory the result of his unfamiliarity with the crucial issues beyond the design of particular aircraft, or are those flaws the result of an attempt to promote a particular agenda?
Purchase College, The State University of New York
* On pages 186 and 195, Kitchens vaguely, and in passing, refers to Allied strikes on “the Monowitz synthetic fuel/rubber plant,” without providing appropriate details or explaining their relevance to his thesis.
To the Editor:
I just had to respond to Stephen J. Whitfield’s piece on pageantry and politics, specifically The Eternal Road.
As it happens when the old JCC was built in Cleveland in 1960, the first production at the Blanche Halle Theater was The Eternal Road smack in the middle of my Werfel/Weill fascination (Three Penny Opera revivals were everywhere). I was there the first night sitting in the middle of a block of Orthodox patrons. As Whitfield intimates The Eternal Road was much more promise than fulfillment, in a word a bomb. The closest comparison I can summon up would be a failed Sunday School pageant.
As the curtain came down I was privileged to hear in accented English, the greatest drama criticism of my life. Putting on his wife’s coat the gentleman said, “I cried.” Turning in surprise, she asked, “For what?” “For the money,” he replied.
Very truly yours,
1. Richard H. Levy, “The Bombing of Auschwitz: A Critical Analysis,” in FDR and the Holocaust, ed. Verne W. Newton (New York, 1996), 225.
2. Rafael Medoff, “New Perspectives on How America, and American Jewry, Responded to the Holocaust,” American Jewish History 84: 3 (1996): 253.
3. Dina Porat, The Blue and Yellow Stars of David (Cambridge, MA, 1990), 216.
4. Shabtai Teveth, Ben-Gurion and the Holocaust (New York, 1996), 194.