The Holocaust & The World

Auschwitz and the Allies.
by Martin Gilbert.
Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 368 pp. $15.95.

American Jewry and the Holocaust.
by Yehuda Bauer.
Wayne State University Press. 522 pp. $25.00.

Here are two books on related, but separate subjects. Martin Gilbert, the official Churchill biographer, has produced a study of when and how news about the Holocaust—or, more specifically, news about Auschwitz—reached Great Britain and America. Yehuda Bauer, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is concerned with one question only: did the Jews of America do as much as they could have done to save their brethren in Europe?

The Holocaust took place in stages, of which Auschwitz was the last, the longest, and the deadliest. The period leading up to the catastrophe—in a sense the prelude—came to an end late in 1940, more than a year after the war had begun. During these preliminary years, the Nazis sought to rid themselves of Jews (first those living in Germany, then those in the regions which came under German control) by means of expulsion. It was only after the rest of the world revealed its unwillingness to provide even limited havens for Jewish refugees, and increasing numbers of Jews began falling under German hegemony—Austrians, Czechs, and Slovaks, the three-and-a-half million Jews of Poland, the Jews of Western Europe and Scandinavia, and eventually, the millions in the Soviet Union—that the Nazis turned from mere physical expulsion to mass murder.

The history of this period, as Gilbert reiterates it, is a chilling story of international indifference to unmistakable, continual warnings of impending doom: the utter failure of the 1938 Evian Conference initiated by the U.S.; the 1939 British White Paper restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine; the advent of ghettoization and the Yellow Star in Poland by the end of 1939; the establishment of internment camps in Vichy France in 1940—all this in full view of Allied observers, including American diplomats (still neutral at the time), members of the press, and private individuals. Terrible as this history is, however, it is not yet the story of calculated genocide.

The program of actual murder was not activated until a year or so later, after the Germans had discarded various resettlement schemes (mass deportation to Madagascar, a vast “Lublin reservation,” etc.). Attached to the Wehrmacht units which smashed into Soviet-occupied areas and into the USSR itself in June 1941 were SS Einsatzgruppen (action-squads), whose task it was to cleanse each newly-conquered farmland, village, town, and city, first of Jews, then of other classes of undesirables. The method employed, still somewhat cumbersome though quite thorough, was mass shooting. By early 1942, the Einsatzgruppen had murdered nearly a million Jews.

Although in the end perhaps a fifth of all the victims of the Holocaust were put to death by these shooting squads, this first stage was essentially over in a matter of months. It was not until January 1942 that the Wannsee Conference was convened for the purpose of adopting the Final Solution policy (“Endlosung”) for all of Europe’s Jews within Germany’s grasp.

The second stage of the Holocaust—the establishment of the conveyor-belt mass murder centers at Chelmno, Sobibor, Treblinka, Belzec, Maidanek, and eventually Auschwitz-Birkenau—may be dated to just before this Wannsee juncture. The gas chambers at the first five of these death centers became operational at different points during and immediately after the autumn of 1941; they remained primary sites for the annihilation of Polish Jewry until late 1943, by which time most of the major Polish ghettos had been liquidated. The names and function of most of these extermination “camps” were known to Allied governments by the summer of 1942.

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Walter Laqueur has traced in meticulous detail the various routes by which this information made its way out of Nazi Europe and into the hands of Jewish organizations, the Polish government-in-exile, and, eventually, the men in the corridors of power in London and Washington.1 Secret couriers operating on behalf of ad-hoc rescue groups transmitted news by way of constantly changing underground channels; information was relayed by mail, by word of mouth, by photograph, and by clandestine radio signal. The messengers were Jewish survivors, Polish resistance fighters, journalists, diplomats, a handful of conscience-stricken Germans, and disparate others.

The Allied response was negligible: the Atlantic Charter Declaration of December 17, 1942 announced officially that Europe’s Jews were the special target of a “cold-blooded extermination” design, and threatened retribution; but the Bermuda Conference, convened in the spring of 1943 (simultaneously with the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto), revealed that in the whole of the Allied and neutral world, there existed still virtually no points of asylum, even for those few Jews who might manage to escape the clutches of the Nazis.

During this time, according to Gilbert, Auschwitz was still a secret. It went into operation as a murder facility in May 1942 and soon became the principal mass-murder site. It was to Auschwitz that the cattle trains rolled from France, Holland, Belgium, and Salonika, as well as from nearby Cracow, transporting Jews to their final destination. The phenomenal pace of murder at Auschwitz continued to accelerate during the weeks and months after D-Day, as the Germans shipped the Jews of Hungary to their doom and rounded up remnant communities elsewhere, from Paris to Lodz. The Nazis raced the clock as Allied armies advanced, determined to achieve as near a total victory as possible in their war against the Jews, even while recognizing the inevitability of defeat in the military war against the Allies.

Thus Auschwitz—the final stage of the Holocaust—served as Germany’s primary tool in the pursuit of this end. And Auschwitz proved equal to the challenge, consuming nearly 10,000 Jews a day during the summer of 1944, even as the Red Army approached and American bombers roared overhead. The Zionist-sponsored plan to bomb the railway lines leading to the camp—first ignored, then buried, and finally rejected as impractical by British and American officials—was conceived and advanced that spring and summer for the purpose of bringing Auschwitz to a halt. And at precisely that time, Jewish leaders begged the Allies at least to feign consideration of the German “Blut Gegen Währe” (blood for goods) proposal, in order to stall, if only temporarily, what Adolf Eichmann, in ominous tirades directed at Hungarian Jewish rescue workers, would call “the mills of Auschwitz.”

Gilbert’s survey of the history of Auschwitz is valuable, as is his painstaking study of how the death camp remained undiscovered, despite its vast size and international character and despite the flow of information to the West about the other principal components of the genocide process. Of particular interest is his treatment of how, finally, the secret was revealed—in the spring of 1944, four escaped inmates managed to reach Slovakia and deliver detailed reports to local Jewish leaders. These were subsequently transmitted to Jewish rescue officials in Geneva and to emissaries of the Vatican. Here Gilbert draws on British and American state papers as well as on the memoirs of some of the participants in this desperate effort to pierce the silence and save the still surviving Jews of Hungary.

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But would the fate of Europe’s Jews have been any different if the existence of Auschwitz had been recognized earlier? Gilbert offers no evidence to support the suggestion. With regard to the British, his study is further confirmation of what Bernard Wasserstein concluded in Britain and the Jews of Europe (1979)2: that British officialdom, for a complex of reasons, showed no interest in coming to the aid of the Jews. These reasons included perceived policy considerations involving Palestine and the Arabs; fairly pervasive anti-Semitism; a petty, legalistic emphasis on the status of Jewish refugees as enemy aliens; and an obsessive concern with the possibility of planted German spies among the refugees.

These last two false issues in particular bear witness to an astonishing degree of imperviousness on the part of London to the enormity of the crime in progress. In September 1944, for example, in response to yet another plea by a Jewish leader, an official of the Foreign Office noted: “In my opinion, a disproportionate amount of the time of this Office is wasted on dealing with these wailing Jews.” By then Auschwitz was no longer a secret, as it had been earlier in the war when the bureaucrat in the Colonial Office directly responsible for Jewish immigration commented in the margin of an eyewitness report of German atrocities: “Familiar stuff. The Jews have spoilt their case by laying it on too thick in years past.” Even a Prime Minister as sympathetic to the plight of European Jewry as Gilbert shows Winston Churchill to have been, could not move his own government to contemplate rescue.

The U.S. government emerges in these pages both as less overtly hostile to Jewish concerns and as generally less involved with the entire matter. Certainly some lives were saved as a consequence of intervention by the War Refugee Board, set up by President Roosevelt in 1944. But hitherto Washington’s response was scarcely more activist than London’s. The Board itself was simply far too little, far too late—as well as something of a vehicle for personal aggrandizement by politically ambitious self-promoters, inept at rescue work.

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Gilbert’s emphasis on Auschwitz somewhat obscures the fact that in spite of Nazi secrecy a great deal was known about the ongoing campaign of genocide very early on—still London and Washington did not respond. It seems inaccurate to attribute the Allied failure to act, as Gilbert does, first to an inability to coordinate intelligence information and then, only secondarily, to a lack of sympathy. Rather, it was a fundamental lack of sympathy which made Allied officials lackadaisical about coordinating the information available and determining earlier exactly what the Germans were doing, how, and where.

Gilbert’s treatment of another key issue must also be called into question. Although he describes in detail the proposals for bombing the Auschwitz railway lines, and demonstrates conclusively that a number of influential Allied officials were set against the idea and determined to undermine it, Gilbert then goes on implicitly to fault Jewish organizations, in particular the Jewish Agency, for not having made the bombing demand a first priority. Gilbert asserts that these organizations were deceived by Nazi proposals during the spring and summer of 1944 to barter money or goods for Jewish lives. But even if the Germans were never really serious about these various schemes, the painful eagerness of Jewish organizations to seize upon them seems neither surprising nor culpable. More to the point, this readiness to grasp at any straw is in no way related to the Allied failure to bomb the railroads. For even if the bombing scheme had been the only rescue proposal advanced by Jewish organizations from the spring of 1944 on, it is safe to say that the tracks would still not have been destroyed—the death trains would have continued to roll.3

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Yehuda Bauer does not share Gilbert’s certainty that the Germans were entirely insincere about negotiating for Jewish lives. His book sheds fascinating light on the various contacts that did take place between Jewish organizations and the Nazis during the latter part of the war, and amply supports his assessment that the Germans were indeed prepared to spare Jews in exchange for goods, or monetary bribes, or even, at the very end, good will. Some Germans took quite seriously their own propaganda about the vast, mysterious power of international Jewry and thus, as the end drew near, hoped to ingratiate themselves with the Allies—and perhaps even negotiate a separate peace—by sparing Jewish lives.

The essential message of Bauer’s study is brutally succinct: the Jews in the West could not, by themselves, have rescued their brethren in significant numbers; the Allies could have, but would not. This detailed history of the rescue efforts of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is a study in heroism, sacrifice, and—given the conditions under which these efforts were undertaken—of considerable achievement. Bauer does not hesitate to identify mistakes that were made, errors of analysis which led to misallocation of time, funds, manpower, and lobbying potential. Still, a consistent theme in this impressive volume is that the outcome would not have been significantly different even if the Jews had committed no errors of judgment, and had recognized from the start that the very worst, was, in fact, the reality.

Jewish reluctance to come to terms with what was actually happening undoubtedly resulted in a collective act of psychological denial. But there is a difference between that denial and the suppression practiced by Allied officials. The Jews of the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency, numbed by pain and horror, were prone to a self-deception born of the natural human need to keep hope alive. The suppression practiced by the Allies stemmed from willful indifference. It was they who possessed the power of rescue on a mass scale, and failed to make use of it.

1 The Terrible Secret, Little, Brown (1980). Sections of this book appeared in COMMENTARY, December 1979 and March 1980.

2 Reviewed in COMMENTARY, February 1980 by David Vital. The recent publication in England of the second volume of the Official History of British Intelligence in the Second World War provides evidence that the British government did in fact know about Auschwitz as early as 1942. See Walter Laqueur, “The Untold Story of World War II,” the New Republic, October 14, 1981.

3 See also “Why Auschwitz Was Never Bombed,” by David Wyman, COMMENTARY, May 1978.

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