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June 24, 2015 10:00 am

Pope Francis: Why Didn’t US Bomb Auschwitz and Why Don’t We Take More Action Today?

avatar by Rafael Medoff /

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"Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work Brings Freedom") sign at Auschwitz I concentration camp. Photo: wiki commons.

“Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Brings Freedom”) sign at Auschwitz I concentration camp. Photo: wiki commons. – “The great powers had photographs of the railway routes that the trains took to… Auschwitz,” Pope Francis remarked this week.

“Tell me,” he asked, “why didn’t they bomb them?”

The pontiff’s question is not merely a matter of historical curiosity. It raises issues of morality, diplomacy, and American foreign policy with profound implications for our own times.

The reason the Allies had photos of the railways leading to Auschwitz is that throughout the spring of 1944, Allied planes conducted surveillance of the area in preparation for bombing German oil factories, some of which were less than five miles from the gas chambers and crematoria.

Yet when Jewish organizations asked the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration to bomb the railway lines or the death camp itself, U.S. officials replied that such an operation was not feasible because it would require “diverting” planes from the battlefield. That was false; those oil factories were very much a part of the battlefield.

Ironically, the administration did repeatedly divert military resources or change military plans for other non-military objectives—just not for the Jews. For example, an Air Force plan to bomb the Japanese city of Kyoto was blocked by Secretary of War Henry Stimson because he admired the city’s artistic treasures. Assistant Secretary of War McCloy diverted American bombers from striking the German city of Rothenburg in order to spare its famous medieval architecture. Allied ships were diverted to bring thousands of Muslims on a religious pilgrimage to Mecca in 1943—at the same time U.S. officials were saying no ships were available to take Jewish refugees out of Europe.

The Roosevelt administration opposed calls by Jewish groups to create a government agency to rescue Jewish refugees—but it established a government agency “for the protection and salvage of artistic and historic monuments in Europe.” (That episode was chronicled in the recent George Clooney film, “Monuments Men.”) General George Patton even diverted U.S. troops to rescue 150 of the prized Lipizzaner dancing horses in Austria, in April 1945.

Along these same lines, Pope Francis might ask Vatican historians about Allied policy concerning the bombing of Rome. In the summer of 1943, the Allied High Command was anxious to bomb Rome, since it was, as the New York Times put it, “a railway and communications center for Germany and Italian war material.” But Roosevelt feared Catholic voters would blame him if religious sites were damaged or if many civilians were harmed, so a slew of changes and restrictions were imposed on the military.

Leaflets were dropped on the city the day before the attack, warning that bombing was imminent, thus surrendering the advantage of surprise. The bombing was carried out in broad daylight, increasing the danger to the pilots’ lives, in order to make it easier to avoid religious shrines. The bombing crews were given maps showing religious and cultural buildings to be avoided, with the words “Must Not Be Harmed” stamped in large red letters. The bombardiers were ordered to refrain from dropping bombs if there was “any doubt” as to where the bombs would land.

Why the double standard? Why was the Roosevelt administration willing to undertake diversions from standard military policy when medieval artwork, or dancing horses, or Catholic shrines were in danger, but—as Pope Francis noted this week—it refused to “divert” a few bombs to strike the railways that were bringing hundreds of thousands of Jews to their deaths?

Internal memoranda between senior officials of the Roosevelt State Department during 1941-1943—the peak of the Holocaust—provide the tragic answer. One official, Cavendish Cannon, opposed rescuing Jews from Rumania because  it was “likely to bring about new pressure for an asylum in the western hemisphere… a migration of the Rumanian Jews would therefore open the question of similar treatment for Jews in Hungary and, by extension, all countries where there has been intense persecution.” His colleague Robert Alexander opposed rescuing Jews on the grounds that it would “take the burden and the curse off Hitler.” And R. Borden Reams warned of “the danger that the German government might agree to turn over to the United States and to Great Britain a large number of Jewish refugees.” An administration that viewed Jewish refugees as a “curse” and a “burden” was not going to take any steps that would leave it with large numbers of Jewish refugees on its hands.

Pope Francis made his Auschwitz remark while speaking to a group of young people about why they “find it hard to trust the world.” He was right—but why cite only the 1940s? Young people today see how the international community lets the architect of the Darfur genocide walk free, accuses Israel of war crimes for defending itself against war crimes, and yawns as the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons against civilians. It’s no easier to “trust the world” today than it was during the Holocaust.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is the founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. He recently won a Simon Rockower Award for Excellence in Jewish Journalism.

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  • Thomas the Catholic

    The history of the Roman Catholic Church is littered with ugly episodes of persecuting Jews. Guilty. And, I would like to offer a link about the Church’s role of sheltering Jews during World War 2. A link on the web is not the same as peer reviewed literature, of course. Yes, there are many, many Catholics who delighted in murdering Jews. Guilty. But, the Church herself did not do this and those within the Catholic hierarchy, who did, deviated from the Church’s official position. (I cannot think of one, but, I am sure that they can be named. I am not an expert.) At any rate, this is the link:

    Now, everything I know about the Church’s role in the sheltering of Jews is mentioned here. Martin Gilbert’s analysis are mentioned here, as well. I believe Martin Gilbert was mentioned in one of the comments below.

    Lastly, take the link with skepticism. I always do.

    • Dave

      I wouldn’t be writing this today if it weren’t for Catholoics in Poland hiding my Jewish parents in their home during the war at a great risk to themselves and thir family. They are heroes without a doubt. But that does not change the fact that historically the church was Antisemitic and actively or passively encouraged Jewish hatred. Whether blaming the Jews for killing Jesus or simply not accepting him as their savior, it was enough to persecute and kill Jews for generations. It is the theology of the Catholic Church that I object is still taught in some a Catholic circles. Why would the Pope bring up now the allies horrific betrayal of the Jews in the camps? Maybe to justify the inaction or not enough action of the church vis a vis the persecuted Jews?

  • Raja

    What hypocrisy ,this coming from the head of am organisation , that helped the nazis, launder all the stolen money, gold, diamonds and art work, through their banks, the Vatican knew what was going on, and played a vital part in it.

    Further more, they helped all the people who ran the camps, get away to south American, with Vatican state passports, dressed as priests and monks.

    Maybe the Pope, should be saying, why did none of his predecessors, call the authorities, when millions of children world wide, were getting raped off priests,why did his organisation sweep it under the carpet, hasn’t he heard of, “let him who cast the first stone”, don’t put the blame at anyone else’s door, when your people were part of machinery. One hand washes the other.

    • dante

      Raja, how about one issue at a time?

      it’s true that the Vatican, itself, has a horrible record and that Catholics and the church organization in many countries were active collaborators or indifferent witnesses is an indelible indictment of the RCCh. the number of Christian clergy or Christians who helped the persecuted was miniscule.

      but, that does not mean that this pope is wrong to lament the failure of the allies. on the contrary, he is right to do that.
      it is unfair to condemn a belated but constructive gesture because it is not comprehensive.

      on the other hand, Raja, one can say that the vatican’s recognition of the Arab non-state of “palestine” can only be seen as an offense against Israel, which the vatican refused to recognize for over 50 years following its independence, i.e. its actual existence as a state.

    • dante

      Medoff is great; he’s a careful, judicious scholar.

  • bea green JP BA

    I think Pope Francis is brave. His courage may have far-reaching effect.

    I am a 90 year old Bavarian-Jewish Brit. so I’ve seen and lived through a bit of history.

  • Joseph Feld

    Having said they could not spare planes to bomb the lines to Auschwitz, the US Air Force planes flew straight over Auschwitz death camp on the way to bomb a synthetic rubber plant in Auschwitz. The camp inmates expected the USAF to bomb the gas chambers, crematoria and railway, but the pilots knew nothing about this and flew straight over. When questions were asked one answer was that the USAF could not bomb Jewish civilians in Auschwitz.

  • Mercury

    Nice deflection by the Pope. Seems to me that the Catholic Church has had it’s own war against the Jewish People historically.

    • Joseph Feld

      You are completely correct, BUT during WW2 the Pope and the Italians fully rejected German racial theories, and supported the Jews. In Sir Martin Gilbert’s ‘The Righteous: Unsung Heroes of The Holocaust'[Doubleday 2002] he points out that wherever the Italian army was in charge, Jews were never harmed and this drove the Germans crazy! Sir Martin points out that when the Germans invaded Rome the churches rescued most Jews and Sir Martin suggests that one reason was that it was well known how much the Pope opposed German racial non-sense. Sir Martin Gilbert zl was one of the world’s authorities on WW2, author of about 80 volumes!

      • SARA RIFKA

        all sound like lies and deliverances….its still hatred and the topic and strategy changes when needed.

        the pope is the devil….the catholics and christians do not change and defining words of lies and hidden agendas means nothing to me….thanks for the above

        our children have never been returned nor have our traditional and sacred objects but lies and more lies erupt when needed to fill their pockets with gold.

        thank you england for saving poland…killing jews…..removing them for 400 years from your land…..not paying the debts or loans giving by the jewish population etc etc etc

        the are no secrets…..nice people are treated nice…..fakes should be delivered the similar shot they wish to inflict themselves

        you all make me laugh….all the wonderful candy coated words just so you can keep living as you do now……in america mainly

        and if so many jews voted for the black devil in america then i do think this 78 per cent should reconsider their own stand in being a jew and supporting Israel…..j street is worse then the church…..when one of your own factions supports their death then they don’t matter either.

        america….you are the evil ones…you have brought blood and dirt to the people of your land…..war mongers now have children doing the same but killing fields are schools, malls and streets

        what ever you have diarized above remember it is all not true….

  • Well said, and things have not changed, if anything, they are just returning like a boomerang and that is why Israel has to stand strong!!!!

  • Raymond Rakower

    To the best of my knowledge, Sir Winston Churchill fully agreed with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to forbid the allied bomber pilots to bomb the railroads leading to the death camps, the gas chambers. If my information is true, the same question can be asked to the British government. In the background, the Great Mufti of Jerusalem threatened Churchill to launch a Palestinian attack against the British North Africa’s army of Lord Montgomery to assist Rommel’s army prior of El Alamein battle if the Allies were to bomb those railroads. But this shouldn’t surprise us.

  • Nu, so what else is new? When Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany on 3rd September 1939, he was alleged to have said, “Americans and the world Jews had forced him (Chamberlain) into war”. This was apparently reported by Ambassador (Joseph) Kennedy. see Adolf Hitler by John Toland p 786 Ballantine Books 1976.

    • Joseph Feld

      Great Britain declared war because of its commitment to defend Poland. The USA was largely isolationist and only entered the war when Germany declared war on the USA following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The theory you mention sounds more like Ambassador Kennedy than Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain had to decide in the approach to war whether to fight the Arabs to defend Mandatory Palestine or support the Arab oil producers by closing the gates to Jews trying to enter Palestine. The Cabinet’s Palestine Committee notes show that Chamberlain gave priority to Arab oil.

      • DACON9

        steven L

        It is the Jews that misused and sold the term for arabs Also it was the Jews that misused the erm ”west bank”.

        This Vatican poop has rejected the history, the origins of Judaism IN THE holy land.

        This Vatican poop as blessed the arabs in gaza condemning the Jews numerous times.

        This Vatican poop supports arabs in order for arabs to wipe Jews off the map so he can say that this fulfills the prophesy(where I don’t know) thatjesux is coming and xtian replaced Jews

  • steven L

    It seems clear that Pope Francis has no idea that the Palestinians were in favor of Hitler’s plan to eliminate the Jews of Europe.

  • Pinchas Baram in Boston

    Absolutely brilliant article, Rafael. It MUST, repeat MUST, be disseminated to all Hebrew schools, Yeshiva high schools, secular colleges where Jewish or modern European history is taught, from coasts to coast– and in Israel, too. Not to mention other Jewish media and all Jewish organizations! God bless you. Your friend and colleague in Boston, Pinchas (Phillip) Baram

  • Cat K

    Its hard to trust those who promote the outrageous lie of global warming , a banking and taxing scheme that will only benefit a small group of elites and send the strggling middle class into poverty. Yes, hard to trust communism after its record of mass human murders. Hard to trust anti-Semitsim of anti-Israelism of a recognized “Palestinians State” that commits acts of terror and yet is never blamed.

  • rbockman

    Actually, the Pope’s got some nerve, the Vatican did nothing to help.

  • Al Hoffman

    My repeat, But let us not forget any who were there, nor those who helped make it right.
    And too, The Reich got oddly enough blessed by the pope of that time.

  • Julian Clovelley

    On 22 June 1941 Russia was forced into the Second World War as a result of Hitler’s invasion. In the case of America it took the bombing of Pearl Harbour to bring it into the War. That was not until almost the beginning of 1942

    The only nations that managed to hold out for well over two years were the United Kingdom, and the tiny, and quite incredibly heroic, nation of Malta.

    The kind of question asked here should be asked in the context of the reality that whilst the USA supplied materiel for war to the UK, it avoided direct involvement for over two years. The Holocaust could have been halted as early as 1939. That is the real tragedy in this. Had Roosevelt felt he could have maintained political support in America, including within his own party, against the Isolationists and the Right, the disaster just might have been halted in time for millions of people

    Hitler should never have received funding from so many of the rich in the United States. Henry Ford should never have written “The International Jew”. There should have been vast economic and political reform after the crash of 1929 in America, that would have led the reform of nations, and pulled the rug of social discord and dissatisfaction out from under the early Hitler’s feet

    The main reason for looking at this in relation to the present day, is that one sees Right Wing America heading down exactly the same path of not understanding the world. Right Wing Zionism is promoting the idea that the Jewish community should hitch a ride on their back – on the presumption the Republican Tiger will head in the direction extremist Zionism desires. To me that is the well trodden path to genocide.

    Heading permanently in the desired direction? – not so – as earlier generations learnt to their cost. In the case of the Right its direction is chosen out of short term pragmatism rather than long term consideration and planning. It is a spectrum which seamlessly includes Fascism and Nazism as extensions of Ultra Conservatism. The nightmare is but a short ideological train-ride away. Read Mussolini if you doubt me…

    The fellow traveller should perhaps remember the old adage:

    “Who rides a tiger – never dismounts”

    • Dave

      Cloveley, it is hard to tell who is a greater opponent of the State of Israel, Arabs or American liberals.

  • The papacy blessed those who warred against the Allies . And while it should have been of many, the reception of ships and those refuges on them, and sent help, Let us not forget the soldier who’s life went down to stop those who praised death. The Allies sent sons to turn back the tide of the Third Reich and Axis Powers. These were not tiny events.

  • Pope Francis should also ask why Pope Pius XII did not excommunicate Hitler, who was born a Catholic. Pope Francis should set a precedent and issue a post-mortem excommunication of Hitler.

  • Pearl Belkowitz

    Finally someone had the Chutzpah to address the elephant in the room. Where was the world?
    Not only for the six million Jews souls lost, but the five million others….the old, infirm, Priests, homosexuals. Need I go on?
    Where the Hell is the world today? And why is everyone pretending that it’s business as usual. The world was found wanting during the Holocaust. It’s just as indifferent today as it was back then.
    Now that we’ve invented really wonderful weapons of mass destruction, everyone wants to have the most.
    May there be peace in our children’s lifetimes.

  • Fred

    Why , why, why??? Because Hitler’s policy against the Jews was accepted world wide. The world specially the US under Roosevelt was complicit in its anti Semitic policy. The US took the lead and the rest followed. There was nor protest or opposition at the anti Jewish laws & actions in Germany or elsewhere. The doors were firmly shut by the so called democratic Nation to the Jews who tried to escape death ,even neutral Switzerland returned Jewish refugees and suggested that Germany put a capital “J ” in the Jewish Passport. No protestation by the then Pope as the church continued its anti Jewish dogma. Pope Francis to day embraces a sworn enemy of the Jewish people Abbas as an “Angel of Peace “who never wavers from the Arab mantra to destroy Israel & the Jewish people. No mea culpa an empty rethoric.

  • Dennis T

    Agree the US and GB, could have done much more, and certainly should have. Not sure our bombers could have reached that far east. USSR would not cooperate either.

    • Mark M

      US bombers could and did reach the area of Auschwitz to bomb nearby targets (synthetic rubber and oil plants). Specifically, reconnaissance flights in 1944 photographed the death camp as part of the preparation for bombings of targets in the area. It is quite common that on bombing missions several specific targets in the area could be designated. They could have designated bombing Auschwitz as a target on a mission to bomb a rubber plant. Something to think about is the war benefit of bombing the plant. It was well established that the German’s would devote critical wartime resources to killing Jews. In the war supply lines were critical to victory (or defeat). Yet the Germans repeated swamped critical rail lines with the transport of Jews to death camps and thereby starved their own troops fighting in Russia. They also prevented the evacuation of wounded. So, if they bombed Auschwitz it is reasonable to assume that the Germans would have diverted critical resources to rebuild the damage.

  • Yoel Nitzarim

    Lessons must be learned from these atrocious errors of the past. It is not enough to cite the instances of hatred in the more distant past, the recent past, and even the present which haunt any rational decent, moral human being. The lessons must be learned, deliberated, and applied accordingly to present instances of hatred throughout the world. It is not too late, it is never too late as long as there are human beings willing to deal with the ageless problem of hatred and do whatever is necessary to remediate and ameliorate the situation.

    In some six days a life-changing-game-chaging decision will take place regarding the Iran deal. Such a decision to take the deal off the table or go on with it as perhaps the greatest fiasco in human record.

    Who has the guts to face this Iranian monster and call it what it truly is: the ugliest, most contemptuous, inimical, ignoble, dastardly, ghastly, malevolent, sinful, putrid, rabid, mistaken, impure, evil monster that has ever roamed the earth?

    • Robert Weintraub

      None of the comments make mention of the American Jewish reaction to the Holocaust. The Jewish leadership never called upon the Jewish public to mobilize to demand action by FDR.

      Jewish owned newspapers notably the NY Times and Washington Post buried the story in their inside pages. Hollywood studios almost all owned by Jews produced hundreds of films during WWII none dealing with the Holocaust. Jewish heads of radio networks
      featured little coverage. The Jewish public continued to give 90% of its votes to FDR and the Democratic Party through the war.

      Not much has changed since. The support for Obama by
      American Jews continues to be strong. Despite his continued attacks on Israel 69% of American Jews voted for him in 2012. Hillary, notwithstanding her association with Obama, commands majority support among American Jews.

      Perhaps we should take a long look in the mirror before condemning other people.