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September 30, 2022 11:15 am
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Auschwitz Was Not Bombed Because the World Didn’t Care

avatar by Jacob Sivak

Opinion

The sign “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes you free”) is pictured at the main gate of the former Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland. Reuters/Pawel Ulatowski

On March 5, 1943, the British air force bombed and destroyed a Krupp facility that produced artillery detonators (fuses) in the city of Essen, Germany. The production center was then relocated to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex in Poland, to make it less vulnerable to bombers based in Britain. The availability of slave labor was an added attraction.

After a train carrying Krupp machinery to the new plant at Auschwitz was bombed as well, the venture was taken over by Weischel Union Metallwerke. Operations began in late 1943, with a production goal of one-half million detonators per month.

The munitions factory, commonly called the Union, is described in a 1996 book, “The Union Kommando at Auschwitz,” by Lore Shelley, which contains the accounts of 36 former Union workers and includes descriptions of the Sonderkommando revolt, which took place on October 7, 1944, when one of the Auschwitz crematoria was blown up with gunpowder smuggled from the Union.

The Union employed about 2,000 slave laborers, mostly young Jewish women. It was housed in a very large single story building, the shell of which still exists. The work was carried out in two 12 hour shifts, a day shift and a night shift. Initially, the poorly clothed and shod women had to walk several kilometers to and from the factory from barracks in Birkenau. Later, they were housed next to the plant.

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The question of whether the Allies could have or should have bombed the railway lines into Auschwitz during the waning months of World War II continues to be a contentious Holocaust issue. It was brought up again during the third episode of the recent three-part documentary on the US and the Holocaust, aired by PBS.

By 1944, it was already too late for a majority of those murdered during the Holocaust. Yet it was abundantly clear that the extermination machine at Auschwitz was still operating at full capacity, in spite of the fact that the tide of the war had turned against the Nazis and their allies. From mid to late 1944, the gas chambers and crematoria were consuming as many as 15,000 human beings a day, most of them Hungarian Jews. 

Realizing that a significant number of the Jews in Nazi hands could still be saved if the efficiency of the murder machine could be interrupted, Jewish leaders in the US and the land then known as Palestine appealed to the Allies to bomb the railway lines into Auschwitz. The appeals led nowhere.

One objection to bombing Auschwitz — that the range was too far for American and British bombers — was clearly untrue. A nearby IG Farben plant that manufactured synthetic rubber and liquid fuels was bombed more than once. Other objections raised — that the railways could be quickly repaired, or that concentration camp inmates might be killed — were not convincing. Railway bridges were not easily repaired, and bombing the railways would not unduly endanger the inmates.

The one compelling argument — that bombing Auschwitz would divert airpower away from military targets and hinder the drive to win the war as quickly as possible — begs the question: did the Allies know about Union? Probably. Certainly, by mid-1944, reports about Auschwitz referred to the Union (Krupp) factory. Moreover, it was important enough to have been bombed once before in a different location.

So why was Auschwitz not bombed? Yad Vashem sums up the sad truth: Auschwitz was not bombed to save Jewish lives because the Allies’ desire to help the Jews was not as strong as the Nazis’ desire to murder them.

Jacob Sivak, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, is a retired professor, School of Optometry and Vision Science, University of Waterloo

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