For the JC by Jenni Frazer
It is a question asked repeatedly about the horrors of the Nazi genocide against the Jews: why, once the details had become known to the Allies, did they not destroy the railway lines and then bomb Auschwitz?
In a remarkable and painful programme to be screened on BBC2 on September 24, historians and survivors grapple with the answer to that question, as the chilling evidence is laid out in forensic detail for the first time on television.
“1944: Should We Bomb Auschwitz?” is a dramatised documentary written by Mark Hayhurst and focuses on the well-known escape from Auschwitz in April 1944 of two Jewish prisoners, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler.
What is less well-known is the agonisingly slow arrival in London and Washington of the full nature of what was going on in Auschwitz-Birkenau. And, besides experts such as Professor Deborah Lipstadt and the testimony of survivors such as Britain’s own Zigi Shipper, the programme introduces viewers to little-known heroes such as Rabbi Michael Weissmandl and John Pehle. Each played a vital part in the desperate fight to save those remaining European Jews from being murdered by the Nazis.
Vrba and Wetzler’s escape from the camp on April 10 1944 was made after three days of hiding in the outer perimeter of Auschwitz, disguising their scent from the SS sniffer dogs by surround themselves with tobacco soaked in petrol — a detail provided by Vrba’s first wife, Gerta Vrbova, now in her 90s.
By April 25 the two young men — Vrba was 20, Wetzler 26 — had made it to Zilina in Slovakia, where they were separately interrogated by Oscar Krasnansky, a leading member of the Jewish underground from Bratislava.
At times the combination of real-life testimony and that of the actors — David Moorst as Vrba and Michael Fox as Wetzler — is seamless.
Krasnansky’s task was to be sure that the two escapees were telling the truth. So he closely questioned them both, and the appalling details, together with almost-accurate diagrams of the crematoria and gas chambers, were assembled in what became known as the Auschwitz Protocol.
Vrba’s aim was to try to save the last great group of European Jews, those from Hungary, from being deported to Auschwitz. But it was already too late, even as Rabbi Michael Weissmandl was desperately sending copies of the Auschwitz Protocol to Jerusalem, London and Washington, adding his own special plea to the Allies — “For God’s sake, do something now, and quickly”. The rabbi, as the programme notes, was not only among the first to read the Auschwitz Protocol, but was the first to believe it.
But as the programme goes on to show, in May 1944 the Allies were in the process of preparing for D-Day. They were also fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, while the Soviet Army was repelling German forces in the east.
In Switzerland and Washington, a summary of the Auschwitz Protocol ended up on the desks of American officials Roswell McClelland and John Pehle. McClelland, who ran the War Refugee Board in Switzerland, had received the information from Rabbi Weissmandl; he then sent it on to Pehle in Washington.
Meanwhile, murder was continuing on an industrial scale at Auschwitz: around 125,000 people a month were being killed. And the Allies continued to talk. If they bombed, what about the civilians that they might kill? Would any bombing divert attention from winning the world war? Was an Allied attack even feasible, logistically?
Jewish Agency leaders Chaim Weizman and Moshe Shertok (Jonathan Tafler and Simon Mattacks) went to see Anthony Eden, then British Foreign Secretary, in London. They were initially received sympathetically: Churchill liked the idea, though Sir Archibald Sinclair of the Air Ministry did not.
As Professor Lipstadt observes: “No-one seemed to grasp that Auschwitz was part of the Nazi effort to wipe out an entire people”.
The terrible irony of the situation was that on September 13 1944 the Allies did bomb Auschwitz — but it was a mistake. The Allies had been aiming for the I G Farben factory, four miles away, in order to destroy its production of synthetic fuel.
Two months later, in November 1944, John Pehle finally received the entire Auschwitz Protocol. Appalled, he tried to persuade the US Secretary of State for War that bombing the camp was necessary — but he was told it was not possible.
So he leaked the Auschwitz Protocol to the American press, giving the public the dreadful details of the Nazi killing spree for the first time.
Professor Michael Berenbaum sums up the dilemma: “A moral protest in the wake of genocide is better than nothing.”