Secrets of the Dead: Bombing Auschwitz premieres Tuesday, January 21 at 9|8c on PBS, pbs.org/secrets and the PBS Video app to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
As the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp approaches, Secrets of the Dead: Bombing Auschwitz investigates how the testimony of two escaped Jewish prisoners ultimately lead Allied forces to debate “the greatest moral dilemma of the 20th century.”
In April 1944, prisoners Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler escaped from Auschwitz and fled through Nazi-occupied Poland to find refuge in Žilina, Slovakia. There, they connected with the Jewish Underground and recounted what they left behind. Their harrowing testimonies were turned into a detailed report called the Auschwitz Protocol. The report revealed the true horror of the Holocaust to the outside world; it contained precise sketches of the camp’s gas chambers and described the horrifying extent of the Nazi extermination program.
Once the complete report reached the United States War Refugee Board in November 1944, there were several international calls for the U.S. government to bomb Auschwitz. However, some government officials warned against the feasibility of such an attack. Frustrated with the government’s lack of action, War Refugee Board director John Pehle leaked the Auschwitz Protocol to the press. Soon after, The Washington Post published a historic editorial on the atrocities at Auschwitz entitled “GENOCIDE,” which was the first time that word had ever been used in a national newspaper. The editorial sparked outrage among civilians in the U.S., leading to many organized protests urging the government to take action. Finally, on January 27, 1945 –nine months after Vrba and Wetzler gave their testimonies to the Slovakian Jewish Underground, Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet Army.
Below are images and excerpts from the Auschwitz Protocol.
“We were at once led into a huge barrack where on the one side we had to deposit all our luggage and on the other side completely undress and valuables behind. Naked, we then proceeded to an adjoining barrack where our heads and bodies were shaved and disinfected with Lysol. At the exit every man was given a number which began with 28,600 in consecutive order With this number in hand we were then herded to a third barrack where so-called registration took place. This consisted of tattooing the numbers we had received in the second barrack on the left side of our chests. The extreme brutality with which this was effected made many of us faint. The particulars of our identity were” also recorded. Then we were put in groups of a hundred into a cellar, and later to a barrack W here we were issued striped prisoners’ clothes and wooden dogs. This lasted until 10 a.m. In the afternoon our prisoners’ outfits were taken away from us again and replaced by the ragged and dirty remains of Russian uniforms. Thus equipped we were marched off to BIRKENAU…” – Excerpt from Auschwitz Protocol, courtesy of the U.S. War Refugee Board.