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S18 Ep2

Bombing Auschwitz

Premiere: 1/21/2020 | 00:00:30 | Closed Captioning Icon

Join historians, survivors and experts as they consider one of the great moral dilemmas of the 20th century. Should the Allies have risked killing Auschwitz prisoners and bombed the camp to stop future atrocities?



About the Episode

Secrets of the Dead: Bombing Auschwitz premiered Tuesday, January 21 at 9 p.m. on PBS, and the PBS Video app to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.


In April 1944, Jewish prisoners Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler miraculously escaped from Auschwitz concentration camp and fled through Nazi-occupied Poland to find refuge in Žilina, Slovakia, where they connected with the Jewish Underground. Once safe, they recounted what they left behind. Their harrowing testimony revealed the true horror of the Holocaust to the outside world, describing in forensic detail the gas chambers and the full extent of the Nazi extermination program.

While millions of troops fought on both fronts and battled for supremacy in the air during World War II, Nazi forces continued to deport Jews to the concentration camp.  As Vrba and Wetzler’s account made its way to Allies, the idea of bombing the camp was discussed at the highest levels of government. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Allied Air Commanders, the American War Refugee Board and the Jewish Agency were presented with one of the greatest moral questions of the 20th century: Should we bomb Auschwitz and risk killing Jewish prisoners in the camp to stop future atrocities?

Secrets of the Dead: Bombing Auschwitz explores this dilemma through dramatic recreations of arguments that took place on both sides of the Atlantic and first-hand testimony from historians, survivors and expert voices. January 27, 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Running Time: 60 minutes

Film Interviewees

  • Michael Berenbaum – co-editor, “The Bombing of Auschwitz”
  • John Bew – author, “RealPolitik: A History”
  • Hedy Bohm – Auschwitz survivor
  • Judy Cohen – Auschwitz survivor
  • Tami Davis Biddle – author, “Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare”
  • Max Eisen – Auschwitz survivor
  • Rebecca Erbelding – author, “Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe”
  • Zdenka Fantlova – Auschwitz survivor
  • Deborah Lipstadt – author, “Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust”
  • William D. Rubinstein – author, “The Myth of Rescue”
  • Zigi Shipper – Auschwitz survivor
  • Gerta Vrbová – first wife of Auschwitz escapee Rudolf Vrba
  • Nikolaus Wachsmann – author, “KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps”
  • Lenka Weksberg – Auschwitz survivor


  • April 1944: The harrowing testimony of Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, Jewish prisoners who escaped the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, was turned into a detailed report known as The Auschwitz Protocol.
  • May 1944: The Auschwitz Protocol reached Rabbi Michael Weissmandl, who secretly worked for the Jewish Underground in Slovakia. Weissmandl sent the protocol to Roswell McClelland at the War Refugee Board in neutral Switzerland with a plea for help and a demand for Allied air forces to bomb Auschwitz. Later, McClelland sent a cable containing a summary of the protocol and the plea to bomb the camp to the headquarters of the War Refugee Board in Washington, D.C.
  • June 29, 1944: War Refugee Board director John Pehle passed the recommendations to bomb Auschwitz to John McCloy, Assistant Secretary of War, who was not inclined to divert resources from the war to stop the mass murder happening at the camp.
  • July 6, 1941: Jewish Agency representatives Chaim Weizmann and Moshe Shertok met with Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden in London, where he was presented with The Auschwitz Protocol and a memo from U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill urging the bombing of Auschwitz. Eden then summoned Head of Air Ministry Sir Archibald Sinclair to discuss the feasibility of a raid.
  • September 13, 1944: Allied forces accidentally bombed Auschwitz, killing 40 prisoners and 15 SS troops, while attempting to bomb a nearby IG Farben factory.
  • Early November 1944: John Pehle received the complete The Auschwitz Protocol and shared the report with John McCloy who informed him that bombing Auschwitz was not “feasible from a military standpoint.” Failing to get the War Department involved, Pehle leaked The Auschwitz Protocol to newspapers.
  • November 1944: With the tide of the war turning, the Nazis began dismantling the gas chambers at Auschwitz in an effort to destroy evidence of their crimes – and accelerated their efforts with the new media attention.
  • December 3, 1944: The Washington Post published an editorial on the atrocities titled “Genocide,” marking the first time the word appeared in a national newspaper.
  • January 27, 1945: Nine months after Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler gave their testimony to the Jewish Underground, Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet Army.

Series Overview

Now in its 18th season, Secrets of the Dead continues to captivate PBS viewers on air, online and beyond, using the latest scientific discoveries to challenge prevailing ideas and throw fresh light on historical events. Secrets of the Dead is available for streaming simultaneously on all station-branded PBS platforms, including and the PBS Video app, which is available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast. PBS station members can view episodes via Passport (contact your local PBS station for details).

Websites: #SecretsDeadPBS

Production Credits

Secrets of the Dead: Bombing Auschwitz is an Oxford Films production for BBC, in association with Ventana-Film GmbH and THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET. Produced and directed by Tim Dunn. Written by Mark Hayhurst. Narrated by Jay O. Sanders. Susan Jones and Nicolas Kent are executive producers for Oxford Films. Stephanie Carter is executive producer for Secrets of the Dead.


Funding for Secrets of the Dead is provided by public television viewers. Additional funding for Secrets of the Dead: Bombing Auschwitz is provided by the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism.


♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ [ Dog barking ] ♪♪♪ -In April 1944, with the outcome of World War II hanging in the balance, two Jewish prisoners lay hidden near the outer fence of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

-It was almost impossible to escape from Auschwitz.

[ Dog barking ] -So many people were caught almost immediately and tortured and killed.

[ Dog growls, barks ] ♪♪♪ -The dogs didn't sniff them out because they put tobacco soaked in petrol around the hiding place.

[ Radio chatter ] They managed to stay there undetected for 3 days.

-On April 10th, they abandoned their hiding place and cut through the fence.

-They had to be audacious. They had to be brave.

They escaped in order to warn the world that Auschwitz was a killing mechanism.

-Their eyewitness account of the mass extermination of European Jews would lead to one of the greatest moral questions of the 20th century.

-[ Breathing heavily ] -'Bombing Auschwitz.'

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -This killing complex can turn several thousands of human beings into ash in just 24 hours.

♪♪♪ -The failure to bomb Auschwitz, no one gave a damn.

They didn't care. They didn't want to do it.

-Auschwitz should've had the most outrageous response while it was happening, and that's a moral failure of the West.

-The greatest crime in modern history went on for 2 years unimpeded.

More than one million people perished by gas, and there was evidence of what was happening.

♪♪♪ [ People coughing ] Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler fled through Nazi-occupied Poland to the Slovakian town of Zilina, where they made contact with the Jewish Underground.

-If they were caught, they were dead.

The SS would brutally torture them in order to find out how exactly they'd managed to get away and then kill them.

-Vrba and Wetzler made it to a safe house.

They were desperate to complete their mission to let the world know what was happening to Jews in Poland.

♪♪♪ Oskar Krasnansky of the Jewish Underground was sent to interview the two men.

-My name is Krasnansky, from Bratislava.

How do I know you're not fantasists wasting my time?


I asked him, 'Why have you put this tattoo on your arm?'

And then he looked at me, and he said, 'Where did you think I have been, in a sanatorium?'

And that's when he told me that he has been to Auschwitz.

-You must tell me everything, every detail that you know about Auschwitz-Birkenau.


Auschwitz is a killing center.

-Not here, not now. Separately.

-The extermination of the Jews was carried out in great secrecy.

It wasn't advertised.

Therefore, until then, we had no cogent or clear description of what went on.

♪♪♪ -Auschwitz is not a household name in early 1944.

-There's a lot of confusion over, 'What is this place?'

And so at the beginning, people just knew that Jews were being taken to Nazi-occupied Poland.

-The Polish Underground had managed to smuggle some information about the camp outside, but on the whole, this information is fragmentary and sometimes contradictory.

♪♪♪ -Vrba and Wetzler's interrogation was meticulously recorded, as if in a court of law.

-How did you escape?

-We kept to the forest traveling only by night.

-How long were you in Auschwitz?

-I arrived there on the 30th of June, 1942.

-We've heard rumors that Jews are killed there by gas machines and by mass electrocution.

-When you look at the way he did it, the professionalism, it reflects that this was someone who knew the information he was getting was potentially a game changer.

-The interview was done with the idea of, 'We might bring legal charges, and we are going to get nothing but the facts.'

-The perimeter wire is electrified.

-There are gas installations, gas chambers.

-Go on.

-Four gas chambers with crematoria for burning.

The first crematorium opened in March 1943 when prominent guests from Berlin arrived to see the new installation.

That day, they were able to witness 8,000 Jews from Krakow gassed and burned.

They were very pleased with that result.

-How do you know all this?

-I worked in the Birkenau section of the camp.

My daily duties including registering the survivors of each transportation, meaning those who had survived the train journey and had not on arrival at Auschwitz been selected for the gas.

I also got information about the precise operation of the gas chambers and crematoria from one of the sonderkommando.


-You really know no nothing, do you?

♪♪♪ -The prisoners in Auschwitz-Birkenau who knew best what happened at the gas chambers and the crematoria were the members of the so-called sonderkommando.

These were prisoners who were forced by the SS to assist in the killing and cremation at the crematoria itself.

♪♪♪ -Rudy and Freddie felt that they needed to have facts that would convince people that this really is happening, and it was their idea to write a report that could be distributed and shown as evidence.

-Vrba and Wetzler wanted to include as much granular evidence as they could in their report, and that included some drawings.

♪♪♪ -Auschwitz is a massive place, and it builds up over time and in different ways, so the first camp is Auschwitz I, which opens in 1940.

Later, they add Birkenau a few miles away, which is where the gas chambers and the crematorium are located.

-This is an approximate sketch of the dark heart of Auschwitz main camp and Birkenau.

This is one of the gas chambers and crematoria that the SS constructed in Birkenau.

It's striking how much Vrba and Wetzler got right about the layout of the camp, the mechanics of mass extermination, and even down to the names of individual prisoners.

♪♪♪ -At the end of January, a large convoy of French and Dutch Jews arrived at Auschwitz, but only a small proportion of those reached the camp.

-What happened to the rest of them?

-They went straight from the trains to the gas chambers.

-Did you see these selections yourself?


I belonged to a work command that took me to a place called the Ramp, which is where the trains came in, sometimes one a day, sometimes five, sometimes through the night.

My job was to deal with the personal property of those Jews who'd been selected for the gas and to collect any dead bodies from the cattle cars.

♪♪♪ -He sees how Jews are forced off the trains.

He sees how they have to line up.

He sees how the SS selects them and sends those deemed to be weak and ill and not fit for work towards the gas chambers... ...and this really gives Vrba a direct insight.

He becomes an eyewitness of the Holocaust.

-Women, children, old people, people they considered unfit sent straight to the gas chambers.

The fittest were separated out and kept for labor.

-How many? -It varied.

A small percentage, 5% or 10%. -All this was done with force?

-Sometimes, but usually without.

These people had no idea where they were going.

I want to emphasize this.

A train would pull in, and those getting off would have no conception of what had just happened to those who'd arrived a few hours before.

-They were describing the details of genocide.

How was it done?

You're asking people to believe something that was literally beyond belief.

-How did the SS deal with these arrivals?

-Some of the groups would be frightened, disorientated.

Others would be almost relieved, depending on how they'd been greeted by the SS.

Sometimes they could be harsh, using the sticks, dogs, lots of shouting.

Other times, it would be, 'How nice that you have arrived.

We are sorry it was not too comfortable.

Things will change now.'

-Vrba's testimony had a horrifying climax -- the Nazi's new plan for Auschwitz-Birkenau.

-They are preparing for the extermination of the Hungarian Jews.

-How do you know that?

-That is why they have built the new crematorium and extended the Ramp.

-I said, 'How do you know the intent to kill the Hungarian Jews?'

-The SS, they talk. -To you?

-I am dirt. To each other.

I heard it more than once.

-Are you certain you heard this?

I have to ask. Are you certain?

-I heard it more than once.

It is why I knew I had to escape -- to warn people of what is to come.

♪♪♪ -Two days later, on April 27, 1944, Vrba's warning came true.

-Auschwitz becomes the center of the Holocaust, and the catalyst for that is the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944.

-The first 4,000 Jews were sent by train from Hungary to Auschwitz.

-Hungary had the largest mostly intact Jewish community in Europe, and the persecution starts almost immediately.

-It was a dress rehearsal for the planned annihilation of all 800,000 Hungarian Jews.

-I would argue that the Nazis are losing the war, and therefore, they're trying to win the genocide.

-The Nazis kept their extermination program a closely guarded secret to avoid resistance and disruption on the trains, but it was no longer secret.

Vrba and Wetzler's harrowing testimony was turned into a detailed report, 'The Auschwitz Protocol.'

-'The Auschwitz Protocol' is very scientific.

There isn't a lot of emotion, and I think that was a deliberate choice on the part of the escapees.

They weren't going to express their horror.

The horror is there.

♪♪♪ -Thanks to 'The Protocol,' Jewish activists in Slovakia learned of the Nazis' plans for the Hungarian Jews, so the duty to act was theirs.

-Everybody who worked as a courier had to be prepared to lose their own life.

They would've been tortured to reveal where they'd gotten it.

The last thing in the world Germany wanted to happen was that this information got out.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -In the first week of May 1944, 'The Protocol' reached Michael Weissmandl, who secretly worked for the Jewish Underground in the Slovakian capital.

-Rabbi Weissmandl was a very passionate man.

He's in Slovakia to rescue people.

♪♪♪ His sole goal is to take care of his community, and he does it with whatever means he possibly can.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -Weissmandl was not only among the first to read these documents, but he was the first to fully believe these documents.

-'The Protocol' was devastating for Weissmandl.

He had witnessed deportations.

He now realized the full horror that awaited those who were forced to leave.

-Weissmandl is sending this report everywhere he can think of.

He's trying to get it to the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem.

He's trying to get it to London, hopefully to the United States.

He's sending them all in the hopes that one cry in the darkness will be heard.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -Our bedroom door is knocked down, and two gendarmes are in our bedroom yelling and screaming.

'You have 2 minutes to pack a bundle.

We are taking you away.' -'Give up your jewelry.

Give up anything you have in possession.'

-My father looked at us as though he wanted to save this picture in his memory of the family... -He said, 'Get out of the house.'

-...and said only this sentence.

'Just stay calm.

Remember, calmness is strength,' and they hit him, pushed him through the door, and he was out.

-The rabbi was an elderly gentleman with a white beard.

He was made to walk in the front of the columns.

It was symbolic.

The Jews are leaving town.

-As the Nazis ramped up their extermination program in the spring of 1944, the rest of the world was focused on events elsewhere.

The war had reached a critical juncture.

-What was going on at that very time in the United States and Britain was the preparations for D Day, on which the total outcome of the war depended.

Now, this took precedence over everything.

-The Pacific war was going on for the Americans, and that was an immense, Herculean effort.

They knew that as they moved closer to Japan, the fight was going to get harder and harder because the Japanese were terrifically fierce fighters.

-On the other side of Europe, the Soviet Army at the time was working full-steam.

Stalin basically destroyed the entire German Army in some of the greatest battles of modern history.

-While the Allies concentrated on the battlefield, 'The Protocol' gained momentum.

Weissmandl's transmission reached Roswell McClelland at the War Refugee Board in neutral Switzerland.

♪♪♪ -Is this it? -The War Refugee Board was established by Roosevelt in early 1944, and it was the only body anywhere in the world which specifically had the task of rescuing Jews.

♪♪♪ -They were selected for gassing.

-It gives the impression of the antechamber of a bathing establishment.

It holds 2,000 people.

From there, a door and a few steps lead down into the very long and narrow gas chamber.

-Roswell McClelland had a very personal reaction because he had gone to Southern France working with Jews in internment camps in 1942, and he knows intimately who these people are.

He had watched them go to Auschwitz, and now he's reading about what happened to them.

-When Rabbi Weissmandl sent 'The Protocol,' he added a dramatic postscript.

It was an appeal for help but also a rebuke to those who might refuse.

-And you, our brothers in all the free lands, what are you doing about the extermination which swallows 10,000 every day?

For God's sake, do something now and quickly.

-He turned the question of what to do about the death camp into one of the great moral issues of the 20th century.

He demanded that the Allied air forces bomb Auschwitz.

He was the first to do so.

-His call to bomb Auschwitz was essentially a call of desperation and a call of despair.

-It's quite remarkable because they're demanding that they bomb a camp where their own people are being held prisoner.

It seemed very strange.

-The clock was ticking.

McClelland sent a summary of 'The Protocol' to Washington.

-Switzerland is completely surrounded by Nazi territory.

You can't have a courier go in and out, so Roswell McClelland sends a cable and said, 'As soon as I can, you'll get the whole thing.'

-Since early summer 1942, at least 1.5 million Jews have been killed.

There is evidence that from January 1944, preparations were being made to receive and exterminate Hungarian Jews in these camps.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -For 3 days and 3 nights, we were locked into that box... -Every morning, we were traveling.

They opened those shutters, and they threw out dead bodies.

-...with a tiny window for air and one pail for bodily needs, which turned out to be very, very embarrassing and unpleasant.

-Something has always been going around in my mind, and I can't get rid of it, and I feel so ashamed.

♪♪♪ Tell me, how can a 14-year-old child... ...hope people should die so he'll have room where to sit down?

♪♪♪ -It was early in the morning that we arrived.

-The door opened and screams.

[ Speaking German ] -And through the slits of the cart that we were in, I saw the word Auschwitz.

I didn't have a clue what it was.

-Nazi soldiers standing there with rifles pointing at us.

Others holding back snarling big dogs that were barking at us.

-The first thing was... [Inhales] You breathe in, and it's a very strange smell.

It was sort of sweetish and burning.

-I thought, 'It's a bakery, and they're baking bread.'

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -And then I noticed that to the left when people older and with glasses and children and women... -My mother, my two little brothers, and my baby in my mother's arm, my grandfather, grandmother, and my aunt... -My mother went to the left. -With a flick of his hand to the left, they were walked off.

-We didn't even have time to say goodbye.

-And that's when I saw my father the last time.

He was 60 years old.

-Roswell McClelland's cable containing a summary of 'The Auschwitz Protocol' and the plea to bomb the camp traveled from Switzerland to the headquarters of the War Refugee Board in Washington.

-It is urged by all sources of this information in Slovakia and Hungary that vital sections of the rail lines be bombed.

They also urge that the camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, especially the gas chambers and crematoriums, recognizable by their high chimneys, be bombed from the air.

-The director of the War Refugee Board was a lawyer named John Pehle.

The decision about what to do with this startling information fell on his shoulders.

-John Pehle was very measured, and he was very diligent and dogged.

He's not cynical.

He really does believe that the United States can try to save people.

-Would you please ask Dr. Akzin to step through to my office?

Oh, and hold all incoming calls until he leaves.

-When people saw the level of detail in this atrocity, they recognized that this was something different.

This was something horrifying.

[ Knock on door ] -Ben, I want you to take a look this.

-Benjamin Akzin is a lawyer.

He grew up in Latvia and was an incredibly intelligent man.

He's Jewish.

He certainly still had family and friends back in Europe.

He sees the War Refugee Board as a place where he can do some good.

♪♪♪ -This is... It's inconceivable.

-Incredible, unbelievable.

-125,000 a month?

You can go straight to the President with this.

-[ Scoffs ] -What's so funny?

-It doesn't work that way, Ben.

There are procedures. There are rules.

-There are no rules for this, surely.

-If it's true.

We have to be sure. That's all.

-It's very easy for us these days to close our eyes and imagine Auschwitz.

We've seen photos.

Many of us may have even visited Auschwitz, and so it's really hard to reconstruct how chaotic information about Auschwitz was.

-There are eyewitnesses, two of them.

-It is unusual, I grant.

-It's unprecedented, John, and Roswell McClelland seems to think it's true.

That's quite something, isn't it?

-It is.

Take a look at this.

It came in with the cable.

It's a list of suggestions made by Jewish groups from Slovakia and Switzerland fielded by Roswell.

♪♪♪ -My first thought is, 'They're right.'

We should bomb, send them some air mail.

-I don't think the response, 'Let's bomb this place.

Can we react to this atrocity?' was at all unusual.

I think all of us would've liked to have thought that's exactly the response we would have.

-This thing, John, it speaks of industrial slaughter.

-For a lot of people, it was 'The Protocol' that changed their mind, that in order to stop this mass killing, you had to take out the instrument of killing, and the only way to take out the instrument of killing was to bomb the camp.

-You see, I don't recall ever reading about or hearing about a proposal like this one, and I'm talking about in any war, to bomb friendly civilians, civilians we're committed to rescuing?

And that's a moral leap into... I don't know what it is.

-Pehle perceives that there's not much that we can do.

The War Refugee Board is constantly trying to get information about what's going on in Europe, and I think he sees this as information but not actionable intelligence.

-I'll make the suggestions to the War Department, but I know what they'll say.

-It's a diversion.

-On June 29, 1944, Pehle passed the recommendations to bomb Auschwitz up the chain of the command to John McCloy, the Assistant Secretary of War.

-But McCloy is not inclined to divert resources from the war because the war was at such a critical moment at that point in time.

-Allied forces had landed successfully in France on D Day.

The supreme effort was now to drive toward Germany, reach Berlin, and force the unconditional surrender of the Nazis.

Round-the-clock bombing missions against German targets, urban, military, and industrial, were intensifying.

On the Eastern Front, the Soviet Army was advancing westward toward Poland.

-No one really grasps that this was part of an effort to wipe out an entire people from one end of Europe to the other and beyond.

♪♪♪ -437,402 Jews were shipped primarily to Birkenau on 147 trains.

147 trains during 54 days meant an average of 2.7 trains a day, an average of 2,975 Jews per train.

You can't say, 'We shall win the war, and then we'll worry about the refugees.'

You can't go on with business as usual.

You can't imagine not doing something about it.

♪♪♪ -This is the period in the whole history of Auschwitz where the killing reaches its frenzied climax.

Never before have so many Jews been killed so quickly in Auschwitz-Birkenau as in the period between May and July 1944.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -I didn't know what a crematorium was.

I didn't know what a gas chamber was.

I didn't have a clue, but we soon found out.

It didn't take us long to find out.

-Somebody asked me, 'Was your mother with you?'

I said, 'No, she went left, probably with the older women now in another block.'

-And we learned finally what happened, all those who went to the left.

We didn't want to believe it.

-And they said only this sentence.

'That's where she went. She went through the chimney.'

-So we all look back at these chimneys, and I keep thinking, 'How does a person go through a chimney?'

-What, they going to burn my mother, my brother?

I didn't believe it.

-We were absolutely incredulous.

'It's not true. It's not true. It can't be.'

-We got to know next day that it is true.

They were burning the families.

-'The Protocol' may have stalled in America, but it reached the desk of Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden in London.

The Jewish Agency representatives in London, Chaim Weizmann and Moshe Shertok, arranged an urgent meeting to make their plea directly.

-Chaim Weizmann was the president of the World Zionist Organization, and Weizmann understood very well the situation of the Jews.

Moshe Shertok was later the second prime minister of Israel.

-And we think some kind of reprisal needs to be considered, something that will act as a deterrence to Germany.

If the Auschwitz camp continues to function as a killing center, then... -You bomb.

The aim being to dislocate the machinery of annihilation and hope to save the remaining 300,000 Hungarian Jews from extermination.

-It's bold. It has imagination.

It may even work.

-And Mr. Churchill?

-Also in favor, in principle.

What we should need to do now is examine its feasibility with the Air Ministry.

-Yes. [ Chuckles ] Yes, of course.

-In a memo to Eden, Winston Churchill wrote about Auschwitz, 'There is no doubt that this is probably the most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world.'

-Churchill's instincts are genuine.

He was one of the first to recognize the full gravity of what had been going on.

-He said to Eden, 'We should do something.'

Then he said, 'Get anything out of the Air Force you can and invoke me if necessary.'

-Eden would've interpreted it as, 'Act quickly.

Act decisively, and you have my blessing.'

-Two of the most powerful men in Britain now supported the bombing of Auschwitz.

Eden summoned the head of the Air Ministry, Sir Archibald Sinclair, to discuss the feasibility of a raid.

-Well, it was quite a surprise, receiving this.

I mean, it hasn't been raised at cabinet, so far as I know.

-Unnecessary, according to Winston.


Well, there's a feeling in the ministry that we shouldn't be disrupting the Normandy campaign right now with an operation of this nature.

-There is? -Yes.

Yes, there's quite a strong feeling.

Also, isn't this a thing for our Soviet allies, anyway, being much closer to the intended target than us, I mean.

-This is all very interesting, Archie, but I asked you to examine the feasibility of a bombing raid on Auschwitz-Birkenau.

-That's what I've done, Anthony.

-Well, no, you haven't done that, you see.

You have merely listed the objections the Air Force might have to such a mission and come up with a couple of fanciful suggestions of your own.

What we need to discover, you and I, is whether the bombing raid on Auschwitz is actually feasible.

I think you should coordinate your thinking with the Americans.

-Sinclair, I think he did look at it and said, 'Better hand it off to the Americans.

They're in a better position to do it than we are.'

-Eden's request for a feasibility study into bombing Auschwitz reached General Carl Spaatz, one of the most powerful men in the Allied Air Force.

-Spaatz says, 'Yes, this sounds like something I would be willing to do.'

I can't imagine that anyone like Carl Spaatz would not have been outraged and would not have wanted some kind of retribution or attempt to get at this with the instrument that was available to him, which was the long-range bomber.

-The moral question of, we bomb Auschwitz?'

became a technical one.

we bomb Auschwitz?

-Every target that was attacked was attacked after specialized intelligence was applied to it.

Where is it located? What does it look like?

What would be the best routes?

-The Allies had been gathering intelligence about the area since spring 1944.

Spy planes did fly over Auschwitz-Birkenau, but they were looking for factories, not a death camp.

-They had been photographing all around IG Farben in order to support hitting the industrial areas that were producing synthetic fuel for the Germans, which was a critically important target.

-The photos were taken to RAF Medmenham, where they were analyzed in 3-D.

By chance, three of them showed Auschwitz-Birkenau.

These were the images General Spaatz desperately needed.

-The photographs covered a wide area, more than just the IG Farben site itself.

They were picking up Birkenau.

They had the crematoria in photographs.

They just didn't know they had them.

♪♪♪ -By August 1944, the tide of the war was turning.

The Allies finally had supremacy in the air.

American bombers were attacking targets deep in Eastern Europe, including Poland.

-They were flying to many targets right in the vicinity of Auschwitz, so these airplanes were, in fact, within range of attacking the crematoria at Birkenau.

-One must remember that the idea of bombing Auschwitz is to destroy the gas chambers without killing the people.

Now, this is extremely difficult.

The gas chambers at Auschwitz were the size of a tennis court.

-There was nothing even remotely like precision bombing in the Second World War.

-The American B-17s flew over 30,000 feet at 300 miles an hour, and the bombs they had then were extraordinarily primitive.

-If one bomb was going to hit each of the crematoria, you would need to send roughly 220 bombers, each of them dropping 10 bombs to have a high chance of one bomb landing on that building.

It's very hard.

It's very hard to do this.

-The word they used is, 'Bombs away'... ♪♪♪ ...and where they land, nobody knows, and consequently, there were mistakes.

♪♪♪ -All the options were bad options in a way because even a small miss could've killed a lot of people.

-Despite the risks, General Spaatz was ready to carry out the raid.

He needed aerial photos of the camp, but no one knew the images of IG Farben also showed the location of Auschwitz.

Meanwhile, pressure to act came from a new source.

Rumors about Auschwitz were stoking public outrage.

-Rabbi Stephen Weisz, the head of the World Jewish Congress, organizes a rally in Madison Square Park in New York City on July 31, 1944, and about 40,000 Americans attend this rally.

-It's a call for the bombing of Auschwitz, and I think it's a striking commentary on the level of public knowledge and the level of public concern.

-Trains to Auschwitz continued relentlessly.

With 'The Protocol,' Jewish leaders now knew the fate of the deportees.

They demanded a meeting with John Pehle at the War Refugee Board.

-Mr. Kubowitzki.

-Leon Kubowitzki of the World Jewish Congress and Bezalel Sherman of the Jewish Labor Committee had very different views on the bombing of Auschwitz.

-We're torn. -Of course you are.

-They were divided, and they were fearful.

One fear that they had was, they didn't want to turn the war into a Jewish war because the future of the world was at stake.

-We are faced, it seems, with a monstrous determination from Nazi Germany to pursue this criminal murder of the Jews of Europe to its bitter end.

-Hence the call to bomb these installations ourselves.

-The War Refugee Board fully appreciates the motives behind the idea.

We know it wasn't suggested lightly, but the fact is that the War Department still believes that such a bombing mission can be achieved only with considerable diversion of resources.

-Then divert.

-I'm sorry, Mr. Sherman?


We've read the testimony of these two men who escaped from the Auschwitz camp, the things they saw.

We've been given corroborative evidence, too.

-As have we. -So we all know.

A picture is forming of something off the human scale.

Isn't that so?

The Germans have created a factory in Poland whose sole purpose is the eradication by gas of an entire race of people.

I say divert.

-All right.

Let's just say for a minute that the United States or Great Britain bombs this place.

Can we know how many... -How many Jews will be killed by our bombs?

-That's right, Mr. Sherman.

Hell, if we miss the gas chambers, we destroy 30,000 prisoners instead.

Wouldn't that give the Nazis a great alibi?

I can hear it now.

'The Western Allies hate the Jews more than we do.'

-The Germans took anything they could grasp for propaganda purposes, so there would've been a struggle over the narrative of who was being more brutal.

-I believe in [Speaks foreign language] I believe in saving those actually living.

-I don't understand what follows from that.

-You cannot kill the innocent in order to prevent a catastrophe.

-There was a genuine debate that went on.

There were very good people who were directly affected by the Holocaust, who had lost members of their family, who weren't sure that the bombing was a good thing.

-Thank you. Mr. Sherman.

-All the excuses for not bombing Auschwitz omit the most compelling reason for bombing Auschwitz.

It would've been recognition that what was happening there was totally evil and unacceptable to the world itself.

-We keep repeating the line that bombing Auschwitz would constitute a diversion, but how do we know that?

-Pehle might have said to himself, 'He may be right, and now the ball is in my court,' and that's an awesome responsibility.

-Oh, I would bomb this infernal place.

You know I would, and the railroads too.

-That's what my gut is telling me also, but we know it's not about the gut, is it?

It's about what the War Department wants.

-Then bypass them.

Go tell the president.

Acquaint Roosevelt with the facts, and he'll act.

-There is no evidence that Roosevelt is ever approached about the question of whether the United States should bomb Auschwitz.

-FDR was not well to begin with.

He was fighting polio.

He was very subject to the flu.

He had congestive heart failure.

He didn't stop working, but he had to kind of come out of the public eye for periods.

-At the same time, Churchill's support for the plan was waning.

Chaim Weizmann of the Jewish Agency was informed by the British Foreign Office that technical difficulties prevented the bombing.

One official dismissed the idea as fantastic and concluded it should be dropped.

Another complained that a disproportionate amount of time is wasted dealing with these wailing Jews.

♪♪♪ -We're not going to believe atrocity stories.

These stories are just being told to get us to let refugees in, to get us to let children in, and that level of anti-Semitism that creeps into so many decisions -- 'Ah, those Jews are carping again.'

-Despite being written off as a diversion from the war effort, on September 13, 1944, the Allies did bomb Auschwitz-Birkenau.

-Some 2,000 or so bombs rained down.

Dozens of prisoners are killed.

Hundreds more are injured.

-However, it wasn't intentional.

The target was the nearby IG Farben factory.

-Auschwitz was never a priority.

Synthetic rubber was a priority.

Synthetic gas and oil was a priority.

IG Farben was a priority.

-If there was a target that they were intended to bomb was 4 miles away, and this inadvertently bombed Auschwitz, that shows how, you know, how amateurish the bombing was.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -All of a sudden, the air is full of noise.

-I'm sure that some people were hoping they're going to bomb us or at least the gas chambers, but I can't say I did. -We didn't care.

We were hoping that they should bomb that place.

-I said, 'My God, you know, finally they have arrived,' and I said, 'Keep bombing the hell out of this place no matter what happens.'

-In April 1944, Vrba and Wetzler escaped from Auschwitz to warn the world about the extermination of the European Jews.

By September, still nothing had been done.

-The American army reaches the border of Switzerland at the end of September, freeing, for the first time, all of the people inside Switzerland who can now send messages to the wider world.

-John Pehle at the War Refugee Board finally received the full 'Protocol' in early November.

What he read shocked him to his core.

-This version of 'The Protocol' is much longer.

It reads more like a testimony.

'This is what Auschwitz is.

It is a place where horrific things are happening.'

-The difference when the full report is released is stunning.

It's undeniable.

You can put them side-by-side, and you see a striking difference.

-Gassing took place as follows.

The unfortunate victims were brought into the hall, where they were asked to undress.

-Each person receives a towel and a small piece of soap issued to them by two men clad in white coats.

They are then crowded into the gas chambers in such numbers that there is only standing room.

-When they were all inside, they closed this heavy door... ...and there was a short pause.

-After which SS men in gas masks climbed the roof, opened the traps, and shake down a preparation in powder form from tin cans labeled, 'Zyklon. For use against vermin,' manufactured by a Hamburg concern.

-It's a cyanide mixture that turns to gas at certain temperatures, and after 3 minutes, everyone in the chamber was dead.

♪♪♪ -When Pehle saw the entire report, his conscious could no longer allow him to be tentative or to sit quietly.

♪♪♪ -Mr. McCloy, good morning, sir.

John Pehle here.

I have something I think you must see.

It's a report from Auschwitz.

-His reaction was, 'It's worse than I thought.

I thought it was extraordinarily evil.

This is by a magnitude even more than that.'

-He goes back to John McCloy.

He sends him a copy of 'The Protocols' with a cover note that says, 'I am now convinced that we need to use direct bombing action to destroy the gas chambers and crematorium in Auschwitz-Birkenau.'

-Pehle was told conclusively by Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy that bombing Auschwitz was not feasible from a military standpoint.

-He says, 'There is considerable opinion to the effect that such an action, even if practicable, might provoke a more vindictive response on the part of the Germans.'

What's more vindictive than Auschwitz?

-The officials who made the decision that this shouldn't be done, they weren't concerned about the people in the camp.

From everything we know, the vast majority of them just sloughed it off.

-Pehle couldn't force the War Department to act.

Instead, he leaked the full version of 'The Protocol' to newspapers with a cover letter.

-So revolting and diabolical are the German atrocities that the minds of civilized people find it difficult to believe they've actually taken place.

-Pehle understood his responsibilities, and that was his greatness.

I regarded John Pehle as one of the great American heroes, and he said, 'We did too little, and we did too late.'

-Pehle knew what he was doing, and he played the media card very, very well.

It got a great deal of attention.

It was all over the newspapers.

-This is front-page news nationwide.

publishes an editorial entitled 'Genocide.'

It's the first time that word appears in a national newspaper.

The day that this information is released to the American people, the Nazis destroy the gas chambers.

-It was an attempt to destroy the evidence, but it didn't work.

Two months later, on January 27, 1945, Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army.

-The Soviet soldiers who entered Auschwitz were moved and shaken by what they saw.

They understood that they had come across something unique, that they had seen something horrific beyond the imagination.

-I wish the British or the Americans had pushed for this target to have been bombed as a statement of principle, as a statement to the Nazis that this is atrocious, and we as the human species will not stand for it.

-It's one of the most emotive things that's ever happened in modern history.

You could say this is a great failure, but one has to understand that they're fighting a world war and the fate of the surviving Jews of Europe largely depended on liberating Nazi-occupied Europe and destroying the Nazi regime.

-I would advocate bombing as a statement of profound moral outrage, but do I think it would've solved the problem?

No, and I think the critics who say that it would have haven't read the history well.

But moral protest in the wake of genocide is much better than nothing, much, much better than nothing.

♪♪♪ -I think it's important when people are being subjected to genocide for the world to say, 'We do give a damn,' because you don't know where it's going to happen next.

-We came to the position that we had to recommend this and that it should be done, and not only should the rail lines be bombed, but the crematoria should be bombed too.

It's tragic that we didn't take this position in the first place, but that is the fact.


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