Wishful Thinking

It's time to stop blaming the West for not doing more to stop the Holocaust, says a Jewish historian.

Published October 2, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

it has been an article of faith, among average Jews and Holocaust scholars alike, that the Allies in World War II could have done more to try and save the Jews of Nazi Europe. David Wyman's "The Abandonment of the Jews" and some 20 other similar books have appeared since the 1960s, accusing the Allies, out of indifference and antisemitism, of shutting their doors to Jewish refugees and deliberately foregoing military strikes that could have saved many Jews languishing in the Nazi death camps.

Last year, a rash of reports in British newspapers claimed that Winston Churchill's government knew about the mass killings of Jews in the Soviet Union as early as July 1941 and did nothing to stop it. More recently, Switzerland has come under international pressure to reexamine their wartime activities in connection with the Jews. On Tuesday, the eve of the Jewish New Year, the French Catholic church in France apologized for its silence when the Vichy administration deported tens of thousands of French Jews to the Nazi gas chambers.

According to a new book, the West has very little for which to apologize. In "The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews From the Nazis" (Routledge), William D. Rubinstein, a professor of history at the University of Wales, demolishes the most cherished articles of faith of what he calls the "Holocaust revisionists": that the Allies could have taken in more Jewish refugees, negotiated with the Nazis to save more Jewish lives and bombed Auschwitz and other death camps.

Salon talked with Professor Rubinstein about his findings and the controversy that is already swirling around them.

The core of your book is that nothing -- absolutely nothing -- could have been done by the Allies to rescue the Jews of occupied Europe during the War. How did you conclude that?

I examined every plan for rescuing Jews devised by people in the democracies that I could find. It's self-evident from reading the plans that nobody had any idea of what to do.

Most of the plans concerned opening up the gates of Palestine, an idea made famous by Leon Uris' "Exodus" among other books.

It's true that beginning in 1939, the British, who ruled Palestine, restricted Jewish immigration to please the Arabs. But the point is: that wasn't relevant to the basic problem facing the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, which was that they couldn't get out. It wasn't a matter of Jews not being able to get British permission to enter Palestine; it was a matter of Jews not being able to get emigration papers from the Nazis.

Which made it hard for Jews to go to any country.

Right. The main problem was not that Western countries were closing their doors. The main problem was that the Germans wouldn't let them go. German policy changed totally and completely from expelling all Jews from Germany to imprisoning and killing all the Jews throughout Europe. Nobody, nobody had a way to get around the fact that Adolf Hitler, as his life's mission, wanted to rid Europe of the "biological basis of Jewry," as he put it.

So, the whole concept of "Jewish refugees" is wrong?

A refugee is a person who has to flee from his or her homeland because of a well-founded fear of persecution. That is an accurate description of the Jews of Germany, especially in the late 1930s, when they were being kicked out of Germany. My argument is that when the war came, this changed. They were no longer refugees. They were now the precise opposite. They were prisoners. They were the prisoners of a psychopath who was the absolute master of Europe from the border of Spain to the gates of Moscow.

In other words, you're agreeing with what Western leaders said at the time: that the only way to rescue the Jews was by the Allies' defeating Nazi Germany.

Exactly, which is what even the Jewish leaders said at the time. Roosevelt and Churchill said the only way we can liberate the remaining Jews was to conquer Europe mile by mile, which is what they were doing.

Let's go through the myths that you challenge in your book. First, the myth of "closed doors."

It is widely believed that the Western world, the democracies, closed their doors to Jewish immigration from Germany in the 1930s. Well, first of all, 72 percent of Germany's Jews, including 83 percent of German Jewish children, actually escaped from Germany between 1933 and 1939, most of them in the last year before the war started. Many German Jews were reluctant to leave. They thought the antisemitism would blow over.

Second, the closed-door issue only applied to Germany and the territories annexed by Germany in the late 1930s -- Austria and Czechoslovakia. It had nothing to do with Poland, Russia, Romania, Hungary, France and so on, where the bulk of the Jews who were killed actually lived. Before the war began, those countries were not under Nazi occupation and, therefore, their Jews were not refugees. Many people now ask why we didn't save the Jews of Hungary in 1935. That's a non sequitur. In 1935, nobody thought they were in any danger from anything.

What about the infamous St. Louis incident, in which several hundred German Jews aboard the SS St. Louis in 1939 were turned away from the United States and were eventually forced to return to Europe?

It was a very regrettable incident. At that time, America would not allow in any more German Jews than the quota of 25,000 to 30,000 a year, which was rigorously enforced. The boat also unsuccessfully tried to unload its refugees in several other countries in the Western Hemisphere. But they were not sent back to Nazi Germany, contrary to popular belief. They all received refuge either in England, the Netherlands or France. Some of the countries were later conquered by the Nazis, and some of the St. Louis refugees died. But in 1939, nobody foresaw that.

it has been well-documented by Wyman and other historians that the U.S. State Department was thick with officials, like Loy Henderson and John J. McCloy Jr., who were either not very sympathetic to the plight of the Jews or outright antisemites. Didn't they have influence on U.S. policy toward Jewish refugees?

Again, the number of Jews that could enter the United States was established by a quota system that was set in concrete by Congress. It wasn't influenced in any way by the antisemitism at the State Department. For Germany, it was
between 25,000 and 30,000 a year, a figure established in 1924 and that did
not vary during the Nazi period. The State Department's antisemites could do
nothing about that. In fact, the immigration forms, which were very
formidable and presented a huge obstacle to anyone who wanted to immigrate to
the United States, were simplified because of congressional pressure. As a
result, the number of Jews who came to America increased within the context of
the quota.

But Congress wouldn't increase the overall quota.

No, there was strong opposition to it. Some of that was antisemitic and
nativist, but most of it was because of unemployment and the Depression.
There was one attempt to waive the quota in 1939 to allow in 10,000 German
Jewish children, but that died in committee. People like Wyman
have a field day with this incident, saying it proves how antisemitic the
United States was. But the main source of pressure on the committee in that
case came from the labor unions that opposed widening the labor
pool during the Depression. One must remember that changing immigration laws
at that time was extremely unpopular politically. Now, with hindsight, it's
obvious what happened to those 10,000 children, and it's tragic. But at the
time, nobody knew that Hitler was going to kill the Jews.

Another "myth" that you cite is the Allies' failure to bomb Auschwitz.

If you look through all of the proposed plans for
rescuing the Jews, nobody anywhere proposed this -- or bombing any
concentration camp, for that matter -- until the tail end of the war.
The first person to propose it was Michael Weissmandel, a Czech rabbi who
escaped from a death train to Auschwitz and managed to send messages to members
of his denomination in the West in May 1944. It was not greeted with
enthusiasm by Jewish groups. The Jewish Agency in Palestine, the governing body of the Jewish community there, headed by David Ben-Gurion, voted in June 1944 by a vote of 11-to-1 against asking the Allies to bomb Auschwitz. Why? Because it would kill Jews. This idea of bombing Auschwitz only emerged as a panacea many years later, in the 1960s, when David Wyman first plucked it out of thin air.

How did the U.S. military feel about bombing Auschwitz?

There is a fair amount of writing by military historians now that shows it
was extremely difficult to have bombed Auschwitz. First of all, it wasn't
until early 1944, when the Foggia air base in Italy was captured, that the
Allies had a base from which the concentration camps would have been within
range of Allied bombers. Then there's the fact that the technology to bomb
only the extermination camps -- the gas chambers and the crematoriums without
killing Jewish prisoners -- didn't exist at the time. In those days only 54 percent of American bombs fell within 1,000 yards of their target. You could bomb a factory, and
indeed they did. They hit the I.G. Farben factory about seven miles from
Auschwitz. But pinpoint bombing of the type I just described was not possible
then. So even if they had bombed the camps, there's a very good chance they
would have killed Jews without stopping the killing process. That is to say,
they would have killed the Jewish prisoners and missed the gas chambers.

What about the proposals to bomb the railway lines that led to Auschwitz?

This proposal reached the War Refugee Board, the federal agency set up
specifically by President Roosevelt to rescue Jews. What
the board proposed was to bomb one railway line in Slovakia, somewhere between
Preskov and Kelsicie. This was the train line that, according to
Weissmandel, facilitated the shipment of Jews from the eastern part of
Hungary to Auschwitz. But the Jews had actually come and gone along this
line by the time Weissmandel's proposal reached Washington, D.C. So if they
had bombed it, they wouldn't have saved anybody. This was the only thing the
War Refugee Board proposed until October of 1944.

Still, it was rejected by the U.S. military.

It was rejected by the
army because its strategy for destroying Germany's military and industrial
infrastructure had been set in concrete since 1943. They knew the targets
they wanted to bomb and were doing so with relentless efficiency. Within less
than a year, they destroyed more than 50 percent of Germany's
military-industrial complex. That actually ended the war. Now you can
argue that there was more than meets the eye there and that antisemitism
was behind the decision. But a bombing of Auschwitz was never seen as a
panacea, most Jewish groups opposed it and in the manner it was proposed, it
would have been useless.

The French Roman Catholic Church has formally apologized to the Jewish people for what it called its "docility" and "abstention" in the face of the Holocaust. What was the French church's record during the war?

There were many individual clerics in France who hid
Jews during the war. But the church did nothing in a corporate capacity, and many church leaders supported the collaborationist Vichy
government. It's a very difficult and controversial subject in
France. Of all the Nazi satellites, Vichy France was probably the most extreme in its antisemitism. The government instituted antisemitic legislation, and Vichy officials aided in the deportation of more than 70,000 Jews, most of whom died in Auschwitz.
On the other hand, many French argue, that thousands of Jews were hidden and saved by individual clerics, and
monasteries show that the French Catholic Church was not a satellite of the
Nazis. In a sense, a case can be made that they did their best under very
difficult circumstances.

Some Holocaust historians point to the proposal by (Heinrich) Himmler to
trade the lives of a million Jews for 10,000 trucks and that the Allies could
have used such offers to save more Jews.

Yes, but others believe Himmler was
not serious, citing the fact that he was actually killing the Jews at the
same time and that he probably proposed this idea to lull the Jews of
Budapest into a sense of security. But there is another reason which no one has pointed to as to why this
could not have worked. And that is that Hitler knew nothing about it. Himmler
was keeping Hitler in the dark. Everything we know about Hitler and his
personality indicates that he never would have contemplated a deal like this
under any circumstance. We know, for example, that earlier in 1945, Hitler
read in a Swiss newspaper that Himmler had arranged for 1,200 Jews to be sent
to Switzerland in exchange for some favor. Hitler hit the roof and totally
forbade Himmler to proceed.

What if Hitler had been assassinated?

That is the one area where there is no mythologizing. If Hitler had been
assassinated, I think the Holocaust would have been prevented. Whoever
succeeded him, probably (Hermann) Goering, would have stopped it. But oddly enough, there were no Allied proposals to assassinate Hitler, which is one of the few things that might have worked. Of course it was enormously difficult to assassinate Hitler because he was extremely well-guarded. But the West did nothing to help von Stauffenberg and the other
German officers who tried to kill Hitler with a bomb in July 1944. It's well
known that the Allies had no dealings with them. This was a lost opportunity.
I don't know what was going through the Allies' heads. I suppose they
thought that the Germans would then assassinate Roosevelt and Churchill.

All of this raises the question of why this entire myth of rescue has

You tell me. So far as I know, the earliest article or book by any academic that criticizes the Allies for doing too little to save the Jews was written in 1966. Since then, this entire subject, and particularly the bombing of Auschwitz question, has
gained enormous momentum, so much so that the Allies now appear almost as
guilty as Germany in turning their backs on the Jews. My point is that the only thing we were guilty of is being in an impossible situation.

Why have there been no serious challenges to Wyman's and others' similar views until now? Surely, there were enough people who had lived through
those terrible times and who remembered what really happened.

You're asking a very pertinent question that I've been asked before and
that I cannot answer. I don't know why. In America, I think, the Jewish
community feels guilty about surviving and prospering while their kinsmen
died. This is probably the most sensitive topic one can imagine
historically, so people have tended to tread on eggshells the whole way. It's
not very politically correct to suggest that the arguments presented so far
are illogical and ahistorical.

What does Wyman think of your work?

I wanted to debate him, but he refused. That was a nice scholarly thing to

What other responses have you received?

About two-thirds of the British
reviews have been very fulsome. They say that at last somebody's told the
truth. The other third have been venomous, hostile and personally defamatory,
some of them really over the top. I imagine the response here in the U.S.
will be somewhat similar. But no one can accuse me of being an antisemite. I'm
sure that if my name were Smith and not Rubinstein, I probably couldn't have
gotten away with writing a book like this.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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