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Unspeakable News

The Terrible Secret: Suppression of the Truth about Hitler’s “Final Solution”

by Walter Laqueur
Little, Brown, 262 pp., $12.95

Le soleil ni la mort ne peuvent se regarder fixement“—“It is impossible to stare continuously at the sun or at death.” This quotation from La Rochefoucauld has struck more than one writer about the Final Solution as appropriate. It is a merciful remark, and the literature about both the Jewish and the non-Jewish response to the Endlösung has become very much more thoughtful and merciful over the last ten years. The agonizing public quarrel over the failure of the Judenräte, the Nazisponsored Jewish administrations, to resist persecution and deportation in the European ghettos, even when the elders understood what deportation really meant, has receded into the past. The Polish nation is no longer accused of collective anti-Semitism, even of active complicity in the Holocaust, during the Nazi occupation, and there is a much wider realization of how much the Polish underground and the exile government in London did both to hinder and to publicize the fate of the Jews—Walter Laqueur observes in his book that they showed more concern than the British or American governments of the time.

Even the failure of London, Washington, and Moscow to undertake any vigorous action to halt the deportations and exterminations, once they had reluctantly accepted that organized genocide was taking place, is seen to have at least some plausible excuses. Both books under review have been provided with subtitles or blurbs that play up the “searing indictment” angle. In reality, both are remarkably restrained and judicious works.

There was not much the Allies could have done. But, after all, they did not even do that residue. Martin Gilbert’s book contains some terrible photographs, and they are not the pictures of naked corpses and “selections” for the gas chamber. They are air photographs taken during, 1944 by Allied reconnaissance raiders seeking more targets in the synthetic rubber and oil industries of Upper Silesia. Again and again, in these months, the air-force intelligence experts in England studied runs of photographs taken over Monowitz, the new industrial complex under construction on the out-skirts of the town of Auschwitz. Monowitz was worked by slave labor from the concentration camp, and the hutments of their encampment on the site—known as “Auschwitz III”—are clear on picture after picture. But this is not all. As the airmen switched off their cameras, many of their runs had taken them over the vast enclosures a mile or so to the west with their row upon row of huts, their internal partitions, their curious railway siding leading into the enclosed area and ending between two symmetrical blocks of permanent buildings.

For decades, these photographs and prints have lain unvisited in the archives. Monowitz was what interested the photographic interpreters at the time. They had no idea what the place at the margin of the target area was, and it did not even rouse their speculation. It was, in fact, Birkenau, the main Auschwitz camp, containing the central death installation of the Holocaust which, as these aircraft passed overhead, was working at full capacity to kill up to 15,000 human beings every twenty-four hours. Even the normal enlargement of these prints, taken with a good side-light, shows that the buildings at each side of the railroad spur threw a blunt snout of shadow beyond their own outlines—the shadow of a massive brick chimney.

It was not until two years ago that scholars gave these prints maximum enhancement. They were good prints indeed. It was all there. The trains are at the siding—the ramp. One of the photographs, taken on August 25, 1944, shows that the vents on the subterranean gas chambers have been opened to clear the fumes. The gate to the enclosure containing Crematorium II and gas chamber, with its pleasant little garden, has been opened invitingly wide. Between the trains and this gate there is clearly visible a procession toiling slowly forward, some of its members lagging a little behind. These are Jews, on their last walk.

The full truth about Auschwitz had already been known for some two months, after the escaped prisoners Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, supplemented by later escapees, had delivered reports which finally penetrated to the West. The British and American war commands had been discussing and evading desperate Jewish appeals to bomb the deportation railroads and the gas chambers for many weeks, and it had been six weeks since Churchill had ordered the RAF to produce feasibility studies for such strikes—“get anything out of the Air Force you can,” he had told Eden. Nothing whatever was done. The RAF dismissed the idea as “costly and hazardous” and permitted itself to wonder whether such bombing would “really help the victims.” The United States War Department, to whom the RAF passed the buck because the Americans were responsible for daytime precision bombing, did nothing.

The detailed plans of Auschwitz provided by Jewish organizations that summer of 1944 somehow went astray in the British Foreign Office and never reached the RAF, while these reconnaissance photographs remained—it seems—entirely unknown except as resources for the strategic air offensive against industrial targets. Monowitz was bombed several times. A number of bombs fell accidentally on Birkenau, killing some SS men and prisoners and slightly dislocating the extermination routine. Photographs taken on later raids show under enhancement the methodical demolition of the major crematoria as the Germans prepared to evacuate that winter, and even the damage to Crematorium IV caused by the suicidal revolt of the Sonderkommando, the Jews whose task it was to drag the corpses to the furnaces and cremation pits. No account was taken of these details.

This is where the real charge against the British and Americans—and of course the Soviet Union, with airfields very much closer to Auschwitz—must lie. Gilbert shows conclusively that Auschwitz and the deportation routes for transports could have been attacked that summer. Monowitz itself was repeatedly hit, and bomber streams heading for other assignments, including support for the Warsaw Rising, passed over the area again and again. The excuses at the time—lack of aircraft, the need to husband bombs, doubts about the point of such strikes—were no more than bureaucratic hypocrisy. The airforce commanders had laid down their own programs and had become experts at diverting appeals from civilian politicians that, for one reason or another, they should change their plans. In a peacetime political struggle, the Jewish organizations might have been more effective. In wartime, confronted by government through closed military-political juntas and denied unrestricted access to public opinion, they stood little chance.

The two books under review are roughly consecutive. Laqueur discusses the nature of the “secret,” the time-lag of almost two years between the beginning of the Final Solution with the mass shootings by the Einsatzgruppen after June 1941 and the understanding which dawned only in December 1942 upon the outside world that the entire Jewish population of occupied Europe was being systematically put to death. Gilbert covers some of the same ground, but his central topic is how, even when the Final Solution had been recognized, the extermination camp at Auschwitz was not identified until June 1944, over two years after the first major gassing of 1,200 people in May 1942.

It is not hard to understand the delay of information. The site of the crime, Poland and the regions behind the German advance into Russia, were until 1944 beyond the reach of most Allied aircraft. The operations were conducted in secrecy, and the penalty for spreading news that might leak out was death. All communications were censored, and the reports that did arrive came through circuitous routes, through second- or third-hand reports from neutral embassies or through rare couriers from the Polish resistance who were able to make their way to Britain. But there were also less material obstacles. The British especially were anxious not to repeat the propaganda excesses about German factories making corpses into soap or Uhlans spiking Belgian babies which had been disseminated in the First World War, and their suspicion of “atrocity tales” was at first intense. The Ministry of Information in London was nervous of exacerbating xenophobia in the population, already bad-tempered enough about the prewar influx of refugees. A memorandum from Brendan Bracken, the minister, suggested that latent anti-Semitism in Britain might be inflamed by publicity about massacres of Jews: “people become more conscious of the Jews they do not like here….”

Beyond this, again, were the Palestine problem and the British mandate. The British government was terrified of what it perceived as a logical slippery slope; to become too vigorously the champion of the Jews in Nazi Europe would make it impossible to resist the possible influx of thousands, perhaps millions, of helpless Jewish refugees into Palestine or into Britain itself. Martin Gilbert demonstrates that, in this sense, the British were right about the Joel Brand-Eichmann affair for the wrong reasons. They were right in suspecting that Eichmann’s proposal to ransom a million Jews for trucks and food was a deception, and that the Nazis never intended to honor such a deal. But the British government was in any case eager to reject negotiations through Brand because it did not intend to be diverted from the main war effort for the sake of the Jews and because London had no intention of taking responsibility for a million penniless human beings who could not be accommodated in Palestine without provoking an Arab revolt.

News leaked out, nonetheless, and began to form a composite picture of events which were almost impossible to credit. Among those who doubted were, of course, many of the Jewish leaders in the outside world, and in most of the occupied territories. It was not only the Jewish Agency and the World Jewish Congress, in Palestine and America, that remained unconvinced until a group of exchanged Jews from Poland arrived in Palestine in November 1942. It was the communities in Hungary and Slovakia, France, and Germany itself. The picture at first was confusing, admittedly. It became apparent in 1942 that one Jewish community after another was being deported, in horrible conditions, and that little or nothing was heard of them again. There were also reports of mass death, based mostly on fear and presumptions rather than any direct account. At first, it was thought that the deportees were dying in great numbers of starvation and overwork, which was a logical extension of experience from prewar concentration camps. Odd, lurid rumors, of prussic acid, of death by compressed air or poison, also filtered through. So did secret messages of a more general nature, stating that Hitler intended the physical extermination of European Jewry. In retrospect, the truth is not hard to assemble from all these fragments. In 1942, the world still conserved a moral innocence.

The systematic exterminations had begun well before the decision to endorse them was taken by the Nazi leadership at the Wannsee conference, in January 1942. The mass shootings by special police squads in Russia and the Baltic states had commenced in June 1941. Gassing began at Chelmno near Lodz in December. The extermination camps at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka began operations between January 1942 and July. As Gilbert says, “the deliberate attempt to destroy systematically all of Europe’s Jews was unsuspected by the spring and early summer of 1942, the very period at which it was at its most intense.” It was not until the end of the year that the names of these places became known, after the Polish emissary Jan Karski reached London. As brave a man as any I have heard of, Karski had been a courier between the lines on mission after mission. He had contrived to make contact with Jewish leaders from the Warsaw ghetto who had told him flatly that the entire Jewish people was doomed. “Tell the Jewish leaders,” these men said to Karski, “…that the earth must be shaken to its foundations, the world must be aroused.”

Karski had then contrived to enter the death camp of Belzec in disguise, and for a few hours to watch what was happening until he could bear no more. When he reached London and told his story, all doubts came to an end. In December, the Allies published a grand declaration warning the Germans to desist. It was without effect. In May 1943, Shmuel Zygielboim, the spokesman of Polish Jewry in London, killed himself in an effort to stir the world from its “passivity,” as his suicide note explained. But, Laqueur remarks, the Jewish catastrophe remained marginal for the other peoples at war for their own survival. Even if the “earth had been shaken to its foundation” much earlier, could it have saved many? “Quite likely it would not have made much difference.”

From both these books, one noble and tragic personality emerges above all the others. This is Richard Lichtheim, the Zionist representative in Geneva, the man who stood on a rock lifted above the sea of Nazi Europe and listened to its sounds. Switzerland was full of strange visitors, couriers from distant Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, businessmen anxious to pass on grim things seen or heard of, mystery men like the Nazi publicist Ernst Lemmer who talked freely about gas chambers on his Swiss holidays—perhaps to tempt the Allies into fighting more of a “Jewish war.”

All these sources and many more were available to Lichtheim. From late 1941, he had the presentiment that few of his people would survive the war. By October 1942, it was a certainty: “the large majority…are doomed. There is no force which could stop Hitler or his SS.” But Lichtheim, a sophisticated man with a deep sense of history, was condemned to a double isolation. He was perched in Switzerland, isolated both from the victims and from those overseas who might save them. And by understanding and believing the information which was coming to him, he entered an even more lonely world of moral isolation.

Nobody outside wanted to share his knowledge, which instinctively they rejected; human beings simply could not in this century do that to one another. Starvation, cruelty, the odd massacre or pogrom-like excess, yes…but not industrial obliteration, transport by transport. Richard Lichtheim knew, even before he had the final evidence, that all without exception were being put to death and that the European age of progress, two centuries of humanism and fraternity, had come to an end. He was, these two works reveal, the first European intellectual to find himself standing in the world we now live in.

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