Why did they wait so long? Among the myriad questions of what the Allies could have done differently in World War II, understanding why it took them so long to respond to the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps—specifically Auschwitz—remains vital today.
In Auschwitz and the Allies, Martin Gilbert presents a comprehensive look into the series of decisions that helped shape this particular course of the war, and the fate of millions of people, through his eminent blend of exhaustive devotion to the facts and accessible, graceful writing.
Featuring twenty maps prepared specifically for this history and thirty-four photographs, along with firsthand accounts by escaped Auschwitz prisoners, Gilbert reconstructs the span of time between Allied awareness and definitive action in the face of overwhelming evidence of Nazi atrocities.
“An unforgettable contribution to the history of the last war.” —Jewish Chronicle
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Humanity versus high policy
The Jews who lived in safety, beyond the limits of Nazi rule, made repeated efforts to seek help, and to find avenues of rescue, for those whose lives were now in danger. Since 1917 the Zionists had, with British support, been building up in Palestine a Jewish National Home, and between the wars, more than 300,000 Jews had reached Palestine from Europe, the majority of them from Poland. The rise of Hitler in Germany in 1933 had intensified the pressure of immigration, so much so that in 1936 the Arabs of Palestine, supported by several nearby Arab States, had risen in revolt against Britain, demanding a halt to Jewish immigration. The British Government had sought, first, to suppress the revolt. But, in the early months of 1939, as Britain's own military weakness exposed her to increasing danger from Nazi Germany, the British Government had agreed to the demands of four independent Arab States, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the Yemen, and of the Palestinian Arab leaders, to restrict future Jewish immigration to an upper limit of 75,000, at a rate of no more than ten thousand a year.
This restriction became law, despite a strong Parliamentary protest by Winston Churchill, in May 1939. The Jewish leaders felt betrayed. In their hour of greatest need, as they saw it, the door of safety had been slammed in their faces. Henceforth, in the four months leading up to the German invasion of Poland, and in the successive war years, one dominant aim of their political efforts was to persuade the British Government to abandon this restriction, and to allow any Jew who could escape from Europe to be given a place in Palestine. These efforts, however, were in vain, leading to much bitterness on the Jewish side, and no little vexation on the part of the British officials concerned. This vexation was increased by the flow of 'illegal' refugees. Jews without permission to enter Palestine, who had escaped from Europe and came by boat across the Black Sea and the Aegean, sought to evade the British naval blockade, landed secretly on the coast of Palestine, and 'disappeared' over the sand dunes into friendly homes and settlements. When one such 'illegal' ship, the Salvador, sank in the Sea of Marmara on 12 December 1940, and more than two hundred refugees were drowned, T. M. Snow, the head of the Refugee Section of the British Foreign Office, noted: 'There could have been no more opportune disaster from the point of view of stopping this traffic'.
A year later, in December 1941 the refusal of the British authorities in Palestine to allow one of these 'illegal' refugee ships, the Struma, to proceed through the Dardanelles to Palestine, had created a storm of Jewish protest in both London and Jerusalem. There were more than 750 Jewish refugees on board the Struma, most of them from Rumania, a country which had been pursuing a violently anti-Jewish policy which had already resulted in the murder of tens of thousands of Jews. None of the Struma refugees had been able to acquire visas for Palestine, or immigration certificates, as the British Government considered Rumania to be an enemy country. At the same time, under the terms of the 1939 White Paper itself, more than 40,000 Palestine immigration certificates were still unused, including more than 6,000 of a total of 15,000 which had been specially reserved for emergency situations.
When the Struma reached Istanbul from the Rumanian port of Constanta, the Turkish authorities would only allow a single passenger, a pregnant woman, to leave the ship. The Turkish Government then asked the British Ambassador if the refugees could proceed to Palestine. Otherwise the boat must be sent back into the Black Sea. There was to be no haven in Turkey.
On learning of the Turkish attitude, the British Ambassador to Turkey, Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, pointed out to the Turks that the British, also, were not willing to help. His Majesty's Government, he said, 'did not want those people in Palestine'; they had 'no permission to go there'. But the Ambassador added, as he explained to the Foreign Office by telegram on December 20, that from a humanitarian point of view he did not like the Turkish proposal to send the ship back into the Black Sea. 'If the Turkish Government must interfere with the ship,' he said, 'on the ground that they could not keep the distressed Jews in Turkey, let her rather go towards the Dardanelles. It might be that if they reached Palestine, they might despite their illegality receive humane treatment'.
As soon as the Ambassador's report of his conversation reached London, the Colonial Office protested at his suggestion that the refugees on board the Struma might 'receive humane treatment' if they arrived in Palestine without certificates. On 23 December 1941 a Colonial Office official, S. E. V. Luke, noted: 'This is the first occasion on which, in spite of numerous efforts, the Turkish Government has shown any signs of being ready to help in frustrating these illegal immigrant ships, and then the Ambassador goes and spoils the whole effect on absurdly misjudged humanitarian grounds'. Another official, E. B. Boyd, added: 'Sir H. Knatchbull-Hugessen had a heaven-sent opportunity of getting these people stopped at Istanbul and sent back to Constanta and has failed to avail himself of it'.
On 24 December, Christmas Eve, the Colonial Secretary, Lord Moyne, informed Eden's Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office of what he saw as the Palestine aspect of the problem:
The landing of seven hundred more immigrants will not only be a formidable addition to the difficulties of the High Commissioner ... but it will have a deplorable effect throughout the Balkans in encouraging further Jews to embark on a traffic which has now been condoned by His Majesty's Ambassador. We have good reason to believe that this traffic is favoured by the Gestapo, and the Security Services attach the very greatest importance to preventing the influx of Nazi agents under the cloak of refugees.
As to Knatchbull-Hugessen's humanitarian feelings about sending the refugees back to the Black Sea countries, it seems to me that these might apply with equal force to the tens of thousands of Jews who remain behind and who are most eager to join them.
Lord Moyne's letter ended:
I find it difficult to write with moderation about this occurrence which is in flat contradiction of established Government policy, and I should be very glad if you could perhaps even now do something to retrieve the position, and to urge that Turkish authorities should be asked to send the ship back to the Black Sea, as they originally proposed.
The Jewish leaders in Britain and Palestine knew nothing of this particular discussion. But they did know that the fate of the refugees on board the Struma was to be decided upon in London and Jerusalem. They also knew that the British Cabinet had decided, shortly after the outbreak of war, to refuse refugee status to anyone reaching British territory from enemy territory. Clearly, almost all refugees came from enemy territory: they had only become refugees in order to escape from a life of persecution in Nazi-dominated Europe. But it was this very fact which made them unacceptable to the British authorities.
On 18 February 1942 a distinguished British Jew, Professor Lewis Namier, one of the leading Zionist officials then in London, wrote direct to Lord Moyne in the hope of influencing his decision. Namier urged Moyne to give the Struma refugees 'a chance of regular and legal admission to Palestine'. Namier gave Moyne information which had been received both from the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, and from the Zionist Emergency Committee in New York. The Struma was 'no longer seaworthy'. Being without visas, the refugees could proceed no further on their journey. Sanitary and food conditions on the ship were reported to be 'desperate'.
Professor Namier pointed out to Lord Moyne that an American Jewish organization, the Joint Distribution Committee, a non-Zionist body, was prepared to pay the cost of transportation from Turkey to Palestine, and to contribute £6,000 towards the absorption of the refugees in Palestine. Namier's letter continued:
The difficulty seems to lie in the general ban against people coming from enemy territory. But this ban is not, and never has been, absolute.
A few months before the outbreak of war, nearly 3,000 Jewish immigrants from Germany and Austria were admitted to Palestine, and no ill results appear to have followed.
Norwegians, Dutch, French, Poles, etc., who have been under the enemy, are constantly being admitted to this country, and other parts of the Empire, including Palestine....
Namier ended his letter of February 18 with a plea that refugee applications be undertaken 'in a humane and friendly spirit'. Namier knew nothing, of course, of the Colonial Office argument about 'absurdly misjudged humanitarian grounds', or of Lord Moyne's own argument to Eden of the 'deplorable effect' which the arrival of the Struma refugees would have 'in encouraging further Jews to embark'.
Many of the Struma refugees, Namier pointed out in his letter to Lord Moyne, had close relatives in Palestine itself, relatives who were already taking a share in the British war effort, and he ended: 'We beg that this fact may be taken into consideration'.
But neither humanitarian nor military considerations were able to change British policy in time to save the refugees on board the Struma. Faced with British hesitations, the Turkish authorities took independent action, boarding the ship, overpowering those passengers who resisted, and towing the Struma back into the Black Sea. On the following morning it blew up, possibly struck by a German mine. All but one passenger was drowned. On 1 March 1942 the British High Commissioner in Palestine, Sir Harold MacMichael, telegraphed to the Colonial Office: 'The fate of these people was tragic, but the fact remains that they were nationals of a country at war with Britain, proceeding direct from enemy territory. Palestine was under no obligation towards them'.
Sir Harold MacMichael continued to uphold this principle of non-obligation when, a few weeks later, the question arose of admitting to Palestine a further group of twenty refugees stranded in Turkey, among them the one survivor of the Struma explosion, and the pregnant woman who had been allowed to leave the Struma in Istanbul — her husband had died when the Struma sank, and her newborn child had died in an Istanbul hospital. On 19 March 1942 MacMichael ruled against their admission to Palestine, insisting that the 'basic principle that enemy nationals from enemy or enemy-controlled territory should not be admitted to this country during the war applies to all immigrants'.
Even while the fate of the Struma had been in the balance, the 793 'illegal' Jewish refugees on another boat, the Darien, which had been intercepted by the Royal Navy, were awaiting deportation to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. From both Jerusalem and London, the Jewish Agency fought this decision, and on 4 February 1942, the Prime Minister's own son, Randolph Churchill, had written to his father about it. Churchill reacted at once, writing to Lord Moyne on the following day to urge that the refugees be released from internment and allowed to remain in Palestine. In urging this course Churchill pointed out to Moyne that until the original decision to deport the Darien refugees had been taken: 'It looked as if we should be subjected to a wave of illegal immigration, but now that the whole of south-eastern Europe is in German hands, there is no further danger of this....'
Lord Moyne, however, remained in favour of deportation, writing to Churchill on February 7: 'Any relaxation of our deterrent measures is likely to encourage further shipments of the same kind.' The fate of the Darien passengers, Moyne wrote, would be a test case of the Government's determination to adhere to their proclaimed policy, and any concessions would cause great damage to the British Government's 'reputation in the Middle East for trustworthiness and firmness'.
Eventually, as Churchill had urged, the Darien passengers were allowed to remain in Palestine. But at a further meeting on 5 March 1942, the War Cabinet laid down, as a basic principle of British policy, that: 'All practicable steps should be taken to discourage illegal immigration into Palestine.'
This decision was actually taken against the advice of Lord Moyne's successor, Lord Cranborne, who had advocated that Jewish refugees from central Europe should be allowed not only the six thousand outstanding refugee certificates, but also the 36,000 regular certificates, still not issued.
Lord Cranborne had set out this view in a letter to Churchill on March 3. But the Cabinet decided, nevertheless, that there was 'a grave risk that, if we agreed to admit to Palestine illegal immigrants fleeing from enemy oppression, even if subject to the conditions suggested by the Colonial Secretary, the influx would soon reach large proportions'.
The Jewish Agency leaders were not informed of the Cabinet decision of March 5. Nor did they, or the Cabinet, know that plans were now nearing completion for the deportation of Jews from all over Europe to camps in German-occupied Poland. They did not even know that throughout January and February, tens of thousands of Jews had been deported from Germany itself, and from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, to the distant cities of Riga and Kovno, where, immediately on arrival, most of them had been taken to nearby forests and shot.
All this was as yet unknown. But the Jewish leaders who lived in safety knew that some terrible fate was in store for those who were trapped under Nazi rule. On March 6, when Dr Weizmann himself wrote to Lord Cranborne to appeal for Government approval for the establishment of a specifically Jewish fighting force to go into battle alongside the other Allied armies, a request first made in September 1939, he added that the 'survival of the Jews nationally' depended upon the victory of the Allies because, as Weizmann went on to explain, 'in the matter of exterminating the Jews, Hitler is as good as his word'.
Despite his understanding of Nazi aims and methods, even Weizmann could not know just how those aims were to be carried out. For within three months of the opening of Chelmno death camp in December 1941, three similar camps were set up in different parts of German-occupied Poland, the sole purpose of which was to murder those who entered them, and to do so with a few hours at the most of their arrival. These camps, at Belzec, Treblinka, Sobibor and Chelmno itself, began to receive trainloads of Jews from all over Europe during the spring of 1942, and in less than a year, more than two million Jews had been murdered, in conditions of the utmost brutality, secrecy and deception.
Those Jews who were forced into the cattle trucks, and those who watched them go were told that the trains were going to work camps 'in the east'. The Jews of Poland were to be 'resettled' in a more distant land. Greater Germany, and the General Government of Poland, were to be made 'Jew free'. But, the Nazis added, there was room enough for the Jews elsewhere. If they went quietly, no harm would come to them. If they resisted, they would be shot.
The Nazi promises seemed plausible enough. All over Europe, labour camps had indeed been built to serve the needs of Germany; camps and ghettoes in which clothes factories, armament factories, and machine tool factories made use of Jewish slave labour to help the German war machine. Conditions were harsh, and rations meagre; many died of starvation, or of deliberate brutality by the German guards; but it was still possible to survive. And it was to some such camps, so the Nazis promised, that these deportations of 1942 were bound. The deportation trains had, however, only one destination, a death camp 'somewhere in the east'.
The fact that the Germans had been murdering Jews in Europe was well known to the Allies. Since the outbreak of the war, German brutality had received wide publicity. But none of the Allies yet knew that these killings were part of a deliberate plan to murder every Jew in Europe. The Wannsee Conference, and the setting up of the eastern death camps, had been closely guarded secrets. The deliberate attempt to destroy systematically all of Europe's Jews was unsuspected in the spring and early summer of 1942: the very period during which it was at its most intense, and during which hundreds of thousands of Jews were being gassed every day at Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor and Treblinka.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Auschwitz and the Allies"
Copyright © 1981 Martin Gilbert.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
PART ONE: THE FINAL SOLUTION,
Prelude: Hitler's pledge: 'The complete annihilation of the Jews',
Chapter 1 Humanity versus high policy,
Chapter 2 Warnings and forebodings,
Chapter 3 Britain's dilemma,
Chapter 4 'Unbelievable crimes': May 1942,
Chapter 5 Evidence and omissions,
Chapter 6 'Camps are being prepared',
Chapter 7 Towards 'an unknown destination',
Chapter 8 Rescue and refuge,
Chapter 9 Slaughter in the east,
Chapter 10 Eye-witness,
Chapter 11 'This bestial policy',
PART TWO: HOPE AND HOPELESSNESS,
Chapter 12 'Everything has to be tried',
Chapter 13 Rescue and massacre,
Chapter 14 Warsaw and Bermuda,
Chapter 15 The debate of 19 May 1943,
Chapter 16 'I have never forgotten the terrible sufferings ...',
Chapter 17 The spread of Nazi power,
Chapter 18 'A quite unmanageable flood',
Chapter 19 Towards a second front,
Chapter 20 The German occupation of Hungary,
PART THREE: AUSCHWITZ REVEALED,
Chapter 21 Escape from Auschwitz, April 1944,
Chapter 22 Zionism at bay: rescue at risk,
Chapter 23 The deportations from Hungary, May 1944,
Chapter 24 A Gestapo offer: 'Unmanageable numbers',
Chapter 25 The truth about Auschwitz reaches the west, June 1944,
Chapter 26 The Gestapo offer: 'Keep the pot boiling',
Chapter 27 'Do all in your power',
Chapter 28 'Get anything out of the Air Force you can',
Chapter 29 'The biggest outcry possible',
Chapter 30 Fears of a flood,
Chapter 31 Bombing Auschwitz: 'Cost ... to no purpose',
Chapter 32 'These wailing Jews',
Chapter 33 The end of Auschwitz,
Chapter 34 'The worst of all the camps',
Other Books by Martin Gilbert,