By ARON HELLER
A teary-eyed President Bush stopped in front of an aerial photo of Auschwitz on Friday at Israel’s Holocaust memorial and said the U.S. should have sent bombers to prevent the extermination of Jews there.
Yad Vashem’s chairman, Avner Shalev, quoted Bush as saying the U.S. should have “bombed it.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Bush referred to the train tracks leading to Auschwitz, not the camp itself, where between 1.1 million and 1.5 million people were killed by Nazi Germany.
The issue of bombing the Nazi death camps or the rail lines leading to them has been debated for years – and the lack of action was interpreted by some as a sign of Allied indifference.
The Allies had detailed reports about Auschwitz toward the end of World War II from escaped prisoners. But they chose not to bomb the camp, the rail lines, or any of the other Nazi death camps, preferring instead to focus all resources on the broader military effort.
Some experts note only late in the war did the United States have the capability to bomb the infamous camp in occupied Poland, and also faced a moral dilemma since such an operation could kill thousands of prisoners. Even Jewish leaders at the time struggled with the issue and many concluded that loss of innocent lives under such circumstances was justifiable.
Bush twice had tears in his eyes during an hour-long tour of the museum, said Shalev, who guided Bush through the exhibits.
Upon viewing an aerial shot of Auschwitz, taken during the war by U.S. forces, he said Bush called the decision not to bomb it “complex.” He then called over Rice to discuss President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision, clearly pondering the options before rendering an opinion of his own, Shalev told The Associated Press.
Shalev quoted Bush as asking Rice, “Why didn’t Roosevelt bomb it?” He said Rice and Bush discussed the matter further and then the president delivered his verdict.
“We should have bombed it,” Shalev, speaking in Hebrew, quoted Bush as saying.
Briefing reporters later on Air Force One, Rice said Bush was talking about the rail lines to the camp.
“We were talking about the often-discussed ‘Could the United States have done more by bombing the train tracks?'” Rice said. “And so we were just talking about the various explanations that had been given about why that might not have been done.
“It was an exhibit about the train tracks. And so we were just talking about the various explanations because, you know, there are three or four different explanations about why the United States chose not to try to bomb the train tracks,” she said.
Rice did not detail those reasons.
Later Friday night, asked about Rice’s remarks to reporters, Shalev told the AP the president was not specific about what the Allies should have bombed.
Tom Segev, a leading Israeli scholar of the Holocaust, said Bush’s reported comment, which appeared spontaneous, marked the first time a U.S. president had made this acknowledgment.
“It is clear now that the U.S. knew a lot about it,” Segev said. “It’s possible that bombing at least the railway to the camps may have saved the lives of the Jews of Hungary. They were the very last ones who were sent to Auschwitz at a time when everybody knew what was going on.”
At the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in 1993, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel famously asked, “Why weren’t the railways leading to Birkenau bombed by allied bombers? As long as I live I will not understand that.” Birkenau was the site of the main gas chambers and crematoriums at Auschwitz. UNESCO last year approved a name change from Auschwitz concentration camp to Auschwitz-Birkenau.