On January 27, 1945 the Red Army advancing in Poland arrived in a sleepy town called Oswiecim. Next to it, they found Hell. As they crossed the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau, they saw discombobulated walking skeletons staring at them with empty eyes. Emaciated corpses were strewn everywhere. The stench of death was overwhelming. Over a million people—mostly Jews—had been murdered there. Auschwitz was the largest and deadliest of the 20,000 concentration camps built by the Germans to create a new world order free of Jews and political dissent.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which occurs on January 27, was designated by the United Nations to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. The date, which marks the day in which Auschwitz was liberated, was chosen as Auschwitz has become emblematic of the Holocaust. Of course one could ask the question of why the United Nations thought it necessary to select a new date, given that there already was another Holocaust Remembrance Day date which commemorates the revolt of the Warsaw Ghetto. But a more important question is what the meaning of the word liberate is in this context.
Obviously from a literal point of view the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz, in the sense that prior to their arrival the prisoners lived and died under the German boot and after the Red Army arrived those that were still capable of surviving were freed. From this perspective it’s also valid and true to say the American Army liberated Dachau, and the British liberated Bergen Belsen. But I would argue that we need to qualify the word “liberated”, because what the Allied armies did was remove the German occupiers everywhere in their path. None of the Allied armies had as a military objective the liberation of these camps. None of them specifically sent troops in the direction of the camps with the objective of liberating the prisoners there. No, the camps just happened to be in their path. As a matter of fact, most of the Allied troops were understandably appalled by what they found, but they were surprised because they didn’t even know those camps were there and what they had been used for.
But this was not the case with the top military echelons, or of the highest political figures. Indeed, a long time before the Soviets arrived in Auschwitz a detailed report of the inner workings of the extermination camp was circulated in the Vatican, in Washington and London. A little over half a year before the liberation of the camp the Germans began the deportation and extermination of Hungary’s Jews. Many Jewish organizations pleaded with the Allied authorities so that they would bomb the railroad tracks going from Hungary to Auschwitz, and even the gas chambers. Churchill ordered his military to look into that very possibility, but was told that the railroad tracks and Auschwitz were outside the range of British bombers. The American Air Force gave similar excuses.
But the reality is that both the railroads and Auschwitz were indeed within range of American bombers already operating in Italy. As a matter of fact, the Americans had already photographed Auschwitz from the air and conducted several bombing raids of the German industrial facilities surrounding Auschwitz-Birkenau. Stray bombs actually fell in Birkenau. So, the American Air Force definitely had the capability of severely hampering the German deportation efforts from Hungary and even of destroying the gas chambers, thus severely hampering the German extermination effort. But saving Jews was not an Allied military objective, and neither the railroad tracks nor the gas chambers were bombed. As the American Air Force dithered, over 10,000 human lives were consumed in the flames of Auschwitz every day.
These facts should give us pause when we consider the meaning of the “liberation” of the concentration and death camps.
As the world commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th, it’s also important to understand, and remember, what drove the Germans and their helpers in the various countries they invaded to perpetrate the Holocaust.
In Nazi Germany, the ancient hatred toward Jews had evolved into something secular and pseudo-scientific. This was something the post-Enlightenment, highly cultured German people could accept as a replacement for the ancient Christian anti-Judaism of their ancestors. By the time Hitler came to power German antisemitism was firmly grounded on the notions that Jews were racially inferior and for being a threat to Christian Germans and everything that was good. Ultimately, any message of hatred that conformed to the conception of Jews established by almost two thousand years of certain Christian teachings made sense and was acceptable.
Elsewhere in Europe, particularly in the East where the genocide took place and where the Germans found no shortage of auxiliaries for the genocidal duties that took place there, the situation was different. None of the locals who willfully collaborated in the execution of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” had been brainwashed by Nazi racial propaganda. In those countries the locals hated Jews for the same reasons other Europeans had hated Jews for centuries: for killing Jesus, for desecrating the Host, for poisoning wells, for bringing about the Black Plague, for killing young Christian boys to extract their blood to make Passover bread, for being minions of the Devil, for being greedy money-lenders, and any number of other baseless accusations.
But it’s not enough to understand and remember what the motivation of the perpetrators was, because the perpetrators would have been unable to execute their monstrous deeds if it hadn’t been for the fact that the majority of the populations of the world had the choice of acting to stop the genocide and chose not to. Even though it’s true that some chose to remain silent bystanders out of fear of the Germans, many overcame the fear and acted to save people. We do not know with certainty why the American military authorities chose not to bomb Auschwitz, but we do know that many in the military establishment and the State Department were antisemitic and felt no compassion as millions of Jews were mercilessly slaughtered.
So, now that the world is paying attention to the consequences of this hatred when looking-in through the old electrified fence at Auschwitz-Birkenau, we should not forget where antisemitism came from, and recognize that despite the great progress in Jewish-Christian relations made since the Second Vatican Council, more work needs to be done.