Last week, when Jews around the world recited the traditional Tisha B’Av lamentations focusing on the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, a number of communities added a lamentation referring to a much more recent tragedy – the failure of the Allies to bomb the Auschwitz death camp in 1944.
What makes this additional lamentation, or kina in Hebrew, especially interesting is that it not only refers so specifically to the failure to bomb Auschwitz, but it was written by the rabbi who was himself the first person to appeal to the Roosevelt administration to order the bombing of Auschwitz and the railway lines leading to it.
The author, Rabbi Chaim Michael Dov Weissmandl (1903-1957) grew up in Slovakia and became a prominent figure in the famous Nitra Yeshiva.
When the Germans began deporting Slovakia’s Jews to Auschwitz in the spring of 1942, Rabbi Weissmandl and his cousin Mrs. Gisi Fleischmann, a community activist, established an underground rescue organization known as the Prakova Skupina, or Working Group.
Their efforts included smuggling hundreds of Jewish children across the border into Hungary, which at that point was a safe haven. Most notably, they paid a $50,000 bribe to Nazi official Dieter Wisliceny to halt the deportations. From the autumn of 1942 until October 1944, no Jews were deported from Slovakia.
Although some information about the mass killings in Auschwitz leaked out earlier, the full details of the camp’s operations were revealed in late April 1944, when escapees Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler reached Slovakia. They gave Rabbi Weissmandl and his Working Group colleagues a thirty-page report explaining the mass murder process, including maps showing precisely where the gas chambers and crematoria were situated.
The report was sent to U.S. and British diplomats, officials of the Vatican, and Jewish rescue activists in neutral Switzerland, together with letters from Rabbi Weissmandl urging the Allies to bomb the death camp.
“We ask that the crematoria of Auschwitz be bombed from the air,” he pleaded. “They are sharply visible, as shown on the enclosed map. Such bombing will delay the work of the German murderers. What is more important – to bomb persistently all the roads leading from Eastern Hungary to Poland and to bomb persistently the bridges,” over which thousands of Hungarian Jews were being deported in cattle cars bound for the death camp.
The rabbi’s appeals reached the Roosevelt administration, which turned them down cold. Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy told American Jewish leaders that a study had found the bombing proposal was “impracticable” because it would require “diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations elsewhere.”
In fact, no study was ever done and no planes would have had to be diverted, because U.S. bombers were already flying directly over Auschwitz in preparation for the bombing of German oil factories less than five miles from the gas chambers.
The real reason for the refusal was that the Roosevelt administration had already decided, as a matter of principle, to refrain from expending even minimal resources on humanitarian objectives such as interrupting the mass murder of the Jews.
(The U.S. position will be explored in depth at a conference on “The Failure to Bomb Auschwitz: History, Politics, Controversy,” sponsored by The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, to be held at Fordham University Law School on Sunday, September 13, 2009. Those interested in attending can call 202-434-8994 to register.)
Rabbi Weissmandl himself narrowly escaped death. Captured by the Germans in August 1944 and placed on a train bound for Auschwitz, he cut a hole in the cattle car with an emery thread hidden in a crust of bread. After the war he immigrated to the United States, where he established a new Nitra Yeshiva, in Mount Kisco, New York.
It was there, in approximately 1955, that Rabbi Weissmandl composed his Tisha B’Av lamentation, titled Kinat Min HaMeitzar (or From the Depths – the opening words of Psalm 118). Long unknown except to the rabbi’s own students, Kinat Min HaMeitzar is now gaining wider circulation thanks to its recent publication, together with commentary, by the Jerusalem-based scholar Jacob Fuchs.
The text, which is available from Feldheim Publishers, overflows with the anguish of someone who watched the Jewish world go up in flames while his cries for help went unheeded. In the fifth stanza, Rabbi Weissmandl reaches back into the depths of his painful experiences, bringing a modern event into a narrative rooted in ancient history.