Editor’s Note: Recently, the Museum hosted a premiere screening of PBS’s Secrets of the Dead episode “Bombing Auschwitz.” The author of the article below notes his concerns about the historical accuracy of the episode.
By Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, Oxford, UK
The gripping “Bombing Auschwitz” episode of Secrets of the Dead portrays the escape from Auschwitz on 7 April 1944 of two Jewish prisoners, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, who then managed to convey detailed revelations about the camp to Jewish leaders in Nazi-allied Slovakia.
When this information reached the Swiss outpost of the US War Refugee Board, argues the episode, it led to the debate from late May 1944 among Jewish representatives and political and military leaders in the US and Britain about bombing the camp in order to save Hungarian Jews who from 17 May were being gassed at the rate of several thousand a day.
Whether antisemitism in America and the United Kingdom led to rejection of bombing continues to be a painful, contentious, endlessly debated issue.
My concern is that the very qualities that make for an easy to watch television documentary may come at the expense of historical accuracy. “Bombing Auschwitz” is marred by basic factual errors as was the documentary under the PBS Secrets of the Dead label shown in 2007 titled “Escape from Auschwitz”.
Obviously, museums and popular films are vital tools in promoting knowledge of the Holocaust, especially among members of new generations who frequently are aware of alarmingly little about it. But it is equally vital to ensure that simplification does not come at the expense of factual truth. Even errors that may initially seem minor risk endangering the enterprise – sacred to survivors – of preserving memory. The sacrifice of accuracy in the interests of boosting viewing statistics may also have the indirect, pernicious effect of benefiting malign Holocaust denial.
A further reason for scrupulous attention to accuracy is that interpretation of events – about which there will always be legitimate differences of opinion – becomes harder if it is based on erroneous assumptions.
Here is a sampling of seemingly incorrect or unfounded statements in the documentary (of which PBS has refused so far to release a transcript):
- At the start, the viewer is told that escape from Auschwitz was “nearly impossible”. According to preview information released by PBS, the Vrba/Wetzler escape was “miraculous”.
It does not diminish the exceptional bravery of Vrba and Wetzler to state that a number of reputed historical works, including writings of Otto Dov Kulka of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, tell a different story. According to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, at least 196 persons [on average one a week] successfully escaped. Another 25 were also successful but were recaptured later in the War and the fate of a further 254 escapees is not recorded: “It can, however, be presumed that as the fact of capturing them was not recorded in German documents, for some of them the escapes finished with success.”1
This makes a total of between 221 and 475 known successful escapes.
In fact there was another successful escape just two days before that of Vrba and Wexler and a further escape of two prisoners on 27 May.
2. What made the Vrba/Wetzler escape of 7 April 1944 special was that the two men provided an exceptionally detailed – thus particularly credible – report to Jewish leaders in Slovakia, who then managed to send it out of Nazi-occupied territory.
Nevertheless, the episode is wrong to indicate that it was the first report about the gas chambers to reach the Allies. Archival research by the Oxford scholar Michael Fleming, published in 2014 by Cambridge University Press [Auschwitz and the Censorship of the Holocaust], shows that there had been multiple previous reports – no less than 45 by June 1944, reports Fleming. They had been ignored, indeed suppressed, by Allied governments.
3. The episode dramatizes the process by which the Vrba/Wetzler report was smuggled out of Nazi-occupied territory. It shows imaginary scenes such as Rabbi Michael Dov Ber Weissmandl using a secret transmitter in Bratislava to send out news of the Vrba/Wetzler report. Neither the executive producer of the original version of the episode shown first by the British Broadcasting Corporation nor a US expert interviewed in the episode were able to provide any evidence that the Jewish underground in Bratislava possessed such equipment.
History would have been very different had they enjoyed access to such a direct and secret channel of communication.
4. The portrayal of transmission of the report by Jewish couriers is also dubious. Such couriers – often young women known as Kashariyot – performed heroically in bringing information from one Polish ghetto to another. Concerning Hungarian Jews after the German invasion of that pro-Nazi country in March 1944, Zionist halutzim were notable in arranging for clandestine border crossings in 1944 between Hungary and Romania [“tiyul”] and between Hungary and Slovakia [“re-tiyul”].
The company which produced the episode acknowledges that the sequence showing female Jewish couriers secretly conveying the Vrba/Wetzler report from one part of Slovakia to another is not based on direct evidence.
Concerning clandestine communications between Jews in pro-Nazi and Nazi-occupied territories and neutral Switzerland, the Allies’ main listening post in Europe, the couriers usually were (presumably bribed) diplomats and journalists rather than Jews. There is considerable evidence about this in the relevant archives.
5. We are shown the Vrba/Wetzler report being delivered by his secretary at the US legation in Bern, Switzerland, on 25 May 1944 to Roswell McClelland, the representative of the Washington-based War Refugee Board. It is far from clear that McClelland received the report until considerably later. (My research into the matter is ongoing since the Board’s archives held at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library are still in their original chaotic state and documents frequently bear a date when they were sent but not when they were received, which often was much later.)
Whether McClelland actually received the report as shown in the episode at the time given is not established. It conflicts with McClelland’s own statement about the time of receipt in his letter sent to the Washington headquarters of the War Refugee Board in October 1944.
6. According to the episode, the reason why the full Vrba/Wetzler report could not be sent to Washington until the autumn of 1944 (by which time the Soviets were about the capture the camp) was that Switzerland was surrounded until the liberation of France by Nazi-held countries. Therefore the US legation in Bern was unable to use couriers to the Washington.
This is incorrect for a whole series of reasons. It is enough to mention that a declassified Central Intelligence Agency statement asserts that following the capture of Corsica, land/sea communication was available from autumn 1943.2
7. The chief official of the War Refugee Board, John Pehle, only very belatedly – as late as November 1944 – supported the bombing of Auschwitz. After Assistant Secretary of War McCloy refused his request, Pehle then published the Vrba/Wetzler report. It received press coverage in the USA only from 26 November 1944 when it was far too late.
The episode associates Himmler’s order to demolish the gas chambers and crematoria with this publication. According to the guide to the episode issued by Secrets of the Dead, the Nazis “accelerated their (demolition) efforts with the new media attention.”
It is unclear and dubious whether there is any basis to the suggestion in the episode that the issue of the full Vrba/Wetzler report on 26 November 1944 had a significant practical effect on decisions by Heinrich Himmler. According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Himmler’s demolition order had been given the day before.
What are the implications of these points?
I do not dispute the points concerning the moral debate about the failure to bomb Auschwitz made by leading interviewees during the documentary.
My concern is about some current doctrines of presentation of historical events by the makers of Holocaust documentaries. When playwrights are used, as in this documentary episode, to put a dramatic gloss on events, when clips are shown of things which either did not happen or of which there is no evidence, when film directors employ sound effects and a quick fire succession of sound bites to boost viewer ratings, it is all too tempting to downgrade pesky facts.
The valid argument that television documentaries need to simplify is no excuse for factual error or distortion.
Comment is free, but facts are sacred.
This is true above all when we are dealing with the Holocaust.
2 Mark Murphy, “The Exploits of Agent 110.[Allen Dulles]” https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/kent-csi/vol37no1/html/v37i1a05p_0001.htm
Author’s note: This post is written in loving memory of one of my late mother’s best friends in Munkacs, Elizabeth [Kroo] Teitelbaum, who died in October 2019 in Brooklyn aged 98. Elizabeth was in the same barracks in Auschwitz as my grandmother. They were deported shortly after my mother and I were smuggled out of the Munkacs ghetto in May 1944. Elizabeth donated some objects from her time in Ravensbruck to the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust as well as the only surviving photograph of my mother’s marriage in 1941. Elizabeth’s experience in the camps had a devastating effect on her life after the War but she lived a full life, had many friends – not least my sister Grace Goldblatt – and a clear mind to the end.