“We should have bombed the tracks” — music meets the news

As you may have heard, one week ago President Bush acknowledged that the Allies in World War II should have bombed the railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps.  This issue has been debated for many years; Bush’s statement was (I believe) the first by a sitting US president that the Allies should have acted when they had the chance.

In an eerie coincidence, the Cantata Singers (an excellent musical organization with which I have sung for many years) had months ago commissioned a new piece, by Israeli composer Lior Navok, on precisely the same theme.  That piece, called “And the Trains Kept Coming,” will be premiered this Friday (1/18) at 8 pm and Sunday (1/20) at 3 pm, at Jordan Hall in Boston.  I’m the baritone soloist; there’s also a tenor, a boy soprano, and several soloists from the chorus.

Navok’s piece is unusual in that the text for it comes entirely from original documents of various kinds dating from the World War II era (read more about the piece here (composer’s program notes), and here (Globe feature)).  There are letters begging the Allies to do something; internal War Department memoranda discussing whether or not action should be taken; newspaper ads; German train schedules (really creepy); and more.  It’s a fascinating, wrenching, and moving piece, and well worth a listen.  If you want to hear more about it, there was a piece this afternoon on WBUR’s “Here and Now” in which the composer was interviewed — you can listen here.  Also on the concert program is “The Prophets,” an hour-long excerpt from Kurt Weill’s massive (eight hour) piece on the history of the Jewish people, “The Eternal Road.”  That, too, is a terrific piece of music.  Should be a great concert.

If you’re interested, there’s more information (including how to buy tickets) at this link.  For you students out there, student rush tickets are available for $10 (cash only) at the will-call table (up the stairs past the box office, on the left) half an hour before the concert, with student ID.

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21 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Interesting debate

    Bombing the tracks would have been a foolish idea for a number of reasons

    1)Could kill jews on trains 2)Deep penetration into Germany and Poland would have been a risky operation, we had 50-60% casualties in daylight raids over Germany, an operation over Poland would have been near 100% and pilots are hard to replace 3)Wouldnt do much good- It would have slowed down the actual detaining and gassing but the nazis might have just in desperation gunned people down without even the pretense of the work camps, which in fact is what they did when they heard of other camps getting liberated.

    That said FDR's policies regarding the Holocaust were flawed in a lot of other areas which we cannot possible debate. He refused to acknowledge it in public and truly show the evil of the enemy, he turned away several boats full of refugees during the period of American neutrality since he did not want to appear to take a side, its unlikely Germany would have declared war on the US for taking in Jews and was merely a ploy to the domestic isolationists that we were being serious about ignoring the war, and sadly when those boats turned away those people were sent right back and usually to the death camps. We were slow to liberate deathcamps and easily could have sent in commando raids like we did with our POWs, but POWs had priority over the Jews as did other military targets.

    • Responses

      to your first 3 points: 1. Among others, the Jews themselves -- the ones incarcerated in the camps -- were begging for the camps to be bombed.  They saw dying in an Allied bombing raid as an infinitely preferable death to the gas chambers -- one with a modicum of honor, plus one with the possibility of escaping in the ensuing chaos, plus one that would mean that those coming after them couldn't be gassed.  So this really isn't a serious objection. 2. Several bombing raids traveled within a few miles of Auschwitz and Birkenau, and one actually passed directly over Auschwitz and took aerial photographs.  Again, not a serious objection. 3. That's possible, but it seems impossible to me that they could have killed people as efficiently if they had to do it that way.  That, after all, is why they built the gas chambers.  So it surely would have saved a good number of lives.

      They could have done it with minimal cost and minimal diversion from purely military operations.  They simply chose not to.

      • I refute that

        Obviously arguing about the what ifs of history lead us down hypothetical roads where neither one of us can truly be right but it seems to be that if it was so easy they would not have chosen not to. Why would anyone knowingly let a mass number of civilians die? Not only is that immoral and inhuman but it also was not in the self interest of any of the allies to allow the death camps to continue, liberating them was a big propaganda coup and certainly blowing up the tracks would have been as well.

        The objections in my view were likely very military in shape and scope.

        Your first point is somewhat irrelevant since its not the business of the US government to put people out of their misery and I am unsure how the US could have known what people in the camps wanted.

        Also surveliance planes of the era flew much higher and were far less suspicious than a massive b-17 bombing raid. Daylight bombing which in pre radar and infrared days was a necessity resulted in 80% casualties in border cities like Strasborg and Dreden, Im certain that penetrating deep within Poland would have been a disaster for our pilots.

        Lastly it certainly would have been less efficient to kill them but it would not have stopped them, and again to be relativistic about it I'd rather be gassed than gunned down and the atrocities might have been far worse.

        In any case the important lesson is that we should not only say never again and actually act on it, so while I like this historical argument perhaps we can both agree that the US should actively stop ongoing genocides such as the ones occuring in Darfur and the ethnic cleansing in Iraq.  

        • $quot;Why would anyone knowingly let a mass number of civilians die?$quot;

          Uh, jconway?  You claim to know a lot about history.  But that unbelievably naive question pretty much refutes your claim.

          On your non-responses: 1. The US knew, because there were escapees from the camps who were writing directly to the government, and who were in touch with Jewish advocacy groups.  Furthermore, if they US knew what was going on the camps (which at least at some point they did), it would have been a perfectly legitimate decision to put a few lives at risk to save a whole lot more, at the very least by bombing the tracks if not the camps themselves.

          2. You obviously didn't read what I said.  There were bombing raids that bombed military targets located within a few miles of the camps.  Look it up.

          3. Your third point is absurd.  The point is to prevent as many as possible from being murdered.  Even if you're right that the Nazis would have started shooting as many people as they could, there is no way they could have killed as many people as quickly in that way.  Some still would have died.  But a lot more would have lived.

          Don't be an apologist for very, very bad conduct on the part of the Allies.

  2. we should have executed thomas watson and crushed IBM.

    then the tracks would have been irrelevant.  it was, after all, ibm that kept the trains efficiently loaded with jews et al. and running on time.  but commerce was clearly already of greater importance to american decision makers than lives.

    • It was Mussolini who made the trains run on time

      But it was IBM who helped the Nazis keep track of Jews and other "undesirables" via their tabluating machines.  (Those were pre-computer days.)  Which IBM regularly serviced and updated during the war via their Swiss subsidiary.  It strains credulity to believe that Watson did not know what was going on.

      • ibm

        machines were also used to manage the movement of materiel on nazi trains.  hitler didn't use them just for genocide purposes.  of course watson knew what was going on.  he knew where the machines and their technicians and specialized supplies were deployed.  

        • Not conspiracy theories

          Normally I would sound off against conspiracy theories about American corporate involvement in WWII but the facts are irrefutable. IBM computers were specifically and specially designed, Ive seen the machines, to tabulate the number of Jews and other undesirables that were eliminated in the Holocaust, that famous German efficiency showed itself real well during that horrible time.

          Moreover Prescott Bush (dubyas grandfather and a CT Senator) and other members important trading companies and boards knew this was going on and aided the enemy in other ways. Coca Cola was infamous for playing patriotism on both sides of the war. They helped create fanta which was used as a war time substitute for Coke syrup which they were banned from selling to Germany but they were able to send over technicians on a regular basis to keep the factories operating usually with Jewish slave labor. Harry Truman first gained notoriety for chairing the committee that investigated and prosecuted corporate disloyalty to the US during the war whether it be violating the Trading with Enemy Act or just gouging prices at home.  

          • i didn't know about the coke/fanta thing.

            can you suggest somewhere where i can read up on it?

            a military friend in kuwait during desert storm found us/british materiel catalogs and actual goods in iraqi bunkers he ransacked.  in fact, the binoculars the usmc outfitted him with were identical, except for flag decal, with ones he found on the enemy.  shamefully, nothing has changed (for the better at least) since wwii.

            • Great movie source

              Unlike typical Michael Moore fare the film The Corporation which I saw in connection with a class at school was fairly accurate in showing the pros and cons of this institution.

              In any case they sorted out the Fanta stuff.  

              • Apropos of virtually nothing

                Coca Cola sold fruit-flavored soft drinks in the US in at least the 1950s and possibly into the early 1960s under the Fanta trademark.

    • Dimwitted leftism

      A punch card tab machine is a punch card tab machine and does not know what the holes in the cards represent. Commerce between the US and Germany was banned during WWII.  

      • commerce was banned, yes.

        but that didn't stop it.

        • Where is your evidence?

          There was no knowledge of the Holocaust outside of Germany until February 1942. Although IBM did sell tab machines to Germany in connection with censuses conducted in 1933 and 1939, there is no evidence that IBM knew of their use in the Holocaust. See hnn.us/comments/19491.html. Do you have any evidence that IBM sold tab machines to Germany after February 1942? There is a book on the presumed IBM-Germany connection but its conclusions are not accepted.

          • $quot;IBM and the Holocaust$quot;

            by Edwin Black is a good place for you to start.

            When you say "conclusions are not accepted", I must ask "by whom are they not accepted"?

          • Maybe...

            There was no knowledge of the Holocaust outside of Germany until February 1942

            ...that is because what is generally referred to as the Holocaust did not beggin until after the end of the Wannsee Conference in late January 1942.  It is a bit more complicated than that, since civilian Jews had been specifically targeted by the Nazi military for some months previously, but that regarding the Wannsee conference marked the beginning of the "final solution" is what I have read.

        • Everything as hazy as possible

          I've discovered a recent news story on a lawsuit concerning the IBM-Nazi relationship in the NY Times but "There is no evidence in the suit that officials in New York explicitly ordered that technology be supplied to the Nazis with the understanding it would be used in concentration camps." Of course this is a typical human rights lawsuit: everything as hazy as possible. Witness the Yale action aganst John Yoo.

      • Two points

        As to your first point A punch card tab machine is a punch card tab machine and does not know what the holes in the cards represent, it is true that the punch card tablating machine itself doesn't "know" what the tabs mean, but the programmers who programmed the machines do.  IIRC, IBM supplied the machines, Hollerith cards and programmers to the Nazi regime out of its Swiss subsiary--likely with information provided by IBM-US.

        As to your second point Commerce between the US and Germany was banned during WWII., as I dexcribed elsewhere on this page, at least IBM, and possibly other US companies did business with Nazi Germany indirectly through their Swiss subsidiaries.  Switzerland was officially neutral, and the US did not declare war on that country, so it wasn't officially "the enemy."

        BTW, you can hang up the "dimwitted leftism" sillines.  All that right-wingers mean by "leftism" is "I don't like what you say, do, advocate for, etc."

  3. Second half of the program

    The Kurt Weil work in the second half of the program was amazing, fun, varied, lyrical, and dramatic.

    Large & generous program.

  4. Ya, and grampy Prescott

    should not have financed the Nazi's through Union Banking Corp!

    As usual a diversion out of the mouth of a silver spoon cokehead.

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