Allied aerial reconnaissance photographs revealed the existence of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz more than a year before the end of World War II, which raises anew the question of why the Allies never bombed the camp or the rail line that took victims to the camp.
Aerial photos taken of Auschwitz by American and British reconnaissance planes from April 4, 1944, to Jan. 14, 1945, clearly show the camp's gas chambers and crematoria where victims' bodies were burned. Several photos show prisoners undergoing disinfection and standing in line to be tattooed. One photo shows a line of 1,500 prisoners being led into the camp from 85 railroad boxcars parked at the end of the rail line just outside the camp gate.
The photographs, along with a scholarly treatise titled "Holocaust Revisited," have just been turned over to the National Archives by the Central Intelligence Agency, which also passed the photographs on to the White House. It is understood that after seeing the photographs, President Carter sent them to Elie Wiesel, chairman of the Holocaust Commission and a survivor of Auschwitz.
Just why the CIA passed the pictures on to the archives is not clear. The authors of the CIA report accompanying the pictures said they were moved to research and write the report after seeing the television serial, "The Holocaust."
"My hope is that we stimulate the interest of historians in the use of photographs taken through aerial reconnaissance," Dino A. Brugioni, one of the authors of the CIA report, said yesterday. "It is an untapped source of history."
The immediate reaction to release and publication of the photographs may be primarily one of anger. Jewish scholars have long asked why the Allies did not bomb Auschwitz or the rail line leading to it, a question that is sure to be brought up again with the release of the pictures.
"A recurring question since World War II has been why the United States rejected requests to bomb the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz or the railroads leading to Auschwitz," University of Massachusetts historian David S. Wyman wrote in Commentary magazine last May. "Such requests began to be numerous in the spring of 1944."
Proponents of such an attack recognized that it would have killed many of the inmates, but the Germans were going to kill them anyway and destroying the camp might have saved other intended victims.
Destruction of the rail line would have hampered the transport of nearly 1 million Hungarian Jews, who were being moved to Auschwitz at the time.
On April 10, 1944, two Auschwitz escapees named Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler passed on detailed information to Jewish leaders in Switzerland that Auschwitz was a death camp for Jews. The Swiss Jews informed American diplomats in Berne that 12,000 Jews were being murdered every day at Auschwitz, information that reportedly reached Washington by June 1944.
A crucial question about the aerial reconnaissance pictures of Auschwitz is whether they were ever passed on to Washington by the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey in Britain and Italy, where the planes were based that took the pictures.
The pictures of Auschwitz were almost an accidental byproduct of photographs taken of an I. G. Farben plant producing synthetic fuels less that five miles away. The plant was repeatedly bombed in the last year of the war by American and British planes.
There is little question that the Auschwitz photographs revealed the existence of a death camp. The question is whether the photo interpreters looking at the pictures recognized it as such and notified their superiors.
"Photo interpreters were unaware of Auschwitz at the time," Brugioni said. "They were looking for details of the Farben plant alongside Auschwitz, nothing else."
He explained that during World War II, photo interpreters were given no historical or social background by which to judge pictures. He said they were usually in a hurry to make judgments and often used shortcuts in making them.
"For instance, there's a picture in the Auschwitz file that shows prisoners being herded toward the camp," Brugioni said. "During the war, any time a line of people were seen in a picture it was labeled, 'mess hall'."
The pictures turned over to the archives by the CIA have lain in cans of aerial film stored at a Pentagon repository in Suitland, Md., for 30 years. The CIA acquired the film after "Holocaust" raised the Auschwitz issue last year.
The pictures illustrate what have been until now only "eyewitness accounts of the death process at Birkenau," which was the murder section of the Auschwitz camp, according to the CIA report. The pictures of the four gas chambers and crematoria at the camp "appear to be historically unique," the CIA report said.
"As far as we have been able to determine," the report's authors write, "no other photography of these facilities exists. The Birkenau gas chambers were special access facilities, even for most Nazis, and all photography was forbidden. The extermination facilities at the camp were destroyed by the Nazis prior to the camp's being liberated by the Red Army in January 1945."
Situated in a remote area south of Warsaw in Poland, the Auschwitz death camp was first opened in June 1940 to receive Soviet prisoners of war. It later became the main death camp for European Jews. By one count, 2.5 million Jews were killed at Auschwitz.