I am perhaps the only Auschwitz historian who has never visited Auschwitz. During the Carter and Reagan administrations, I was a GS 13 Supervisory Trial Attorney in the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. In 1979, I became the very first DOJ lawyer assigned to the new Office of Special Investigations that investigated Nazi war criminals.
My first boss had prosecuted Nazi bankers at the Nuremberg trials. He hired me because, like him, I was a former Army officer with an intelligence background. My security clearances ended up so far above Top Secret that I had to promise never to travel to any Communist country. All the other OSI trial attorneys could travel to Auschwitz, in Poland, but I could not.
By the time communism collapsed, I was not able to do much traveling anyway (surgeries for an old Army parachute accident, cancer, etc.). No, I never got to set foot in Auschwitz, but I did get to know more of its secrets than most people alive.
In the summer of 1979, I was put in charge of all Nazi war crimes cases from Belarus. The first thing I did was to ask the intelligence community for maps and aerial photographs. There was a pre-war German map series that showed every single house in even the smallest shtetl in Belarus. Most of the Jewish villages and towns are gone now. The SS sent new maps back to Berlin with coffins listing the number of Jews killed in each region east week. The final series of maps read “Judenrein,” which means “free from Jews.”
There were American aerial reconnaissance photographs of the cemetery in Minsk that served as the first mass execution site in 1941. The photos were so clear that one survivor was able to point out to me the tombstones that were knocked down by the machine gun bullets. She hid under the bodies.
I told one of the intelligence officers that I was amazed at the photographic detail of the Holocaust in Minsk.
“You should see what we have for Auschwitz,” he said and rolled out another drawer.
In 1941, the American reconnaissance planes based in Russia did not have the range to fly several hundred miles more to south central Poland. But after the allies invaded Italy, the British and eventually the Americans were able to make the first probing flights over the Polish city of Oswiecim, which the Nazis had renamed Auschwitz.
As late as 1944, the American photo interpreters did not recognize what they were looking at. No one had ever seen gas chambers and crematoria, let alone ones so large they could handle thousands of murder victims every day. A few sick bureaucrats in British intelligence knew exactly what was happening at Auschwitz but kept it from the Americans.
As early as January 1941, Polish intelligence had informed London that the old Auschwitz military barracks had been greatly expanded into a giant concentration camp. By September 1941, British codebreakers informed Winston Churchill that “it is now clear beyond any doubt that the German police are killing every Jew they can lay their hands on. Unless directed otherwise, we shall not bother reporting on this issue in the future.”
The naïve Americans who later joined the codebreakers were puzzled by the decrypted SS reports of large numbers of Jews being deported by rail, followed by equally large tallies of Jewish deaths. The British reassured the Americans that it probably meant nothing more than natural sickness and mortality among the elderly Jewish population. In fact, the British codebreakers had secretly reported the Nazis’ mass killing of “every Jew they could lay their hands on” to Churchill almost as soon as it had begun.