House of Ghosts is an historical mystery novel. It was originally planned as a non-fiction book about an event that didn’t happen in World War II history. By that I mean that I set out to discover the reasons why U.S. Air Force bombers who flew over Auschwitz on a series of missions in 1944 never once let loose their bombs.
Deine freunde sind droben haute was the phrase that drove me. It was the taunt made at my mother-in-law, Irene Lederer, by an SS guard when she was an inmate in the hell of that camp. It means, “Your friends are overhead today.” And yes, they were overhead. Often. In 1944, American bombers flew directly over the camp on their way to bomb the I.G. Farben synthetic rubber and oil plant that was being constructed -- by the inmates at Auschwitz -- only four miles away.
By this time, the world knew of the murders taking place. Why didn’t those bombers attack to stop the genocide? The question haunted my mother-in-law, who was one of the lucky few to survive. It haunted me. So, I set out to find out why.
I spent thousands of hours researching at the Firestone Library at Princeton University. I conducted personal interviews. I learned that the bombers who flew over Auschwitz were members of the 15th U.S. Air Force based in Italy. They flew an astonishing forty plus missions in that same section of Poland. No attack was ever made; no attempt mounted to save the 700,000 Hungarian Jews who suffered there, awaiting the ultimate outcome - death, either from gassing, beatings, hanging or starvation.
The official story that I found again and again in my research was that neither the U.S. brass nor the pilots knew what lay beneath them as they flew to their bombing destination. But, then I read Sir Martin Gilbert's Auschwitz and the Allies. An inscription under one photograph claimed that it was taken at 22,000 feet by a B-17 bomber on one of the runs against the I.G. Farben plant. I was stunned. Surely, that was a mistake. I began contacting veterans' groups in an attempt to interview some of the men who flew these missions.
Pilots and crew were either deceased or wouldn't talk. Only one retired Air Force general was willing to share information. As a young captain, he flew a B-17 in the 15th Air Force during the war. His group was the 2nd Heavy Bombardment, based in Foggia, Italy. They flew missions over Germany, France and Poland. And yes, he said, the Poland runs took him over the death camp. The bombardier used the chimneys of the crematoria in Berkanau as landmarks to begin the bomb run. They flew as low as 12,000 feet and could see the trains unloading prisoners at the camp. He confirmed my worst suspicions, stating in no uncertain terms that they knew what they flew over. The massive complex with the crematoria stacks which belched smoke and ash into the sky was no amusement park, and everyone knew it.
But pilots follow orders. And no orders were ever given to drop a bomb -- not one -- on the camp. One 500-lb bomb would have been enough to stop the murder.
How could this be? I wanted to understand the United States and its social and political climate during this time. What influenced America's reactions? Why didn't the United States lift a finger -- not only to bomb the camp, but to help the helpless gain entry into the country? Why, instead, was immigration stifled, specifically that of European Jews? And where were the voices of American Jews?
In the U.S., organizations like the America First Committee, with a membership that peaked at 800,000, were stridently non-interventionist. They pressured legislators not to become involved in another war. One of its most prominent members was the aviation hero, Charles Lindbergh. Established in 1940 by a Yale University law student, AFC members included fellow students future President Gerald Ford, Sargent Shriver and future Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart. The AFC merged with another more left-wing group, Keep America Out of the War Committee whose donors and contributors included many of the current-day captains of industry. One donation was sent by future President John F. Kennedy with a note saying, "What you are doing is vital." And, just in case you think that this sort of thinking, in retrospect, would be reviled, I can tell you that in 2004 conservative commentator Pat Buchanan praised America First, saying, "By keeping America out of World War II until Hitler attacked Stalin in June of 1941, Soviet Russia, not America, bore the brunt of the fighting, bleeding and dying to defeat Nazi Germany." (Pat Buchanan (October 13, 2004), HYPERLINK "http://www.theamericancause.org/patamericafirst.htm"The Resurrection of 'America First!', The American Cause, retrieved on 2008-02-03)
And what of the American Jewish community? My research entailed interviews with Jewish NYU alumni from the class of 1942, the same class in which my character, Paul Rothstein, would have graduated. Their words were riveting, revealing a detachment from the horrendous news coming from Europe concerning their Jewish brethren being systematically reduced to ghettos and resettlement to parts unknown. Adding to that sense of detachment was the American Jewish community's concerned with an effuse anti-Semitic climate. Another overriding focus was to avoid being labeled communist, or a communist sympathizer. Lindbergh’s anti-interventionist speech in Des Moines, Iowa in 1941 where he threatened Jewish Americans with reprisals for advocating action against Hitler did move the NYU Jewish students to action. They held with a massive counter demonstration outside Madison Square Garden where Lindbergh brought his souring act. But much more, certainly, could have been done.
Finally, who was the person who did not, and I venture to say, would not, authorize the bombing of the gas chambers? It was Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy, the most powerful person never elected in the U.S. government.
He was privy to the building of the atomic bomb, instrumental in the construction of the Pentagon, served as Governor General of the American sector in Germany, served every president including Jimmy Carter, and was second in command of the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of JFK. As Governor General, he pardoned up to 40,000 Nazis.
Many might call him an anti-semite. I think he saw himself as a pragmatist. By August 1944, the war in Europe appeared to be weeks away from an Allied victory. But McCloy believed that the next conflict would be between the U.S. and Russia, and that they would face each other in the Middle East. If that occurred, the U.S. would need aviation gas; and, the only source of that was Saudi Arabia. The Saudis were militantly against the Jewish immigration into Palestine prior to 1939. It is my belief that McCloy didn't want any survivors of the camps flooding into Palestine to drive a wedge between the U.S. and the Saudis. And, to put it bluntly, the fewer survivors, the less risk of that happening.
This is the story that unfolded through my research. But I felt that my lack of a PhD in History would make it hard for me to move a non-fiction version of the book into publication. Besides, fiction would give me more latitude to present my findings to a broader potential readership. Putting these horrifying pieces of information into a form that made it more available to the general reading public had its benefits. I hope, however, that the power behind the story I tell in House of Ghosts holds the believability of truth -- because truth is what it's made of.
About the Author
Lawrence Kaplan is a 1979 graduate of New York University School of Dentistry, runs a dental practice in New Jersey, and lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and menagerie. House of Ghosts is his first novel.
If you'd like to find out more about House of Ghosts, you can follow this link to Lawrence Kaplan's website. The author also did a 2 part interview on Radio WDIY in Bethlehem,Pa. If you'd like to listen, here's the link : Radio Interview .
Larry Kaplan is giving away a signed copy of his book, House of Ghosts, to one lucky tour visitor! Go to: Larry's book tour page, enter your name, e-mail address, and this unique pin, 3613, for your chance to win. Entries from Chick with Books will be accepted until 12:00 Noon (PT) tomorrow. Giveaway open to US Residents ONLY! No purchase is required to enter or win. The winner (first name only) will be announced on Larry's book tour page next week. Good luck!