The April 18 program, "Why Wasn't Auschwitz Bombed?' " drew a standing-room-only crowd at the Amberley Village synagogue. McGovern -- the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee who ran on an anti-Vietnam War platform -- was flanked by local Holocaust survivors Werner Coppel and Dr. Anna Ornstein. McGovern, 82, was a 22-year-old B-24 bomber pilot for the U.S. Navy in 1944; during the war he flew 35 missions over Europe.
The 90-minute program shed little light on why Americans didn't attempt to bomb concentration camps or the rail lines leading to them in order to try to stop the murder and slave labor imposed by Nazi Germany.
McGovern conceded that mistakes were made during the war but believes President Franklin Roosevelt and military leaders weren't fully aware of the atrocities that were taking place
"I'm not sure the American bombing planes could have done the kind of pinpoint bombing that would have been required to knock out the gas houses," he said.
McGovern stopped short of issuing a full apology but did say he wished the Americans could have done more. He noted generals and the president were following a strategy they felt would win the war -- stopping Hitler from the top down.
"I hope I don't sound too much like a Roosevelt apologist," he said after the program. "Hitler was a true son of a bitch."
Hypothetical theories about anti-Semitism in the U.S. State Department and War Department were raised by the program's moderator, Racelle Weiman, director of the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education at Hebrew Union College. McGovern conceded that might have been possible but returned to his earlier argument that there wasn't clear-cut knowledge about what was happening in Auschwitz or elsewhere.
"I don't think (anti-Semitism) was the dominant feature of American policy in World War II," he said, adding that Roosevelt had close ties to many Jewish leaders at the time.
McGovern pointed out that many Jewish organizations were against bombing the camps because it would "add to the slaughter." There was concern that Americans would end up killing Jews faster than Hitler was killing them, he said.
The retired senator's answers seemed to satisfy Coppel and Ornstein, who often shook their heads in agreement during the program, sometimes even interrupting to thank McGovern for doing what he could to win the war.
Coppel, a well-known lecturer on the Holocaust, called the program "one of most important events that has happened in this city in the last 50 years." It was the first time both McGovern and Holocaust survivors came face-to-face to discuss why prisoners at concentration camps weren't a priority for the U.S. military. McGovern said he was approached and asked to speak on the topic while on a previous trip to Cincinnati.
Afterwords Coppel -- who appeared to be wiping away tears at times during the program -- said he was overcome that now, 60 years after the end of the Holocaust, he was sitting next to one of the pilots he saw flying over Auschwitz.
"There is no question that there were mistakes made during the war," he said. "But there is not resentment. This country -- they all fought and gave their lives. But still, this country did not do enough. It is not a resentment. It was a mistake made, and even though there were mistakes made, (the Jews) are still here."
Then 12 years old, Coppel said he dreamed the planes a few thousand feet in the air above him -- some bombing a factory just yards away from where he was imprisoned -- would bomb his camp. Even if he died in such an attack, he thought, others wouldn't have to die later.
Coppel survived the Holocaust and not long after the war immigrated to the United States. In an ironic twist, he was required to register for the draft on the American side -- even though he didn't speak English. He received an exemption because he had a child, he said.
"I am an American," Coppel said. "I couldn't come fast enough to become an American."
He has a tattoo that branded his prisoner number on his arm. After what he endured as a young man, he said, it's remarkable how his life has turned out.
"I have no words to tell you 60 years after the event," Coppel said. "That I meet the pilot flying above me -- there's no words to tell you." ©