Archive for the ‘Zionism’ Category
15 March 2017 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the death of Rezső Kasztner. The following post is based on Anna Porter’s 2007 book, Kasztner’s Train, and includes extensive extracts from it.
“The affair of the Judenrat (and perhaps also the Kasztner case) should, in my view, be left to the tribunal of history in the coming generation. The Jews who were safe and secure during the Hitler era ought not presume to judge their brethren who were burned and slaughtered, nor the few who survived.”
David Ben-Gurion, quoted in Weitz, The Man Who Was Murdered Twice.
Five years ago, Zsolt Zágoni published a translation of a handwritten notebook of Rózsa Stern, written in Switzerland following her escape on the train via Bergen-Belsen (1,684 people were deported on the train to the camp and from there in two groups to Switzerland – I have summarised her account of the transit elsewhere). Rózsa’s father, Samu Stern, was the President of the Hungarian Jewish Community in Budapest at the time of the Nazi occupation on 19 March, obliged to negotiate with Eichmann about the fate of the Jewish community, not just in Budapest, but throughout Hungary and the Hungarian-occupied territories. Rózsa’s notebook confirms that Rezső Kasztner encouraged Samu to leave with his daughter and her husband, György Bamberger, because if there are no mice, there is no need for a cat either (if there are no Jews left in the city, there is no need for a President of the Jewish Council).
Above: The memoir written by Samu Stern in 1945 (he died on 9 June, 1946).
Stern’s photo is seen on the cover
In the accompanying historical essay, written by Krisztián Ungváry, the historian also confirms Porter’s account that in the early Summer of 1944 the Kolozsvár-born Kasztner had made a deal with the SS Commander in Budapest, Adolf Eichmann, the man sent to Hungary that Spring to complete the Final Solution. It was as a Hungarian lawyer and journalist, a leading Zionist and member of the Rescue Committee that he had been given the approval of the Jewish Council to meet with Eichmann, the Nazi architect of the Holocaust, in Budapest. Following the German occupation of Hungary on 19 March that year, Eichmann had been charged with the deportation of all six hundred thousand Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz within a matter of months. By the end of June, more than 440,000 had been deported from the countryside, first placed in ghettos, and then transported in cattle wagons on trains to the death camp. Yet Kasztner and his colleague Joel Brand secured Eichmann’s agreement to allow 1,684 Jews to leave for Switzerland by train. These negotiations and the deals they struck with the devil continued to haunt Kasztner for the rest of his life, and help to explain why he has never been fully honoured for his role in saving so many lives.
Dealing with the Devil:
In exchange for getting the Jews to Switzerland, Zionist organisations would transport military trucks through Switzerland to Germany. The wealthy Jews of Budapest and Kasztner’s native Transylvanian city of Kolozsvár (now and previously Cluj in Romania) paid an average of $1,500 for each family member to be included on the lists of those who would eventually leave for Switzerland by train and emigrate to Palestine. The poor families included were to pay nothing. Kasztner also negotiated to keep twenty thousand more Hungarian Jews alive in Budapest – Eichmann called them Kasztner’s Jews or his Jews on Ice – in exchange for a deposit of approximately $100 per head. It was the right and duty of Kasztner’s Rescue Committee to decide who would get on the train that would mean survival. In order to include some of the poorest, who paid nothing, they had to select mainly wealthier, educated people and, controversially, relatives and acquaintances from Kolozsvár. Had he told even these people what would probably happen to those left behind, he would certainly have risked the success of the entire rescue mission, including the futures of the twenty thousand Jews on ice, as Eichmann called them, who would not be deported, in exchange for $100 per head. Rózsa Stern’s journal confirms that of those interned at the Aréna Street (now Dózsa György Street) Synagogue on 30 June, awaiting the departure of the Aliyah train most… were families from the countryside who were saved from the brick factories. Only about a dozen people died on the way to Switzerland, so that the survivors on the Kasztner train could consider themselves the ‘lucky’ ones.
After the war Kasztner was a witness at the trial of major war criminals and was a defence witness six times in the case of Kurt Becher in Nuremberg, the SS officer with whom Kasztner was negotiating in 1944 and who later settled in Israel. In 1953 Kasztner was accused in a newspaper article of collaborating with the Nazis. Since he had ambitions for a political career in Israel, he was told that it was essential for him to clear his name, and he therefore filed a lawsuit. However, this backfired on him and although he won his libel case, the evidence presented led to the widespread public conclusion that he had sold his soul to the devil. In Israel, Kasztner’s case turned into a political scandal. The survivors whose lives were not saved by the train and whose families died in Auschwitz or on the trains and forced marches there, saw in Kasztner a mean, calculating collaborator. His alleged favouritism for family, friends and acquaintances in the selection of the ‘survivors’, together with the fact that , knowing the whole truth about the death-camp, from the so-called Auschwitz Protocols, he chose not to reveal this to the wider public, strengthened the subsequent hatred against him. In fact, those who really wanted to know what was happening to those deported had had many channels from which they could get information from as early as 1942, and had access to these since well before the Auschwitz Protocols arrived in Budapest via Bratislava. Porter’s book gives evidence that many of the Jewish leaders, including Samu Stern, did not want to give credence to what the Eichmann and the Nazis repeatedly dismissed as malicious rumours aimed at starting an uprising, which would be met with severe repression should they be repeated or publicised in any way. Certainly, it was made plain to Kasztner that any rumour-mongering would lead to the breakdown of his plans for an exodus of remaining Jews.
In Israel – Accusations of Collaboration:
In Israel, after the war, the exiled Kasztner was vilified in an infamous libel trial for ‘collaborating’ with the Nazis. As a result of the libel case, the Israeli government was forced to resign. The Israeli political right labelled their opponents as Gestapo agents and Kasztner became an obvious scapegoat. It was the first time that the general public, in Israel and elsewhere, became aware of the contacts between Zionist organisations and the Nazis and, not having experienced the terror of 1944 in the Hungary, they failed to understand the pressures which the Budapest Rescue Committee and the Jewish Council in Budapest were under, pressure which led to almost continual friction between the two organisations over tactics in dealing with the Nazis, whether at home or abroad.
In Tel Aviv, Kasztner and his whole family were subjected to appalling hate crimes. His young daughter, Zsuzsi, was stoned on the streets and his wife Bogyó became severely depressed. While awaiting the Supreme Court verdict that would eventually vindicate him, he was assassinated outside his apartment block in Tel Aviv. Kasztner did not think of himself as a hero, but as a proud Zionist who believed that promises, even those made to the Nazis, had to be kept. Anna Porter, born in Budapest and educated there after the war, has written a compelling account of him, subtitled The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust, based both on written sources in Hungarian and English, and on eyewitness accounts, collected at a time when there were few recorded references to the victims of what she (properly in my view) calls the Hungarian Holocaust. There were even fewer references to Rezső Kasztner, although the better-known Oskar Schindler, who had met Kasztner in Budapest in 1942, had written of his actions that they remained unsurpassed. Soon after the war, Schindler was recognized as a Righteous Gentile, supported by grateful survivors, celebrated and lionized. Kasztner, by contrast, became a symbol of collaboration with the enemy. Porter acknowledges that:
… the deals Kasztner made with the SS… raise questions about moral choices, courage in dangerous circumstances, the nature of compromise and collaboration, and how far an individual should go to save other people. These questions are as valid now as they were in the 1940s. They continue to haunt the world today.
Yet moral questions must be set alongside historical ones and Porter’s book, though a work of popular history, is meticulous in its use of diaries, notes, taped interviews, courtroom testimonies, and memoirs – both written and oral, including those written in German and Hebrew. Since Kasztner’s only goal was that of saving human lives, she concludes that Kasztner achieved more in this way than any other individual in Nazi-occupied Europe.
The Consequences of the Libel Trial, 1956-57; Extracts from Porter:
In March 1956, the chief magistrate in Jerusalem dismissed the charge of perjury against Kasztner… but the year presented greater trials than the re-trial of the perjury case… On October 29… the Israeli army invaded Egypt and occupied the Sinai Peninsula. It was a pre-emptive strike at the heart of Egypt’s occupation of the Suez Canal. The invasion’s chief achievement, as far as the Israelis were concerned, was that it signaled to the surrounding Arab states that Israel could preserve its security against its enemies. Headlines in Israeli papers were occupied with news of the victory and the ensuing peace negotiations. Kasztner was no longer in the headlines. The government cancelled his protection.
He continued to work for ‘Új Kelet’ (‘New East’) and co-produced some radio programmes. He took on some freelance work as a translator… Tomy Lapid (a colleague) said that Kasztner seemed aware of his life being in danger. “He became a hunted man,” Lapid said… Kasztner now looked along the street carefully before he stepped out of a doorway; he hesitated when he turned corners; once, when a car backfired he ducked into a store; he stayed close to walls; he had seemed nervous even when government-appointed guards followed him. There were so many abusive, threatening calls that he stopped answering the phone at the office. At home, too, he disconnected the telephone. He didn’t want his wife or daughter listening to the deranged ravings about how his life was to end.
On March 3, 1957, Kasztner was working the night-shift at the editorial offices of ‘Új Kelet’. He drove a colleague… home. A few minutes after midnight, Kasztner parked his car in front of his apartment building at 6 Sderot Emanuel Street. While he was still in the driver’s seat, he was approached by two young men. A third, he saw, was standing in the shadows of the building. One of the men asked if he was “Doctor Kasztner.” When he replied that, yes, he was, the man drew a gun, but it misfired. Kasztner opened the car door, pushing his assailant aside, then ran toward the entrance of the building. The man fired, twice in quick succession. This time the bullets found their target. Kasztner ran a few more steps, then collapsed. He shouted for help as the three assailants fled. He saw the gunman run to a jeep and speed off.
He was still conscious when the first person from the building arrived at the scene and tried to administer first aid. A woman who had gone to her balcony when the shots rang out ran to wake Bogyó (Kasztner’s wife). Another man heard Kasztner say that the assailant had gone in a jeep; that neighbour jumped on his bike and gave chase. Two men emerged from the jeep near the city zoo, where their pursuer, a former army man, found a phone booth and called the police.
A crowd gathered around Kasztner. Someone had called an ambulance. Bogyó, a neighbor reported later, seemed strangely calm when she saw that Rezső had been shot. Perhaps she, too, had been expecting something like this to happen. She knelt next to her bleeding husband, put a pillow under his head, covered him with a blanket, stroked his forehead and whispered to him…
Friends and a few passengers from the Kasztner train went to the hospital with flowers. There were hundreds of telegrams with good wishes for a speedy convalescence… Newspapers that had denounced Kasztner now shouted in headlines that the attackers had aimed at the heart of the nation of Israel.
Kasztner’s room was guarded by two policemen. He was conscious but spoke little. He wished to see no visitors except his immediate family and Hansi (his Zionist colleague Joel Brand’s wife and Rezső’s long-term lover). Bogyó had intended to bar Hansi from the room, but she managed to plead her way in. At one point he asked her, “Why did they do this to me?” Hansi was with him on March 12 as his condition began to deteriorate.
On March 15, at 7:20 a.m., Rezső Kasztner died.
The Aftermath of the Assassination:
On Sunday, March 17, 1957, Rezső Kasztner’s coffin was set up in front of the Hadassah Hospital in Tel Aviv to provide his many admirers with an opportunity to pay their respects in public and to show their solidarity with the family. His mother, his two brothers, Bogyó, and Zsuzsi (his daughter), stood next to the coffin. Though neither David Ben-Gurion nor Mohse Sharett came, the Mapai (the ruling party) were represented by Attorney General Chaim Cohen and State Secretary Teddy Kollek. Some of his old colleagues from Budapest and Kolozsvár, and the halutzim who had worked with him paid their respects. Hansi stood near the coffin but out of Bogyó’s immediate circle. Yoel Palgi was there, as were many of the passengers from the Kasztner train. At the Bilu Synagogue, Rezső’s brother Gyula, his voice breaking as he read the words, recited the Kaddish, a prayer for the dead…
Kasztner was interred at the Nachlat Yitzhak Cemetery in Givataim, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, amid numerous declarations of friendship and tears. Most of the speakers vowed to continue the struggle not only to clear his name, but also to enshrine it among the heroes of the Holocaust. Those he had helped to survive promised to take promised to take care of his family.
‘Új Kelet’ published a moving obituary written by Ernő Márton. He praised Kasztner’s capacity for wit and erudition and his obsession with saving Jewish lives, his death-defying courage, his self-sacrifice, and his ambition to do something great, something “eternally significant for his people.”
Within days of the murder, the police arrested a twenty-four-year-old man, Zeev Eckstein, and his evidence led to the arrest of two other men, John Menkes, a former member of the Stern Gang, and Yaakov Cheruti, a lawyer. The three were tried, convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment the following January. A week later, on 15 January 1958, the Supreme Court exonerated Kasztner in a four-to-one decision. In the key matter of the original libel of his collaboration with the Nazis, the majority of the judges accepted the appeal of the attorney general and convicted Malchiel Grünwald. In the midst of the joy of vindication that followed the Supreme Court ruling, notes of doubt remained.
The Supreme Court of Israel had acquitted Kasztner of all the charges brought against him, except for the one of helping Becher escape prosecution at Nuremberg. This led to remaining doubts concerning his affidavit written on Becher’s behalf at that time, and his subsequent confused evidence in the libel case about this. In his statement about this following the initial Grünwald trial, Kastner had written:
I cannot refrain from expressing again my sorrow over the impression which may have been made in some people regarding the phrasing of my testimony about Becher, and the result of it. Neither I nor my friends have anything to hide in this whole affair, and we do not regret that we acted in accordance with our conscience, despite all that was done to us in this trial.
Several journalists continued to criticise Kasztner as having sold his soul in his deal with the Nazis. Nevertheless, the promise made by Alexander Rosenfeld at his funeral; We shall not rest, nor shall we remain silent until your name is cleared had been fulfilled by the Supreme Court’s verdict. His widow and daughter expressed their sadness that the new verdict had come too late to save his life. He had died aged just 51.
Despite the justifications of Kasztner’s role in Budapest, his fate of making friends with the devil, still divides the shrinking number of survivors of the Hungarian Holocaust of 1944-5. In 2006, István Bubryák made a three-part documentary about his life and several academic works, including Anna Porter’s book, have been published about his life. By way of postscript, an Italian book by Andrea Schiavon has also been published about one of the subsequently famous survivors on the train, Shaul Ladany. He was a member of the ill-fated Israeli Olympic team in Munich in 1972. When the book was published (2012), he was in his seventies and still taking part in various walking competitions (see picture below).
These accounts lend support to the evidence presented by Anna Porter, that, while human beings always have choices to make, even in the most difficult of times, there was no doubt that Kasztner acted with integrity during those months between March and December 1944, and that his actions saved many thousands of Jews from deportation to Auschwitz, not just the 1,684 who went on his train, but those who might have died on the subsequent death marches, or at the hands of the Arrow Cross. It is this very fact of survival which enables the ultimate vindication of Kasztner and the Budapest Rescue Committee.
Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train. London: Constable.
Zsolt Zágoni (ed.), (2012), From Budapest to Bergen-Belsen: A Notebook from 1944. Budapest.
Dancing with the Devil Himself:
Had Horthy decided to do his little dance with Hitler before the Italians pulled out, there might have been a small chance that Hitler would have overlooked his effrontery in attempting to pull Hungary out of the war. In the early Spring of 1944, Edmund Veesenmayer, Hitler’s envoy to Budapest had been reporting that, at best, Hungary was a hesitant and unreliable ally. At worst, Hungary was a liability. At seventy-six, the Regent was befuddled by age, and would have to be swept aside. Prime Minister Kállay had made the mistake of his predecessors in thinking that the Russians were the greater threat to Hungarian independence. Veesenmayer was made Reich plenipotentiary, and Hungary ceased, in effect, to be an independent country. Jewish matters would be administered by the SS, two detachments of which soon arrived in Budapest. Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann’s special unit arrived in the capital a few days later. Himmler had already decided to do away with the services of the Abwehr intelligence network, and to absorb it into the SS and the Security Service.
Before his arrest, the Abwehr leader, Winninger did however suggest to Brand and Kasztner that money and valuables might prove to be useful in dealing with the SS, in exchange for something of no value to them: Jewish lives. That was the first suggestion of what became known as the blood for goods deal. Despite what the Abwehr men had said, however, a Jewish community meeting at Samuel Stern’s house concluded that the Reich had greater problems than the Jews. They refused to accept that Hitler and Himmler had already ordered the liquidation of the Jews of Hungary, the last large Jewish population left in central Europe.
Above: Dohányi Street Synagogue
As long as Horthy was still in power, Stern believed, they would still be safe.The Hungarians would not abandon their Jewish citizens. We have lived here for a thousand years, he reminded his friends. Hungarian Jews were fully integrated at all levels of society, especially in manufacturing and commerce, the legal and medical professions, teaching, musical life and the media. Tom’s grandfather, Ármin Leimdörfer (Dádi) had been an officer in the imperial army in the First World War, serving in Serbia, as had many Jews. Nearly twenty per cent of Budapest was Jewish and even the aristocracy and the senior government figures had inter-married and had some Jewish relatives. There was also the poor Jewish quarter in Pest. It was true that these Jews had been prominent (along with other socialists) in the communist revolution of 1919, which had been crushed. There had been no further association with revolutionary violence, but these fears were easy to stoke up by home-grown fascists. The government under Regent Horthy was reluctant to agree to full-scale deportations, but was in no position to resist. Rezső Kasztner described the situation which existed from 19 April onwards:
From now on, the Gestapo ruled unhindered. They spied on the government, arrested every Hungarian who did not suit them, no matter how high their position and, by their presence, instilled fear into those who would have attempted to save the remnants of Hungarian sovereignty or protest against German orders. Concerning the Jewish question, the supreme, the absolute and the unfettered will of the monster ruled… the head of the Jewish command, Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann.
Sam Springmann was one of the first to ‘disappear’. He had known that he would be high up on the list since, as he told Kasztner, they have me both ways. I am Polish and I am a Jew. Reviving the Europa Plan seemed the only hope now that the German Eagle had landed. Regent Horthy, whose train had been held up near Vienna while the Germans occupied Hungary, announced a new government under the protection of the Reich. Döme Sztójay was named PM. A devout follower of National Socialism, he was a vocal anti-Semite who had been Hungary’s minister in Berlin, where he had formed close relationships with several high-ranking Nazis. German cars sped like angry wasps from street to street, their back seats occupied by machine-gun-wielding SS men. They stopped in front of houses and apartment blocks, dragged people from their homes and took them to the Buda jail or to the Astoria Hotel. Not long before, there had been spring dances in the ballroom of the stately hotel; now the Gestapo had taken over all the floors. Prisoners were held in the basement, their piercing screams keeping pedestrians from the nearby pavements for more than a year following.
On 20 March, Wisliceny called a meeting of representatives of the entire Jewish community at which he instructed them to establish a council whose orders would be obeyed, with no questions asked, by all Jews in the country, not just in the capital. As a first task, the new council had to invite Jewish leaders from across the country to an information meeting to be held on 28 March. The Budapest Jewish leaders were impressed with the respect shown to them by the gentlemanly SS officers. Their job, unbeknown to the assembled Jewish leaders, was to annihilate every one of them as well as all the other Jews in Hungary. They simply wanted to achieve it as calmly and cleanly as possible, without the unpleasantness of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. The means to do this lay with the Jewish Council. Despite this plan, more than ten thousand people were arrested during the following week, about a third of them Jewish. Their valuables, including furniture and paintings, were then put into trucks and transported to Germany. The prisoners were beaten, deprived of sleep and tortured.
On 22 March, PM Sztójay informed the government that Dr Veesenmayer had insisted that Jews throughout the country wear a distinguishing yellow star. Regent Horthy asked that, in future, such “requests” should not be made to him. He told Samuel Stern that his hands were tied and that Veesenmayer had told him that, in future, he would be excluded from all political decisions. He had held out for far too long on the Jewish question. The order went into effect on 5 April. Members of the Council were exempted, together with war invalids and heroes, and those who had converted to Christianity before 1 August 1919. But on 31 March, after a meeting with Adolf Eichmann, the Jewish leaders were stunned by several new decrees regarding Hungarian Jews: they could no longer work as lawyers, journalists, or public servants, or in the theatrical and film arts; they were not allowed to own motor vehicles or to drive them, even if they belonged to someone else. Nor could they own motorbikes or bicycles. They also had to hand in their radios and telephones and all were now expected to wear yellow stars.
On the morning of 3 April, British and American aircraft bombed Budapest for the first time since the beginning of the war. In response, the Hungarian security police demanded that the Jewish Council provide five hundred apartments for Christians who had been affected by the raid. Those Jews moving out of their homes were to be concentrated in apartment buildings in an area between the National Theatre and the Dohány Street synagogue. The following day, 4 April, László Baky and Lieutenant-Colonel László Ferenczy of the gendarmerie met to firm up plans for the ghettoisation and deportation of the Jews of Hungary. All Jews, irrespective of age, sex or illness, were to be concentrated into ghettos and schedules were to be would be set for their deportation to Poland. The few people who were still employed in armaments production or in the mines were temporarily spared, but only until suitable replacements could be found for them. Each regional office would be responsible for its own actions. The “rounding up” of the Jews was to be carried out by the local police and the Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie units. If necessary, the police would assist the gendarmerie in urban districts by providing armed help. It took until 16 April for the full directive and extensive explanations to be typed in multiple copies and sent to local authorities, but the ghettoisation had already begun on 7 April. The orders were marked “secret” and bore the signature of László Baky. He declared:
The Royal Hungarian government will cleanse the country of Jews within a short time. I hereby order the cleansing to be conducted district by district. Jews are to be taken to designated collection camps regardless of gender and age
This was the basis on which the Hungarian government agreed that the Gestapo could organise the removal of the roughly 450,000 Jews from the provinces, but not the 200,000 from Budapest. It was Adolf Eichmann’s task to organise the liquidation of Hungarian Jews. Between 7 April 1944 and 8 July 1944, we know (from the meticulous records kept) that 437,402 men, women and children of all ages were forced to leave their homes, first herded in to ‘collection camps’ or ghettos and then transported to Auschwitz. They were transported in 148 long trains of cattle wagons. Few survived, and of those who did, even fewer returned to their former homes. Once gathered in the collection camps, they were effectively doomed to annihilation, even before they boarded the trains. My wife’s mother avoided deportation herself because, although she had both a Jewish father and step-father, Imre Rosenthal, she was illegitimate and adopted, so there was no proof of her Jewish parentage. As a sixteen year-old, she remembers a Jewish family from the same apartment block in Békescsaba being taken to the detention camp. Some days later her mother made some stew for them and asked her to take it to them, as the camp was not far from the centre of the town. When she approached the guard, a Hungarian gendarme, at the gate to the compound, he raised his machine-gun and threatened to shoot her. She immediately knew this was no bluff, and never tried to make contact with the family again. The story underlines the futility of resistance to the almost overnight operation which was put into effect across the Hungarian countryside.
Tom Leimdörfer’s Breuer great grandparents were spared the ordeal. They both died the year before and their daughter, Zelma cared for them in their last months. Tom’s grandfather Aladár spent much of his time on his allotment just outside the town, where he also kept bees, enjoying the simple life in retirement. Tom’s mother told him that we visited them in the early spring of 1944, when he was 18 months old, just a few weeks before they were taken. The story of the lively Jewish community in Szécsény was told by the photographer Irén Ács in a moving account and photos of her friends and family. She also survived in Budapest, but nearly all her friends and family perished. Early in May, the Jews of Szécsény were ordered to leave their homes and belongings apart from a small case with a change of clothes and essentials. They were restricted to a ghetto of a few houses near the school. On the 10 June 1944, they were taken under special forces’ escort to the county town of Balassagyarmat, some 20 km away. There were no Germans in Szécsény, the whole operation was carried out by Hungarian special forces. In Balassagyarmat, the Germans supervised the loading of the wagons from the whole region with ruthless efficiency. By nightfall, the long train of cattle wagons carrying over 2,500 men, women and children were on their way to Auschwitz. Tom is in no doubt that his grandparents would have been taken straight to the gas chambers on arrival. The memorial in the Jewish cemetery of Szécsény has 303 names of those killed in the holocaust from that town of around 6,000 people. A similar fate befell villages across Hungary, where there was no time for any reaction, let alone organised resistance, by the Jewish families or their Christian neighbours. I have recently documented the recollections of the people of Apostag, and these appear in an article elsewhere on this site. The large village, roughly the same size as Szécsény, lost all of its six hundred Jews in one afternoon, transported on their own carts to Kalocsa, with their neighbours watching from the woods. Two weeks later, they were taken in cattle trucks from Kalocsa to Auschwitz.
The deportations soon became common knowledge in Budapest and this terrible news was added to the rumours about the extermination camps. One of Tom’s German relatives, having escaped from Dachau had already given an account of the dreadful nature of the camps. Two Slovak men, Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler escaped from Auschwitz on 7 April 1944. For a week they travelled at night, avoiding the local residents and hiding in barns or outbuildings during the day. When they reached Bratislava, they contacted the Jewish Council the next day. They told their incredible story, illustrated by drawings of the barracks, the gas chambers and crematoria. They reported on the selection process that sent women and children directly from the trains to be gassed, on the desperate attempts of people to save themselves, on the collection of valuables, and on the systematic disposal of bodies. Only twenty years old, Vrba was already a veteran of the most terrifying place on earth. He felt overwhelmed by the importance of his message to all surviving Jews, particularly the Hungarians: do not board the trains.
The Auschwitz Protocols, as Vrba and Wetzler’s report was labeled by the Bratislava Working Group, was translated into German and English within a fortnight. Then they tried to decide what to do with the information, knowing that anyone caught with the document in the occupied countries would be executed, along with its authors. For this reason, the awful truth about Auschwitz was not fully and widely told until after the war. By the time Tom’s second birthday approached, his mother suspected, but did not know for sure, that she had lost her husband and both her parents.
A significant birthday:
While the dreadful events were unfolding in rural Hungary, the Jews of Budapest were living with increasing fear and repression. All had to wear yellow stars and live in homes marked with a yellow star of David. Tom’s house was marked, so they were allowed to stay at home. His grandfather’s timber business was confiscated; his business partner (Imre Révész) had recognised the signs and emigrated to England just before the war. The warm summer of 1944 was also a summer of allied (mainly RAF) airstrikes. Tom often played outside in their small but secluded front garden. They had a radio and were generally the first to hear the air raid warnings. The bombers normally came from the south and the direction given over the air waves was: ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest’. These were amongst Tom’s first words, acting as an air raid warning to people in the flats above us as he ran around naked in the garden shouting ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest’! We would then all go down to the cellar, which served as a very inadequate air raid shelter.
Tom’s mother’s brother Bandi had emigrated in 1939 and was in the British Army. He left for a tennis tournament and did not return. He was an illegal immigrant in Britain, sheltered by tennis playing friends, till he had the opportunity to volunteer for the army, change his name to Roy Andrew Fred (R. A. F.) Reynolds and was allowed to stay. The RAF was bombing us, but they were not ‘the enemy’ even though our lives were threatened by them. My father was ‘missing’ on the Russian front, Russian troops were advancing towards Hungary with all the uncertainties and horrors of a siege of Budapest approaching, but they were not our ‘enemy’, but hoped-for liberators. Yet Tom’s maternal grandparents were taken by Hungarian special forces on the orders of the Gestapo with no objection or resistance from their neighbours. Looking back, the ‘enemy’ was war and inhumanity, hatred and anti-Semitism.
There were some signs of hope that summer. Regent Miklós Horthy could no longer stomach the activities of Eichmann. On 29 August he sent word to Edmund Veesenmayer that he had decided there would be no more deportations, at least for the time being. With the transportation of Jews from the provinces completed, there were only the Jews in the capital left. Himmler approved the suspension of deportations and the continuation of negotiations through Kasztner and Brand. Himmler, like the Hungarian government itself, had been thinking of an acceptable way of bringing the war to an end. Once back in his office in Budapest, Kasztner was astonished to learn from Dieter Wisliceny that Eichmann and his unit had been ordered out of Hungary. You have won, the Nazi officer told him, the Sonderkommando is leaving. Eichmann, furious with Himmler’s vacillations, retired to sulk at his estate near Linz. The latter later compensated him with the order of an Iron Cross, Second Class. Kasztner, unlike the members of the Jewish Council, had no faith in Horthy’s protestations that he had been duped into allowing deportations in the first place and even less faith in Himmler’s change of heart. He pressed on with his negotiations for the lives of the remaining Jews of Budapest, Bratislava and Kolozsvár. In the late summer of 1944 a bloody insurrection erupted in Slovakia. A few parachutists from Britain and two Soviet airborne brigades also took part in the uprising, as did some Jewish partisans, including Rudolf Vrba, one of the authors of The Auschwitz Protocols. The uprising failed and led to further reprisals against Bratislava’s Jewish community. In Budapest itself, there was what Kasztner thought of as a brief lull in the terror in the early autumn. Nevertheless, there was a widespread belief that the Germans would pack up and go home. The cafés and restaurants were full, and no-one left even when the sirens sounded.
By mid-October the Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts were ready to execute Stalin’s order to take Budapest quickly. Arrow Cross newspapers accused the Jews of signaling bombers from rooftops, directing bombs to specific targets. Raoul Wallenberg had opened the door of the Swedish Embassy and directed his staff to hand out Swedish protection papers to all Jewish applicants. The certificates claimed that the holders were Swedish citizens awaiting exit visas. The number of Jews with official Swedish papers exceeded 4,500 by the end of October, and another three thousand fake Swedish certificates were handed out by the Rescue Committee and its halutz workers. They all waited for permits to leave the country and be allowed into Palestine. The Swiss Red Cross had received over three million Swiss francs from the Jewish ‘Joint’ in the US to pay for food in the protected Star Houses bearing the Swedish colours, and in the Columbus Street camp.
Throughout the period of Géza Lakatos’ premiership, rumours abounded that Horthy was getting ready to exit the war, and that all he needed was an honourable way out. He wanted to sue for peace, but not if that peace included Stalin. The British and the Americans were not interested and insisted that nothing less than unconditional surrender would do. I have written elsewhere on this site about these unsuccessful diplomatic overtures and how Horthy’s insistence on hanging onto his German alliance, however reluctantly, did not help his country’s cause. In final desperation, Horthy sent Lieutenant General Gábor Faragho across the front lines to present Hungary’s case to the Russians. On 11 October, Faragho returned with a draft armistice agreement requiring Hungary to give up, once again, its historic territories in Transylvania, everything he had fought for during his years as head of state. His hesitation gave the Germans the time they needed to prepare a coup.
On Sunday morning, 15 October, Tom Leimdörfer’s second birthday, there were rumours that the Regent’s son had been abducted, together with a general and two senior officers. It was a warm, sunny autumn morning. German planes had dropped leaflets over the city urging a rebellion against the government. Politicians had also been arrested. Hungarian Radio announced that the Regent would make a general proclamation at 1 p.m. In a soft and shaky voice, Horthy gave a long, detailed statement, in which he announced his decision to sign a separate peace treaty with the Allies, that Hungary had withdrawn from the war and had declared that it is returning to its neutral status. All laws relating to the repression of the Jewish population were revoked. The Reich had lost the war and had also broken its obligations to its Hungarian partner when it had occupied the country in March and arrested many Hungarian citizens. He blamed the Gestapo for dealing with the “Jewish problem” in an inhumane way and claimed that his nation had been forced to persecute the Jews. The news spread like wildfire on what was a glorious autumn afternoon: Anna Porter has described the scenes…
…the sun was shining and the trees along the boulevards displayed their startling red, yellow and deep-purple colours as if the horrors of the past few weeks had not happened, as if the houses lining the avenues had not been turned into rubble. People came out of their cellars, put on their best clothes and walked, holding hands and greeting each other as in peacetime. Many Jews who had been in hiding paraded their newfound freedom; some tore the yellow stars off their breasts and ordered shots of pálinka in bars where they used to go, or dared to use a public telephone and take rides on streetcars where the tracks had not yet been bombed..
But the atmosphere of general euphoria did not last long. The Germans had listened into every conversation in the castle, and were not surprised by the attempt to break free. They were aware of the plan to bring two Hungarian regiments into the city, and knew of the arming of the Jewish battalions. German troops and armoured vehicles appeared on the streets of Budapest and set up control points. A further announcement came over the waves: Horthy had been forced to abdicate, and the Hungarian Arrow Cross (Nazi) party has formed a government under its leader Ferenc Szálasi. Hungary was back in the war on the Axis side, and all anti-Jewish legislation was back in force. With the Arrow Cross in charge, the Jews realised that Eichmann would be back to complete their transportation and that random killings would be carried out by the Arrow Cross units themselves. Tom Leimdörfer recalls his family’s fears:
The lives of all of us were in immediate danger. What followed was six months of hell redeemed by some amazing bravery and kindness on the part of some who were willing to risk their lives for us.
Edit Leimdörfer, Tom’s mother, in 1957
Tom continues the family’s story:
By now, my grandparents (Sári and Ármin) and my aunt Juci all lived in our flat. Juci’s husband Gyuri was in a labour camp. He had a dreadful accident there in March 1943 when he fell off a scaffolding. For some time, his life was in the balance, but he recovered albeit with a back injury which gave him much pain for the rest of his life. He was allowed home when he was in plaster recuperating, but was then back again in the forced labour camp outside Budapest. As the family wondered what to do on the evening of my eventful second birthday, Dr. Groh arrived. A kindly medical consultant, he was one of my grandfather’s customers who became a friend. He was a Roman Catholic who was appalled by the treatment of Jews and by the apparent acquiescence of his church. He said we were in danger and should leave our home immediately as Jews were being herded from ‘marked’ houses to designated ghettos. He insisted that we should all (15 of us!) go into hiding with his family even though that risked their lives
Dr.Groh and his wife had six children. They made a room available for us and kept its shutters closed. For the next eight days we huddled together in that room, joining the family when there was nobody around who might report our presence. With Arrow Cross gangs and police raids everywhere, this was not a safe hiding place and the Groh family were at great risk. In spite of their protests, we crept back to our home one night to pick up some essentials and left for different destinations. Soon after we left, an Allied air raid hit the Groh’s house and tragically one of their daughters was killed. The room where we had been hiding was a pile of rubble.
My mother and I first headed across the Danube to the Pest side, to a house protected by the Swedish Embassy, where Feri bácsi and Manci néni (my grandparents younger siblings) were already staying. The Swiss and Swedish embassies as well as some churches had tried to set up ‘protected houses’ outside the overcrowded main Jewish ghettos. These were not always ‘safe’ as the Arrow Cross raids were unpredictable and (depending on the particular gang commander) would carry out atrocities without respect for any foreign diplomacy or even orders from their own Nazi puppet government, with its very thin veneer of legality. There were no more trains for Auschwitz, but there were the ‘death marches’ towards Austria organised by Eichmann as well as the random Arrow Cross raids. Diplomats such as Raoul Wallenberg did all they could to thwart the murderous onslaught by distributing Swedish and Swiss passports and demanding safety for their ‘citizens’, by declaring houses as being under their protection and by threatening allied retribution after the war. With the Russian army advancing, this had some effect.
One Arrow Cross raid resulted in tragic losses for our wider family. On Christmas Day 1944, six members of the family were marched to the banks of the Danube and shot into the river. This included my grandmother’s sister Erzsi, her husband and son as well as three members of Juci’s husband Gyuri’s family. Gyuri’s mother (Ilonka néni) had a miraculous escape. The shots missed her, she jumped into the freezing cold water and managed to swim far enough downstream to clamber ashore unseen. It was a compassionate policeman who found her shivering and took her along to the Swiss embassy.
My mother followed her instincts as she balanced risks in those desperate weeks as she moved between places of hiding. When she ventured out she did not wear the compulsory yellow star, gambling on her Aryan looks and her false identity documents with no trace of Jewish origin and using her hungarianised maiden name of Lakatos. She told me she had a narrow scrape on one occasion when she was stopped and interrogated and the papers were carefully examined. Even though my mother was a devout Jewess, I was not circumcised precisely because my mother could foresee the possibility of having to negotiate checkpoints. On this occasion, my genitals were part of the ‘proof’ that we were not Jewish.
For a while, my mother joined Juci and others at a flat provided by Emil and Mary Hajós, which was like a crowded refugee camp. Gyuri (Juci’s husband) managed to get away from the labour camp as a result of Sári mama’s brave and brazen ingenuity and the use of more forged documents. Emil and Mary were friends of the family. They were a Jewish couple who became Christians and worked for a Presbyterian (Calvinist) mission known as ‘Jó Pásztor (Good Shepherd)’, helping to shelter Jews and at the same time-sharing their newfound Christian faith. Their bravery, kindness and fervour had a great influence. Juci first, then Gyuri embraced Christianity during those times of crisis and Edit, my mother, gradually moved in that direction. While my father’s family were secular Jews (observing the festivals but not much else), my mother was brought up as an observing, though not orthodox, Jewess. Unlike Juci and Gyuri, she did not get baptised till much later. She did not wish to change her religion while still hoping for my father to return.
Day by day, the dangers shifted. By January, the siege of Budapest was in full swing. As the threats from the Arrow Cross and the Gestapo reduced, the danger of being killed by shelling increased. We huddled together crowded in cellars, hardly venturing out to try to get whatever food we could. At least the freezing temperatures helped to preserve any perishable supplies. I am told that I provided some welcome entertainment in those desperate days. Amidst the deafening noise of artillery, I appeared to display premature military knowledge by declaiming: ‘This is shelling in!’ or ‘This is shelling out!’
Budapest was liberated by Russian troops on the 26 February. Those days were a mixed experience for the population as a whole depending on contact with the actual units. There were instances of rape and other atrocities, but also acts of kindness. The soldiers who found us were keen on acquiring watches. When some were handed over, they became all smiles and one of them gave me a piece of chocolate.
Gradually the remains of the family found each other and counted the loss. Altogether sixteen members of our wider family were killed in the holocaust by one means or another. Those of us who remained started to put our lives together. Our flat was intact, but empty. Gradually, some items of furniture and possessions were returned by neighbours who said they kept them ‘safe’ in case we came back. There was much that was not returned. Amidst all the tragedy of war and losses I could not guess at or comprehend, I knew that I had lost my lovely large panda bear. Whatever happened to it, my mother told me ‘it was taken by the Germans’. On more mature reflection this was unlikely, but for years I had the image of German troops retreating, blowing up all the bridges over the Danube (which they did) taking with them priceless treasures (which they did) and worst of all – my panda. Perhaps my panda was for my mother just one symbol for her happiness – ‘taken by the Germans’.
By contrast, Tom recalls the happier times he experienced as a young child growing up in Budapest after the war:
Paradoxically, my early memories of the post war years were mostly happy. Children can be very resilient. The love and care I received soon healed the scars left by the horrors. The remnants of the family became very close-knit. I was the first of my generation in the family on my grandmother’s side. One small baby second cousin was separated from her parents during an Arrow Cross raid and tragically starved to death. On my grandfather’s side, my second cousin Éva survived but lost her father and three of her grandparents. She is two years older than me and we had great fun playing ‘hide and seek’ on the monthly ‘family days’ while the adults discussed the latest political turn of events and sorted out how help could be given to anyone in the family who was in need.
Tom with second cousin Kati at New Year, 1946?
Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable (2008).
Every Picture Tells a Story:
Tom Leimdörfer was born in Budapest, seventy-five years ago this year, on 15 October 1942. In Tom’s case, this is a milestone which is certainly well-worth celebrating. After all, in the mere fifteen years between his birth and mine, he had already survived the Holocaust and had endured two Soviet invasions of Hungary, his native land, a revolution, a counter-revolution and a hair-raising escape as a refugee across the Austrian border. He had also, as a young teenager, adapted to the very different language and culture of his adopted country, England. Tom has kept and carefully recorded the family’s archives and stories from these fifteen years, perhaps most importantly in respect of the first three, for which he has, of course, few direct memories of his own. As the older Holocaust survivors gradually pass on, the role of these younger ones in transmitting the experiences of this time will, no doubt, become increasingly important. In Tom’s case, as in many, the photographs and artefacts which they cherish provide the emblematic sources around which the transmitted stories and information are woven. In the initial part of this chapter, I have left Tom’s words as his own, indicated by the use of italics.
A picture I treasure is taken on balcony. It was almost certainly the flat belonging to my great uncle Feri and great aunt Manci. Feri was my grandfather (Dádi) Ármin’s younger brother and Manci was Sári mama’s younger sister. Two brothers married two sisters and to make matters even more bizarre, they were cousins (once removed). I expect it was Feri who took the picture on one of their family days. The five people in the picture look happy, even though war clouds were gathering and laws restricting basic human rights for Jews were in the process of enactment. It was the spring of 1939. The photo shows my grandparents (Sári mama and Dádi) and my aunt Juci aged 16. The other two smiling figures are my parents. My father (András Leimdörfer) is in uniform, looking lovingly at my mother (Edit) and having his arms around her. They were married about six months before. My father is in his proper army uniform, with three stars on the lapels. Two years later that was exchanged for the plain uniform of the Jewish (unarmed) forced labour unit serving with the Hungarian army. He was first sent to Transylvania in the autumn of 1941. His brief few months back home resulted in my conception. In June 1942, he was off to the Russian front, never to return. The war and the bitter winter took his life in February 1943 but the family only learnt the facts four years later.
On the same page in the old album are two more pictures of my parents. One (above) relaxing, reclining on a grassy slope in summer (1939 or 1940), though looking far too smartly dressed for such a pose. The other (right) is taken in December 1938 in Venice outside St. Mark’s Cathedral, surrounded by pigeons and snow. It was their brief honeymoon in the last winter of peace in Europe.
The father I never knew was a very good-looking and bright young man. Known as Bandi to his family, he had an Economics degree from high school in St. Gallen in Switzerland and a doctorate from the University of Szeged in southern Hungary. It was the effect of the law known as ‘numerus clausus’ (restricting the percentage of Jewish entrance to universities in Hungary) that led to his going to Switzerland for his first degree. There he formed strong friendship with three other young Hungarian Jews. One of these, Pál Katona, was head of the BBC’s Hungarian broadcast section for many years. The second, Fritz Fischer, emigrated to America. The third and his closest friend was Gyuri Schustek, who was to play a significant role in my life as well.
My parents met on the social round of the Jewish middle class in Budapest. My mother’s elder brother (also called András and also known as Bandi) was the same age as my father and also an economics graduate as well as a first class tennis player. So one day, probably at a party, Bandi Lakatos introduced his younger sister Edit to Bandi Leimdörfer who promptly fell in love with her. Their months of courtship included outings to the Buda hills and rowing on the Danube, which they both loved. Their special friends Gyuri (Schustek) and Lonci (or Ilona) were also planning to get married. My father was nearly 27 and my mother nearly 23 when they married in December 1938. Unusually, everyone wore black at their wedding as my father’s grandmother had died just before. With the increasing anti-Semitism at home and uncertainties of a possible war, they decided to delay having any children and concentrate on setting up a life for themselves in their pleasant flat in the quiet Zsombolyai street in the suburb of Kelenföld. It was also conveniently near my grandfather’s timber yard and the office of their firm of Leimdörfer & Révész, where my father also worked.
So back to the pictures in the album. There is a small photo of a group of Jewish forced labour unit workers in the deep snow along the banks of the River Don, not far from the city of Voronezh. There is another of my father on top of tank in the snow. After much internal political strife, Hungary entered the war on the German side in June 1941 in exchange for the return of part of the territories lost after the first World War. The 2nd Hungarian Army, sent to the Russian front in the late spring of 1942, included ‘disposable’ elements like the unarmed Jewish labour brigades, conscripted socialists and trade unionists as well as parts of the professional army from all over Hungary (‘to spread the sacrifice’). Their job was to hold the Red Army on the banks of the river Don (over 2000 km from their homeland) while the battle of Stalingrad was raging. On the 12th January 1943, in the depth of the bitterest winter with temperatures of –20 to –30 degrees, the Soviet Army attacked and broke through. They took over 25,000 prisoners within days. The food supplies were scarce and a typhoid epidemic broke out. My father died of typhoid in February 1943, five months before his 31st birthday. A Jewish doctor was there, one of his brigade, and he was released in the summer of 1947. When he arrived in Budapest, he informed my mother and my father’s parents. Till then, they hoped in vain. Only one-third of the army of 200,000 returned. Hungary then refused to send any more troops to help the German cause.
The next pictures are those taken of me as a tiny baby. Plenty were taken and sent to the front for my father. There is the one in the hospital bed with my mother, just after I was born on the 15 October 1942. Then there are some professionally taken pictures. The one in sepia by a firm called ‘Mosoly Album’ (album of smiles) shows a cheeky nine weeks old doing a press-up a sticking out his tongue. It was the last picture to reach my father and he wrote back with joy. The other baby pictures were taken in hope of sending them to the prisoner of war camp, but there was no news and no way of communication. I am amazed at the quality of these pictures, taken at a time of war. One of the photos shows me holding a bottle and drinking from it, looking up with wide eyes. This picture appeared in a magazine, sent by the photographer. I wonder if the editor realised that he was publishing the picture of Jewish baby! If so, he was taking a risk.
One poignant picture, taken in the spring 1944, shows me sitting on a chair with a toy lorry on my knee. It is the identical pose as a picture taken of my father when he was a little boy. Clearly my mother was thinking of him when she had that taken of me. At the same time, there is a photo with me clutching a large panda. I was told it was my favourite toy – and it has its story.
One of my older pictures shows a strikingly elegant and beautiful woman in her thirties. Born Zelma Breuer, my maternal grandmother was the object of admiration both in her home town of Szécsény in northern Hungary and in her social circles in Budapest, where she lived most of her married life. My mother got her beauty from her and the two of them were very close. There is a lovely picture of the two of them, arms round each other in the garden in Szécsény. My mother’s father was a lot older than her mother. Grandfather Aladár Lakatos worked his way up in the Post Office in Budapest to the rank of a senior civil servant. He had changed his name from Pollitzer in order to feel more fully integrated. When the laws forbidding Jews from holding such senior posts came into effect, he was nearing retirement age. So his dismissal was in the form of early retirement. Zelma’s ageing parents still lived in Szécsény, so they decided to retire there, selling the flat in Budapest and buying a substantial brick house next door to the old Breuers wattle house. With increasing threat to the Jewish population, they thought they would be safer in a quiet town where the Breuers were well-known and well liked. How wrong they were! When my father did not return from the front in 1943, they urged my mother to join them. The air was also healthier for small child, they said. My mother decided to stay in her own flat in Buda and to stay close to her husband’s family. Whatever her reasons were, it saved our lives.
The Growing Shadow of the Eagle:
To give some broader context to these early years of Hungary’s war into which Tom was born, I have been reading Anna Porter’s book, Kasztner’s Train, which, in dealing with the controversial ‘hero’ of the Holocaust, also provides the most comprehensive information about the situation in the Jewish communities of Budapest and Hungary during the war. In January 1942, Hungarian military units executed more than three thousand civilians in the recently occupied part of Yugoslavia, including 140 children, who, according to one of the commanding officers, could grow up to be enemies. Joel Brand, Rezső Kasztner’s colleague, found out that close to a third of those murdered had been Jews. The thin pretext that they were likely to have joined the Serb partisans was no more than a nod to the government authorities who had demanded an explanation. The flood of refugees into Hungary now included Jews from the Délvidék, or southern lands, as Hungarians referred to lands which had once been part of Hungary until the Treaty of Trianon awarded them to Yugoslavia. The new arrivals had terrible tales of mass executions: people had been shoved into the icy waters of the Danube, and the men in charge of this so-called military expedition continued the killings even after they received orders to stop.
By the early summer of 1942, Baron Fülöp von Freudiger of the Budapest Orthodox Jewish congregation had received a letter from a little-known Orthodox rabbi in Bratislava, Slovakia. It was a cry for help, mostly financial, but also for advice on how to deal with the Jewish Agency on the survival of the surviving Jews of Slovakia. Deportations had begun on 26 March 1942, with a transport of girls aged sixteen and older. The Germans had already deported 52,000 Slovak Jews by the summer and Rabbi Weissmandel, together with a woman called Gizi Fleischmann, had founded a Working Group as an offshoot of the local Jewish Council, with the sole object of saving the remaining Jews in Slovakia. In subsequent meetings with Wisliceny, a Nazi officer, the Working Group became convinced that some of the Nazis could be bribed to leave the Jews at home. It also realised that this could, potentially, be extended to the other occupied countries in Europe. Weissmandel called it the Europa Plan, a means by which further deportations could be stopped. Rezső Kasztner and Joel Brand, working for the Va’ada, the Zionist organisation, from still sovereign Hungary were unconvinced: Hitler would not, they said, tolerate any Jews in Europe. But Kasztner agreed that fewer barriers would be put in the way of Jewish emigration, provided it was paid for, and quickly. The rabbi’s Europa Plan sounded very much like the Europa Plan devised by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, which had earlier allowed large-scale emigration from Germany to Palestine, until it had encountered stiff opposition from the Arabs and had led to the imposition of harsh quotas by the British.
In December 1942, Sam Springmann, a leading Zionist in Budapest, received a message from the Jewish Agency office in Istanbul that the Refugee Rescue Committee should prepare to receive a visit from Oskar Schindler who would tell them, directly, about those regions of Eastern Europe occupied by the Wehrmacht. Schindler endured two days of uncomfortable travel in a freight car filled with Nazi newspapers to arrive in Budapest. He talked of the atrocities in Kraków and the remaining ghetto, the hunger in Lodz and of the freight trains leaving Warsaw full of Jews whose final destination was not labour camps, as they had assumed, but vernichtungslager, extermination camps. In the midst of this stupid war, he said, the Nazis were using the railway system, expensive engineering, and an untold number of guards and bureaucrats whose sole purpose was to apply scientific methods of murdering large numbers of people. Once they became inmates, there was no hope of reaching or rescuing them. Kasztner did not believe that adverse publicity would deter the Germans from further atrocities, but public opinion might delay some of their plans, and delay was good. With luck, the war would end before the annihilation of the Jews was realised.
By this time, but unbeknown to the Va’ada leaders in Budapest, most of the politicians in Europe already knew about the disaster which was befalling the Jews. During October and November 1942, more than 600,000 Jews had already been deported to Auschwitz, including 106,000 from Holland and 77,000 from France. Newspapers in the United Kingdom, as well as in the United States and Palestine, carried reports, some firsthand, from traveling diplomats, businessmen, and refugees, that the Germans were systematically murdering the European Jews. But anyone who followed these news stories assumed that the German’ resolve to annihilate the Jews would likely be slowed down by defeats on the battlefields. Stephen Wise, Budapest-born president of the American Jewish Congress, had announced at the end of November that two million Jews had already been exterminated and that Nazi policy was to exterminate them all, using mass killing centres in Poland. In hindsight, it is surprising that the extermination camps were not better anticipated.
Oskar Schindler’s firsthand information was a warning that the use of extermination camps could spread to the whole population of Poland and Slovakia, but Rezső Kasztner and the Aid and Rescue Committee still hoped that the ghettos would remain as sources for local labour. They knew of several camps, such as Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, where the treatment, though harsh, could be relieved by a supply of food parcels, clothing and bribes. The couriers reported the starvation and the rounding up of work gangs, but not the extermination camps. As Schindler’s story circulated to the different Jewish groups in Budapest, it initiated an immediate if limited response. Fülöp von Freudiger called for more generous donations to help the Orthodox Jews in Poland.The leader of the Reformed Jewish Community in the city, Samuel Stern, remained confident, however, that these terrible stories were isolated incidents. His group was busy providing financial assistance for recently impoverished intellectuals who could no longer work in their professions because of the Hungarian exclusionary laws. Stern did not want to listen to horror stories about systematic murder. Such facilities were impossible to imagine. He told Kasztner that in the months to come we may be left without our money and comforts, but we shall survive. The very idea of vernichtungslager, of extermination, seemed improbable. Why would the Germans sacrifice men, transportation and scarce resources to murder unarmed civilians with no means to defend themselves?
The Times in London reported from Paris that four thousand Jewish children had been deported to a Nazi concentration camp, while in the House of Commons, British PM Winston Churchill gave a scating adddress that was broadcast by the BBC and heard throughout Budapest. Referring to the mass deportation of Jews from France, he claimed that this tragedy illustrates… the utter degradation of the Nazi nature and theme. Meanwhile, Jewish organisations in Budapest continued to provide learned lectures in their well-appointed halls on every conceivable subject except the one which might have concerned them most, the ongoing fate of the Jews in Germany, Austria, France, Poland and Slovakia, and what it meant for the Jews of Hungary. Two million Polish Jews had already disappeared without a trace.
In January 1943 the Second Hungarian Army was destroyed in the Battle of Voronezh. The losses were terrible: 40,000 dead, 35,000 wounded, 60,000 taken prisoner by the Soviets. The news was played down by the media and the politicians. In Budapest, news of the disaster was only available by listening to the BBC’s Hungarian broadcasts, or to the Soviet broadcasts. Under the premiership of Miklós Kállay, Hungary’s industries continued to thrive, supplying the German army with raw materials. Mines were busy, agricultural production was in full flow and the manufacture of armaments, military uniforms and buttons kept most people employed and earning good wages. Kállay’s personal antipathy towards further anti-Jewish laws lent credence to Samuel Stern’s belief that it cannot happen here.
By the summer of 1943, rumours were circulating among Budapest’s cafés of an armistice agreement with Britain and the United States. Kállay’s emissaries to Istanbul and other neutral capitals had been fishing for acceptable terms. Kállay even went to see Mussolini in Rome to propose a new alliance of Italy, Hungary, Romania and Greece against Hitler. Mussolini declined, and it soon became obvious to ministers in Budapest that the Germans would soon have to terminate these breakaway plans.
Samuel Stern knew in advance about Regent Horthy’s meeting with Hitler in late April 1943. He had been at Horthy’s official residence in Buda Castle playing cards, when the call came from Hitler’s headquarters inviting Horthy to Schloss Klessheim. Horthy was too frightened to decline the invitation, although he detested the ‘uncultured’ German leader. Hitler ranted about Kállay’s clumsy overtures to the British. As a show of loyalty, he demanded another Hungarian army at the front. Horthy stood his ground. He would not agree to sending Hungarian troops to the Balkans, nor to further extreme measures against the Jews. Hitler, his hands clenched behind his back, screamed and marched about. Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister attended the dinner that followed, and wrote in his diary that Horthy’s humanitarian attitude regarding The Jewish Question convinced the Führer that all the rubbish of small nations still existing in Europe must be liquidated as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, terrible stories were circulating in Budapest about the actions of Hungary’s soldiers as they returned from the front with the Soviet Union. In late April 1943, retreating Hungarian soldiers in the Ukraine ordered eight hundred sick men from the Jewish labour force into a hospital shed and then set fire to it. Officers commanded the soldiers to shoot anyone who tried to escape from the flames. Neither the Hungarian press nor the Hungarian Jewish newspaper reported these deaths. Instead, the pro-Nazi press increased its vitriolic attacks on Jewish influence at home, persisting blaming food shortages on the Jews, who were falsely accused of hoarding lard, sugar and flour, engaging in black market activities, and reaping enormous war profits from the industries they controlled. That summer, Oskar Schindler returned to Budapest, bringing letters to be forwarded to Istanbul for the relatives of his Jews. He gave a detailed report of the situation in Poland and of the possibilities of rescue and escape from the ghettos.
In a letter she wrote to the Jewish Agency in Istanbul, dated 10 May 1943, Gizi Fleischmann reported from Bratislava:
Over a million Jews have been resettled from Poland. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives due to starvation, disease, cold and many more have fallen victim to violence. The reports state that the corpses are used for chemical raw materials.
She did not know that by that time 2.5 million of Poland’s Jews were already dead. On 16 May, members of the Hungarian Rescue Committee gathered around their radios and toasted the Warsaw ghetto’s last heroic stand. On 11 June, Reichsführer ss Himmler ordered the liquidation of all Polish ghettos. By 5 September she wrote to the American Joint Distribution Committee’s representative in Geneva that we know today that Sobibór, Treblinka, Belzec and Auschwitz are annihilation camps. Later that month, Fleischmann traveled to Budapest, where she visited the offices of both Komoly and Kasztner. Both had already seen copies of her correspondence, as had Samuel Stern, but his group met her case for funding with colossal indifference. They made it clear that they thought her allegations about the fate of the Polish and Slovak Jews were preposterous. She also informed Kasztner that Dieter Wisliceny, the ss man in charge of the deportations from Slovakia, had told her of a dinner he had attended on Swabian Hill with a senior functionary from the Hungarian prime minister’s office. They had discussed the extermination of the Hungarian Jews. After her visit, Kasztner wrote to Nathan Schwalb of the Hechalutz, the international Zionist youth movement:
The gas chambers in Poland have already consumed the bodies of more than half a million Jews. There are horrible, unbelievable photographs of starving children, of dead, emaciated bodies on the streets of the Warsaw ghetto.
Kasztner raised the money for Gizi Fleischmann to offer a bribe to Wisliceny in exchange for the lives of the remaining Slovak Jews. Whether it contributed to the two-year hiatus in murdering the Slovak Jews is still disputed, but there is no doubt that Fleischmann and Rabbi Weissmandel believed it had.
The late autumn of 1943 was spectacular with its bright colours: the old chestnut trees along the Danube turning crimson and rich sienna browns, the oranges of the dogwood trees rising up Gellert Hill. Musicians still played in the outdoor cafés and young women paraded in their winter furs. Late in the evenings there was frost in the air. Throughout that autumn and winter, many inside the Hungarian government sought ways of quitting the war and starting negotiations with the Allies. On 24 January, 1944, the chief of the Hungarian general staff met with Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and suggested that Hungarian forces might withdraw from the Eastern Front. The Germans had been aware of Hungary’s vacillations about the war, its fear of Allied attacks, and its appeal to the British not to bomb Hungary while it was reassessing its position. Several more Hungarian emissaries had approached both British and American agencies, including the OSS in Turkey, and offered separate peace agreements. Of course, Hitler had got to know about all these overtures, and had called Kállay a swine for his double-dealing.
Admiral Horthy followed suit within a month in a formal letter to Hitler, suggesting the withdrawal of the Hungarian troops to aid in the defence of the Carpathians. The soldiers would perform better if they were defending their homeland, he said. He also stressed his anxiety about Budapest, asking that German troops not be stationed too close to the capital, since they would attract heavy air-raids. Hitler thought Horthy’s plan was as ridiculous as the old man himself, and summoned him to Schloss Klessheim again for a meeting on 17 March 1944, a Friday. Hitler insisted that Jewish influence in Hungary had to cease, and that the German Army would occupy the country to ensure this happened. If Horthy did not agree to the occupation, or if he ordered resistance, Germany would launch a full-scale invasion, enlisting the support of the surrounding axis allies, leading to a dismemberment of Hungary back to its Trianon Treaty borders. This was Horthy’s worst nightmare, so he agreed to the occupation and the replacement of Kállay with a prime minister more to Hitler’s liking. The Admiral could remain as Regent, nominally in charge, but with a German Reich plenipotentiary in charge. Horthy also agreed to supply a hundred thousand Jewish workers to work in the armaments industry under Albert Speer.
Over the winter months of 1943-44, many of the labour camps had become death sentences for the underfed and poorly clothed Jews. In some Hungarian army labour units the brutality meted out to Jews was comparable to Nazi tactics in occupied Poland. In one division, sergeants doused Jews with water and cheered as their victims turned into ice sculptures. In another camp, officers ordered men in the work detail to climb trees and shout I am a dirty Jew as they leapt from branch to branch, the officers taking pot-shots at them. Of the fifty thousand men in the labour companies, only about seven thousand survived.
Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable.
Sykes-Picot, Balfour, Imperialism & Zionism, 1916-36.
The row about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party rumbles on, with ‘Labour’ forums reduced to open censorship of criticism online in order to uphold its leaders’ line that this is mainly a problem of envy among long-established MPs and party members who do not like the amount of power and influence wielded by the ‘new’ members he has attracted to the party. Yet we know from the nature of the comments made that many of these new members are simply aping the discourse of anti-Zionists among the ‘Fabian Left’, dating back to Labour’s rise to power, which coincided with the emergence of serious tensions between Arabs and Jews in Palestine. I have already written about this elsewhere, so I don’t want to risk repeating myself here.
However, given that this week sees the hundredth anniversary of that ‘infamous’ agreement between two civil servants, Mr Sykes of Britain and Mnsr. Picot of France, I thought I would add a ‘tailpiece’ about the role of imperialism in the middle east in this era, having previously focused on the development of Zionism in Europe. Much of this context is drawn from Bernard Porter’s seminal 1984 work on British Imperialism, 1850- 1983, The Lion’s Share. This work should be on a bibliography given to new Labour members who may not have had the opportunity, as I did, to study this historical context to contemporary controversial issues. Before I read this, I was as keen as them to take sides in the Arab-Israeli Conflict and in other post-imperial conflicts, such as the Irish Question. Having grown up in a home where casual anti-Semitism was not rare, stemming from my father’s belief in ‘replacement theology’ (the doctrine that the Jews had foregone the right to be ‘God’s chosen people’ by their rejection of Christ), I remember (now with some sense of shame) my act of vandalism in the sixth form when, during the 1974 War I changed the word order of a sticker which one of the Jewish students had stuck on the board. It said Stand by Israel, but a strategic cut soon changed it into Israel, Stand by. I was young, and many of my ideas were inherited from my father. So, however, was my name (or at least my initials), since he was named after Arthur James Balfour, in 1914. This had always intrigued me, until I came to realise that Balfour’s protestant ‘restoration’ theology which fuelled his pro-Zionist stance could, ironically, be distinctly anti-Semitic in its view of European Jewry. This only goes to show that anti-Semitism can take many different forms and heresies, often quite deliberately passed on from one generation to another through somewhat subliminal ‘troping’, applying varying stereotypes to ‘the Jew’. Young people rarely become anti-Semites through reading and discussion with diverse people and viewpoints. It isn’t a logical, educational process, though its antidote may be. It is a poison spread from one generation to the next through the dominant cultures and ideologies, whether on the Right or the Left. I will attempt to apply the antidote again here.
The Sykes-Picot Treaty is usually referred to simply as ‘an agreement’ because it was a secret arrangement, first drafted in April 1916 and signed in mid-May. It was supposed to determine how the Ottoman empire would be partitioned after the war. The French were to rule directly or indirectly the area of a line running from Acre to a point on the Tigris some seventy miles south of Mosul, while the British were to have the same rights in the area south of that line extending as far as Aqaba and along the Saudi Arabian border. Palestine, defined in the agreement as the area bordered by the Jordan river in the east, the sea in the west, and from Acre in the north to a line from El Arish to Be’ersheva in the south would be governed by an international regime. However, most of Palestine was effectively earmarked for British control, as part of a ‘sphere of influence’ stretching from Jordan to the Gulf. In this territory was land which the Arabs understood to have been pledged to them in October 1915 by the Egyptian High Commissioner, Sir Henry MacMahon when he promised, with reservations, that Britain would recognise and support the independence of the Arabs in order to get the Arab Revolt going, which it did in June 1916, helping to turn the military tide for Britain in the middle east.
On the face of it, Sykes-Picot was a blueprint for a cynical piece of imperial plunder, and Britain was embarrassed by the look of it both to the Arabs and to the Americans, who had to be told of it when they entered the war in April 1917. It was then revealed to the world by the new Bolshevik government in Moscow towards the end of 1917. The USA preferred to believe that it was fighting for democracy and self-determination, while the Arabs believed that they were fighting for their own liberation and independence. To reassure both, the British government stepped up its promises to the Arabs in a series of ‘declarations’, which, though increasingly ardent in tone were no more specific than MacMahon’s statement.
At the same time, it had committed itself just as firmly to the Zionists, who wanted to found a middle eastern nation based on the biblical lands of Israel, Samaria and Judea. The Balfour Declaration of November 1917 gave the British government’s blessing and support to the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. Like the MacMahon promise to the Arabs, it was a promise which could only have been made in wartime, when political geography was so fluid that so artificial a creation could be considered; when the government was so pressed and distracted as to be able to ignore or neglect its obvious drawbacks and pitfalls. For British ministers there were a number of substantial arguments in favour of such a declaration, including a genuine Zionism on the part of some, and a devious but ingenious imperialism on the part of others. Leopold Amery, who claimed to have drafted the Declaration, acknowledged that his main motive was…
… largely strategical. I was keen on an advance into Palestine and Syria on military grounds, and the idea of consolidating that advance by establishing in Palestine a prosperous community bound to Britain by ties of gratitude and interest naturally appealed to me. I already had doubts as to the permanence of our protectorate in Egypt.
The chief reason was, however, probably less grandiose, and more immediate: the need to gain the support of American Jews for the war effort, and perhaps to turn the German Jews against their government, a move which sadly backfired on them in the 1920s. Balfour himself remarked that…
… the vast majority of Jews in Russia and America, as indeed, all over the world, now appeared to be in favour of Zionism. If we could make a declaration favourable to such an ideal, we should be able to carry on extremely useful propaganda both in Russia and America.
Lloyd George also saw it as useful propaganda, and at that point in the war his coalition was desperate for some victories of any kind. Nevertheless, they knew that it was a big long-term risk to take for a short-term propaganda point. In the autumn of 1917, the young diplomat Harold Nicolson, later a Labour Party MP, was seconded to work with Sir Mark Sykes, the co-author of the infamous agreement, one of the two political secretaries to the Cabinet, the other being Leopold Amery. Sykes acted as the main channel of communication between the Cabinet and the Zionist movement. He had been negotiating with both Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolov, the two leading Zionists in Britain, since the beginning of the year, as they worked together to produce a pro-Zionist pledge. Sykes saw no contradiction between this and his staunchly pro-Arab outlook. Indeed, he told himself, one would complement the other. Both the Arab and the Zionist Palestinians, indebted to Britain, would serve British imperial interests. Later developments proved these presumptions wildly optimistic, but at this time most British policy-makers, not to mention both Arab and Zionist leaders, shared them. Harold Nicolson was among them, his pro-Zionism did not stem from anti-Semitism. He once said…
Although I loathe anti-Semitism, I do dislike Jews.
It’s interesting that Beatrice Webb made exactly the reverse of this remark, yet today the Labour Party seeks to draw a line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism that few would have understood a hundred years ago. Nicolson, unlike Sykes, had no great knowledge of recent Jewish history, nor was he on intimate terms with any Jews. He certainly disliked the Hungarian Jews accompanying Béla Kun’s short-lived delegation, as a Paris Peace Conference envoy to Budapest two years later, and wrote to that effect in his diary. Although he did not acknowledge his dislike as anti-Semitism, it certainly fuelled his support for Zionism, as it did with many others who thought of themselves as ‘Gentile Zionists’, including some later Nazi leaders like Adolf Eichmann, (as I have mentioned elsewhere):
Zionism, they claimed, would repair perceived defects in the Jewish character. It would restore to the Jews their dignity, that corporate national confidence and self-respect they so clearly lacked: it would, so to speak, stiffen the backbone of the Jewish people. Once given a national home, they would no longer misuse their considerable gifts for mischievous ends. It ‘would be a nice place,’ Harold reflected, ‘in which to collect all the Jews of the world, as Butlin’s collects the noisy holidaymakers’.
There were other aspects of Gentile Zionism, more historical and theological, that appealed to people like Nicholson. Balfour himself expressed these aspects clearly in a speech to the House of Lords in June 1922 on the position of the Jews:
Their position and their history, their connection with world religion and with world politics is absolutely unique. There is no parallel to it… in any other branch of world history… deported, then scattered, then driven out… altogether into every part of the world, and yet maintaining continuity of religion and racial tradition of which we have no parallel elsewhere… Consider how they have been subject to tyranny, consider whether… our whole religious organisation of Europe has not from time to time proved itself guilty of great crimes against this race… do not forget what part they have played in the intellectual, the artistic, the philosophic and scientific development of the world… Christendom is not oblivious to their faith, is not unmindful of the service they have rendered to the great religions of the world.
Having supported Balfour, Sykes and Amery, Harold Nicholson was at pains to point out that the Balfour Declaration was not an ‘impulsive and ill-considered’ statement; nor could its authors be accused of ‘ignorance or cynicism’. It took months to negotiate, went through five drafts, and was debated at three sessions of the War Cabinet before it was finally approved on 31 October 1917. Writing in 1947, after almost thirty years of bitter experience, he admitted that it would now be drafted in different terms, but he continued to vehemently to defend Balfour against accusations of cynicism, of opportunism, of imperialism. In 1939, as a National Labour MP, Nicholson spoke out over the May White Paper affair. The government declaration of policy limited Jewish immigration into Palestine to a maximum of 75,000 over the next five years, afterwards any further immigration to be subject to Arab consent, or veto, as the Zionists saw it. Nicholson and other Zionist supporters naturally saw this as flatly contradicting the Balfour Declaration. Apart from his great admiration for Chaim Weizmann, he considered this to be the Chamberlain government’s reneging on its contractual obligations as part of its appeasement of the Nazi dictatorship. Having sacrificed the Czechs, it was now prepared to sacrifice the Jews by giving into Arab demands and leaving them to their fate in Europe. On the eve of the debate he and Leo Amery dined with Weizmann, who appeared ‘calm, dignified and wretched’ as, a master lobbyist, he put his case with his customary persuasive skill. Harold, however, felt ‘helpless and ashamed’, so much so that he did not speak in the two-day debate on the May White Paper, though he did call it a terrible act of treachery. In the Commons, the National Government suffered a massive cut in its majority, to just 89. It survived for another year until Chamberlain’s majority was cut again, this time to 81, forcing him to and his government to resign.
Returning to the end of the First World War, the middle east had become a tangle of promises which the British government had made to the Jews, the Arabs, the French and themselves. Despite Sykes’ early view, they were already becoming contradictory by the time of the Paris Peace Conference, though not perhaps irrevocably so. There was also a great deal of room for confusion in them, since words like ‘self-determination’ and ‘independence’ were capable of different degrees of interpretation. British diplomats, as we have noted, were able to believe that ‘independence’ for the Arabs was not inconsistent with them maintaining a ‘sphere of influence’ over them, and Curzon, Balfour’s successor as Foreign Secretary (1919-24) said, just after the war, that he was quite happy to accept the term ‘self-determination’ because he believed that most of the people would determine in our favour. In one of the ‘reservations’ in the MacMahon letter there was a genuine ambiguity in one of the arabic words used, which could be taken to mean either ‘district’ or a ‘province’, and on this interpretation depended whether the Arabs had been promised Palestine or not as part of their independent territory. The later declarations promised greater degrees of ‘independence’, still not defining these degrees either in terms of powers or territory. The most ambiguous statement of all was Balfour’s ‘national home in Palestine’, which he clearly meant to refer to a Jewish state of Palestine, but could be, and was, taken to mean that Jews would have to settle for federated territory within an Arab-controlled Palestine. As the differing interpretations of previous texts came under the pressures and frictions of settlement ‘on the ground’, they became widening contradictions, leading on to accusations of betrayal on both sides.
All the promises had the mark of expediency about them, being designed to reap some short-term advantage or respite, or to win favours from one side or the other. T E Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’) claimed that it was obvious to him that Britain’s promises to the Arabs would become ‘dead paper’ after the war, and confessed that he had played a role in deliberately misleading them:
I risked the fraud, on my conviction that Arab help was necessary to our cheap and speedy victory in the East, and that better we win and break our word than lose.
To those higher up who made the promises, the ‘fraud’ or ‘conspiracy’ might not have been so clear, simply because little thought was given as to whether the cheques so freely given out could actually be redeemed by the recipients. Things changed very rapidly in time of war, so that October 1915 was a long way away from November 1917. For the British government, every present moment might determine whether there would be a future for the Empire, so that it became vital to put every effort into seizing and controlling that moment. It could not be surrendered on consideration of a hypothetical future. The contradictions which were already emerging during the war itself would have broken a peace-time coalition, but in wartime dissidents felt obliged to give way under more pressing necessities. No doubt, however, the result was that irresponsible, inconsistent declarations were made.
The result of the war for Britain was a considerable augmentation of her empire. The middle east was divided up literally along the lines of Sykes-Picot. The Arabs were given the Arabian desert. Britain took Palestine, Transjordan, the Persian Gulf States and Iraq, adding to her existing protectorates of Cyprus, Egypt and Aden. Of course, the newly acquired territories were not considered ‘annexations’ or ‘colonies’. They were ‘mandated’ territories, entrusted to Britain by the newly established League of Nations, to be administered in the interests of their inhabitants with a view to their eventual independence. The irritation felt at this by more traditional imperialists had already been inflamed by the first serious Arab-Zionist clash in Palestine in April 1919.
As we have seen, Zionism was always a popular cause among British imperialists, though it was not supported by all of them, especially, like Curzon, by those more associated with India. Nor was it only an imperialist cause. It had many virtues, but two which endeared it especially to imperialists. Firstly, it was seen as a means of safeguarding British imperial interests in the middle east, especially as Egypt had been granted what effectively amounted to ‘home rule’. Secondly, Zionism, taking away its religious aspect, seemed to be a typically imperialist way of running and developing ‘primitive’ countries: by a European settler population with the energy and expertise to make more of them than the indigenous peoples. In many ways, the history of Palestine in the inter-war period closely resembled that of Kenya, where Labour’s Lord Passfield (the Fabian, Sydney Webb) successfully resisted the claims of the European settlers: the differences being that settler minority was always much larger in Palestine, that it had greater support from outside, and that the relations between settlers’ claims and natives’ rights became confused with the rights of Jewish refugees. Despite the obvious sympathy which the Jews earned so tragically during the Nazi persecutions which preceded the holocaust, there was considerable resistance to their immigration from the Palestinian Arabs. In addition to this, the British had the subsidiary duty under the mandate to safeguard the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine. This presented an immediate handover to the settlers of the country, even had there been enough of them to hand it over to. So the first years of Britain’s mandatory rule in Palestine were devoted to trying to reconcile Zionist and Arab claims, with neither urgency nor success. In fact, this was partly because between 1921 and 1929 there was very little trouble there. In 1929 there was an Arab rising against Jewish immigration, which led the new Labour government to appear to repudiate the Balfour Declaration. Although this was largely an illusion, the Passfield White Paper (1930) did threaten to restrict Jewish immigration and the sale of Palestinian Arab lands to Jews. This was provocative enough and was greeted with a furore of protest from Zionists worldwide, and Conservative imperialists and pro-Zionists Labour in Britain. With MacDonald’s tacit approval, the MPs were able to sweep away Passfield’s anti-Zionist White Paper.
As the events of the 1930s unfurled, this proved to be a crucial decision because, although pro-Zionist feeling was never again so strong, matters were taken increasingly out of the British government’s hands. The Jewish population of Palestine, which had increased from 150,000 in 1926 to 172,000 in 1931, more than doubled by 1936, reaching 384,000. Most of these new immigrants were fleeing from Nazi persecution, and with their entry to countries like the USA and the UK being restricted, it seemed heartless to successive governments in Britain to deny them refuge in Palestine. Had they tried to do so, the international outcry would have been as deafening as it had been in 1930. The greater the number of refugees, the better they were able to assert their claims to settle the land, which they did, sometimes forcibly. Britain’s role was reduced to policing an already intractable situation, now with ever decreasing enthusiasm. Throughout the 1930s repeated attempts were made to find new ‘settlements’, but they failed. What determined the outcome in Palestine, the creation of the state of Israel on the left bank of the Jordan in 1948, and its subsequent expansion into Arab territory, was the balance of strength on the ground between the two populations, which had changed in favour of the Zionist settlers by 1936. Between the wars, however, Palestine had to remain a British mandated territory. The British were unable to delegate their responsibilities to the Zionist organisation, as many wanted them to do. It remained in the same state as the ‘dependent’ territories within the British empire, a colony ruled directly from London, like Kenya.
What emerges from these further portraits and documents concerning Zionism, imperialism and Palestine in the period 1916-36 is that there was no imperialist conspiracy to create the state of Israel as it existed after 1948. Certainly, there were good relations between leading Zionists and imperialist politicians in Britain, but it was the confusion of competing claims and rights in Palestine itself, together with the inability to control the flow of migrants and refugees under the terms of the British mandate which led to the development of the country through settlement into the self-governing state of Israel following the handover of the mandate to the United Nations in 1948. It is difficult to imagine how the outcome of these events could have been any different, especially given the refugee crisis created by the war. The idea that the state of Israel was an artificial creation, a ‘mistake’ as Ken Livingstone has called it in his recent interview on arabic TV, does not match the reality of the emerging patterns of population on the ground in inter-war Palestine. There was no rational alternative to the decisions that were made, and no other alternative humanitarian solution.
We need to accept the burden that history has given us to bear from the past hundred years. Either we support the creation of the state of Israel, whether we think it happened by accidental evolution or deliberate design, as Ernest Bevin and Clement Attlee finally did in 1949, or call for its dismantling and destruction, by one means or another, which is what the current leadership of the Labour Party, in the Fabian tradition of the Webbs, would like us to do. Of course, criticism of the government of Israel in its home and international relations is essential to it continuing to thrive as a modern democracy, but this should be given in the spirit of critical friendship. Otherwise, it can legitimately be taken as providing succour to Israel’s enemies, who would destroy it by violent means, given the chance, as they have tried to by warfare in 1948, 1967 and 1974 and, more recently by terrorist acts directed by Hezbollah and Hamas. The Labour leadership must make it clear that these organisations are not ‘our friends’ but our enemies who are sworn to commit acts of genocide against our true friends, the Semitic peoples of Israel, both Jew and Arab. To do otherwise would not eradicate the cancer of anti-Semitism which is multiplying in our midst every day.
Norman Rose (2005), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico
Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983. Harlow: Longman.
The British Labour Party & Palestine-Israel in the Past, 1919-49
This is my third contribution to the debate on anti-Semitism and Zionism in the Labour Party with reference to the documentary evidence of the early twentieth century. The Proclamation of Independence of the state of Israel was published on 14 May, 1948, almost exactly 68 years ago. The Provisional State Council was the forerunner of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. The British Mandate was terminated the following day, which was also the day on which the armed forces of Transjordan, Egypt, Syria and other Arab countries entered Palestine. The Proclamation began with the Biblical claim of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, though it is worth noting that a state, or kingdom of Israel only existed in the northern part of these lands for about four centuries before the Roman occupation of the time of Christ, Judea and Samaria being the other main territories in which the Jewish people lived. The diaspora of the Jews around the Mediterranean had also begun well before the first century, although it accelerated following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in circa 70 A.D. The Proclamation went on to trace the development of the Zionist movement from the First Zionist Congress of 1897, which was inspired by Theodor Herzl’s vision of The Jewish State, which proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national revival in their own country. This right was acknowledged by the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917, and re-affirmed by the Mandate of the League of Nations following the post-World War One peace treaties which established the League. The Mandate, given over to British administration in 1920, gave explicit international recognition to the historic connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and the right to reconstitute their National Home.
Above: Faisal IBN-Hussein, King of Greater Syria, 1920 & Iraq, 1921-33 (on the left with the Arab delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, including T E Lawrence, third from right).
During the Paris Peace Conference, which commenced in the Spring of 1919, relations between the Arab Delegation, led by Faisal IBN-Hussein, and the Zionists, led by Felix Frankfurter, were very cordial. Feisal wrote to Frankfurter at the beginning of March to reiterate what he had often been able to say to Dr Weizmann in Arabia and Europe:
We feel that the Arabs and Jews are cousins in race, having suffered similar oppressions at the hands of powers stronger than themselves, and by a happy coincidence have been able to take the first step towards the attainment of their national ideals together.
We Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement. Our deputation here in Paris is fully acquainted with the proposals submitted… by the Zionist Organisation to the Peace Conference, and we regard them as moderate and proper. We will do our best, in so far as we are concerned, to help them through: we will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home… The Jewish movement is national and not imperialist. Our movement is national and not imperialist… neither can be a real success without the other.
People less informed and less responsible than our leaders and yours, ignoring the need for cooperation of the Arabs and Zionists have been trying to exploit the local difficulties that must necessarily arise in Palestine in the early stages of our movements. Some of them have… misrepresented your aims to the Arab peasantry, and our aims to the Jewish peasantry, with the result that interested parties have been able to make capital out of what they call our differences… these differences are not on questions of principle, but on matters of detail such as must inevitably occur in every contact of neighbouring peoples, and are easily adjusted by mutual goodwill.
Felix Frankfurter adopted a similarly conciliatory tone in his reply on behalf of the Zionist Organisation:
We knew… that the aspirations of the Arab and the Jewish peoples were parallel, that each aspired to reestablish its nationality in its own homeland, each making its own distinctive contribution to civilisation, each seeking its own peaceful mode of life.
The Zionist leaders and the Jewish people for whom they speak have watched with satisfaction the spiritual vigour of the Arab movement. Themselves seeking justice, they are anxious that the national aims of the Arab people be confirmed and safeguarded by the Peace Conference.
We know from your acts and your past utterances that the Zionist movement – in other words the aims of the Jewish people – had your support and the support of the Arab people for whom you speak. These aims are now before the Peace Conference as definite proposals of the Zionist Organisation. We are happy indeed that you consider these proposals “moderate and proper,” and that we have in you a staunch supporter for their realisation. For both the Arab and the Jewish peoples there are difficulties ahead – difficulties that challenge the united statesmanship of Arab and Jewish leaders. For it is no easy task to rebuild two great civilisations that have been suffering oppression and misrule for centuries… The Arabs and Jews are neighbours in territory; we cannot but live side by side as friends…
Above: Chaim Weizmann & Felix Frankfurter
As an essential part of their quest for a homeland in Palestine the Jews sought the active support of the British Government delegation and, in particular, that of the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur J Balfour, author of the 1917 Declaration which had given them hope that this would become a reality. In a memo by Felix Frankfurter of an interview with him and Justice Brandeis in Balfour’s Paris apartment on 24 June, 1919, the Foreign Secretary is recorded as expressing entire agreement with three conditions that stated:
First that Palestine should be the Jewish homeland and not merely that there should be a Jewish homeland in Palestine… Secondly there must be economic elbow room for a Jewish Palestine… That meant adequate boundaries, not merely a small garden within Palestine… Thirdly… that the future Jewish Palestine must have control of the land and the natural resources which are at the heart of a sound economic life.
However, Balfour pointed out the difficulties which confronted the British, especially the fact that Faisal was a ‘comrade in arms’ and that he interpreted British action and words as a promise of either Arab independence or Arab rule under British protection. Nevertheless, he added:
No statesman could have been more sympathetic… with the underlying philosophy and aims of Zionism as they were stated… , nor more eager that the necessary conditions should be secured at the hands of the Peace Conference and of Great Britain to assure the realisation of the Zionist programme.
However, as opposition to Zionism grew among the Arab population under British rule in the early 1920s, a new policy was drafted by Winston Churchill, then the British Colonial Secretary, which, while not explicitly opposing the idea of a Jewish state, redeemed the Balfour promise in depreciated currency, to quote a contemporary British source. Churchill’s White Paper of June 1922 made it clear that The Balfour Declaration had been subjected to exaggerated interpretations such as given in the phrase “as Jewish as England is English” in connection with the intentions of the British government. This, Churchill stated flatly, was not the aim of HM’s Government, which was neither contemplating the disappearance or subordination of the Arabic population, language, or culture in Palestine. He reminded those who suggested this to be the case, among both Arabs and Jews, that the Declaration did not state that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home, but that such a Home should be found in Palestine. This clearly contradicted the conditions set down in Frankfurter’s memo of Balfour’s Paris interview, but Churchill went on to quote the resolution of the Zionist Organisation’s Congress held at Carlsbad in September 1921, which had expressed…
… the determination of the Jewish people to live with the Arab people on terms of unity and mutual respect, and together with them to make the common home into a flourishing community, the upbuilding of which may assure to each of its peoples an undisturbed national development.
Churchill also clarified that the Zionist Organisation was to have no special role in the running of the administration of Palestine under the British Mandate and that the citizens of Palestine, whatever their ethnicity or religion, would remain Palestinian. Jewish immigration was to continue in keeping with the economic capacity of the country. The immigrants should not be a burden to the people of Palestine as a whole, nor should they deprive any section of the current population of their employment. Against this background, by the mid-twenties, there were those within the Labour Party, like Beatrice Webb, who began to question the aims of the Zionist movement:
… I admire Jews and dislike Arabs. But the Zionist movement seems to me a gross violation of the right of the native to remain where he was born and his father and grandfather were born – if there is such a right. To talk about the return of the Jew to the land of his inheritance after an absence of two thousand years seems to me sheer… hypocritical nonsense. From whom were descended those Russian and Polish Jews? The principle which is really being asserted is the principle of selecting races for particular territories according to some ‘peculiar needs or particular fitness’. Or it may be some ideal of communal life to be realised by subsidised migration. But this process of artificially creating new communities of immigrants, brought from any parts of the world, is rather hard on the indigenous natives!
Clearly, Sidney Webb (above) shared views of his wife, Beatrice (pictured together, above top) on Zionism, as five years later he was in the first majority Labour government of 1929-31, Sidney Webb as Colonial Secretary, by then under the title ‘Lord Passfield’. Following the Arab riots of 1929, the ‘Passfield White Paper’ was published in 1930, urging restrictions on immigration of Jews, and on land sales to them. When this was bitterly denounced by the Zionist leaders as a violation of the Mandate, Ramsay MacDonald wrote to Chaim Weizmann in February 1931 to reassure him of the good faith of HM’s Government. Although it did not openly repudiate the Passfield Report, the PM’s letter was rejected by the Arabs as the “Black Paper” as it clearly defined the mainstream Labour view of Zionism. The Report had been widely criticised for making ‘injurious allegations’ against the Jewish people and Jewish labour organisations. Today, we might describe these as being anti-Semitic. Quite clearly, as leader of the party and PM, MacDonald felt he had to act quickly to allay these concerns. In his speech in the House of Commons on 3 April 1930, MacDonald had given his ‘double undertaking’ to the Jewish and non-Jewish populations of Palestine (see my previous post) which contained a promise to ‘do equal justice’ to both. This, he now declared, was the most effectual means of furthering the establishment of a national home for the Jews. He emphasised that the government did not contemplate immigration controls beyond those introduced by Churchill in 1922, governed purely by economic considerations. There was to be a continuation of labour scheduling of Jewish wage-earning immigrants for private works which depended mainly on Jewish capital and the availability of Jewish labour. Public works were to be organised on the basis of private Jewish contributions to public revenue, to allow for a ‘due share’ of employment for Jewish workers. Otherwise, account was to be taken of unemployment among both Jews and Arabs. However, The Jewish Agency insisted that, as a matter of principle, asserted the policy that only Jewish labour would be employed by Jewish organisations. MacDonald asserted that the British government would seek to amend this policy if Arab unemployment became ‘aggravated.’ In words which could still be applied to the Labour Party policy today, MacDonald concluded his letter by reaffirming the government’s ‘unqualified recognition’ that no solution can be satisfactory or permanent which is not based upon justice, both to the Jewish people and to the non-Jewish communities of Palestine.
The MacDonald letter aimed to placate the Zionists while disturbing as the Arabs as little as possible. When many Zionists took the letter as a withdrawal of the white paper, however, it became labelled the ‘black paper’ by Arabs. By confirming that the policy of the Palestine Mandate was to continue to support Jewish immigration, the Letter in effect negated some of the implications of the White Paper and facilitated increasing immigration during the growth of anti-Semitism in Europe in the 1930s. Of course, the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism had already become a blurred one in British politics, as the Passfield White Paper shows. Webb was not the only baronet in the Labour Cabinet. Sir Oswald Moseley, sixth baronet, stuck out like a sore thumb in the House of Commons. At first he was a Conservative, but fell foul of the Tory establishment and joined the Labour Party. When he failed to get J H Thomas, the useless Minister of Labour, to do something about the unemployed, Mosley produced his plan for increased allowances and public works, but it was rejected in the crisis of 1931. Mosley walked out to form his ‘New Party’, taking with him some of the more left-wing Labour MPs like John Strachey. When the government fell in August 1931, Strachey and Webb wrote Marxist books and seemed to hover between Mosley’s growing support for National Socialism, which culminated in the founding of the British Union of Fascists, and becoming apologists for Stalin’s USSR which, in the early thirties, was at least as anti-Semitic as Germany. There was little the Labour Party could do to resist the rise of anti-Semitism in Britain, either on the streets of the East End of London, or within its own ultra-left ranks. In fact, in trying to formulate a clear-cut alternative to ‘MacDonaldism’ it strengthened its own left-wing and, for a time, its links with Soviet communism. It also took the British left until at least 1934 to realise that the title of Hitler’s National Socialist Party was extremely misleading, and that what Hitler himself stood for was paranoid nationalism, racialism and militarism , with the Jews as the internal scapegoats. Similarly, Mosley’s powerful corporatist ideas attracted considerable support among the middle and working classes in 1932, including from Labour and Conservative MPs, from Aneurin Bevan to Harold Macmillan. Even after his New Party merged with the BUF in that year, his protectionist policies continued to attract support until they were overshadowed by the thuggish actions of his blackshirts at the Olympia rally in June 1934, soon followed by the Night of the Long Knives in Germany, in which the Nazi Party clearly ‘purged’ itself of its socialist faction. This confusion between right-wing and left-wing politics is evident in journalist Rene Cutforth’s eye-witness accounts of the period from both the British and German capitals:
It was an age addicted to psychological explanations, but I never heard the nature of Mosley’s audiences satisfactorily explained. Who were these people who submitted themselves night after night to this exhibition of terrorism and tyranny? They looked middle-aged on the whole and seemed to be enveloped in general and political apathy, yet they kept on coming.
The Communists and the Fascists met and fought from time to time, but the habit never became a public menace as it was in Berlin in the early Thirties, when it was extremely easy for anybody, particularly at night, to be caught up in some skirmish between Nazis and Communists and be beaten up or, quite often, never heard of again.
Nonetheless, this confusion of extreme, authoritarian politics of the right and left in British politics in the early thirties was, undoubtedly, a significant factor in the failure of the mainstream Labour movement to stem the growth of anti-Semitism among its own traditional supporters and voters. Similarly, much of the international socialist reaction to Zionism throughout the decade meant that, although the British people were very welcoming to the Kindertransport and to Jewish refugees in general, the National government was able to finally wriggle free from the terms of its Palestine mandate. Another White Paper was published in May 1939 giving into Arab demands and limiting Jewish immigration to fifteen thousand for the next five years. I have referred to this in more detail in my previous post, together with the furious reaction of the Jewish Agency, but this was a fury which did not abate during the following three years. During a visit to the United States by David Ben Gurion, Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency, Zionist policy was reformulated. At a conference at the Biltmore Hotel in New York in May 1942, the establishment of a Jewish state was envisaged to open the doors of Palestine to Jewish refugees escaping from Nazi terror and to lay the foundations for the future settlement of a Jewish majority. The Declaration adopted by the Extraordinary Zionist Conference affirmed its rejection of the 1939 White Paper and denied its moral or legal validity. It quoted Churchill’s speech in the House of Commons from May 1939, in which he claimed that the Paper constituted a breach and repudiation of the Balfour Declaration. Furthermore, it stated,
The policy of the White Paper is cruel and indefensible in its denial of sanctuary to Jews fleeing from Nazi persecution…
The Conference urges that the gates of Palestine be opened: that the Jewish Agency be vested with control of immigration into Palestine and with the necessary authority for upbuilding the country, including the development of its unoccupied and uncultivated lands: and that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world.
Then and only then will the age-old wrong to the Jewish people be righted.
Following the war, and the holocaust, an Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry was appointed in November 1945 to examine the status of the Jews in the former Axis-occupied countries (see my previous post). The Labour Government decided to invite US participation in finding a solution. Prime Minister Clement Attlee, perhaps mindful of the reservations about abandoning the immigration controls of 1939, of his Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, declared that the report would have to be considered as a whole for its implications. The report recommended that a hundred thousand Jewish refugees should immediately be awarded settlement papers in 1946, commenting that the actual number of Nazi and Fascist persecutions was well in excess of this:
Indeed, there are more than that number in Germany, Austria and Italy alone. Although nearly a year has passed since their liberation, the majority of those in Germany and Austria are still living in assembly centres, the so-called “camps,” island communities in the midst of those at whose hands they suffered so much.
In their interests and the interests of Europe, the centres should be closed and their camp life ended. Most of them have cogent reasons for wishing to leave Europe. Many are the sole survivors of their families and few have any ties binding them to the countries in which they used to live.
Since the end of hostilities, little has been done to provide for their resettlement elsewhere. Immigration laws and restrictions bar their entry to most countries and much time must pass before such laws and restrictions can be altered and effect given to the alterations.
Some may go to countries where they have relatives; others may secure inclusion in certain quotas. Their number is comparatively small.
We know of no country to which the great majority can go in the immediate future other than Palestine. Furthermore, that is where almost all of them want to go. There they are sure that they will receive a welcome denied them elsewhere. There they hope to enjoy peace and rebuild their lives.
From this report we can clearly see that Ken Livingstone’s recent assertion that the post-war refugees could all have been absorbed by European countries flies in the face of all the contemporary evidence revealing the reality of their predicament, even had they wanted to be resettled in these countries. Immigration to and settlement within Palestine was the only realistic option to spending years in camps. Thus, apart from their historic connection with the country, and their right of access, shared with Christians and Muslims, to its holy places, the Jewish people had, the report concluded, also secured the right to continued existence, protection and development.
Various models were considered in the report for the future state(s) of Palestine, including a bi-national state, a federation of states, and partition into two or more states. Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Secretary (pictured below), eventually announced on 14 February 1947 that the British government had decided to refer the problem to the United Nations. Bevin himself was against partition since, he said, the Arabs would never agree to two states being formed, so they would be unviable from the beginning. The United Nations duly set up a special committee of eleven member states (UNSCOP), which reported on 31 August 1947. The Jewish Agency accepted its partition plan as the indispensable minimum, but, as Bevin had predicted, the Arab governments rejected it. The UN General Assembly approved the recommendation in November 1947, by a two-thirds majority which included both the USA and the USSR, but not Britain. The British Mandate ended on 15 May 1948, the day after the Proclamation of the State of Israel, and on the same day as the armed forces of neighbouring Arab states entered Palestine.
In these immediate post-war years, Ernest Bevin had been regarded by many Jews in Britain, the United States and Israel as an ‘arch-enemy’ of the Jewish people; and his action on the report of the Anglo-American Commission, and again on the resolution of the United Nations Assembly in 1947, his delay in recognising the State of Israel until February 1949, and some bitter remarks he made in the House of Commons’ debates on Palestine, seemed to justify that contemporary view. However, Lord Strang, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office for the greater part of Bevin’s term as Foreign Secretary, has suggested that his opposition to the State of Israel was due to his preoccupation with longer-term political, economic and strategic considerations:
He was disturbed by fear of active Soviet involvement in Middle East affairs, and foresaw that the persisting Arab-Jewish antagonism would be exploited by Moscow to the detriment of vital Western interests.
In this respect, Bevin’s analysis was correct, but this did not make him anti-Zionist, or by extension, anti-Semitic. Norman Leftwich, writing in 1962 about his Seventy Seven Years as a diplomat, argued that his talks with Bevin in London and Paris between 1946 and 1948, confirmed Strang’s judgement:
He was, I believe, anxious at the outset to find a solution to the conflict, and confident that he would succeed, as he had many bitter Labour disputes… But at least, when he did recognise the State in 1949, he did his best to foster afresh good relations between Great Britain and Israel; and he made a vain attempt to bring Jews and Arabs together.
A Summary and Some Conclusions:
What lessons can we learn from these thirty years, which can inform the attitude and policy of the Labour Party today towards the Israel-Palestine question, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism? Firstly, it does not serve the party’s needs to try to relate anti-Semitism to other forms of discrimination on either racial or religious grounds. If we want to deal will these evils, or diseases, at root, then we need to understand the distinct historical nature of those roots. We need to understand that Jews and Arabs are both Semites, in ethnicity and language, and that until 1919 they had both suffered equally at the hands of an imperial regime in Palestine, as Palestinians, and that the Jews had also suffered both formal and informal discrimination in a variety of European countries, while also being well-integrated into some, e.g. Austria-Hungary. Zionism, the determination to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine, was the ambition of a minority of Jews in Europe and America until a policy of ethnic cleansing was adopted by some of the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s. For a time, the determination of Zionists to emigrate to Palestine suited many within the NSDAP in Germany, but there is no evidence to suggest that Hitler himself did more than temporarily to tolerate Zionist emigration schemes. To suggest that he actively supported Zionists or Zionism is not only factually wrong, but insulting to those Jews who saved many Jewish lives. In fact, it is a deliberate anti-Semitic distortion, with the aim of devaluing the brave role played by these people during the time of the Third Reich.
During the time of the second Labour government of 1929-31, Ramsay MacDonald upheld the right of the Jewish people to their own homeland in Palestine, as originally set out in the Balfour Declaration, while at the same time affirming the need for ‘equal justice’ for Jews and Arabs. He also sought to guarantee continuing Jewish immigration to Palestine, against the wills of anti-Zionists in his own party, ensuring an escape route for many thousands of refugees until this was all but ended by the National government in 1939. At the end of the war, the Labour government, led by Attlee and Bevin, eased the restrictions on immigration while seeking a permanent solution to the problem of Palestine. Unable to get the Arab representatives to agree to either a ‘bi-national’ state, or to partition, in conjunction with the US, they then handed over the question to the United Nations. They opposed partition, the solution pased by resolution in the General Assembly, because they feared its strategic exploitation by the Soviet Union at the beginning of the Cold War. However, in 1949, they recognised the State of Israel. Despite all that has happened since then in the Arab-Israeli conflict, I believe that, with the Cold War now over, the Labour Party has no obstacle to continuing to recognise Israel, to uphold MacDonald’s principle of ‘equal justice’ for the Jews and Palestnian Arabs and to support freedom of conscience and religious practice throughout Israel-Palestine. The best means of achieving these ends at present would seem to be through a two-state solution. Acts of terrorist violence or excessive use of force by any of the current governments within the territories are open to international scrutiny, critism and condemnation, as necessary, under the terms of UN resolutions passed since 1947. However, it should be clear that the Labour Party also opposes those who call for the destruction of the State of Israel, which would involve a further genocide against the Jewish people. Such statements are, in and of themselves, anti-Semitic. It is also anti-Semitic to hold, by word or action, Jewish people generically responsible for the actions of the Israeli government of any particular day, whether they are citizens of Israel or live elsewhere in the world. In our dealings with our sister party and Labour organisations in Israel, we also need to affirm the democratic nature of the country and its constitution.
Finally, the Labour Party’s history in the 1930s should perhaps be read as a warning as to what happens when it splits into wings and factions. In the 1930s, the collapse of the party as the constitutional means for working-class representation left a vacuum in which the extremists on the left and right were able to gain support, leading to attacks on Jews and other minorities. The party was no there to defend them against unemployment and discrimination. Added to which many who started on the left ended up on the right because of their support for the corporativist or collectivist solutions demonstrated in Berlin and Moscow. Following a backward path of statist centralisation in the diverse economy and society of the twenty-first century could be even more disastrous for the broad cross-section of society that Labour has always sought to represent.
René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought. Newton Abbott: David & Charles.
Walter Lacqueur (1976), The Arab-Israeli Reader. New York: Bantam Books.
Michael Clark & Peter Tweed, Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century. London: Hutchinson.
The Problem with Ken Livingstone: Facts v Tropes
Former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone was interviewed on Sky TV on the day of the local council election results in England, despite having been suspended for his inflammatory remarks, made in a radio interview last week, that ‘Hitler supported Zionism’. In his Sky TV interview, he reiterated that his original statement was ‘historical fact’ and that all we need to do is consult the internet. I have done so, and I have also consulted reference books and text books used by teachers of this period in Germany’s history, and can find no reference to Hitler or the NSDAP supporting the creation of a Jewish homeland in the two 1932 elections to the Reichstag, or the Presidential election. Neither of these elections brought them to power, we need to remember. That only began to happen in January 1933 when President Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Chancellor, but even then the German government was a coalition, and it was not until the summer of 1933 that the Nazis gained full control over the German state. What Livingstone is trying to do is to conflate Hitler’s coming to power with the NSDAP ‘policy’ in 1932, which was by no means clear on its ‘solution’ to ‘the Jewish Question’, and the later actions of the SS up to 1941. He is trying to suggest that Zionism and Nazism were, and are, common ideological bed-fellows. In doing so, he conveniently ignores the broader context of the development of both Zionism and anti-Semitism throughout Europe and the Middle East, both before and after the Nazis came to power. He is applying a politically motivated ‘trope’ to a complex set of historical events.
Doing Business with the Nazis? The Ha’avara Agreement
Part of Ken Livingstone’s argument no doubt relates to The Ha’avara Agreement, which allowed some German Jews fleeing to Palestine to recover some of their property by buying German goods for export to Israel, was made with the German government in March 1933, before the Nazis had full control over German society. These were Jews who had already emigrated or were in the process of doing so. It was not part of a government deportation scheme, though it was thought among some Nazi circles to be a possible way to rid the country of its supposed ‘Jewish problem’. The head of the Middle Eastern division of the foreign ministry, the anti-Nazi Werner Otto von Hentig, supported the policy of concentrating Jews in Palestine. Hentig believed that if the Jewish population was concentrated in a single foreign entity, then foreign diplomatic policy and containment of the Jews would become easier. Hitler’s own support of the Havard Agreement was unclear and varied throughout the 1930s. Initially, Hitler criticized the agreement, but reversed his opinion and supported it in the period 1937-1939, as a legal means of ethnic cleansing before going to war. However, the programme was ended after the German invasion of Poland. It’s also worth noting that the agreement was heavily criticised by leading Zionists at the time, including Jabotinsky, the Revisionist Zionist leader.
Most historians are very clear that, whilst a tiny minority of the Revisionists may have had some sympathy with Nazi ideology, especially its anti-Marxist elements, the vast majority of both the Revisionists and the German Zionist movement as a whole was totally opposed to it in all its elements. Only anti-Zionist conspiracy theorists believe otherwise, because they want people to believe that the movement for the creation of the state of Israel collaborated with the Nazis to set up the conditions for the massacre of those Jews choosing to remain in Europe. The further implication, of course, is that Zionists, having aided and abetted the Nazis in the genocide against their own people, would have no compunction in conducting ethnic cleansing against Palestine’s post-war Arab population.
Reading Forward: The origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
Anyone looking for documentary evidence on this period should consult Walter Lacqueur’s superb compendium, ‘The Arab-Israeli Reader’, first published in 1969, which I used as a reference book when teaching ‘The Arab-Israeli Conflict’ in schools in England in the 1980s.
Of course, the Labour Party has had a long history, and not always a proud one, in its dealings with Palestine. Following the Arab riots of 1929, the Labour government published a new statement of policy, the Passfield White Paper, which urged the restriction of immigration and land sales to Jews. It was bitterly denounced by Zionist leaders as a violation of the letter and spirit of the mandate over Palestine given to Britain by the League of Nations in 1920. PM Ramsay MacDonald sent a letter in February 1931, which became known to the Arabs as the “Black Letter” in which he gave assurances to Dr Chaim Weizmann, leader of the Zionist movement, that the terms of the Mandate would be fulfilled. In it, he quoted from his speech in the House of Commons:
Under the terms of the mandate his Majesty’s government are responsible for promoting the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
A double undertaking is involved, to the Jewish people on the one hand and to the non-Jewish population of Palestine on the other; and it is the firm resolve of his Majesty’s Government to give effect, in equal measure, to both parts of the declaration and to do equal justice to all sections of the population of Palestine…
It is desirable to make clear that the landless Arabs,… were such Arabs as can be shown to have been displaced from the lands which they occupied in consequence of the land passing into Jewish hands, and who have not obtained other holdings on which they can establish themselves, or other equally satisfactory occupation. It is to landless Arabs within this category that his Majesty’s Government feels itself under an obligation to facilitate their settlement upon the land. The recognition of this obligation in no way detracts from the larger purposes of development… of furthering the establishment of a national home for the Jews…
MacDonald went on tho state in his letter that there would be a need for co-operation, confidence, readiness on all sides to appreciate the difficulties and complexities of the problem, and, above all, that there must be a full and unqualified recognition that no resolution can be satisfactory or permanent which is not based upon justice, both to the Jewish people and to the non-Jewish communities of Palestine. It seems from this document that, from (at least) its second time in government, the Labour Party has favoured what has now become known as a two-state solution.
A Royal Commission headed by Lord Peel was established in 1936, following the fresh outbreak of rioting by Arabs earlier that year. It found that Arab and Jewish differences could not now be reconciled under the Mandate and therefore suggested the partition of Palestine. The Arab leadership rejected the plan, but the Zionist Congress accepted it with qualifications, though with a substantial minority voting against. The British government eventually rejected the plan itself in November 1938. Jabotinsky’s evidence submitted to the Royal Commission is revealing in its definition of the evolution of Zionism by this stage:
The conception of Zionism which I have the honour to represent here is based on what I should call the humanitarian aspect. By that I do not mean to say that we do not respect the other, the purely spiritual aspects of Jewish nationalism, such as the desire for self-expression, the rebuilding of a Hebrew culture, or creating some “model community of which the Jewish people could be proud.” All that , of course is most important; but as compared with our actual needs and our real position in the world to-day, all that has rather the character of luxury. The Commission have already heard a description of the situation of World Jewry especially in Eastern Europe, … you will allow me to quote from a recent reference in ‘The New York Times’ describing the position… as “a disaster of historic magnitude.” … Three generations of Jewish thinkers and Zionists among whom there were many great minds… have come to the conclusion that the cause of our suffering is the very fact of the “Diaspora,” the bedrock fact that we are everywhere a minority. It is not the anti-Semitism of men; it is, above all, the anti-Semitism of things, the inherent xenophobia of the body social or the body economic under which we suffer. Of course, there are ups and downs; but there are moments, there are whole periodsin history when this “xenophobia of Life itself” takes dimensions which no people can stand, and that is what we are facing now…
… the phenomenon called Zionism may include all kinds of dreams – a “model community”, Hebrew culture, perhaps even a second edition of the Bible – but all this longing for wonderful toys of velvet and silver is nothing in comparison with that tangible momentum of irresistable distress and need by which we are propelled and borne. We are not free agents. We cannot “concede” anything. Whenever I hear the Zionist, most often my own Party, accused of asking for too much – Gentlemen, I really cannot understand it. Yes, we do want a State; every nation on earth, every normal nation, beginning with the smallest and humblest who do not claim any merit, any role in humanity’s development, they all have States of their own. That is the normal condition for a people. Yet, when we, the most abnormal of peoples and therefore the most unfortunate, ask only for the same condition as the Albanians enjoy… then it is called too much.
We have got to save millions, many millions. I do not know whether it is a question of re-housing one-third… half… or a quarter of the Jewish race… Certainly the way out is to evacuate those portions of the Diaspora which have become no good, which hold no promise of any possibility of livelihood, and to concentrate all those refugees in some place which should not be Diaspora, not a repetition of the position where the Jews are a unabsorbed minority within a foreign social, or economic, or political organism.
I have the profoundest feeling for the Arab case… I could hardly mention one of the big nations, having their States, mighty and powerful, who had not one branch living in someone else’s State… but when the Arab claim is confronted with our Jewish demand to be saved, it is like the claims of appetite versus the claims of starvation…
After the failure of the partition scheme and a subsequent attempt to work out an agreed solution at the London Conference (Feb-March, 1939), the British government announced its new policy in a White Paper published in May, 1939. Arab demands were largely met: Jewish immigration to Palestine was to continue at a maximum rate of 15,000 for another five years. After that it was to cease altogether unless the Arabs would accept it. Jewish purchase of land was also to be restricted in some areas, and stopped altogether in others. Jewish reaction was bitterly hostile, but the Arab leaders also rejected the White Paper: according to their demands, Palestine was to become an Arab state immediately, no more Jewish immigrants were to enter the country, and the status of every Jew who had entered the country was to be reviewed. The Jewish Agency for Palestine, which had been coordinating the migration, led the Zionist reaction to the British government’s new policy:
1. The new policy for Palestine laid down by the Mandatory in the White Paper now issued denies to the Jewish people the right to rebuild their national home in their ancestral country. It transfers the authority over Palestine to the present Arab majority and puts the Jewish population at the mercy of that majority. It decrees the stoppage of Jewish immigration as soon as the Jews form a third of the total population. It puts up a territorial ghetto for Jews in their own homeland.
2. The Jewish people regard this policy as a breach of faith and a surrender to Arab terrorism. It delivers Britain’s friends into the hands of those who are biting her and must lead to a complete breach between Jews and Arabs which will banish every prospect of peace in Palestine. It is a policy in which the Jewish people will not acquiesce…
3. The Royal Commission… indicated the perils of such a policy, saying it was convinced that an Arab Government would mean the frustration of all their (Jews’) efforts and ideals and would convert the national home into one more cramped and dangerous ghetto. It seems only too probable that the Jews would fight rather than submit to Arab rule…
4. The Jewish people have no quarrel with the Arab people. Jewish work in Palestine has not had an adverse effect upon the life and progress of the Arab people. The Arabs are not landless or homeless as are the Jews. They are not in need of emigration… The Jewish people has shown its will to peace even during the years of disturbances. It has not given way to temptation and has not retaliated to Arab violence. But neither have Jews submitted to terror nor will they submit to it even after the Mandatory has decided to reward the terrorists by surrendering the Jewish National Home.
5. It is in the darkest hour of Jewish history that the British have decided to deprive the Jews of their last hope and to close the road back to their Homeland. It is a cruel blow… This blow will not subdue the Jewish people. The historic bond between the people and land of Israel cannot be broken. The Jews will never accept the closing to them of the gates of Palestine nor let their national home be converted into a ghetto…
This document shows quite clearly that Jewish immigration to Palestine, which had been underway for at least a decade and a half before Hitler and the Nazis came to power in Germany, was neither the product of a defeatist collaboration with them, nor of some form of perverted ideological motivation.
Nazism & the Arab Cause: Hitler & the Grand Mufti
Further evidence as to the ideological distance between Nazism and Zionism, were it needed, is revealed by Hitler’s recorded statements made in the presence of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in November 1941. In the previous year, following the German destruction of Poland and occupation of western Europe, Jewish emigration to Palestine from the Reich had all but halted, falling to 1,100 from a high of 9,800 in 1934, following the Ha’avarah Agreement, and from 9,200 between the Anschluss (reunification with Austria and the onset of war). Hitler’s true intentions, were they ever to be doubted, as to the means of achieving ethnic cleansing, are as clear in these statements as they are from the mass murders of Polish Jews that had already taken place and were common knowledge in those countries, like Hungary, which received large numbers of refugees who could no longer so easily gain passage to Palestine. Anna Porter’s book, Kasztner’s Train, contains details of this which I have summarised elsewhere on this site.
Haj Amin al Husaini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was the most influential leader of the Palestinian Arabs both before and during the Second World War, when he lived in Germany. He met Hitler, Ribbentrop and other Nazi leaders on various occasions and attempted to coordinate Nazi and Arab policies in the Middle East (Lacqueur). The Record of Conversation between him and the Führer in Berlin begins with his statement on foreign policies of what he termed The Arab Legion, including the Arab countries of North Africa which he said were ready to rise up, together with the Palestinians, against the ‘enemies’ they shared with Germany, namely the English, the Jews and the Communists. He mentioned a letter he had received from the German government which stated that
Germany was holding no Arab territories and understood and recognised the aspirations to independence and freedom of the Arabs, just as she supported the elimination of the Jewish national home.
Hitler himself then stated that Germany’s fundamental attitude was as stated in this letter:
Germany stood for uncompromising war against the Jews. That naturally included opposition to the national home in Palestine, which was nothing other than a centre, in the form of a state, for the exercise of destructive influence by Jewish interests. Germany was also aware that the assertion that the Jews were carrying out the function of economic pioneers in Palestine was a lie. The work done there was done only by the Arabs, not by the Jews. Germany was resolved, step by step, to ask one European nation after the other to solve its Jewish problem, and at the proper time direct a similar appeal to non-European nations as well.
Germany was at the present time engaged in a life or death struggle with the two citadels of Jewish power: Great Britain and Soviet Russia. Theoretically there was a difference between England’s capitalism and Soviet Russia’s communism; actually, however, the Jews in both countries were pursuing a common goal. This was the decisive struggle; on the political plane, it presented itself as in the main as a conflict between Germany and England, but ideologically it was a battle between National Socialism and the Jews. It went without saying that Germany would furnish positive and practical aid to the Arabs involved in the same struggle, because platonic promises were useless in a war for survival or destruction in which the Jews were able to mobilize all of England’s power for their ends.
Hitler went on to refer to Iraq, where Germany had been prevented from rendering of effective practical aid, so that the country was overcome by the power of Britain, that is, the guardian of the Jews. Germany was involved in severe battles to force open the gateway to the northern Caucasus region. Therefore, he argued, he could not make any declaration of intent about Syria, because this would be united by de Gaulle’s followers as an attempt to break up France’s colonial empire and lead to a strengthening of their common cause with the English. He then made the following statements to the Mufti:
1. He would carry on the battle to the total destruction of the Judeo-Communist empire in Europe.
2. At some moment… which… was not too distant, the German armies would in the course of this struggle reach the southern exit from Caucasia.
3. As soon as this happened, the Führer would on his own give the Arab world the assurance that its hour of liberation had arrived. Germany’s objective would then be solely the destruction of the Jewish element residing in the Arab sphere under the protection of British power.
This would, he concluded, bring about the end of the British world empire and French influence in the Middle East. Significantly, however, he refused to make the kind of declaration the Mufti had asked of him at that time, which would provoke an immediate revolt against the British and the Jews in Palestine. Referring to the Anschluss with Austria, he remarked that,…
… he (the Führer) would beg the Mufti to consider that he himself was the Chief of State for five long years during which he was unable to make to his own homeland the announcement of liberation.
His point was clearly that, before ‘force of arms’ had been successful in extending the Reich’s territorial control to the south of the Caucasus, the Judeo-British link could not be broken. Nevertheless, he assured the Grand Mufti that his statements could be regarded as a confidential declaration, or secret agreement between the two of them. Hitler’s reference back to his first five years after becoming Chancellor of Germany is an interesting one in the context of recent claims that he was not always determined to exterminate the Jews, but also supported Zionist emigration as a means to the ethnic cleansing of Europe set out in his early writings. If he went along with the dealings of some of his leading SS men, Eichmann included, it was only until such time as the military conquest of the European conquest was all but complete, and perhaps as a temporary means of earning money from exports. As he told the Mufti, he had to speak coolly and deliberately, as a rational man and primarily as a soldier, as the leader of the German and allied armies. In addition, we cannot escape the fact that his clearly stated aim in this German State document was the destruction of the Jews, not just in Europe, but also in Palestine and the Middle East, even if he expected this latter genocide to be carried out mainly by the Arabs. Given the extent of his military ambitions in 1941, it is difficult to imagine that he ever seriously contemplated, let alone supported, the creation of a Jewish Homeland in Palestine which, as he himself acknowledged, would become a thorn in his side before very long.
Creation and attempted strangulation of Israel
By the time an Anglo-American Inquiry Committee was appointed in November 1945 to examine the state of the Jews in the former Axis-occupied countries, and to find out how many had been impelled by conditions to migrate, Britain, weakened by war, found itself under growing pressure from both Jews and Arabs alike. The Labour Government of Clement Attlee therefore decided to invite the United States to participate in finding a solution. President Truman welcomed the recommendation of the Committee to rescind the immigration and land laws of the 1939 White Paper, although Attlee declared that the report would need to be “considered as a whole on its implications.” Arab League reaction was hostile and threatening, refusing to consider a bi-national, federal solution. Those Arabs who would consider it were assassinated by supporters of the Mufti, leading others to drop out of talks. The Ihud Zionists put forward this solution, but they too found few supporters among the Jewish Community in general. Eventually, the British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin announced in February 1947 that HM’s Government had decided to refer the Palestine problem to the United Nations.Tension inside Palestine had risen, illegal Jewish immigration continued, and there was growing restiveness in the Arab countries. Palestine, Bevin said, could not be so divided as to create two viable states, since the Arabs would never agree to it. This was how, under a Labour Government, the British Mandate was terminated, and the state of Israel was declared in May 1948, and was immediately and illegally occupied by the armies of Transjordan, Egypt, Syria and other Arab states. They tried, and failed, to block the implementation of the UN Resolution establishing what they called “a Zionist State” by “Jewish usurpers”.
Our ‘Dr Livingstone’ would do well to remember these facts as well. His latest statement, made on an Arabic language TV station, is that “the creation of the state of Israel was fundamentally wrong”, a statement made with all the presumptive self-assurance of someone with a PhD in the history of Zionism and the establishment of Israel. Three greater Labour giants from the period itself, Ramsay MacDonald, Clem Attlee and Ernie Bevin clearly did not see what they were engaged in as wrong, but so would the United Nations, yesterday and today. Of course, Dr Livingstone is again looking through the wrong end of his explorer’s telescope. Palestine before the Second World War was never recognised as an ‘Arab state’ (even in prospect) and many Jews had settled there long before the Second World War. In fact, for reasons already mentioned, the majority of those settling in Palestine had already done so before the War. It was the failed attempt by the neighbouring Arab states to “strangle Israel at birth” which led to it seizing, for its own protection, more land areas beyond those defined by the UN. Once again, Mr Livingstone is scapegoating the Jews for the Arab-Israeli Conflict of the last seventy years, in addition to making them, as victims of the persecutions of the previous seventy years, responsible for their own Shoah, or suffering.
Walter Lacqueur (1969), The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict. New York: Bantam Books.
Richard Overy (1996), Historical Atlas of the Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Why its time to part company with the past, and Ken, in British politics:
Not so long ago, I posted a criticism online of an extremist, ‘Zionist’ group that had obviously ‘photo-shopped’ a picture of a swastika flying above Hebron, claiming that it had been placed there by Palestinians to incite Israelis. I pointed out, as a historian used to looking at old photographs, that the part of the picture containing the swastika was obviously taken from a picture of a World War II Zeppelin, since the rope connecting to it was coming down from the sky and not up from the tower below. Someone then added an anti-Semitic remark, something about ‘typical Jewish tactics’ to which I reacted by adding the comment that it was possible to be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic. My co-commenter retorted that this was impossible, and that I needed to ‘grow some balls’ in the fight against ‘the Jewish state’. Leaving aside the slur on my manhood, I realised he was right – that it was now impossible to be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic, in that people like him were Jew-hating supporters of Jew-killers in the conflict in Israel-Palestine and would not rest until the state of Israel had been destroyed and its people, mainly Jewish, ‘driven back into the Mediterranean’. Since then, I have read, written and published extensively about the growth of Zionism in its historical context, especially in Hungary, where it began, and where I now live, having married into a part-Jewish Hungarian family. Let me be clear. I believe in self-determination for both Jews and Palestinian Arabs in a two-state Israel-Palestine with religious freedom for Muslims, Jews and fellow Christians.
For some time now, and notably since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in Britain, I have felt tired of having to reply to numerous posts on social media (mainly on sites purporting to support the Labour Party) from those using the terms ‘Zionist’ and ‘Zionism’ without knowledge of, or reference to, this historical context, and therefore, in my view, in a way which is either inaccurate or just plain wrong. Then I got the news that the former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, ‘left-hand’ man of the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (his right-hand man being John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor), had been suspended for claiming publicly that Hitler was a Zionist when he came to power in 1932. So I decided to consult the sources I’ve been working on recently in connection with the Hungarian Holocaust to see what they can reveal about the development of these forces between the wars. I feel bound to state, before venturing further into this historical yet still very contemporary quagmire, that, whatever it reveals, can have only limited relevance to today’s ongoing global arguments about the management and resolution of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, since there is a ‘fault line’ running through the history of the last century which refocuses historical interpretation of the entire century in terms of what actually happened between the events of Kristallnacht in Germany in November 1938 and the setting up of the state of Israel a decade later. The displacements, dispersals, deportations and ultimate destruction of the European Jewish peoples have been fully documented are established facts of the highest order which are protected by law in many countries. Therefore, what politicians like Ken Livingstone try to do is to chip away at the bedrock of these events by seeking to re-contextualise them in order to make outrageous comments like those of Naz Shah seem mainstream, when they are far from it. There is, quite rightly, much debate over the role of Hitler’s ‘Aims’ and ‘Plans’ in determining the outbreak and course of the Second World War, comparative to a whole range of other factors, but what is indisputable is the course of what we have come to know as ‘the Holocaust’ enacted against the Jews, Roma and others whom the Third Reich and its Führer determined to be ‘undesirable’.
Additionally, we need to bear in mind that, correctly defined, both parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict are Semitic peoples in the original linguistic-cultural use of the term, and therefore much of what passes for ‘Islamaphobia’ is actually not directed against Islam, of which it is largely ignorant, but rather anti-Arab and therefore another form of anti-Semitism which also needs to be confronted and extinguished. There is therefore no rank order among the oppressed peoples of the middle east, and upholding the rights of one ethnic group does not mean trampling on the rights of another. Neither is there any need, as Corbyn has done, to conflate anti-Semitism with ‘Islamaphobia’ as a form of racism. The latter may turn into anti-Arab racism, or be confused with it, but it begins, as the term suggests, with an irrational fear of religion, and therefore has different causes to anti-Semitism. It should be treated with different remedies. We do not need an ‘independent’ enquiry to tell us this. Xenophobia is currently, sadly, rampant throughout European society, but it is its deliberate exploitation by racists that makes it so toxic.
Added to this, since former Assyrians and Persians are also Semitic peoples, a general solution to the conflicts inherent or active in the middle east cannot be found without respecting the identities of Kurds, Iraqi minorities and Iranians. At the moment, religion is being used to deny these identities in many cases, but their re-emergence and recognition is part of the secular and inter-faith campaign which is needed to defeat the tyranny and terrorism of ethnic cleansing in the region as a whole. Zionism simply means what the name suggests, Jewish nationalism, which has a right to co-exist with every other nationalism of Europe and the Middle East, including the legitimate demands for Kurdish and Palestinian self-determination in statehood. It’s only when such aspirations go unrecognised and get pushed into corners that they become potentially destructive.
I felt reluctant to write much more than this until Ken Livingstone’s remarks made me determined to delve back into the earlier part of the twentieth century. One reason for my initial reluctance was that I was hoping that wiser heads would prevail in the Labour Party, and would, by now, have come up with a framework for constructive discourse on the Israel-Palestine Conflict, providing parameters of acceptable uses of language for its members, many of them new to the party and new to this particular discourse. Jeremy Corbyn’s tendency to refer everything back to the ‘growth of the party at grass-roots level’ is patronising to those who have worked at this level for many decades and are more aware than he is of the challenges posed by the sudden influx of ‘unschooled’ proto-socialists. The fact that there is a concurrent conflict on anti-Semitism among students would suggest to a more pro-active or even reactive leader that this is not a problem which will simply settle down among the ‘grass roots’. His ‘Crisis? What Crisis?!’ response was also a complete abnegation of responsibility. A new fault line has opened up within the Party, and he opened it by making it clear that it was acceptable for party leaders, himself included, to appear on platforms with representatives of Hezbollah and Hamas, organisations which have as their stated aim the destruction of the state of Israel which, were they to succeed, would involve another act of genocide against Jewish people.
His election as leader has, as many of us on the mainstream Left predicted, opened a Pandora’s Box of the uglier tropes of ultra-Left ideology, and it may be impossible to get the lid back on it. However, it is not too late for him to express regret over the support implied in his own past actions, and also to distance himself from the ‘Stop the War’ campaign’s ‘Cairo Declaration’ which sought to justify attacks on British service people in Iraq. For the sake of his Party, if for no other reason, he needs to ‘draw a line in the sand’ for his fellow-travellers on its ultra-Left, whether old comrades like Ken, or new militants who have yet to come to political maturity. Unlike the other major political parties, the Labour Party has always had a set of familiar values and discourses which have to be learned by its members, sometimes the hard way. As Ken’s case proves, this is a process of lifelong learning. Just as an ‘old dog’ like Corbyn has shown himself to be capable of learning ‘new tricks’ as leader, so too all of us have gaps in our knowledge as well as our know-how, or ‘political nous’.
Understanding Zionism in its historical context:
So, having re-educated myself on these contemporary-historical issues, partly through living and working in the part of Europe that experienced them, let me attempt to offer a basis for genuine historical understanding. Reading Anna Porter’s book on ‘Kasztner’s Train’, together with more anti-Zionist sources from within the Budapest Jewish leadership of 1944-45, I began to understand that the British Left had failed to understand Zionism as a movement, both contemporaneously and subsequent to the Holocaust. This is because it mirrors the interpretation of ‘European Jewry’ as a monolithic collective culture and ethnicity within European society. Historically, the Left has tended to refer to ‘the Jews’ as if they are somehow a homogeneous group, like other ethnic minorities which exist across national boundaries, when, in reality, they were just as culturally diverse as Slavs or Celts. What made, and still makes them, different, are their religious cultures, which also remain as heterogeneous as those found within Islam or Christianity, the other monotheistic faiths. At the beginning of the twentieth century it was not a foregone conclusion that their faith would continue to mark them out and marginalise them within mainstream European societies. It was their persecution in these host societies which prevented their further integration. Living in Budapest at this time, Theodor Hertzl, regarded as the founding thinker of Zionism, prophesied that what would make the case of Hungarian Jewry so tragic was that of all the Jewish populations of Europe, they were the most integrated. Like him, they tended to live close to the synagogues in the capital, but there were no ghettos to speak of. In the countryside, Jewish families were dispersed throughout villages, and the only difference between Christian and Jewish peasant children was that the first attended church and the second the synagogue. This had been the case for at least two centuries. Similar-looking children would swap places on Saturdays and Sundays, and no-one, not even their parents, noticed the friendly prank!
The Hungarian Jewish population had begun to increase significantly in the eighteenth century, after the end of the Ottoman occupation of a large part of Hungary’s crown lands, and by the mid-nineteenth century they accounted for 3.5 percent of the total population. They were mainly farmers and traders who were spread out very unevenly around the country. In Budapest twenty percent of the population was of Jewish faith and there were similar proportions in larger cities in eastern Hungary, which then included Transylvania. In the western cities of Transdanubia their number was much lower, while in the villages there it was insignificant. Unlike Jews elsewhere in eastern Europe, Hungarian Jews had had equal rights since the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, and by 1900 they seemed to have successfully integrated into wider society. Leading figures in the industrialisation and modernisation of Hungary were of Jewish faith. For decades Hungarian GDP grew at a faster pace than the European average as metropolitan Budapest grew at the same rate as Chicago or Detroit. Its Jewish people became assimilated within a growing bourgeoisie and were generally welcomed by the Hungarian political élite. The growing competition between the traditional noble hierarchy and the newer capitalist classes had not yet become a major threat to political stability, so that anti-Semitic movements were unable to attract significant support either in the capital or the provincial towns and villages. However, when the economic boom ended and capitalism began to go into crisis in the early years of the twentieth century, both Jewish and Schwabian (German-Hungarian) ‘alien’ elements began to be made scapegoats for its failures and shortcomings.
The growth of anti-Semitism and Zionism in Hungary in the 1920s:
Anti-modernity movements in Hungary first appeared in the second half of the nineteenth century and were closely associated with a gradual growth of anti-Semitism. However, as in Germany, it was the social fractures of 1918, 1919 and 1920 which brought it closer to the central focus of Hungarian national life. In 1919, a ‘Bolshevik’ Republic was proclaimed, led by Béla Kun. Unfortunately for all the Jews of Hungary, Kun and many of his associates were Jews. For the commanders who beat down the Republic of Councils (Soviets), Jews and Bolsheviks were the same thing. Traditional anti-Semites saw the whole Kun interregnum as a failed Jewish plot, ignoring the fact that Jews were also over-represented among its victims, many of whom were wealthy Jews, and that communism posed a deadly threat to the Jewish aristocrats who held 20 per cent of the nation’s wealth. This made no difference to those seeking someone to blame for the Communists’ few months in power.
As Anna Porter has pointed out, this began to change in the early 1920s when both peasants and factory workers in Hungary suffered extreme hardships, and Horthy’s new government hit on the perfect scapegoat for the country’s ills – the Jews. With the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany, they became a natural target in every country, including Hungary. In Lithuania, Poland and the Ukraine there were already pogroms, murderous rampages, against the Jews. In Germany, Juilius Streicher launched the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer in 1923 with the ominous headline, “The Jews are Our Misfortune”. The first anti-Jewish law, the Numerus Clausus Act, was introduced in Hungary as early as 1920, the first anti-Semitic legislation in twentieth-century Europe, long before Hitler came to power in Germany. It is a frequent mistake on the Left to equate anti-Semitism with Nazism in Germany or ‘Hitler going mad’ as Ken Livingstone has, and can be viewed as a grotesque reduction of the entire Holocaust as the responsibility of Hitler and his henchmen. Of course, many Hungarians have also tried to promote this distortion of events.
The 1920 Hungarian anti-Jewish Law limited the number of Jews at universities, teachers and students, to the same small proportion, 6%, that they represented in the population at large. The cream of Hungarian intellectuals, including almost all of those who later won the Nobel Prize, were forced to study at western European universities. A similar law also existed in Poland, and in Romania Jews were granted equal rights due to the intervention of the western allies. The Hungarian Numerus Clausus was allowed to lapse eight years later, but many contemporaries saw it as a harbinger of tougher laws to come, and they were proved right. The Regent, Miklós Horthy, declared himself anti-Semitic, but his regime moderated its virulent growth and violent eruption throughout the inter-war period in Hungary. Although it was widespread and ever-present among the ruling aristocratic classes, the élite reached a compromise with the wealthy Jews, whose industrial capital they needed. Ferenc Chorin exemplifies those industrialists of Jewish origin who became part of the political élite themselves.
Rezső Kasztner declared himself a Zionist at the age of fifteen. For him, it was a romantic rather than a political notion. “Zion” was the biblical name of ancient Jerusalem, where King David had built the fortified temple that was later destroyed by the Romans. The fifteenth-century poet Yehuda Halevi was the first to apply the term to the people of the Diaspora. The idea that the Jews would one day return to their ancient lands in Palestine attracted Rezső even before he discovered Theodor Herzl’s writings. Herzl wrote of the ingrained, centuries-old anti-Semitism among Europeans and declared that he understood the reasons for it. Although Jews had endeavoured to blend themselves into their surrounding communities while preserving their faith, they had not, he wrote, been permitted to do so. They had continued to be viewed as ‘aliens’. Yet, he observed:
My happier co-religionists will not believe me till Jew-baiting teaches them the truth.
As early as 1896, Herzl foretold the disasters of National Socialism under Adolf Hitler and warned his fellow Jews to found their own homeland before it was too late. In 1919, Britain was mandated by the League of Nations to administer and control Palestine. In 1920, following another resolution of the League, the British government agreed to the creation of a “national home for the Jewish People” in the mandate territory, as spelled out by the Balfour Declaration. The Yishuv, the Jews already living in Palestine would now be represented to both the British and the rest of the world by a new organisation, the Jewish Agency, which was composed of various Zionist factions present in the pre-1930s World Zionist Organisation.
Rezső Kasztner had read Hitler’s Mein Kampf (My Struggle) in its first German edition, which German newspapers hailed as the brilliant work of a young genius who had a clear-eyed view of how best to solve Germany’s postwar problems. Kasztner found it to be the incoherent ranting of a poorly educated man, full of hate and ambition. Hitler’s one consistent thought was his identification of “the Jew” as the chief enemy of his herrenvolk, the Aryan master race. Like David Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency in Palestine, Kasztner realized that if Hitler came to power, he would begin a war which the Jewish people would bear the brunt of. As a Hungarian journalist, Kasztner wrote about the likely effects of the era of Béla Kun’s short-lived Communist government on Hungarian politics. Kun was from Kolozsvár, then in Romania, the same Transylvanian city as Kasztner.
Porter has written that given his quick rise in society, it was surprising that Kasztner did not leave behind his Zionism. For a Kalozsvár (Cluj) Jewish intellectual in the 1920s, Zionism was unfashionable. The idea of emigrating to Palestine to live on communal farms, barely retrieved from the desert, did not appeal to urbane, integrated European citizens. Jews enjoyed public life, commerce, banking, the arts and sciences; some of them were noted scientists, writers, humorists and historians. Nor was Zionism popular among religious Jews, most of whom did not believe that Jews should return to their homeland before the advent of the Messiah. True, Rezső’s elder brother, Gyula, had emigrated to Palestine in 1924 to work on a kibbutz, but at that time the younger brother had still been in high school, and any ideas he had of joining his brother were subsequently put on hold by his father’s death in 1928, when he was still only twenty-two. Even after having joined the Ihud, one of the main Zionist organisations, and having reading Mein Kampf, when Hitler became German Chancellor, the worst that Kasztner could predict was that he would demand was that all Jews leave the German territories.
Racism, anti-Semitism & Jewish emigration in Germany between the wars:
In Germany between 1919 and 1923 the state had been faced with coup attempts from right and left, of which the most serious, the army-backed Kapp Putsch of 1920, was only overturned by a General Strike in Berlin. German society was bitterly divided with the nationalist right completely irreconcilable to the parliamentary Weimar Republic. They blamed Jews and Marxists both for Germany’s defeat and the problems of democracy. Anti-Semitism became the hallmark of the radical right and led to regular attacks on synagogues and the desecration of Jewish graveyards. The Nazi movement, in the form of the German Workers’ Party, had its origins in Bavaria. Hitler joined the party in September 1919 and the following February co-authored a 25-point programme which was both anti-capitalist and anti-Semitic. In April 1920 the party changed its name to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party and Hitler became its leader in July 1921. Two years later, at the height of the inflation crisis in November 1923, Hitler launched an armed coup in Munich which was crushed by the local police.
During his nine months in Landsberg prison he wrote the first volume of Mein Kampf which became the ‘bible’ of the movement re-founded in Bamberg in February 1926. This new movement adopted a programme of ‘biological politics’ to create a ‘healthy German race’ and to stamp out ‘alien elements’. The Nazi movement viewed the new Germany predominantly in racial terms, using the concept of biological purity which was present in the theories of racial hygiene (eugenics) popular in sections of the medical establishment throughout Europe and America. Eugenic theory suggested that human populations, like those in the animal kingdom, were subject to the laws of natural selection that Darwin had outlined in the previous century. A ‘healthy race’ required the elimination of those who had physical or mental defects, or who introduced ‘alien blood’ into the traditional ‘racial stock’. This pseudo-scientific view of racial policy was expressed by Hitler in Mein Kampf. Once in power, Hitler established an apparatus of laws and offices whose task was to cleanse the race.
Anti-semitism intensified. Jews were hounded from office or imprisoned in the first wave of lawless anti-Semitism in 1933. In September 1935, the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws were announced. The subsequent Reich Citizenship Law of 14 November defined ‘Jewishness’. The same day, The Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honour forbad inter-marriage and sexual relations between Jews and Germans, also those between Germans and blacks, Sinti and Roma (gypsies). These laws linked the eugenic programme with the regime’s anti-Semitism. Over the following four years, the Jewish community was gradually excluded from business and the professions, through the programme known as aryanisation. It lost citizenship and its entitlement to welfare provisions.
There can therefore be little doubt that, in its own terms, the regime embarked upon a programme of ethnic cleansing from the day it took power. In this ‘peacetime’ context, Jewish emigration helped to serve this purpose, and was therefore encouraged by the Nazi state. This cannot, however, be interpreted as ‘support for Zionism’ as Ken Livingstone has attempted to suggest. About half of Germany’s Jews emigrated between 1933 and 1939, but only 41,000 of these ‘refugees’ from Nazism went to Palestine under the terms of the Ha’avarah Agreement made with Zionist organisations in Palestine on the transport of emigrants and their property from Germany. Twice this number, 102,200, found their own way to the USA, 63,500 went to Argentina and 52,000 to the United Kingdom. There was one unlikely ‘collaboration’ with the SS when training camps were set up in Germany for emigrants to acquire the skills needed in their new life in Palestine. However, by 1937 the whole process of emigration had slowed down as receiver states began to limit further Jewish immigration. The British in particular restricted the official influx into Palestine which they governed as a mandate under the League of Nations (I have written about this elsewhere on this site).
As Jewish emigration slowed, those left in Germany suffered an intensification of anti-Semitism sponsored by the Nazi state and movement. On 9 November 1938, at the instigation of leading racists, a nationwide pogrom destroyed thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses. In all 177 synagogues were destroyed and 7,500 shops. Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) did indeed signal a more violent phase in racial policy, but it was not a departure from previous practice orchestrated by the regime with the aim of driving Jewish people from their homes and out of Germany. Neither Hitler nor his henchmen cared much where they went, though if they could accelerate the exodus by encouraging Zionist emigration to Palestine, some of those henchmen saw it as a means to achieve their own ends. In ‘peacetime’, other means were not yet available.
The Racial War & ‘the Jewish Question’:
The conquest of continental Europe provided the circumstances for a sharp change in direction in German race policy away from discrimination and terror to the active pursuit of genocide. Whilst it is true that Hitler and the radical racists had no master plan for the annihilation of the Jews in 1939, their whole conception of the war was one of racial struggle in which the Jewish people above all were the enemy of German imperialism. When the Third Reich found itself ruling very large populations after the conquest of the east, it began to explore more extreme solutions to ‘the Jewish question’. The German New Order was viewed from Berlin in terms of a hierarchy of races: at the apex were the Germanic peoples, followed by subordinate Latin and Slavic populations, and at the foot of were the Jews, Sinti and Roma, ‘races’ deemed to be unworthy of existence. The policy towards them began with a programme of ghetto-building or imprisonment in camps, but in the summer of 1941 it became more violent, with Barbarossa including orders for the mass murder of Soviet Jews. In the Baltic States and Ukraine native anti-Semitism was whipped up by the German occupiers, leading to widespread massacres. There is strong evidence from the trial of Adolf Eichmann that in July 1941 Hitler himself ordered the ‘physical extermination of the Jews’, six months before the Wannsee Conference (20 January 1942), which is often referred to as the meeting at which The Final Solution was agreed. The record from that meeting reveals that Heydrich’s plan was for the extermination of the entire Jewish population of the whole of Europe, from Ireland to European Turkey.
The systematic murder of Jews began in late 1941, and was extended to the Sinti and Roma in 1942. In 1943 Germany put pressure on Italy to release its Jewish population in 1943 and Hungary in 1944. When both states were occupied by German forces, any remaining resistance to The Final Solution was quashed and hundreds of thousands of Jews were deported and slaughtered in the death camps even after it became clear that the Reich could not win the war. Hitler was determined to achieve what he had always seen as his own chief legacy for Europe, a ‘Jew-free’ continent. This had always been his aim, as well as that of the NSDAP from its re-founding in 1926, if not sooner. There was no point at which he ‘went mad and decided to kill six million Jews’ as Ken Livingstone suggested. What he needed in order to achieve it were war-time conditions, and especially the subjugation of occupied Europe.
The dilemma for the leaderships of the European Jewish populations in general and the Zionist movements in particular, is clearly illustrated in the case of war-time Hungary. From 1938, one law after another had been passed limiting the rights and wealth of Hungarian Jews. The most important of these were Act XV (1938), the First Jewish Law, which restricted the proportion of Jewish workers to 20 percent in some professions, the Second Jewish Law (IV, 1939), that lowered this to 6 percent and redefined ‘Jewishness’ on racial rather than religious grounds, and the Third Jewish Law (XV, 1941), the law for “protection of the race” which banned marriage between Jews and non-Jews. A fourth law followed in war-time, which confiscated land owned by Jews (XV, 1942). These laws were not a copy of the Nazi Nuremberg Laws, but were ‘tailored’ to Hungarian social conditions. To political leaders it might have seemed that the growing economic and political tensions could most easily be relieved by legal discrimination against the Jews, but those politicians whose declared aim, as in Germany, was to segregate and expel Jews from the country gained more and more room closer to the apex of power.
Hungary as an Axis Ally:
In 1941, in spite of all the laws passed and the measures taken against the Jews, Hungary still seemed to be a peaceful island among the stormy seas to its east and north. While the Jews of eastern Europe were deported to death camps or executed on the spot, in Hungary only those without Hungarian citizenship could be expelled. Most of these who were rounded up were executed by SS officers near Kamenc-Podolsky in Slovakia. In the early spring of 1941, Kasztner left Kolozsvár, now once more part of Hungary, as a result of Hungary’s alliance with Germany. Whatever was going on in the German territories, and despite the new Hungarian Jewish laws affecting Transylvanian Jews, the Jewish community was relieved to be outside the jurisdiction of the Romanian mobs. In January 1941, members of the Iron Guard had launched a rebellion to overthrow Antonescu’s Romanian government. The fascist guards hunted for Jews in villages and small towns, herded them into boxcars and left them there on the sidings for days without food and water. In Bucharest, bodies of Jews were hung on meat hooks and displayed in the windows of Butcher shops. In March, German troops arrived in Romania, preparing to invade the Soviet Union.
The Hungarian government had closed down all the Jewish newspapers in Kolozsvár, including Új Kelet (New East), the paper that the thirty-six-year-old Kasztner had been writing for. He decided to go to Budapest, a cosmopolitan city, which he was sure would provide the assistance he sought for the Jewish refugees who were streaming over Hungary’s borders from the countries already occupied by the Third Reich. By now Kasztner had a broad-ranging knowledge of Hitler’s record on which he based his pessimistic predictions for the future of European Jewry. Budapest, he believed, would remain the safest place in eastern Europe. Nevertheless, he argued, the Reich, as a dictatorship of the Right, would not permit a dictatorship of the Left to continue as an ally, or even to continue at all. He had a letter of introduction to Ottó Komoly, the president of the Budapest Zionist Association and an author of two books about the future of the Jews. He was socially well-connected and a committed Hungarian patriot, despite his support for a Jewish homeland. “It is not a contradiction,” he insisted. “There must be a Jewish homeland, but I am not likely to live there myself.” Komoly had been introduced to Zionism by his father, a close friend of Theodor Herzl, bu he had not applied for an entry visa to Palestine. He felt comfortable in Budapest, though he warned Kasztner that the time would come when no Jew would find comfort in the city:
Too many of us have been in the window of social life. We have attracted the attention of other, less fortunate segments of the population. A person is inclined to believe in the in the permanence of favourable conditions and is reluctant to pay attention to warning signs.
That group, he thought, included himself. As in Kolozsvár, the Zionist movement divided along the same lines as in Palestine and, eventually, as it would in Israel. On the left were the Ihud (later the Mapai), the Israeli Labour Party that had been running the Jewish Agency, in effect the government in Palestine. This was the group that Kasztner had joined: the socialist Hashomer Hatzair, a youth organisation with small clubs, called ‘nests’, throughout Europe; the Maccabee Hatzair, another socialist youth movement that had been organised at Jewish high schools in the late 1930s; and the Dror (affiliated with the Ihud), which, with its leadership in Poland, had been active on Hungary’s eastern borders, helping to bring across refugees from both Poland and Slovakia. On the right was Betar, the youth wing of the Revisionists, which, led by Vladimir Jabotinsky, a Russian Jew who had emigrated to Palestine, fought bitterly with the Mapai leadership. He fostered armed resistance to both the British in Palestine and to the Germans in Europe, though, like Kasztner, he too became involved in deal-making to save lives. The Klal, or general Zionists, focused on emigration to Palestine, and the Mizrachi, the religious Zionists, saw themselves as the intellectual leaders of the Zionist movement. Despite all the alarming outside threats, the Zionists remained deeply divided along religious and political lines, each passionately opposed to the others’ points of view. This open animosity among the various groups was difficult for even the Jewish leadership to understand, as was its continuance during the German occupation of 1944-45. Despite these divisions, Kasztner knew as early as 1941 that the only Zionist organisations left in eastern Europe were the ones in Budapest.
From the spring of 1941 to the spring of 1944 the Hungarian Jewish community, uniquely in Europe, remained more or less intact. In every other country, occupied by the Reich, Jews had already been taken to extermination camps or were gathered in ghettos working under inhuman conditions. The losses among Jewish men in forced labour units of the Hungarian Army from 1942 had been heavy, but this was true of the entire Army fighting on the eastern front. Against this back-drop, the Israelite Community of Pest had remained staunchly opposed to Zionism. Its president, Samu Stern, in his acceptance speech in 1929, had warned the members of the community not to fall for the tempting words of emigration and Zionism. He believed that for the Hungarian Jews the only possible route was not to leave their traditions and not to form a separate Jewish party, but to be present in all Hungarian parties. He maintained particularly good relations with many personalities in the political establishment, and regularly played cards with Regent Horthy in his role as a Hungarian Royal Court Advisor, a nominal post and title which he had been given in 1916. Following the occupation of Hungary on 19 March 1944 he was appointed president of the Jewish Council set up by the Nazis.
Hungary under Nazi occupation:
The Hungarian historian Krisztian Ungváry has pointed out how, within days of the occupation beginning, the prominent characters of the Hungarian Jewish community found themselves suddenly cut off from their former social connections in wider society. Those whom they could previously rely upon were either arrested or removed, as the Hungarian authorities had no choice but to obey the German High Command’s representatives. These included Adolf Eichmann who, together with his colleagues, made systematic use of the Jewish Council both to calm the victims and to make them carry out as many of the anti-Semitic measures as possible. Ungváry characterises the dilemma facing the Jewish leaders as follows:
In this situation you could only choose between bad and worse, and in many cases it was not even clear which choice would be more acceptable. The conditions for open resistance were totally missing. In Hungary, the Jewish community did not separate as much from the majority in the society as it did in other eastern European countries. The overwhelming majority of Jews considered themselves assimilated with only cultural ties to their origin. They considered themselves to be Hungarian nationals. On the other hand, the Christian middle class, the segment of the majority society that was mainly in contact with people of Jewish origin, mostly showed anti-Semitic behaviour. Good examples of this were the chambers of doctors or architects which were regularly biased against their Jewish members, even taking away job opportunities from them.
In the spring and early summer of 1944, those who were interested in what was happening to Jews throughout eastern Europe had relatively broad access to accurate information, whether from Hungarian soldiers returning from the front, or from refugees escaping from Galicia. However, the plain fact is that these pieces of information did not interest a significant part, perhaps the majority, of both the non-Jewish and Jewish population of Budapest. Hungarian Jews looked down on other eastern European Jews and were unconcerned as to their fate. In any case, open resistance on the scale seen in Warsaw seemed futile and their faith in Hungarian society was not completely dead. Stern himself had no illusions about Eichmann’s aims, as he later stated:
I knew about what they were doing in all the occupied countries of Central Europe and I knew that their operation was a long series of murders and robberies… I knew their habits, actions, and their terrible fame.
Nevertheless, in a meeting with Rezső Kasztner on the afternoon of 22 March, Stern had revealed his disdain for the Zionist cause. The two men met in an elegant, old-world café that Jews of any standing would soon be forbidden from entering. A record of the meeting was made by Ernő Szilágyi, and summarised in English by Anna Porter:
Kasztner leaned toward the older man, his hands resting on the table. He pleaded as before: “The gentlemen at the Astoria know everything about us, sir – they know who we are and what we have been doing. They have had dealings with Zionists before, most recently in Bratislava. They are expecting to hear from us – in fact, they would be astonished if we did not try to make contact. They know that we are tough bargainers and that we will try to save lives. They know we deliver on our promises. “
Stern sipped his espresso. “We don’t need help from Zionists,” he said, “A few months, and the Germans will disappear.”
“Exactly,” Kasztner replied. “But it’s those few months we are talking about-how to survive those months. Don’t imagine, sir, that those months will be uneventful. We know what they can do. You have heard from the refugees. You must know, as I know, that obeying every order, that delivering whatever they ask for, that begging and crying at their doorsteps is useless. We are looking for an alternative to committing suicide.”
“We don’t need advice from Zionists,” Stern repeated.
Though Stern already knew the whole story, Kasztner persisted in telling him about Dr. Adam Czerniaków, the Warsaw engineer who was president of the Jewish Council there when almost 400,000 Jews were stuffed into the ghetto. Czerniaków had been eager to please the Germans, fulfilling their every wish, responding to their calls, a good negotiator, a professional, “just like you, sir.” Late one night, the Jewish Council was told to appear before the German commander. Word spread through the ghetto like wildfire. Nobody slept. In the crowded one-room apartments, children and adults stood by the windows, waiting, talking about what it was the Germans wanted this time. They were frightened, hungry, exhausted, beaten. During the night, the Gestapo came for the doctors, the lawyers, the other prominent Jews and their families and murdered them where they found them. At dawn, the militia arrived with dogs, hunted down more people, and packed them into waiting trucks.
The next morning, the German commander gave Dr. Czerniaków this order: “Seven thousand Jews to be ready for transport to Treblinka tomorrow morning. Seven thousand more the next day. Seven thousand the day after tomorrow. ” The first seven thousand had already been collected by the Ukrainian militia the night before. Czerniaków knew what Treblinka meant, as did everybody else in the ghetto. The next day, the Jewish Council had a new president. Czerniaków had killed himself.
“This, sir, is the Jewish Council,” Kasztner said.
“I know the story,” Stern said, his voice hard and decisive. “It has nothing to do with us. I have my contacts with the Hungarian government, and they are confident these are temporary measures. If we keep our heads down, we shall survive. And I have my own contacts with the Germans.”
But Kasztner persisted: “Now I would like to tell you about the kind of contact Zionists in Bratislava had with the Germans.”
“I know that story, too,” Stern said, irritated…
“It is the Zionists they wish to deal with, sir. As they did in Vienna and Berlin, and Bratislava. And we are going to need money, sir, a lot of money, but more than that, we will need your trust. We must be able to represent you and the council when we go to meet Eichmann’s men…”
At that point, Stern is reported to have risen to his feet and left the café, with a dismissive glance towards Kasztner. In referring to ‘the gentlemen at the Astoria’ Kasztner meant the SS staff whom Eichmann had brought with him and who had set up a temporary HQ at the Astoria Hotel in ‘downtown’ Pest. In referring to deals in Vienna, Berlin and Bratislava, he meant the agreements the Germans had made with various Jewish leaders, including Zionists, in those cities, for the exit of large numbers of Jews to Palestine. Over the next fortnight or so, Stern continued to call for calm, as rumours of deportations in the east began to grow. “But it’s only in the eastern provinces,” he rationalised, “You can see from the papers that there are saboteurs in these areas, and we can’t be sure that some of them are not working directly with the partisans.” However, even his daughter, Rózsa, felt increasingly nervous as the deportations from the provinces nearer by became a fact of everyday life in late April and May:
Every day we heard the news about which town was being deported. A number of good friends and acquaintances disappeared like this. Meanwhile in Budapest, the Community, with an exact list from the Germans (lawyers, doctors, merchants, journalists, etc.) was supposed to collect people who were then interned to Csepel, Kistarca, and other places. Only through tremendous financial efforts was it possible to save some Zionists with highly respected backgrounds from the brick factories in certain towns. They were interned to Budapest until there would be an opportunity to take them to Palestine.
The Zionist negotiations with the Nazis:
Despite the obvious fact that Kasztner was the undisputed leader of the Zionist Va’ada in the capital, on 25 April, it was Joel Brand whom Eichmann summoned to his new office in the Majestic Hotel, on the leafy Buda side of the Danube. He probably made this decision because he had seen the letters from Istanbul which were all addressed to Brand. They were concerned with the tyul, or ‘excursion’ to Palestine that Kasztner and Brand were planning together. Eichmann had decided to take over the negotiations over this ‘deal’, as Brand later testified at the SS commander’s trial:
He summoned me in order to propose a deal. He was prepared to sell a million Jews – “goods for blood,” that was how he spoke at that time. Then he asked me a question… which sticks in my mind until today. He said: “Who do you want to have rescued – women able to bear children, males able to produce children, old people? Speak!
Kasztner asked Jozsi Winninger, the former Abwehr agent he’d known since arriving in the capital what exactly Eichmann wanted with Brand. Winninger told him that Eichmann had always dealt directly with Zionists, ‘selling’ the right-wing Austrian Zionists (or Revisionists as they were known within the movement) under Vladimir Jabotinsky’s leadership. He had also been invited to Jerusalem by Zionists, and Winninger thought that he ‘liked Zionists’. He added, jokingly, “doesn’t everyone?” When Brand and Eichmann met, according to Wiscilency’s testimony at Nuremberg, Eichmann stunned Brand by announcing that he was a Zionist and asking Brand if he had read Herzl’s book, The Jewish State. Brand nodded and thought to himself how the classic book offered the Jews the only happy solution, their own homeland, a place where they could be safe from men like Adolf Eichmann. Of course, the question was laced with heavy irony and designed to catch Brand off guard. “I know all about you!” Eichmann shouted, “You know nothing about me… I am in charge of the Aktion! In Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, it has been completed. Now it’s your turn.” Herman Krumey explained that the German war effort needed trucks and that, if the Zionists moved quickly, ten thousand trucks would buy one million lives. “Not a bad deal,” he mused, “one hundred Jews for only one truck. One truck for every one hundred lives… a great bargain, don’t you think?” Brand protested that trucks would be difficult because the Allies might think they were military equipment. Eichmann promised to give his personal undertaking that the trucks would only be used on the eastern front. Brand returned to the Zionist Central Information Office in Pest, where he met Kasztner and Komoly. They agreed to try to meet the terms and immediately began writing to the Jewish Agency offices in Istanbul and Geneva.
After further lengthy negotiations, which involved other parties as well, Kasztner made a deal with Eichmann that in return for Jews getting to Switzerland, Zionist organisations would transport the required trucks through Switzerland to Germany. As a first step, Himmler was willing for a larger transport to travel with Kasztner to Switzerland. Kasztner had the right, and responsibility, to decide who would get on the train that meant survival. He selected mainly wealthier, educated people, and of course included many Transylvanian Jews. It is only fair to point out that by choosing people he could trust to keep the secret, he was also ensuring the success of the rescue mission. He also included some poor people, who paid nothing, and negotiated for a further 20,000 Jews to be kept alive – Eichmann called them ‘Kasztner’s Jews’ or ‘Jews on ice’.
The Deportations of 1944 and Kasztner’s Train:
Altogether, 437,000 people were deported by train from the provinces up until July 1944, when Budapest was supposed to be evacuated of Jews. Transportations were then suspended by Himmler to divert resources to the eastern front in order to resist the advances of the Red Army through Romania, which had abandoned the Axis cause and changed sides. Hungary’s Regent also tried to agree an Armistice with the Soviet Union, but was arrested and deposed by the SS, who installed a puppet government consisting of Arrow Cross (Hungarian Fascist Party) members. From mid-October, deportations recommenced on foot, with the Red Army now surrounding the Carpathian Basin. Rózsa Stern estimated that as many as half a million Jews in total were deported from Hungary. The remaining Jewish population of Budapest comprised about a quarter of a million, about half of whom we think were either murdered by the Arrow Cross, shot on the banks of the Danube, their bodies falling into it, or starved to death in the ghetto which they set up (I have quoted more about these conditions from Rózsa’s diary elsewhere on this site). The deportees on the Kasztner train numbered 1,684. Rózsa and Gyuri, her husband, were among the ‘privileged ones’ as she described them, those who ‘had a little hope to survive’:
One day my father told us that if we wanted to leave Budapest, there would be one more chance to make ‘aliyah’ to Palestine with the Zionists. This was the particular group I already mentioned. Gyuri, without any hesitation, decided to take the trip, even though this was also very dangerous. He couldn’t take all the stress and humiliation any more, or that so many of our good acquaintances had been taken into custody at Pestvidéki… We received news every hour: in Újpest and Kispest they are already deporting people, and on July 5th it will already be Budapest’s turn… In spite of the immunity that we were entitled through my father – and the protection of the German soldier who was ordered to live with us by the Gestapo (he was protecting us from the cruelty of the Hungarian gendarmerie) – Gyuri decided that we should take this opportunity and leave.
Despite this decision, they were still hesitating on the eve of their departure, 29 June, when ‘Mr K.’, Resző Kasztner, ‘who started this aliyah’, came to see them and brought news that forced them to make a final decision. He also tried to persuade Samu Stern to leave, because, he said, “if there are no mice, there is no need for a cat either.” He reassured them that he had a firm promise that they would reach their destination, and that the best proof of this was that he and his whole family would be going with this ‘aliyah’. Unlike his family, Samu Stern decided to stay in Budapest, and somehow survived the terror of the Arrow Cross rule of the winter of 1944-45. However, when the Soviet troops arrived, he was accused of collaboration. The police started an investigation against him, but he died in 1946 before his case could go to court. His activity in 1944, maneuvering between cooperation and collaboration, is still controversial, but it is not the topic under discussion here. However, when considering the question of his anti-Zionism in relation to the potential for Jewish resistance, we need also to notice the total indifference of the Hungarian authorities in Budapest towards the fate of the Jewish population as well as the active involvement of the gendarmerie in the deportations which took place from the countryside.
Kastner’s train was taken on a round-about route to Bergen-Belsen and then in two groups to Switzerland. This group, comprising 318, including Rózsa Stern and her husband and relatives, arrived in Switzerland relatively quickly, while the other could only pass the German-Swiss border in December 1944. About a dozen people died on the way. His personal courage cannot be doubted, since he returned from Switzerland to Nazi Germany to rescue more people.
The aftermath of the Holocaust and its survivors :
After the war, Kasztner was a witness at the trials of major war criminals in Nuremberg, including defence witness for Kurt Becher, the SS officer who concluded the negotiations with him in 1944, who later settled in Israel. In 1953 Kasztner was accused in a newspaper article of collaborating with the Nazis. Since he wanted to have a political career in Israel, he decided to try to clear his name by filing a lawsuit. However, the court convicted him of libel, saying that he had “sold his soul to the devil”. The case turned into a scandal in Israel at a time when the domestic political scene was toxic. The survivors whose lives had not been saved by the train, and whose family members were killed in Budapest, saw Kasztner as a mean, calculating collaborator. As a consequence of the lawsuit, the Israeli government had to resign and the Israeli political right called their political opponents Gestapo agents. This was the first time that the general public in Israel and the world became aware of the negotiations that had taken place between the Nazis and Zionist organizations. Kasztner’s family were subjected to a hate campaign which included violence against his daughter, and it culminated with his shooting in front of his apartment in Tel-Aviv on 3 March 1957. He died twelve days later. In 1958 the Supreme Court of Israel acquitted him of all charges except one, that of helping Nazi war criminals to escape prosecution. Kasztner’s act of “making friends with the devil” in order to save Jewish lives still divides the shrinking number of survivors throughout the world, not just in Israel and Hungary.
For that reason, if for no other, the politicians of the later twentieth century, of whom Ken Livingstone is one held in high esteem by many, should know better than to associate the names of Adolf Hitler and his henchmen with Zionism. They are deliberately opening old wounds in order to encourage anti-Zionism and justify anti-Semitism in the process. They should leave it to the historians to examine and interpret the evidence, and hand over the task of ridding British society of xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism to a new generation in a new century with fresh moral challenges and choices.
Andrew James, May 2016
Zsolt Zágoni (ed.), (2012), From Budapest to Bergen-Belsen: A Notebook from 1944. Budapest: The Author.
Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable.
Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin.