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Budapest, 1942-44: A Child Survivor of the Holocaust.   Leave a comment

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Secondary Source:

Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable.

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Dr (Ken) Livingstone, I presume: A further exploration into Zionism and anti-Semitism   1 comment

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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 textbooks 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.

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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 today, all that has rather the character of luxury. The Commission has 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 periods in 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 irresistible 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 an 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 the 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. The 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.

Sources:

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.

 

Britain’s Refugee Record: Myth or Reality?   Leave a comment

Over the past year, as the tide of inter-continental migration has battered onto Europe’s eastern shores and frontiers, not least at Hungary’s new steel curtain, government and opposition spokesmen in Britain have made much of Britain’s proud record of coming to the aid of refugees, largely as means of defending the country over its failure to rescue those in the Eastern Mediterranean who would rather risk their lives crossing from Turkey than go without hope for themselves and their families in the overcrowded, makeshift camps on the borders of Iraq and Syria. Today, 15 March, marks the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the civil war in Syria, so that the refugee problem in the region has now lasted almost as long as that experienced in Eastern Europe in the Second World War.

Of course, Europe’s refugee problems of the inter-war period did not begin in 1939. Already in 1936 there were large numbers of refugees from fascism leaving both Spain and Germany. The capacity of the British people to welcome children, in particular, from the Basque country and Nazi Germany, in the wake of the bombing of Guernica and Kiristallnacht in 1938, has become legendary, the efforts of the Quakers and individuals like Nicholas Winton in the transport and settlement of the young ones especially so. This was at a time when Britain was experiencing its own internal migration crisis, with millions of miners and shipyard workers moving south and east from valleys and estuaries where traditional industries had suddenly come to a halt. Only from 1938, with rearmament, did the human exodus, bringing half a million workers and their families from south Wales alone since 1920, begin to slow. Government support for the distressed areas, which it renamed ‘Special Areas’ in 1936, had been grudging, and it was only at that time that they began to support the migration of whole families and communities which had been underway for more than a decade, organised by the migrants themselves.

Then when we look at what the British governments themselves did to help the Jewish populations to reach safety in Palestine, a very different story emerges, and one which present-day ministers would do well to remember. I’ve been reading Anna Porter’s book, Kasztner’s Train, which gives a quite comprehensive survey of the organised attempts at exodus by those trying to escape from the holocaust which began engulfing them as soon as the Nazis invaded Poland. Their determination to reach their ancient homeland had been articulated by the Budapest-born founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, six-score years ago, when he wrote in The Jewish State in 1896:

Palestine is our ever-memorable historic home. The very name of Palestine would attract our people with a force of marvelous potency… We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should as a neutral state remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence… We should form a guard of honor about these sanctuaries, answering for the fulfillment of this duty with our existence. This guard of honor would be the great symbol of the solution of the Jewish question after eighteen centuries of Jewish suffering.  

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Above: Hungary and Central-Eastern Europe in the Second World War

Rezső Kasztner was born a decade later (1906), in Kolozsvár, then in Hungary, now Cluj in Romania, as it was after its annexation after the Paris Peace Treaties of 1918-21 until its re-awarding to Hungary by Hitler in 1938. The idea that the Jews one day return to Palestine attracted Kasztner to Zionism as a young teenager, even before he had read Herzel’s writing. When he did, he could accept Herzel’s foretelling of the disasters of National Socialism under Hitler because he had also read Mein Kampf, in its first German edition. Like David Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive in Palestine, Kasztner realised that if Hitler came to power, the Jewish people would bear the brunt of the war which would follow.

Map of the Sykes–Picot agreement, which was signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot on May 8, 1916.

Above: The Division of The Middle East by the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Palestine had been the one sure destination for Jews fleeing from Europe, but, as German enthusiasm for Jewish emigration grew in the early years of the Reich, so did Arab resistance to Jewish immigration. The sporadic riots that began in 1936 soon culminated in a full-scale Arab rebellion against British rule over Jewish immigration. About six hundred Jews and some British soldiers were killed, with thousands more wounded. The British government’s priority was to protect the Suez Canal, the jugular vein of the Empire, as it was described by contemporaries, was determined to appease the Islamic in its north African colonies, and so commissioned a  White Paper on a new policy for Palestine to replace that determined by the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement. Its effect was to limit Jewish immigration to twelve thousand people per year. Peace with the Arabs was to be of greater strategic importance as world war threatened than peace with the small number of Jewish settlers in Palestine and the powerless, if still wealthy, Jewish population of Europe. The British authorities soon amended the numbers to a maximum of a hundred thousand immigrants over five years, to include ‘refugees’ who arrived without proper entry certificates, but after 1941 the Palestinian Arabs would have the right to veto any further Jewish immigration.

Compared with the numbers under threat from the tidal waves of anti-Semitism sweeping across Europe, in Hungary from the enacting of a stronger version of its first Anti-Jewish Law in 1938, the numbers to be admitted to Palestine by the British were pitifully small. In the pages of Új Kelét (New East), Kasztner’s Hungarian-Jewish newspaper in Kolozsvár, he thundered out the headline Perfidious Albion. In exchange for political expediency, Britain had shut the gate to the only land still open to the Jews. Winston Churchill, still in the ‘wilderness’, accused the British government of setting aside solid engagements for the sake of a quiet life. He charged it with giving in to threats from an Arab population that had been increasing at a rate faster than Jewish immigration:

We are now asked to submit to an agitation which is fed with foreign money and ceaselessly inflamed by Nazi and fascist propaganda.

Refugees from Poland, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany itself poured over the borders of both Hungary and Transylvania, with only the clothes they were wearing. There were no rules to control the fleeing Jews, though some of the border guards made it difficult even for ethnic Hungarian Jews, insisting that they should recite to prove that they were ‘genuine’ Christian refugees, and not ‘just Jews’. Despite specific prohibitions from the Budapest government on the provision of aid to the refugees, Kasztner set up an information centre in Kolozsvár. He elicited help from local charitable organisations, providing temporary accommodation, food and clothing, but his main concern was to provide the Jewish refugees with safe destinations. He sent telegrams to the Jewish Agency in Tel Aviv, asking for help and funds to buy passages on ships and to pay bribes to local officials. The Agency’s staff were restricted by the British administration as to how far they could assist, especially in respect of how many visas they could issue according to the imposed limits. These were never enough, so they secretly began encouraging illegal immigration. The Agency had already set up an office in Geneva to monitor the situation in Europe, and it soon began to help with both legal and illegal migrants. Following the British White Paper, all Yishuv leaders had been supporting illegal immigration to Palestine, or aliya bet, as it was known.

To help Jews escape from the increasingly dangerous situation in Europe, the Jewish Agency paid the going rate for the passage of forty-five ships between 1937 and 1939. In 1939 alone, thirty ships, legal and illegal, sailed through the Black Sea ports through the Bosphorus and on to Palestine. Kastner obtained exit visas from the Romanian government, despite the efforts of the British to persuade Romanian  officials not to allow the departure of the overcrowded boats. He was certain that the British would have to allow the refugees to land once they arrived at the harbour in Haifa. Of course, both officials and shipowners were willing to take part in this lucrative trade in ‘people smuggling’, selling passages from the Romanian port of Constanta to Istanbul and then on to Palestine. Refugees set out down the Danube, from ports on the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey.

Once the immigration quota for 1941 was filled, the British began their blockade of Palestine, fearing an all-out Arab revolt in the Middle East and North Africa. Several ships carrying illegal immigrants were apprehended by the Royal Navy. Conditions on these ships were so squalid that some people who had escaped from Nazi persecution at home now opted for suicide by water. The refugees who managed to reach Palestine were herded into detention camps. Those with valid passports were sent back to their countries of origin, where many were later murdered by the Nazis, or deported to concentration camps. A few thousand had been sent to Mauritius in late October 1940, and several thousand had ended up in Shanghai, where no-one had even thought of setting immigration limits, and where full-scale war did not break out until after Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

On one ship, the Atlantic, a group of Jewish saboteurs, members of the Haganah (the Jewish ‘underground’ whose members undertook illegal operations, including immigration), decided to disable the vessel so that the British could not force it to leave Palestinian waters. Inadvertently, they  caused an explosion which killed 260 people on board, many of them women and children. To make sure that would-be immigrants were aware of the dangers facing them on a sea crossing, the BBC reported the casualties, the deaths, and the redirecting of ships. Not wishing to incite the sympathy of the British people for the plight of the refugees, however, the officials made sure that the details were only included in broadcasts to the Balkans and eastern Europe.

Kasztner arrived in Budapest in the Spring of 1941. He continued to focus on his political contacts, working to gain sympathy for renewed emigration to Palestine even though Britain kept the borders and ports closed. Jewish emigration was not expressly forbidden by Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler until late October 1941. The Palestine Office was on Erzsébet Boulevard, near the National Theatre. When Kasztner first went there, he met a group of young Zionist pioneers, or halutzim, from Slovakia, who wanted everyone to hear about the brutal deportations they had witnessed. Only a few young people tried to escape: they had heard stories from the Polish refugees, and they suspected a fate that their parents refused to believe. They hid in closets, cellars, and lofts, or in bushes along the riverbanks. They found the Hungarian border during the night.

In the Palestine Office, desperate people waited to hear if they were on the lists of those who had been chosen for the few Palestine entry tickets that were still available. Kasztner wondered if there would be more certificates, now that most of the offices in other countries had closed, or, as was the case in Warsaw, been closed by the Germans. Surely the British would open the borders to Palestine now that Europe was in flames? 

Not until the case of the ss Struma, however, did British policy toward Jewish refugees receive worldwide attention. An old, marginally refurnished, British-built yacht, the Struma had set out from Constanta in Romania in December 1941 with 769 Jewish refugees on board. The Greek shipowner had sold tickets for the voyage at exorbitant prices, aware that few ships would risk the voyage and that, for most of the passengers, the Struma offered their last, best chance to survive. The vessel arrived at Istanbul with a broken engine, the passengers crowded together with barely enough room to sit and no fresh water, food, sanitation, or medicine for the ailing children or those suffering from dysentery.

The ship remained in Istanbul for two months, during which time no-one was allowed to disembark or board, though the Jewish Agency succeeded in distributing food and water. The British government had put pressure on the Turks to block the ship’s entry and to prevent it leaving for Palestine. There was some discussion about lifting the women and children off the ship, followed by an exchange of cables involving the Foreign Office, the Turks, the Jewish Agency and the governments of the USA, Romania and the Reich. Eventually, the ship was towed out of the harbour. An explosion ripped open the hull, and the ship sank. There was a solitary survivor. Whether the explosion was the result of a bomb on board or a Soviet torpedo, all those familiar with the story at the time blamed Britain’s intransigence. On the walls of the Jewish areas of Palestine, posters appeared bearing the photograph of Sir Harold MacMichael and the words:

Known as High Commissioner for Palestine, WANTED FOR THE MURDER of 800 refugees.

Great Britain had declared war on Hungary on 7 December 1941, the same day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Tied to Japan by the Tri-Power Act, Hitler had declared war on the United States on 11 December. The next day, the American ambassador departed from Budapest, as the US no longer regarded Hungary as an independent nation, though it did not formally declare war until June 1942. The fate of Hungary’s Jews, and those of the rest of Europe, was then effectively in the hands of the Third Reich, as was the fate of Hungary itself. Nevertheless, by February 1942, an anti-Fascist front in the guise of the the Hungarian Historical Memorial Committee had come into being. It first step was a mass rally on 15 March, the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1848-9 Revolutionary War, at the Petöfi monument in Budapest, demanding independence and a democratic Hungary.

In January 1942, Hungarian military units had executed more than three thousand civilians in the recently occupied parts of Yugoslavia, the Délvidék, or southern lands, as Hungarians referred to those territories which had been awarded to Yugoslavia by the Treaty of Trianon. Those ‘executed’ included 140 children, who, according to one of the commanding officers, “could grow up to be enemies”. A third of the victims, it was estimated, were ethnic Hungarian Jews, who it was claimed had joined the Serbian partisans. A military tribunal was held to decide who was to blame for this atrocity, but not before the guilty commanders were able to find refuge in Germany. The flood of refugees into Hungary now included Jews from the Délvidék, who arrived with terrible tales of mass executions: people had been thrown into the icy waters of the Danube , those in charge continuing the killings even after receiving orders to stop.

However, even amidst harsh discriminatory laws, which made mixed-marriages illegal and denounced ‘inter-racial’ sexual relations as a crime of defamation of race, the lives of most Jews in Hungary were not in immediate danger until 1944. As a result of this, about a hundred thousand Jews sought and found refuge in Hungary from Slovakia, Romania and Croatia, where they had been exposed to pogroms and deportation to death camps from early 1942 onwards. They joined the Polish Jews who had taken refuge in the capital at the beginning of the war.

In hindsight, it is surprising that the extermination camps were not anticipated in Budapest and elsewhere. As early as July 1941, Göring had issued a directive for the implementation of the Final Solution. The Wannsee Conference had also taken place in January 1942, at which ‘Hangman Heydrich’ had boasted openly that that Solution involved eleven million Jews, all of whom would be selected for hard labour, most of whom would die through natural dimunition, the rest of them being killed. The President of the Jewish Council in Budapest, Samuel Stern, an anti-Zionist, remained confident that these terrible stories were isolated incidents. Scientifically regulated extermination facilities were impossible to imagine. He told Kasztner:

In the months to come, we may be left without money and comforts, but we shall survive.

Why, after all, would the Germans sacrifice men, transportation and scarce resources to murder unarmed civilians with no means of defending themselves? Nevertheless, The Times in London reported from Paris that four thousand Jewish children had been deported to a Nazi concentration camp. In the House of Commons, Churchill gave a scathing address, broadcast by the BBC, and heard throughout Budapest:

The most senseless of their offences… is the mass deportation of Jews from France, with the pitiful horrors attendant on the calculated and final scattering of families. This tragedy illustrates… the utter degradation of the Nazi nature and theme.

At the end of 1942, there was still hope that refugees could slip through the German dragnet in exchange for bribes and, if the Hungarians allowed free passage for boats down the Danube, they could find a passage to Palestine from one of the Black Sea ports. The Jewish Agency in Palestine issued a statement condemning Britain’s breach of faith with the Jewish people:

It is in the darkest hour of Jewish history that the British government proposes to deprive Jews of their last hope and close the road back to their Homeland.

The British government refused to budge. In fact, as some Zionist leaders continued to support illegal immigration, it tightened the conditions for emigration to Palestine, declaring that from that point onwards, all illegal immigrants would be carefully deducted from the overall ‘legal’ quota totals. At the same time, the UK demanded that neutral nations, such as Portugal and Turkey, deny Jews transit to Palestine, and that their ships should stop delivering them to any port close to Palestine. The Foreign Office began to seek other settlement opportunities for the refugees in Australasia, Africa and South America, but without success. Ottó Komoly told Kasztner that there was…

…strong evidence to suggest that the British would rather see us all perish than grant one more visa for that benighted land. It’s a protectorate only because they want to protect it from us.

Despite mounting evidence of the persecution of Jews under the Third Reich, the British government adhered to its established limits on Jewish immigration throughout 1943. Neutral nations, such as Switzerland and Portugal did not want more Jews crossing their borders. Both the US and Britain tried to persuade Portugal to accept a sizable Jewish settlement in Angola, and they agreed to bribe the Dominican Republic with three thousand dollars per head, but neither of these measures could help alleviate the magnitude of the problem.

It was only in January 1944 that the United States created the War Refugee Board, charged with taking all measures within its power to rescue victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death and otherwise to afford such victims all possible relief and assistance consistent with the successful prosecution of the war. Even then, visas were often denied on the basis that the applicants had relatives in enemy countries, though most of them were, if still alive, on their way to the gas chambers by this time. Two affidavits of support and sponsorship were also required from “reputable American citizens”, attached to each application. It would have been difficult to invent a more restrictive set of rules. A joke was making the rounds in Budapest at the time:

A Jew goes into the US Consulate to ask for a visa. He is told to come back in 2003. “In the morning,” he asks, “or in the afternoon?”

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Above: Apostág Synagogue, Bács-Kiskun County.

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In any case, the setting up by the US of its War Refugee Board was too little, too late. On 19 March 1944, the Reich occupied Hungary, and Adolf Eichmann was put in charge of its primary objective – the annihilation of the Jews of Hungary and its surrounding territories. Within three months, the entire Jewish population from the rural areas, some 440,000 souls, had been deported, mainly to Auschwitz.

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The fate of the Budapest Jews, another 250,000, swelled by the refugees from other countries of central-eastern Europe, hung in the balance. Samuel Stern accepted, reluctantly, that the Zionists and Kasztner were right and he was wrong. Their only guarantee of survival was to buy their way out of the city and onto trains which would begin their journey to Palestine, whatever the British may say or do. Of course, we shall never know what would have happened had the Allies acted sooner to set up a proper system to enable the refugees to find asylum and eventually resettlement, most – though perhaps not all – of them in Palestine or the USA. However, whatever the generosity shown by ordinary people towards refugees, it is clear that governments have a responsibility to act on behalf of the victims of war and persecution. Now we have supra-national governments and international organisations, can we apply these lessons?

Sources:

Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train. London: Constable.

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing.

 

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