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After covering the Eichmann trial, which opened in 1961 in Jerusalem, Naphtali Lavie, at the time a correspondent for Haaretz, wrote three articles in which he criticized the Zionist leadership for its failure to rescue European Jewry. But the articles were shelved: Lavie feared they would be damaging to many people who were still alive. To mark Holocaust Remembrance Day, which corresponds this year with the 50th anniversary of the Eichmann trial, Haaretz is publishing them for the first time.

By Naphtali Lavie – – Published 11:13 29.04.11

The trial of Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann opened in the auditorium of Beit Ha’am in Jerusalem on April 11, 1961. Naphtali Lavie, at the time a reporter for Haaretz and himself a Holocaust survivor (see box ), was assigned to cover the trial, together with Amos Elon. Hovering over the event was the shadow of another famous trial from the previous decade, popularly known as the “Kastner trial,” in which the Zionist leadership was castigated for being indifferent to the fate of European Jewry and for its failure to carry out large-scale rescue operations. In 1944, Reszo (Israel ) Kastner, who was active in the Zionist Labor Movement in Hungary, became head of the Aid and Rescue Committee, a Budapest-based Jewish group. In that capacity, he held negotiations with Eichmann, who visited Hungary in 1944 in order to organize the extermination of its Jews. Another member of the committee, Joel Brand, was sent to Palestine in order to present the Nazis’ demands (10,000 trucks in return for one million Jews ). In the end, the Nazis agreed to spare only a few Jews and deported hundreds of thousands to the death camps.

Outside the Eichmann trial

Listening to the broadcast of the trial via transistor radio outside Beit Ha’am in Jerusalem.

Photo by: Avraham Vered, courtesy of IDF and Defense Establishment Archive, from Bamahane collection (from the book “Six Million Accusers,” published by Yedioth Books and the Massuah Institute

Hungarian Jews who had survived and testified in the Kastner trial were asked, “Why did you not rebel?” and “Why did you not escape?” According to one of the explanations put forth in the trial, the reason for their inaction was that the rescue committee, not wanting to subvert the negotiations with Eichmann, did not inform the Jewish community at large about the Nazis’ intention to annihilate them. The question of why the Jews did not rebel also came up in the Eichmann trial.

At the conclusion of the trial, Haaretz editor-in-chief Gershom Schocken asked Naphtali Lavie to write about the behavior of the Jewish leadership in Palestine during the period of the Holocaust. Lavie interviewed about 20 people, including former Prime Minister Moshe Sharett and former Interior Minister Yitzhak Gruenbaum, who were involved in rescue attempts, along with parliamentarians and Zionist activists. He perused minutes of meetings, read reports and exchanges of correspondence in five languages (Hebrew, Yiddish, English, German and Polish ) and also consulted six books and the archives of three newspapers. The research took him three months (Eichmann was executed on May 31, 1962 ). Lavie wrote three articles based on this research addressing the failures of the Zionist leadership during the Holocaust titled “Why did you not act?” But after submitting them for publication, he asked Schocken to shelve them. Why? “To avoid creating an atmosphere that we are guilty,” he explains now.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Eichmann trial, the Massuah International Institute for Holocaust Studies and Yedioth Books have co-published “Six Million Accusers: The State of Israel vs. Adolf Eichmann,” an album-format book based on a permanent exhibition of the same name at the institute, located in Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak. The book consists of photocopies of documents, photographs, passages from testimonies and articles about the trial. After compiling the articles in the book, the project’s director, Ruti Ben-Ari, asked Lavie whether he had any material that merited publication. Lavie told her about the three articles and said they could now be published. The articles, which are not included in the book, appear here for the first time.

Ehud Ein-Gil

Why did you not act? (1)

Lulled in Jerusalem

Many people took offense at the question “Why did you not revolt?” that was hurled into the auditorium of Beit Ha’am in Jerusalem. It was not that the judges and prosecutors wanted to learn how the murderers had tricked their victims, but rather, because of the bitter taste this question leaves when it is asked by young sabras and elderly leaders. From the witness stand, Dr. Leon Wells and Judge Moshe Bejski tried to explain, drawing on their own experiences, the will to survive that prevailed in the lower levels of the inferno. An outsider might not understand, though, because those who have not come into such close contact with these bizarre methods of death are not capable of appreciating the preciousness of life, even in its most wretched state.

Those who were “there” saw no need to feed the national pride of the leadership. They were not willing to gamble on the odds of remaining alive so that their death would glorify books about heroism in the future. Their concern was focused on the bread crumb that would keep them alive a little longer, and they went like sheep to the slaughter as long as they felt a spark of hope. And sparks of hope existed even on the brink of the chambers that asphyxiated them with Zyklon B.

But the question “Why did you not revolt?” was asked even “there.” When two young people escaped from the Sonderkommando in Chelmno and told people in the Piotrkow ghetto about the mass suffocation perpetrated by gas vans, they were considered insane. This was already in March 1942, after those in the ghetto had heard about the massacres in the eastern occupation zones. But still, no one was ready to believe horror stories about extermination being carried out 200 kilometers from the ghetto. And when the story told by the two turned out to be true, they were asked naively, “And why did you not revolt?”

These two young people also fled from the ghetto. One of them is now a rich industrialist in Belgium, the other a merchant in Tel Aviv. Seven months later, the ghetto inhabitants found themselves next in line. Neither did they revolt at the sight of the freight cars with a capacity of “4 horses or 40 people” that were designated to transport them for relocation to an autonomous region in the East.

Hope in the gas chambers

The years of hell imbued the unfortunate victims with a special capability for thinking positively. For the most part, they were consumed by despair, but at moments of crisis and decision, a spark of hope was kindled in them. Looking out through the small opening in the train car they saw the sign “Weimar” on a watchtower along the tracks. Because they knew the location of the infernal sites, they were aware that the next stop was Buchenwald. Elderly Germans were working along the sides of the tracks. Seeing the horrified faces peering through the barbed wire that covered the opening, the Germans promised a quick and easy death. “This is not Poland. Blood is not shed here,” said an old man who smoked a pipe. A fat blond woman who passed by along the path burst into wild laughter. “Yes, we need soap,” she declared with unabashed delight.

Within a short time the train was inside the camp. The prisoner-orderlies prodded the new transport. Someone asked, “Is there gas here?” The veterans made no reply, but the building in the center of the compound left no doubt about its purpose. Piles of personal effects, shoes and clothing were heaped up next to the large building. “Where have their owners gone?” the prisoner-guard on the other side of the fence was asked. “That is where they came out,” he replied, pointing at the smokestack. But someone noticed a few acquaintances from the previous transport walking along the road in work companies. Again, hopes were raised. But they disappeared again inside the hall.

The exemplary order in which clothing was handed over and bars of soap were placed in hands, as well as the looks received from the “veterans” handling the new transport, boded evil. After they were herded into the empty hall with its exposed, smooth walls, the doors suddenly closed behind them and some 500 naked bodies stood and fixed expectant stares at the pipes that protruded from the ceiling. Not a sound was heard. They dared not even breathe. For about 20 minutes they stood like that, their gazes fixed on the ceiling. Only A.S., a socialist-Zionist activist from Piotrkow, decided to take matters into his own hands. He extracted a minute capsule from between his teeth and swallowed its contents.

A sudden hissing in the pipes produced panic. Someone managed to utter “Shema Yisrael,” but his voice was drowned in the din of the shower that blasted out of the pipes. It was their first shower in years and would never be forgotten by those for whom the spark of hope did not fade dozens of times in this test of nerves. It was only the next day that they learned that gas chambers were not in use at Buchenwald; the victims there found their death by other unnatural means.

Even there, there were those who asked: “Why did you come to this place? Why did you not jump off on the way?” They were young Soviet officers, inmates of the adjacent bloc. The difference between a “ghetto” Jew and a “free” Jew was lost on them; in their eyes, all of them were “cowardly Jews.” But when the 400 young officers were led, erect and vigorous, on their last journey, they did not raise their voices either. Some of them threw their daily bread rations at their fellow inmates standing along the sides of the road, some wished those who remained the same end, but they walked in proper military order. There were only a few armed guards behind them – yet they did not revolt.

The outside world

Young sabras who never experienced a baptism of fire in their lives are ashamed of the “ghetto” Jews who did not know how to die. The naive amazement of these young people is not surprising, but where was the wisdom of the elderly leadership, whose only reaction to the catastrophe was, “Why do they go like that and not revolt?”

When the Holocaust was already at its height, a rescue committee was established by the institutions of the Yishuv [the Jewish community in Palestine]. At quite a late stage, the committee inundated the world with alarming cables, organized protest meetings, held prayers and days of fasting, collected money and established funds, dispatched emissaries, conducted diplomatic talks and proposed military plans to the Allies. But there was little chance of rescuing masses through these actions, because just as the murderers had lulled their victims in Europe, the “partners” – those who should have been our allies in the war against the arch-enemy – were engaged in their own type of lulling actions. Participating in the Allies’ war against the enemy was seen by the Yishuv as vital, so much so that the aspiration to fight as equals with the Allied armies sidetracked the initiative to carry out rescue operations on a broad scale and prevented the adoption of an independent strategy for a separate war against the enemy. World Jewry did not know, and in part did not want to know, about the Holocaust. The only segment of the Jewish people that felt a responsibility to take action was the Yishuv. But what action was taken by its leaders – who later appeared at the reparations talks held in Wassenaar (Holland ) and in the Eichmann trial as the representatives of the Jewish people – in terms of rescue?

“There was no chance of rescuing anyone. All the roads were blocked. The only thing I could have suggested was revolt,” I was told by the aged Yitzhak Gruenbaum, who headed the Yishuv’s Rescue Committee [Va’ad Hahatzala]. When Joel Brand arrived with the Nazi offer, a veteran Zionist leader asked him, “Why did you not get my son out of there?”

The members of the Yishuv leadership may have found all the roads blocked, but the victims inside discovered cracks even in the walls of the gas chambers and sent their suggestions for rescue. And when the last emissary arrived, with the offer of the trucks, Gruenbaum’s response was: “A provocation – who will accept those Jews?”

Today, about 17 years after that possibility of rescue came up, Gruenbaum explains his approach: “We wrote to them that they should do what was done in the Warsaw Ghetto. The Russians were already close to Budapest, and it was possible to fight. If you want, it is possible, and if you do not want, it is impossible.” But the Jews of Budapest also remembered the uprising in Warsaw, which was brutally suppressed while the Red Army was camped across the river and did not lift a finger.

The Jews of Budapest were unwilling to accept suicide as an alternative. They found hope in the proposal offered to them. They, too, thought and said, “If you want, rescue is possible.” No one doubts that this is what they wanted, but was it possible, and was something impossible also done?

Why did you not act? (2)

Helpless leadership

Two weeks before the outbreak of World War II, a Jewish Agency representative, Haim Barlas, met with the official in charge of Jewish emigration, Sturmbannfuehrer Adolf Eichmann, at the latter’s office in Rothschild Jewish Hospital [used by the Nazis] in Vienna. In a polite tone, Eichmann asked Barlas, who was short in stature, “How many certificates did you bring?” On August 17, 1939, not even Eichmann’s diabolical mind could have conceived of a “Final Solution” entailing anything other than expulsion. At the time, he was engaged in purging Austria of its Jews and did not check whether 10 Jews left on every certificate.

Barlas had 3,000 certificates [issued by the British for Jewish immigration to Palestine], earmarked for Jews in countries under Nazi threat. When the quota was filled, there was nothing else for him to do inside the Reich. He hurried to Basel, where a meeting of the Zionist Congress was taking place and the delegates were arguing about the future of the Land of Israel. But once the first shots were fired at Poland, the delegates panicked and scattered in every direction; the organizational structure of the Zionist movement in Europe collapsed like a house of cards.

Communications between Jerusalem, London and New York and the occupied countries were cut off. When reports began to filter in about the events “there,” the leaders of the Zionist movement groped in the dark and had no one to turn to. The complex organizational apparatus, the means of publicity, the emissaries and the funds were completely paralyzed.

Message of encouragement

On the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av [a traditional day of Jewish mourning] in 1943, a first “letter of encouragement” was sent to “the loyalists of Zion in Nazi Europe.” The long, stylistically polished missive, deftly edited by the sure hand of Moshe Sharett, who at the time headed the political department of the Jewish Agency and had arrived in Istanbul for consultations with the “rescue mission” there, spoke of “the burning helplessness in our heart for the multitudes who have been killed.” The letter described the rescue efforts and gave expression to the great hopes that lay in store for a Jewish Land of Israel, with its agricultural, industrial, political and military development. The loyalists of Zion in Europe were urged to mobilize in order to realize Zionism when the time came.

A strict regime based on the White Paper prevailed in Palestine at the time, so apart from dispatching pastoral letters and exploiting the legal quota of certificates, the Jewish leadership saw few possibilities for action. While every attempt to sustain life in Nazi-occupied Europe was being quashed, the “partners” in the Yishuv silenced what was happening “there” and blocked any possibility for assistance. American Jewry looked ahead with hope for a victory of the Allied forces, and the Yishuv was bound by a contract of partnership to the British governing authorities in London, Cairo, Jerusalem and Istanbul.

Disbelieving the rumors

The first reports about the establishment of the ghettos and the forced-labor camps, as well as the acts of murder, were brought by the last of the immigrants who arrived in the legal convoy from Poland in 1940. At the time, the Yishuv enjoyed a period of relative tranquility. In 1941, more and more reports began surfacing about mass-murder operations in the regions of the occupied East, and the Yishuv was terrified by the advance of Rommel’s corps.

The emissaries of the Jewish Agency’s political department and of Hamossad l’Aliya Bet [which organized illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine] were based in Istanbul. They organized the immigration of those refugees who reached Turkey from Greece, Bulgaria and Romania, and they served British intelligence by providing vital information gleaned from the refugees. In addition to collecting the military material, the emissaries heard appalling testimonies about the situation of the Jews. The testimonies were transmitted to Jerusalem, London and Washington. British and American intelligence could have corroborated the testimonies from other sources, but they were silent and silenced others. The emissaries in Istanbul were disappointed at the rigidity of the “partners.” When two girls from Poland arrived via Hungary with horrific stories, Ehud Avriel, an Istanbul-based representative of the political department, called in the U.S. ambassador to Ankara, the British ambassador, Turkish officials and others to hear their story, which sounded like it was being told by a tormented old man.

“The American ambassador, Steinhardt, wept, the Turks were moved and the British diplomat remained stiff – he was not persuaded. The New York Times correspondent in Turkey filed a dramatic and sensational story, but the editors shelved it and dozens of others that followed,” Ehud Avriel relates.

Reservations in Palestine

The Jews in the Yishuv, who were fearful for their own fate during the period of the military campaign on the Egyptian border, wanted to put aside thoughts of such atrocities and rejected the rumors. The leadership was concerned. The chairman of the Jewish Agency, David Ben-Gurion, who was capable of demonstrating resourcefulness at decisive moments, did not address the problem. The No. 2 person in the hierarchy at the time, Moshe Sharett, made efforts to ensure that the contractual partnership with the Allies in the war against the enemy was realized in practice. His aim was to ensure that the Yishuv was an equal partner in the war. Hence, it was not possible for the Holocaust to occupy the top place in his ranking of priorities. Problems between the Yishuv and the “partners” were to be deferred until after the victory, and the rescue of European Jewry was only one of these problems.

The remnants of the leaders of Polish Jewry, who had established a “representation of Polish new immigrants” here, were perhaps the only ones who were perturbed by the situation in Poland. They initiated meetings and discussions with the Polish government-in-exile in London, sent memoranda and held lengthy meetings. But neither did they have a real sense of the looming disaster. One of their members went to Beirut in order to send food packages from there to addresses which no longer existed. A second drew up regulations to guarantee the rights of the Jews in Poland after the war, the restoration of their property and of their social status. And a third, a prominent leader of a certain political party in the Yishuv, saw a beacon of light in the establishment of the ghettos. “This will help our Jews adjust to an independent government and an autonomous life,” this wise and learned statesman said.

The first emissary

The Allies ignored the reports of extermination. The Polish ministers who visited here imparted contradictory messages. When they needed to arouse international sympathy for the situation in Poland they told the truth to the Jewish functionaries from the Polish immigrant association. After the government-in-exile had consolidated itself in London, the Poles abetted British policy on this issue and silenced reports on extermination. And the British, who anticipated revolts in the occupied countries, did not want to integrate the Jews into their struggle, for fear that Jewish participation would hinder uprisings in the occupied nations.

Although foreign intelligence agencies refused to verify the rumors about the extermination, a number of Palestinian citizens (Jews ) reached the country, after being exchanged for German citizens who were returned by the British government. At the beginning of November, Yaakov Kurtz, of blessed memory, one of the redeemed prisoners, appeared before the institutions of the Jewish Agency and gave his testimony about the extermination. He had left his city on October 26, 1942, and just five days earlier, the last death train transporting residents of his city had left for Treblinka. He later published his testimony in a book that came out in 1944, but his testimony was also dismissed at the time.

“I was asked questions and interrogated like a criminal, and in the end they did not believe me,” Yaakov Kurtz related afterward. And Yitzhak Gruenbaum, who heard his testimony, told the members of the Jewish Agency executive committee about it. “They were not able to believe me,” Gruenbaum said.

Within the institutions of the Yishuv, the situation was assessed with reservations. Pogroms, outbursts of murder, suffering, hunger and epidemics in the ghettos and the camps – all that was conceivable, but not extermination so planned and so absolute. It was this assessment that apparently spawned the “Rescue Committee,” made up of representatives of parties and organizations, headed by Yitzhak Gruenbaum, a member of the Jewish Agency Executive, who in addition to this task held two other portfolios on the executive committee and also edited a daily newspaper.

Prayer, fasting and cables

The Rescue Committee, like every newborn body in the Yishuv, established a bureaucracy. The chairman set out on a mission to South Africa and returned with 30,000 Palestine pounds. The delegation of the Mossad l’Aliya Bet and the political department in Istanbul received coalition reinforcements from the pioneering movements, the Revisionists and [the ultra-Orthodox] Agudat Israel. Prayers, fasting and meetings were held in the Yishuv. Cables of alarm were sent abroad. Roosevelt, Churchill and others replied politely but did not act. Stalin did not even reply.

President Roosevelt continued to reassure Dr. Stephen Wise, but the reports of atrocities continued to reach the international community. The British Parliament stood silently to honor the memory of the victims. In 1943, the Bermuda Conference on refugees was held and something about the fate of the Jews was mentioned there. The British foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, issued a declaration concerning the responsibility of all Germans for the acts of murder but was unwilling to open the gates of his country to take in those who were fleeing.

The enlarged delegation in Istanbul made contact with the occupied countries, sent emissaries and money, but it is impossible to know how much of it reached its destination. The Istanbul emissaries reached about a thousand points of Jewish concentration in the occupied territories, and there was talk of rescuing the survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and members of the pioneer movements. But in building the national institutions in Jerusalem, the leadership tried to toe a narrow line: to take part in the war effort with the “partners,” but at the same time, not to forgo its demands pertaining to the Land of Israel. There was a desire to be part of the general war effort, and in certain circles, suggestions were made to the effect that the rescue demands must not be allowed to overshadow other Zionist objectives.

The Rescue Committee continued to send cables. Only in 1944 did it propose bombing extermination camps and rail lines. The committee also declared emergency fundraising initiatives, while the Yishuv had already volunteered 1,360,000 Palestine pounds without any outside help. But the possibilities for action were limited, considering that the independence of the Yishuv and its impotent leadership were held captive by the “partners” – the commander of the British Army in Cairo.

Why did you not act? (3)

Thwarted by the ‘partners’

The panic that seized the Yishuv before the tide turned at El Alamein explains in large part why rescue efforts lost their steam. The Palmach and the Haganah [Jewish forces] organized for guerrilla operations in the event of a German invasion. The Palmach command planned on Haifa becoming a “Tobruk” fortress, but certain members of the leadership advocated coming to terms with a possible invasion and attempting to strike a dialogue with the Germans in the hope of convincing them of the productive and positive value of the Jewish community in Palestine.

Moshe Sharett, at the time director of the Jewish Agency’s political department, says that no one suggested making contact with the Germans concerning the rescue of European Jewry. Those who were involved at the time could not have contemplated anything as absurd, he maintains. Only now, says Sharett, are clever people surfacing who are capable of proposing such ideas. True, there were contacts with the Nazis as early as 1933, and they continued until the outbreak of the war, but they were at a low and intermediate level. Any attempt to forge serious contacts during the war would have ended with imprisonment by the British, Sharett explains.

Still, there were some overtures. The representative of the aliya [immigration] department of the Jewish Agency, Haim Barlas, who in theory headed the rescue delegation, lived close to the German ambassador in Istanbul, Von Papen. Barlas met the wife of the Nazi ambassador in the home of a Jewish seamstress. He met with Von Papen himself and was in contact with the German ambassador’s staff. He even obtained Von Papen’s agreement to remove 3,000 children from France, Belgium and Holland after the Vichy government allowed them to leave. Only Eichmann’s personal intervention prevented the rescue of these children, but Eichmann did not always have the upper hand. In some cases, different winds blew among the Nazi top brass and Von Papen’s views were heeded.

But in Istanbul, where representatives of the Allies and of the Nazis and their satellites operated, the Jewish people did not have a significant representation capable of making fateful decisions.

Fighters without a rear

Ze’ev Schind, Shaul Avigur, Zvi Yehieli, Ehud Avriel, Moshe Agami, Haim Barlas, Vania Pomerantz (Dr. Ze’ev Hadari ), Menachem Bader, Yosef Klarman, Yaakov Griffel, David Simend and Teddy Kollek, all of whom were active in Istanbul permanently and alternately, were not negligent in their mission. They tried to extract as many as they could from the trap. When their activity reached its peak, in 1944, after the Free World saw its imminent victory and sought to ease its conscience a little on the Jewish question, 10 immigrant ships set sail for Palestine from the shores of Romania.

The Turks and British, who made life difficult for the mission, monitoring the movements of its members and their financial resources, agreed to give asylum to every Jew who would arrive to the shores of Turkey under his own steam. The rescue emissaries saw to it that many arrived “under their own steam,” and thousands did; in boats from Greece (some of which were fired on and sunk by Turkish patrols ), in ramshackle ships from the shores of the Black Sea (two of which were sent plunging into the depths by the Germans ) and by various means from Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.

The delegation sent emissaries and funds into the occupied countries. But by the time they started their work it was too late. Young people who were capable of mobilizing to flee or to launch an uprising had already been liquidated, and the emissaries were unable to help the few Jews in the camps with the means at their disposal.

“Nevertheless, it was still possible to rescue many,” says Shaul Avigur. There were thousands more ways to rescue, if the British had not interfered. “Before the occupation of Hungary and Romania, tens of thousands could have been rescued, but the British blocked every initiative,” says a former head of the Mossad l’Aliya.

“We could not even smuggle money to the unfortunates. At first we had none, but afterward the Yishuv donated and all told we expended 1,300,000 Palestine pounds. But until the end of 1943, overseas Jewry was not activated and the Joint [Distribution Committee] did not cooperate. When I wanted to smuggle diamonds out of Palestine in order to finance the operations, I went to ask for a permit from Berl Katznelson, of blessed memory,” Vania Pomerantz relates.

The unfortunates who were caught in the extermination trap had no knowledge of the situation outside. The functionaries in Romania suspected that party intrigues were sabotaging the rescue efforts and that every emissary was looking mainly after the stream and the circle he represented. The head of the Zionist Federation in Romania at the time was the late Dr. A.L. Zissu, who was affiliated with the right wing of Zionism. Thanks to his good connections with Marshal Antonescu, Romania’s pro-Nazi ruler, he was promised that every Jew would be allowed to leave the country.

But the rescue officials did not appreciate Dr. Zissu’s capabilities and suspected that this program, too, like the one in Hungary which followed it, was intended to sow confusion and schism among the Allies. The war was raging and security considerations imposed a veil of secrecy over plans of this kind.

Fairness in talks with murderers

The rescue mission in Istanbul was operational and dependent on the Jewish Agency executive committee in Jerusalem. But in Switzerland, the rescue activists were independent. In addition to the Jewish Agency representatives there, Richard Lichtheim and Dr. Silberschein, who reported from Geneva about the events on the other side of the wall, there was also a representative of the pioneering movements, Nathan Schwalb, who made a habit of picking up the telephone and dialing Budapest to speak to one of his acquaintances and ask, “What’s doing?” In these phone calls he provided names of Hungarian social-democratic activists whom he recommended for cooperation.

Also operating in Switzerland were Rabbi and Mrs. Naphtali Sternbuch from St. Gallen, without any public rear.

Those in Geneva, like their counterparts in Istanbul, received hair-raising letters of alarm. In one of them, Rabbi Michael Weissmandel cried out from Slovakia: “This is the order for Auschwitz, to which, beginning from yesterday and henceforth, 12,000 Jewish souls, men and women, infants and the aged, the sick and the healthy are being sent every day to be asphyxiated and burned and used as manure for the fields. And you, our Jewish brethren in all the free countries, and you, the ministers of the kingdom in every country, how do you remain silent in the face of this murder? In the desert of your heart the murdered Jews cry out to you: You are cruel, you are murderers, because of the cruel silence you maintain, because of the folded hands with which you do nothing. After all, it is in your power to prevent and delay this.” Rabbi Weissmandel, who was “there,” did not suffice with these letters of alarm in which he pleaded for help. He also appended to them blueprints of the extermination camps so they could be located. Together with Gisi Fleischmann, he negotiated with the murderers and tried to deceive them with promises he could not keep, but he did delay the slaughter and saved thousands.

By contrast, when the envoy of the Joint [Distribution Committee] in Switzerland, Saly Mayer, met with the S.S. officer Grueson, the representative of Kurt Becher, to discuss the ransom of Slovakian and Hungarian Jewry, he was unable to promise anything. “At least promise, Mr. Mayer,” the Nazi, who for some reason wanted to see the deal to succeed, urged him. “A Swiss Jew does not promise when he cannot fulfill the promise,” the proud Swiss Jew replied.

Located by the parachutists

The Rescue Committee in Palestine continued to send cables. The Zionist Archives undoubtedly contain a large collection of copies of these cables and requests – but there was no response. It was not until the middle of 1944 that President Roosevelt sent Ira Hirschmann as his personal envoy to Istanbul. Hirschmann, who was one of the owners of Bloomingdale’s department store in New York, lacked the experience of the rescue emissaries from Palestine but had experience with brilliant advertising campaigns. When the government of Turkey promised to lease a ship to save Jews, Hirschmann declared “a rescue bridge between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean” which he was building. The ship was not leased and the few Jews once again required only the limited services of the Palestine rescue emissaries.

Still, the institutional leadership in Jerusalem did not give up hope for a moment that the “partners” would accede to their request to take part in the war effort. The suggestion by Eliahu Golomb, of blessed memory, to parachute a Jewish force into Poland already in 1943 was rejected by the British on tactical military grounds. It turns out, though, that the Poles had exerted pressure against such Jewish involvement in the Allies’ war, in which “Free Poland” was also taking part. Eliahu Golomb dedicated himself to the parachuting initiative, and many young people volunteered for this suicide mission. “It was an operation of heroic import,” says Sharett.

At a later stage, the idea of parachuting units into Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia was also raised. The British high command was interested in these operations, as they were intended to pull out captured pilots and soldiers. After lengthy discussions and a rigorous choice of candidates, 32 parachutists were sent.

Yoel Palgi, who was one of the parachutists in this congruent mission, of service to the British and the Jews, admits that the operation came too late. “In 1942 there were convenient conditions and possibilities of rescue, but not in 1944, when most of the Jewish concentrations had been scattered if not liquidated,” Palgi says. But even at this late date, the British did not want to expand these missions. In the summer of 1944, when the prime minister of Britain, Sir Winston Churchill, ordered Cairo to prepare a considerable Jewish force to be parachuted into Hungary, the British command in Cairo ignored the order, which was shelved. It later emerged that the plan had been torpedoed by the Foreign and Colonial Offices in London, which argued that the global consideration took precedence over every other consideration.

Deceived by the British

“The British wanted to remove the Jewish element from their war. They hoped to arouse a movement of revolt among the occupied nations and knew that the Jews were not wanted by those nations,” Sharett says, explaining the motives of the “partners” in that period. Even when Joel Brand, the last emissary from the inferno, arrived with Himmler’s offer of “goods for Jews,” the British found a pretext to thwart every plan of action. “The British deceived us,” Moshe Sharett says. In fact, just how serious Brand’s mission was is not fully clear to this day. It may have been naive to believe that the Nazis were willing to release a million Jews from the grip of their jaws in return for goods, and it is also possible that malicious intentions to split the Allies underlay this plan, as even the leadership of the Yishuv was prone to believe.

The British arrested Brand on his way to meet with Sharett in the city of Aleppo (in Syria ), after the Turkish authorities sought to hand him over to Germany and denied Sharett an entry visa. The helplessness of the Zionist movement at this time was reflected in the fact that even a visa for Sharett to enter Turkey and a travel permit from Istanbul to Ankara for Joel Brand could not be organized by the delegation and the emissaries. The British did not suffice with Brand’s arrest. They made public the offer and its rejection by the Allies, and the extermination machine continued to operate at full steam. Moshe Sharett is not certain whether Brand’s offer was substantive. The notion that “the Germans don’t mean it seriously” was well-grounded, though not certain. Nonetheless, Sharett traveled to London in order to persuade the British of what he doubted in his heart because the lives of tens of thousands hung in the balance. Together with Chaim Weizmann. he submitted a memorandum about bombing Auschwitz, as Weissmandel had suggested at the end of 1942, to which the British, after discussing it for three months, responded negatively.

Only then, toward the end of 1944, was Moshe Sharett able to discern the character of the “partners.” Although they allowed for the establishment of the Jewish Brigade, and although Sharett may be right to say that it was thanks to this that we were victorious in the War of Independence, they lulled the sensations of the leadership, thwarted every initiative and froze every rescue attempt.

The Yishuv leadership perhaps saw their big hour coming after the victory. Perhaps they pinned hopes on a friendly settlement with the British on issues concerning Palestine. The existence of the “partnership” appeared to guarantee the coveted settlement after the war, and accordingly, the Yishuv leadership was in thrall to the “partners.” The leadership welcomed the privilege to participate in the Allies’ war but was incapable of developomg modes of combat and other means of its own in the separate campaign that was forced on the Jewish people.

Probably the first Jewish war of defense was that of Jacob and his sons against Esau’s forces. We do not know what the balance of power was between the two camps. Perhaps David Ben-Gurion can clarify this biblical mystery. Still, what is clear to us is that the nomadic Jacob, without a homeland and without allies and “partners,” developed an independent strategy of his own: “gift, prayer and battle.” The Zionist movement, which was on the brink of establishing the national force, was apparently capable of one thing only: prayer.

Outside the Eichmann trial

A crowd outside Beit Ha’am in Jerusalem, the venue of the Eichmann trial.

Photo by: Avraham Vered, courtesy of IDF and Defense Establishment Archive, from Bamahane collection (from the book “Six Million Accusers,” published by Yedioth Books and the Massuah Institute