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Chapter IV

The Rabbi Breaks Out of Isolation

The rabbi's office in Jerusalem received a great deal of mail because many Jews assumed that given his position and contacts with the British, he was much better informed than the average man, but in fact the British did their best to keep vital information from him. Even so, through the rabbi's extensive international contacts, he managed to piece together an accurate but ugly picture of Jewish life in post–war Europe.

As already mentioned, Palestine was isolated by military censorship of the press, radio and mail. This censorship was heightened with the increased terror attacks by the Irgun and Lehi, popularly known as the Stern Gang, aimed at the mandatory administration of Palestine. Many people were arrested, jailed and deported to Africa. Palestine was closed, with no entry or exit except for military personnel. Many of the Palestinian

 

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Yaacov David Herzog

 

Jewish families asked Rabbi Herzog's office to intercede on their behalf. The letters reached the rabbi's son, Yaacov Herzog, who was his father's secretary since he arrived in Palestine in 1939. He was born in Dublin, Ireland, on December 11, 1921. The family immigrated to Mandate Palestine with the selection of the Chief Mandatory rabbi in Palestine. After Yaacov Herzog was ordained as a rabbi in the Harry Fischel Seminary in Jerusalem, he studied law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and London University. He earned a doctorate in international law from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Yaacov also served in the Haganah or Jewish underground force.

Yaacov Herzog wrote letters asking permission for his father to visit the Jewish prisoners in Eritrea.[1] Finally, Rabbi Herzog obtained permission and left for Cairo on January 20, 1946.[2] From there, the rabbi traveled to visit prisoners in Eritrea and he then flew to Rome to visit the Pope to discuss the rescue of Jewish children living in Christian monasteries. The rabbi then toured the displaced person camps in Germany. The rabbi hoped to raise money in Cairo for the European Jewish refugees that he would meet in Europe, but his campaign was not very successful. Rabbi Herzog then left for nearby Eritrea where a penal colony existed for Palestinian Jews accused of terrorism. About 300 Jewish inmates, who had been arrested by the British in Palestine and deported to Eritrea, were imprisoned there. Most belonged either to the right–wing Irgun–Irgun Tzva Leumi (Etzel) or to Lehi. On January 17, 1946, news reached the rabbi that two Jewish prisoners had been killed and scores injured when their guards opened fire on the prisoners. The news shook the Jewish residents of Palestine. Rabbi Herzog was determined to visit the camp and see the conditions for himself. The rabbi was met at the airport by General Greenfeld, the British military commander of Eritrea, who accompanied the rabbi to the prison. Once there, Rabbi Herzog spent three days praying with the prisoners and providing whatever comfort he could. As became his trademark on such visits, the rabbi infused them with hope that better times were fast approaching. He also personally asked General Greenfeld, General Roberts, General Sir Bernard Pagget, High Commander of the Middle East, and other officials, to alleviate the harsh conditions of the Jewish prisoners. This was not the first time the rabbi had intervened on behalf of Jewish political prisoners held by the British. He had done so on many occasions. The rabbi had once even enlisted the support of Judah Magnes, one of American Jewry's leaders, in helping alleviate the conditions of Jewish prisoners held in Sudan. Following his three–day stay, Rabbi Herzog returned to Cairo, where he stayed briefly before continuing on to Italy. In Cairo he met with the influential and highly–regarded Rabbi Aaron Kotler, leader of American Jewish Orthodoxy and one of the leaders of the American Vaad Hatzala or the Rescue Committee of Orthodox European rabbis and yeshiva students. It was established in November, 1939 by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada (Agudath Harabbanim). Rabbi Kotler listened politely to Rabbi Herzog's appeal for help with the Jewish orphans in Europe, but only donated a small sum to the cause. The following day Rabbi Herzog continued on his mission, heading for Italy.

 

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Rabbi Herzog at the Vatican in Rome

 

Rabbi Herzog arrived in Rome March 7,1946.[3] By this time, Rabbi Herzog had been told that during the war thousands of orphaned Jewish children had been rescued by non–Jews or, in some cases, Jews. Some Jewish families had adopted a few of the children. However, most of the rescued Jewish children were in Christian homes, institutions or orphanages. The problem was, how to get their names, prepare a list and design a legal strategy, one that probably included hard–to–get power of attorney representing the missing or murdered parents, to bring these lost children back to the bosom of the Jewish people. These were only some of the items on Rabbi Herzog's list. He also hoped to somehow get a law introduced in many European countries that would require Christian families in possession of a Jewish child to register the child with a Jewish organization. The rabbi reportedly thought that by using existing Jewish welfare institutions, especially those practiced in dealing with children, he would avoid potential organizational problems. Rabbi Herzog was also of the opinion that a new institution should be formed especially for this purpose. With these thoughts rambling through his mind, Rabbi Herzog arrived in Italy and began to meet Jewish leaders, rabbis and political figures. On February 10, 1946, he met Pope Pius XII. The two discussed the Jewish situation in Europe, especially the situation of Jewish children in Christian homes or institutions.

Reportedly feeling himself the pope's equal, as both men were leaders of their respective communities, the rabbi urged the pope to help restore the Jewish children to their relatives, even those Jewish children who had been baptized, a ceremony that Jews and the rescuers used to evade the Nazis. The two also tossed biblical quotations at each other, in Latin, English and Hebrew.[4] The pope listened diplomatically; he promised to help with cases of specific children if their names and locations were given to the Vatican. This was something Rabbi Herzog was hard put to provide, since many of the children were hidden from the Jewish community. However, Rabbi Herzog did have a few names, and submitted the memorandum that the pope had requested.

Rabbi Herzog, escorted by the Chief Rabbi of Rome, David Prato, met Prime Minister Alcide de Gasperi. Rabbi Herzog thanked Prime Minister de Gasperi, but also asked him for the Italian government's assistance for Jewish survivors in Italy. Rabbi Herzog urged de Gasperi to permit more Jewish Shoah survivors to enter Italy, According to the historian Yehuda Bauer, there were, in Italy, about 15,000 illegal Jews and 25,000 according to the International Refugee Organization[5].It was very difficult to determine the number of Jewish refugees in Italy since Jewish refugees were constantly arriving from Austria and Germany. Many of them then left illegally for Palestine. Most of Italy had been liberated by the British 8th Army under the leadership of Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. About 30,000 Palestinian Jews had volunteered for service with the British army[6]. There were some units that consisted only of Palestinian Jews, including the Jewish Brigade with 5,000 Jewish volunteers from Palestine who were organized into three infantry battalions, officially named the Jewish Infantry Brigade Group, established in late 1944 under the command of a Jewish career army officer, Brigadier Ernest F. Benjamin. The Haganah, the Jewish underground army in Palestine, ordered many Haganah men to volunteer for the brigade. These “volunteers” formed Haganah cells within the brigade and took orders directly from Haganah headquarters in Palestine.

The Jewish Brigade was deployed in Italy. As the British troops fought their way from southern to northern Italy, the Palestinian Haganah gave the order to the Jewish Brigade to be on the lookout for Italian Jewish survivors. Italy had a Jewish population of about 46,000 Jews prior to World War II. It is estimated that about 30,000 Italian Jews and 6,000 non–Italian Jews survived the war in Italy.[7] These survivors, seeing the Star of David on the shoulders of Jewish Brigade soldiers, came out of hiding, ragged, hungry and desperate. The Jewish soldiers provided help and began to organize support systems for them. As previously mentioned, many survivors were not Italian Jews and were now classified as displaced persons and placed in camps under the administration of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Adminstration.

The main Haganah officers in the Jewish Brigade were Captain Aaron Ishai Hooter and Sergeant Mordecai SurkissHooter and Surkiss helped organize first aid stations with their limited resources. They established medical centers and soup kitchens using British supplies. The Jewish Brigade kept a close watch over the Jewish refugees and helped the Italian Jews to reestablish their communities. The Palestinian Haganah now ordered the brigade to move Jewish refugees from northern Italy to the South where they would be able to board ships and head to Palestine. The Brigade was helped in this endeavor by the 462nd General Transport Battalion of the British 8th Army that consisted of about 300 Palestinian Jewish drivers . One of them was Shimshon Lang.

 

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Shimshon Lang in his British military uniform

 

Lang's story is typical of the Palestinian Jews. He had escaped Poland for Palestine in 1939 on an illegal ship.[8] The ship was stopped by the British navy and Lang was given a choice: spend the next few years in an internment camp or join the British Army. He chose the latter and served until 1946. In an interview, Lang said “My unit delivered supplies to the army units from the coastal areas in southern Italy, and on the return journey loaded the trucks with Jewish Shoah survivors.[9] I spoke to the young skeletal survivors in Yiddish and saw myself as one of them who happened to have escaped Hitler's death squad nets just in time. They represented to me the survivors of my family that perished in the Holocaust. No British Army rule could stop me from extending help to my surviving brethren. I was not alone with these thoughts, others felt the same way. We translated the ideas into reality by transporting the surviving Jews from Austrian and German DP camps to Italy and then to Palestine. We used empty shipping containers or extra military uniforms to hide the refugees at border crossings.” According to Lang, not only trucking units were involved in this movement of Jewish refugees. Ambulances and maintenance vehicles were also used to smuggle survivors from the former concentration camps in Austria and Germany to Italy. Most of the Jewish volunteers for the British forces in Palestine were similar to Shimshon Lang: born in Europe and barely escaped to Palestine.

The war's end found many of these Jewish Palestinian soldiers stationed at Treviso, near the triangle of Italy, Yugoslavia and Austria. As they received passes to travel through the surrounding countries, they encountered more survivors, and for many, were faced for the first time with the harsh truth of the Nazi horrors in the concentration camps. Some of the soldiers, if they could, smuggled individual survivors back to the British camp. There, in Yiddish, these survivors told their tragic tales, shocking their fellow Jews with news of the Nazi atrocities. The details of the locations of the concentration camps were passed on to the brigade's Haganah leaders who received orders to locate the Jewish survivors and bring them to Italy.

This is the story of Leo Rosner, a Jewish survivor of Mauthausen, Austria. “We were several hundred Jewish survivors in the concentration camp of Mauthausen” Rosner wrote, “with no place to go except to return to Poland and most of us did not feel like going to Poland.[10] Suddenly an army truck appeared with Star of David markings. At first we did not believe our eyes. We were certain that we were the only Jews left and suddenly we see other Jews and fighting Jews. The truck was immediately surrounded by

 

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The Brichah transports left the region of Munich
and headed south to Austria and to Italy

 

Jewish survivors; they kissed and hugged the soldiers. They exchanged greetings and stories. Most of the Jewish soldiers spoke Yiddish as did the survivors, so communication was easily established. A few days later, more Jewish soldiers appeared. About two weeks later, a convoy of trucks arrived near the camp at night and we were instructed to leave the camp one at a time so as not to arouse suspicion. Most of the Jewish survivors left the Mauthausen concentration camp”, Rosner continued, “and headed to the large convoy of trucks. Once we were loaded on the trucks, Jewish soldiers placed empty oil barrels and boxes of ammunition to block the view of the inside of the trucks. The soldiers then covered the trucks and we moved. We traveled towards the Italian border for hours. We crossed into Italy escorted by military police provided by the Jewish Brigade, ultimately reaching the Brigade headquarters in Treviso.[11] Our presence at the base was highly illegal since it was an army base. The Jewish soldiers then smuggled us into the nearby Modena Jewish DP camp in Italy.”[12] The Mossad coordinated all illegal transports of Jews to Palestine. The Mossad was a secret organization created by the Jewish Agency for Palestine in 1939 following the British White Paper for Palestine. Ben Gurion ordered the Mossad to bring Jews to Palestine, legally or illegally. Shaul Avigur was the head of the organization.

 

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Shaul Avigur

 

Avigur was born in Russia and brought to Palestine as a child. He devoted himself to military matters and joined the Haganah at an early age. He was given full command of the Mossad organization and personally selected agents to be sent to Europe to smuggle Jews to Palestine illegally.[13] Avigur established an effective organization that worked with the Jewish Brigade. The organization had one purpose: to bring Jews to Palestine, legally or illegally. The Mossad organized a network of offices throughout Europe for this effort. The Mossad began to buy ships and load them with Jews headed to Palestine. At first, there was some success but soon Britain ordered its Mediterranean fleet to patrol the approaches to Palestine. Still, ships with illegal immigrants kept arriving. British ambassadors intervened everywhere, diplomatically, to stop the departure of ships. World War II almost stopped the Mossad operations. Towards the end of World War II, operations resumed, especially from Italy with its long shorelines and many Jewish refugees waiting to reach Palestine. All the groups went into high gear with the arrival in Europe of Yehuda Arazi, dressed as a Polish pilot, smuggled first out of Palestine to Egypt and then to Italy.[14] The Polish–born Arazi had been appointed head of the Mossad in Italy and soon had a stream of small boats

 

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Yehuda Arazi, Mossad representative in Italy

 

transporting Jews from Italy to Palestine.[15] Often the British navy ignored these small boats. On the way back to Italy they often transported weapons for the Haganah and various communication experts and military leaders who were needed by the Mossad and the Brichah in Europe. An effective communication network was established between the Mossad and Brichah offices throughout Europe, notably in Prague. The main base operated in Palestine. The Mossad and Brichah offices throughout Europe continued to work closely with the Jewish Brigade, the local office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency of Palestine and the various local Zionist groups. From the end of the war until 1947, nearly 50,000 Jewish refugees had entered Italy. Italy offered an ideal place to hide the illegal ships that would be boarded by Jewish refugees brought from nearby Italian Jewish DP camps. Similar camps also existed in France, notably around the port of Marseilles. Many of these refugees made it to Palestine while, as previously mentioned, others were intercepted by the British navy at sea and sent to British detention camps on Cyprus. This action did not deter Arazi from sending more Jews to Palestine.[16]

The British applied heavy pressure on Italy to stop the entry of Jews across its northern border and to control the shores to prevent illegal ships from leaving Italy with Jewish refugees. Arazi's Italian operations were widespread with echoes reaching all the way to London. Soon, British agents picked up the news that a large convoy of Jewish refugees would be heading to the small port of La Spezia in Italy where they were to board two illegal ships, the Fede and the Fenice, heading to Palestine.

The British purposely misinformed the Italian police that a large group of Italian fascists would be heading to the La Spezia port to board the ships. The Italians were told the ships would then head for Spain where the supposed Italian fascists could not be touched by Italian justice. Italian police and security forces were rushed to the entrance of the small port city.

On April 4, 1946, a convoy of 38 British army trucks appeared. The Italian police stopped the convoy and began to search the trucks. Most of the drivers were soldiers of the Jewish Brigade or other Jewish Palestinian units within the British army. Two of the Jewish Brigade soldiers, dressed in their military uniforms, stepped forward and surrendered on condition that the waiting Holocaust survivors be permitted to board the ship since they had no other place to stay. The Italian police quickly realized that they had been set up and permitted the Jewish refugees to board the vessels. Immediately, the Jews renamed the ships. The Fede was renamed the Dov Hoz as 675 Jewish refugees boarded. The Fenice was renamed the Eliyahu Golomb as 339 refugees came aboard. These two illegal vessels were left moored to the pier, guarded by Italian police.

Josef de Paz presented himself to the police of La Spezia the following day and asked to join the Jewish survivors heading to Palestine. The request was granted. Most of the Mossad and Brichah agents aboard the ships recognized de Paz as Mossad's Italian Chief, and Yehuda Arazi immediately took command of the ships. Arazi began to broadcast appeals for help. The appeals were picked up by the Italian press and the news soon made international headlines. The Jewish passengers aboard the two ships went on a hunger strike and threatened to sink the ship if anyone attempted to board the vessel. The British still remembered the Patria incident in Haifa when a ship of illegal refuges exploded and killed many people.

Meanwhile, embarrassed by the events, the British insisted that the Italians use force to remove the Jews. But the Italians refused. The struggle lasted nearly 30 days, until May 8, 1946, when the Jewish refugees were finally permitted to sail for Palestine. Unnoticed by the Italians and the British, Arazi managed to slip off the ship before departure and disappeared. The Jewish Brigade drivers who had been caught by the Italians faced military court proceedings. Realizing the extent of the Jewish Brigade's involvement in the affair, in July1945, the British government decided to discharge the oldest serving soldiers and relocate the remainder of the Jewish brigade to Belgium and the Netherlands. Shimshon Lang's trucking battalion was shipped back to Palestine where it was demobilized. In an audacious move, some of the Jewish Brigade soldiers gave their uniforms to illegal Jewish refugees, who were then unknowingly sent by the British to Palestine.

Many Palestinian Jewish soldiers left Italy but their activities were soon assumed by the “Brichah” or escape movement. This organization was created following the war in Eastern Europe. The first leaders were Awrahan Litkowsky and Abba Kovner. They had one goal: get the Jews of Eastern Europe to Palestine. Quite rapidly the organization spread throughout Europe. It was a Spartan paramilitary organization that consisted of young Jews who volunteered to help their brethren move out of their newly established homes. The Brichah was organized along national lines. For example, the Czech Brichah used Czech Jews who were familiar with the country, language and customs. The Brichah had a very effective system of communication that enabled the organization to move rapidly and effectively. Jewish transports moved from country to country within a short amount of time. They shipped about 250,000 Jewish Shoah survivors from Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania and Hungary to Czechoslovakia and then to Austria and German displaced person camps. The Brichah then selected volunteers to enter Italy where they awaited ships to head to Palestine. The Jewish Brigade and other units originally handled the Jewish transports within Italy but when they were removed, the Brichah organization replaced them. The Brichah organization soon increased its ranks as many Jewish Brigade soldiers joined the organization.

Between 1945 and 1950, about 50,000 Jewish displaced persons passed through the Italian peninsula.[17] The precise number is difficult to determine because of the continuous arrivals and departures as Italy developed into a major assembly center for refugee emigration (both legal and clandestine) to Palestine. The majority of refugees entered Italy from the northeast border through the mountain passes (mainly the Brenner Pass), where they arrived with the help of the Brichah, which connected Eastern Europe to the displaced person camps in Germany and Italy. The illegal departures for Palestine were then organized by the Italian section of the Mossad organization. Between 1945 and May, 1948, 34 illegal ships sailed from Italian shores to Palestine.

The main refugee resettlement center was located in Via Unione in Milan. This center was created with the support of Raffaele Cantoni, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, and it functioned from 1945 to 1947. From Via Unione, refugees were redirected to the various displaced person camps in Italy

 

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Bari Transit Camp in Italy

 

Bagnoli, camp
Bari, camp
Barletta, camp
Bologna, camp
Casere, camp
Chiari, camp
Cinecitta', camp
Cremona, camp
Genova, camp
Grugliasco, camp
Fermo, camp
Jesi,
Merano, camp
Milano, camp
Modena, camp
Palese, camp
Pontebba, camp
Reggio Emilia, camp
Rivoli, camp
Santa Cesarea, camp
Santa Maria al Bagno, camp
Santa Maria di Leuca, camp
Tricase, camp
Trani camp

The DP camps were both “mixed camps,” where Jewish displaced persons lived with refugees of various nationalities, and separate Jewish camps. Many refugees also lived in kibbutzim or communal groups and training farms for potential farmers in Palestine of which there were more than 60 in Italy. Approximately 5,000 refugees were labeled as “out of camps DPs” and lived in private homes in the main cities. In addition, a few children's homes were created for orphans, the most well–known being Selvino.

The Mossad office in Italy coordinated all these organizations and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) provided medical and food supplies to the refugees in transit. The JDC director in Rome, Reuven Resnik, disapproved of Yehuda Arazi's behavior. He wanted the JDC to proceed according to the book, a reasonable policy regarding the established Jewish communities in Italy but one which provided no room for large illegal transports that needed food for the long voyage to Palestine and did not deal with the question of legalizing the arrival of new refugees. To accomplish these operations, Arazi resorted to illegal activities including false documents, bribes and other shady tactics to facilitate the movement of Jewish refugees. Resnik refused to cooperate. This created tension between the two men, and their organizations. Forged papers and the

 

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Rabbi Herzog with Jewish Shoah survivors in a DP Camp in Italy

 

smuggling of refugees in and out of Italy infuriated Resnik. Protests to Arazi were ignored. Arazi turned to the Jewish powers in Palestine to get Resnik off his back. In turn, the Jewish Agency pressured the JDC headquarters in New York to remove Resnik from his position in Rome. Even Jewish leaders from the displaced person camps pressured the JDC to remove Resnik. Resnik tried to ride out the wave of discontent, but

 

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Rabbi Herzog addressing Jewish refugees from a balcony in Italy

 

the problems grew daily. Soon he was gone. The new director was more cooperative. Rabbi Herzog knew nothing of these events. He visited Jewish refugee displaced person camps in Italy where he met not only with the camp leaders but also with the Jewish Shoah survivors. He spoke to them in Yiddish and gave them hope and confidence.

The words of the rabbi inspired the listeners and the demand for passage to Palestine exceeded the available space on the illegal ships.

The British government constantly demanded that Italy close its borders to prevent Jewish refugees from entering Italy, but still Jewish refugees came.

Under heavy guard, Rabbi Herzog bravely carried on from DP camp to camp urging Jewish leaders he met to do their best to help redeem Jewish children from Christian homes and institutions in Italy. He urged the creation of such an office in Italy, and eventually an office started searching for Jewish children embedded with non–Jewish families or institutions. Because of Rabbi Herzog's efforts, observers say, many Jewish children were restored to their families or rejoined the Italian Jewish community. The JDC in Italy also established an orphans' home in Livorno for Jewish children released from non–Jewish homes. Rabbi Herzog also visited the remnants of the Jewish Brigade, for by then most of the soldiers had been transferred to Belgium. He was received with military honors. He told the gathered soldiers “..with Torah, no force can defeat the House of Israel.” At another stop, after the rabbi spoke, the soldiers sang Hatikva or hope (that would become Israel's national anthem).

Suddenly, Rabbi Herzog received a call to stop his tour and return to Jerusalem in great haste. He had to appear before the Anglo–American Commission for Palestine, which would commence hearings in Palestine.


Footnotes

  1. Chaim, Derech., p.101 Return
  2. Davar newspaper Feb 15, 1946 “Chief Rabbi Herzog, accompanied by his secretary, Rabbi Gold.” Return
  3. Davar newspaper March 7, 1946 “Rabbi Herzog in Rome.” Return
  4. Shragai, Zalman, The Rescue Trip in Europe , report, Jerusalem 1947, p14 Return
  5. Bauer, Yehuda, Ashes, 310 Return
  6. Bauer, Yehuda, , Out of the ashes, Oxford 1989 p319 Return
  7. Chaim, Derech,p.99 Return
  8. Leibner interview with the late Shimshon Lang Return
  9. Ibid. Return
  10. Rosner, Leo, The Holocaust Remembered. USA, 1998, p.97–100 Return
  11. Rosner, Leo, The Holocaust Remembered. USA, 1998, p.97–100 Return
  12. Ibid., Return
  13. Zertal, Idit, From Catastrophe to Power: The Holocaust Survivors and the, Cambridge Univ. Press1998. pp.40–49. Return
  14. Zertel, Power, p.280 Return
  15. Szulc, Tad, The Secret Alliance, Farrar, Straus and Gitroux in New York, 1991 USA pp.90–91 Return
  16. Szulc, Alliance.,p.91 Return
  17. Zertal, Power, p.51 Return

 

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