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Chapter IX

Britain at War with the Jews

 

In 1930 Britain introduced limitations on the number of Jews entering Palestine. From then on one had to obtain a certificate of entrance granted on the basis of certain qualifications notably financial or skills. The system was steadily tightened and the number of certificates reduced. The number of Jewish applicants increased each day with Hitler's rise to power in Germany. In 1936, 60,000 Jews reached the shores of Palestine. Palestinian Arabs protested and an Arab revolt began that lasted until 1939. Britain decided to further reduce the number of Jews entering Palestine and to militarily crush the Arab revolt. Both policies succeeded. The Arab revolt was slowly squashed and the number of Jews entering Palestine dwindled with the passage of the “White Paper”, which restricted Jewish immigration to 75,000 for five years and said that any new immigration would have to be approved by the Arab majority. The gates of Palestine were closed to the thousands of Jews who would have found a safe haven from the death camps of Europe.

The Jewish Agency of Palestine went along with the British policies until adoption of the “White Paper”. This was the breaking point between Britain and Jewish Palestine. Already in 1934, the “Halutz” or Zionist pioneer organization in Poland had successfully sent 350 passengers to Palestine illegally on the ship Vellos. The Jewish Agency had opposed the move and made sure that such operations were stopped. The Vellos passengers were helped by the Haganah or Palestinian Jewish underground as a one time event. The Revisionist Zionist movement under the leadership of Ze'ev Jabotinsky ignored the British rules and began to organize illegal ships that sailed to Palestine with Jewish passengers. These operations tended to be small because of a lack of funds. At first small boats like Af Al P or Dor were used but with time larger vessels like Patria with 850 passengers in 1939 were used[1]. With publication of the Britain's “White Paper” the Jewish Agency created an office called “Mossad l'Aliyah Bet” to handle illegal immigration to Palestine[2]. More illegal ships began to reach Palestine with Jewish immigrants but the British Navy was there to greet them.

The British were well informed of the Jewish situation in Palestine and expected some reactions to their policy of preventing Jews from immigrating. The Royal Navy was already partially mobilized due to the war–threatening situation in Europe. The Navy and the Royal Air Force were ordered to patrol the Mediterranean Sea and intercept illegal ships with Jews.[3] British agents in Mediterranean ports were ordered to be on the lookout for the ships. Even the Foreign Office began to apply pressure on Romania to stop the flow of Jews to the Romanian ports where they embarked on boats heading to Palestine. As mentioned earlier, the British were very successful in stifling the illegal aliyah. Some illegal ships still managed to leave Europe but had tragic consequences, notably the Patria and the Struma. The Patria was blown up by the Haganah on November 25, 1940 to stop it from taking illegal Jewish immigrants to the island of Mauritius. The explosion sunk the boat within minutes and resulted in the estimated death of 267 people[4]. As written about in Chapter II, the Struma had a tragic end which caused a temporary stop to the illegal aliyah since the risks were so grave.

With the liberation of Italy from the Germans, the Mossad renewed the illegal shipping of Jewish Holocaust survivors to Palestine. The Royal Navy and Air Force chased the ships throughout the Mediterranean Sea, seized most of them, and sent the passengers to detention camps on the island of Cyprus. The British foreign office applied pressure to all the countries notably Italy, France and Greece, to stop illegal ships from leaving their ports[5].

With the end of the war, the Jewish Shoah survivors refused to cooperate with Britain. The hundreds of thousands of Jewish survivors and Jewish refugees who had fled the Nazi horrors and the anti–Semitic pogroms in Eastern Europe were determined to reach Palestine. Most of them had no place to go and only Jewish Palestine wanted them. Even after the atrocities of WWII became evident, Britain still stubbornly prevented the Jews from entering Palestine, devoting considerable military resources to stopping illegal ships. Britain already had approximately 50,000 soldiers in Palestine to control the situation and prevent illegal refugees from entering the country. Since 1945 Britain had lost 223 soldiers fighting the Jewish underground in Palestine with 478 wounded.

In spite of these actions the ships kept coming, mostly from Italian ports. The British tried to pressure the Italian government to close the borders and to patrol the shores of the Adriatic Sea. The Italian government was happy to see refugees leave the country and did not care to help the British. The Italians did not want to take drastic action against Jewish refugees fearing American public opinion. Britain also appealed to France and Greece but the pleas proved fruitless since the governments of these countries had other more important pressing problems.

The British foreign office stepped up the pressure and imposed a blackout on Jewish news throughout Europe. British Jewish social services were prevented from assisting Jewish Holocaust survivors in the British zone of occupied Germany. Rabbi Herzog was also kept out. The British foreign minister kept repeating the story –– there was no Jewish problem in Europe therefore no need to discuss Palestine.

Ernest Bevin, British foreign minister admitted that there were refugees in Europe but said they were nationals of various European countries notably Poles, not Jewish refugees. Bevin urged all refugees including the Jewish refugees to return to their native countries. But the Holocaust survivors were determined to break the British blockade. They enlisted the help of American public opinion that supported a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Americans demanded President Truman take action on behalf of the Shoah refugees. The reasoning was clear; countries including the US, did not want to admit large numbers of Jewish refugees, but Palestine did want them. Britain refused to budge assuming the US was posturing for its public. The State Department and the Pentagon assured Britain that the US would support the British position. But President Truman knew that he had to take a stand and was in favor of Britain slightly opening the gates of Palestine. Immigration to Palestine was becoming an issue between England and the US. Truman felt that he must give something to his Jewish constituents who were demanding action. As mentioned earlier, American Jewish soldiers and chaplains were writing home about the terrible conditions of the Jewish Shoah survivors. This became the most important topic of conversation at Jewish community centers and temples. During the war, the Jewish organizations were promised that that the situation in Europe would be seen to once the war was over. They now demanded action.

Truman then decided to investigate the situation of the refugee camps in the American occupation zones in Europe. He appointed Earl Harrison, Dean of the Pennsylvania University Law School and former Commissioner of Immigration, to investigate the DP situation. Harrison submitted his first

 

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Earl Harrison Dean of the Pennsylvania University Law School

 

impressions at the end of July 1945 and the final report to the president on August 24 1945. His findings were very critical and accused the United States Army of inhuman conduct towards Jewish DPs. The report stated that the survivors were still fenced in by barbed wire and guarded by soldiers. Many of them were still wearing the rags from the camps. The report also suggested that 100,000 Jewish DPs should be permitted to go to Palestine. . The president ordered the military to take steps to implement the recommendations in the Harrison report. General Eisenhower, supreme allied commander issued specific orders to the military establishment in the American zones to implement the recommendations notably the establishment of separate Jewish DP camps, removal of barbed wire, soldiers, and the establishment of elected representation in the camps. Most military commanders implemented the recommendations. President Truman seriously considered Harrison's recommendation to send some Jewish DPs to Palestine and the US. The British refused to listen and insisted on continuing their policy of no Jewish emigration to Palestine.

Some American officers resented the new policies including General George Patton, Commander of the Third Army, who decided to take steps to stop the flow of Jewish refugees to his sector which extended into Czechoslovakia near Pilsen. The Karlov camp, an UNRRA refugee camp, was located in this zone. The Brichah began using Karlov as a staging point to smuggle Jewish refugees in transit from Czechoslovakia to the American zone in Germany. In the spring of 1945, three transporst totaling about 600 Jewish refugees arrived from Czechoslovakia and entered the Karlov camp and were registered by the camp officials. But Patton ordered his men to round up the new arrivals, put them back on a train, and send them out of the American zone back into Czechoslovakia. (See New York Post Oct 2, 1945 and New York Post October 7, 1945.) The screaming headlines of the New York Post told the story of Jewish Shoah survivors being forcibly removed by American soldiers.

President Truman was furious. He had already signed the Harrison Report that called for the improved treatment of Jewish survivors in the DP Camps in Germany and Austria. He and Eisenhower were deeply embarrassed by the incident.

 

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New York Post front page dated October 2, 1945

 

Here is a typical article about the event:

 

“Patton Turned Back 600 Jews Fleeing Terror in Poland”

by Pat Frank

Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, Oct. 2– At the order of Gen. Patton, 600 Polish Jews who hoped they had reached asylum in the U.S. zone from an anti–Semitic wave of terror sweeping their homeland, were forcibly returned to that country, this correspondent established today.

A Munich cable on Sept 21 reported that 600 Jews who had escaped from Poland had arrived via Prague at the Pilsen reception camp a month before. Interrogated by American officers, they sought to pass themselves off as German Jews desiring to return to Munich. Their faulty German, however, gave them away, after which “an American general,” the cable stated, ordered them all returned to Poland. The anti–Semitic terror in Poland was attested to by Jews who have escaped to the American zone.

 

Ike's Policy Ignored

At least 3,000 Polish Jews have reached the U.S zone. What happened to the 600 who believed they had found refuge at Camp Karlov, the United Nations' displaced persons center here, is another story. The tale is nearly as shocking as what happened to them when they were returned from Nazi concentration camps to their homes in Poland. Gen. Patton's 22d Corps, stationed in the U.S. zone in Czechoslovakia, violated the oft–repeated policy of Gen. Eisenhower– that refugees or persecuted peoples who do not desire to return to their homelands, or whose lives would be endangered in so doing, would not be returned by force. Furthermore, it is to be noted that Jews alone were singled out for forcible return. The Jews began crowding into Camp Karlov around the middle of August. Three trains, each carrying 175, arrived at the Pilsen railway station, temporary American zone in Czechoslovakia. Others afoot sought refuge here after trudging through the Russian zone in Czechoslovakia. The top authorities of the 22d Corps requested permission to ship these Jews to Germany where special camps for Jews were being erected. But Gen. Patton's headquarters ordered them shipped back to Czechoslovakia. It is somewhat complicated to trace the exact responsibility for this order since the DP officers then in charge of Camp Karlov have been redeployed. However the officers now in charge say that Gen. Patton's 3rd Army headquarters ordered the Jews returned because “there wasn't room for any more Jews in Germany, where the camps are already overcrowded” and “the trains that brought those Jews entered our zone without proper authority.” To this correspondent, enlisted men at Camp Karlov described the pitiful scenes that ensued when the 600 Jews were loaded aboard trucks, on Aug, 24, and taken to the Pilsen railroad station. The women among them fought bitterly, screaming and kicking.

 

We Had To Use Force

The military detachment found itself unable to cope with the situation and asked assistance. The 8th Armored Division sent troops with rifles, machine–guns and armored vehicles. Pvt. Edward Heilbrun, of Chicago, who is Jewish and who helped to load the hapless, protesting Jews aboard the trucks, told me: “My job was sickening. Men threw themselves on their knees in front of me, tore open their shirts, and screamed, ‘Kill me now!’ They would say, ‘You might just as well kill me now. I am dead anyway if I go back to Poland.‘ “They kept jumping off the trucks. And we had to use force.” There was more trouble at the railroad station where the troops were forced to jam the 600 Jews aboard a train.

After the train started, the trouble continued, according to witnesses. Men threw themselves from the moving train. Troops fired in the air attempting to frighten them into remaining on the train. Where the train was routed, after leaving the American zone, is still a mystery. One woman who was scheduled to return to Poland did not have to go. Luba Zindel of Kracow, was having a baby at the hospital when the train departed. I talked to her at Camp Karlov. This is her story: With her husband and an earlier child, she had spent three years in the Nazi concentration camp at Lublin. After the Russians captured that city, the family was released. They returned to their home in Kracow on June 20 1945. On the first Saturday in August, while the family was attending services, the synagogue was attacked and stormed by uniformed AK troopers. “They were shouting, she told me, that we had committed ritual murders. They began firing at us and beating us. My husband was sitting beside me. He fell down on his face full of bullets.” The widow was among those selected by the Jewish Committee in Krakow to be given a chance to escape to Czechoslovakia. She arrived here aboard the first of three trains”.

The train with the Jewish refugees was forced to leave the American enclave and crossed the Czech border. It was stopped and the passengers were removed by the Czech Brichah to temporary shelters where they were fed and rested. All the refugees would again cross the border but in smaller groups led by the Brichah. General Patton was of course dismissed from his post and no further attempts would be made by the American army to stop Jewish refugees entering the American zones. Zdenek Toman was very pleased with the results since he could continue to permit Jewish refugees to cross Czechoslovakia.

All these American activities surrounding Jewish refugees drove Britain mad. They looked for ways to reduce the American preoccupation with the Jewish refugees. The British continued to repeat their claims that there were no Jewish refugees, only former nationals of European countries. On instruction from London, the British military authorities in their zones of occupation refused to recognize the representative of the Jewish DPs in the Bergen–Belsen camp, Josef Rosensaft. He was elected on April 17, 1945, two days after the camp was liberated. Bergen Belsen was the largest Jewish DP camp in the British zone in Germany with about 10,346 Jewish refugees. The entire Jewish DP population in the British German zone was 12,232 and this number hardly changed. Even British Jewish social services were not permitted to enter DP camps in the British zones.

The British government was determined to hide the Jewish problem in Europe by any and all means. But Jewish refugees kept entering Germany and Austria and then headed to the Mediterranean ports where they boarded illegal ships to Palestine. The illegal fleet of the Brichah grew with the arrival of American ships and American crews notably the Exodus. These ships received wide coverage in the American press and created an anti–British climate. Although the British tried to stop the campaign by seizing the ships at sea and sending the passengers to the Cyprus detention camps, more ships continued to arrive. Press coverage intensified with screaming headlines and pictures of British soldiers mishandling Jewish Holocaust survivors.

Britain was desperate and tried to paint the Jewish refugees as terrorists. British foreign policy directives bade their officials to promote wild stories about Soviet agents wearing Zionist clothing. The most publicized event was a press conference held by UNRRA Director of European Operations, Lieutenant–General Sir Fredrick Morgan, on January 3, 1946 in Frankfurt, Germany. The general stated that “he was not impressed by all the talk about pogroms within Poland”. Furthermore he stated that “a Jewish secret force is organizing the exodus of Jews from Europe and added that Jews fleeing from Poland to Berlin were well dressed, well–fed, rosy–cheeked and have plenty of money”. There were elements of truth in these words namely the Brichah refugee smuggling operations, but the crude anti–Semitic representations created a storm in the Jewish world, especially in the US, the main financial backer of UNRRA. Of course, the general, who was

 

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Lieutenant–General Sir Fredrick Morgan

 

ostensibly in charge of helping poor and destitute refugees, Jewish and non–Jewish, attempted to soften the impact of his crude statements by claiming he was misunderstood or misquoted or both. He was certainly understood as representing British foreign policy. But the American press was against Morgan and insisted on action. Fiorello La Guardia, head of UNRRA had no choice but to dismiss Morgan from his post. Morgan protested the dismissal. Bevin strongly backed Morgan. But the US did not want to create a greater gap than already existed between the two countries. La Guardia was forced to reinstate Morgan who continued to make embarrassing anti–Semitic statements to the detriment of UNRRA.

 

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Morgan continued to make anti–Jewish comments. The British government ultimately dismissed him from this post after criticizing incompetence and corruption within UNRRA. The general claimed that UNRRA was diverting resources to Zionist causes.

American Jewish organizations were furious with Morgan's anti–Semitism and demanded his permanent dismissal. In London, British Jewry was also pressuring for his dismissal as well as an opening of access to the Jewish Shoah survivors in the British zone of occupation. The combined pressure forced the British authorities to ease up on their strict policies toward the Jewish refugees.

President Truman decided to appoint Simon H. Rifkind, a US District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York, as a civilian Special Advisor on Jewish Affairs in Europe. Judge Rifkind was sent to Europe in November 1945 to tour UNRRA facilities and prepare a report. Judge Rifkind was highly respected both by the army and many charitable organizations.

 

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Judge Simon Rifkind (on left)

 

When he first arrived Rifkind served under Allied Commander for the European Theater General Dwight D. Eisenhower, but “Ike” left his post a month after Rifkind arrived. Rifkind then served Eisenhower's replacement, General Joseph T. McNarney, remaining in Europe until March 1946.

Years later Judge Rifkind's son Robert said that the six–months his father had spent in Europe had made him much more of a cynic having witnessed first–hand the atrocities that the Germans had committed, and the unjust discrimination these same Jews who managed to survive were still suffering. According to Robert Rifkind, his father said that almost all the Jewish refugees he encountered wanted to go to Palestine. Nowhere else.

Not long after Rifkind arrived in Europe, David Ben Gurion, Chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, arrived from Jerusalem to visit the “saved remnants' of the Jewish people. He was greeted with great enthusiasm.

Rabbi Samuel Abramovitz, then a young man recently released from the U.S. Army, was volunteering with the JDC in a German DP camp. According to Abramovitz, who had a long distinguished career with the JDC, Ben Gurion was ‘greeted like a king.’ Crowds turned out waving flags and cheering.

The British and Americans tried hard to stop the flow of refugees through Czechoslovakia. The British ambassador to Prague, Philip Nichols, demanded that Czech borders be closed the day following the Kielce pogrom in Poland. He even insisted that Jacobson be expelled from Czechoslovakia[6]. The American ambassador to Prague, Lawrence Steinhardt, consistently pressured Czechoslovakia to close the borders to Polish Jewish refugees. The Czechs replied that only refugees with legal papers were permitted to travel through Czechoslovakia. Still the ambassador protested, he was urged to complain in writing which he did. The letter was received by Masaryk, who leaked a copy of the letter to Toman. Toman invited Steinhardt to his office and told him: ”I (Toman) am going to send the National Guard and they will take you out of the office, and like a sack of potatoes we shall throw you out.[7]” Toman was furious that Steinhardt, a Jew, fought so hard against his own people in trouble. Furthermore, Steinhardt supposedly suggested that Toman be removed from his office since he was Jewish. This incensed Toman. The contents of the protest letter were published in Paris

 

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Lawrence Steinhardt,
USA ambassador to Prague

 

and created a sensation that embarrassed the President of the USA[8]. Even the Russian ambassador to Prague, Valery Zorin, told Gottwald that Czechoslovakia was permitting too many Polish Jews to cross the country. Gottwald called on Toman and showed him the letter. Toman managed to get himself off the hook by stating that he was fighting the Anglo–American Imperialistic plots aimed against the Communist world[9]. Zorin was not terribly pleased but he was busy planning to seize power in Czechoslovakia and wanted the Czech Communist party to be united and ready for action.

Still the trains with illegal Jews continued to roll and Britain's relationship with the US worsened. Bevin decided to heal the rift by proposing the

 

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Ben Gurion (back row) beside Rabbi Herzog,
at Commission meeting on Mt. Scopus, Jerusalem

 

creation of a combined committee to study the entire problem and make binding recommendations. Truman accepted the proposal. The governments of Britain and the United States formed the Anglo–American Commission for Palestine to devise a policy that could be recommended regarding the immigration of Jews to Palestine. Other committees also examined the situation in Palestine, but this was the only committee that dealt with the conditions of the Jews left in Europe. The Commission consisted of six Americans and six British members. The findings were to be binding. Britain packed its delegation with supporters of British foreign policy and was certain that it would pick up some American votes so the British position would be always supported or at worst, there would be a tie within the Committee. The Commission visited the United States and London, Arab capitals and Palestine, and DP camps in Europe, where they questioned Jewish Holocaust survivors. Most of the survivors said they wanted to move to Palestine.

Professor Chaim Weitzman, head of the World Zionist organization and David Ben Gurion, head of the Jewish Agency in Palestine, addressed the Commission. Rabbi Herzog also testified, claiming that the new Jewish entity could absorb all the Jewish survivors in Europe. He also testified to what he had personally witnessed in the Italian DP camps. Rabbi Herzog was well prepared and eloquently presented his case with biblical quotations and references to Jewish history including the fact that Jews prayed three times a day to Zion.

The Commission's final report, issued in October 1946, recommended Jewish immigration of 100,000 refugees to Palestine. Britain rejected the findings, in spite of its commitments to abide by them. Bevin shamelessly dropped the report that he himself proposed in the waste basket. Truman was angry and felt a bit betrayed by his British ally. Britain continued to adhere to their policies as though nothing had happened, issuing only 1,500 certificates a month until the number would reach the original White Paper number of 75,000 immigrants. Most of those interred on Cyprus, received priority in getting certificates.

Footnotes

  1. Arens, Moshe. Flags Over the Ghetto of Warsaw, USA: Gefen Publishing House,, P.80 Return
  2. Szulc, Alliance p29 Return
  3. Zertel, Idith. From Catastrophe to Power, Holocaust Survivors and the Emergence of Israel. University of California Press, P.20 Return
  4. San Francisco Jewish Community Publications Inc. JWeekly.com 2 “Deaths of 260 in 1940 ship explosion commemorated”. 14 December 2001. Retrieved 25 May 2013. Return
  5. Kochavi, Post, p.40 Return
  6. Szulc, Alliance, p.155 Return
  7. Szulc, Alliance, p.157 Return
  8. Szulc, Alliance, p.157 Return
  9. Szulc, Alliance. P.155 Return

 

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