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FIRE AT GRENFELL TOWER

There are many ways you can become homeless – eviction, domestic violence, mental illness, alcoholism. In my two years working in Emergency Housing at Hammersmith and Fulham Council I saw them all. But the worst by far was fire. People who lose their homes through fire suffer major trauma just from shock, and then in addition they may have lost all their possession or even relatives who have died in the fire. What they need, immediately, is a safe and comfortable place to go locally, where they will have the security of knowing they can stay for a while. We didn’t have the facilites to offer that, and nor will Kensington and Chelsea Council today to the former residents of Grenfell Tower. Not only have they lost their homes, they have also lost their local community. Two thirds of homeless people in the Royal Borough are offered temporary accommodation in another part of London – and that’s just temporary. When it comes to the permanent offer of a home – neighbouring Westminster Council has offered homes as far away as Coventry. During the London blitz, when homes were bombed out, good people took their neighbours in. But that isn’t going to happen. Of course many are rallying round to help, but one thing is sure – the wealthy residents of Kensington are not going to be offering homes to locally displaced council tenants who have lost everything. We still have a class ridden society. The newly elected Labour MP for the area, Emma Dent Coad, has vowed to tackle inequality in the area. She could not have a harder test.

 

Grenfell Tower, where the horrific fire took hold last night, lies just a few hundred yards east of the area I worked in, just south of the Westway motorway which carries West Londoners into town. It has certainly had a lot of money spent on it – £8.6 million in a major refurbishment which was completed only last year. But today, there are a lot of questions which have to be answered. Reports suggest that the fire spread quickly through that new cladding on the outside – it came off and melted. Other reports inform us that there is no central fire alarm in the block, and residents were warned only by their personal smoke alarms. There have been proper fire inspections by the London Fire Brigade, but what happened to the sprinkler system? And what about those prominently displayed notices on every floor asking people to stay in their flats in the event of a fire? It’s a tried and tested system which works well when a blaze can be quickly tackled, but not when the whole building is burning down.

 

If you watch the videos and listen to the sounds as bits of the building fall away, it is reminiscent of 9/11. The same quiet sounds, the same dust, the same horror. But of course not the same news value as victims of terror. There will be no benefit concert for the homeless of Grenfell Tower, no multi-million pound fund to help them. Their story will quickly fade from the headlines, as they try to pick up the pieces of their lives.

AFTER HILLSBOROUGH

BACK TO ISRAEL IN WONDERLAND

ACHAREI-MOT 5776  – Saturday 30th April 2016

 Sermon delivered by Rabbi Michael Hilton, Kol Chai Hatch End Reform Jewish Community

© Michael Hilton 2016

The most moving moment of my week came as a surprise. I was on my way home from Kol Chai on Tuesday afternoon and listening to the PM programme on Radio 4. The news was of the verdict at the inquest into the 96 people who died at Hillsborough Football Stadium in Sheffield April 1989. The reporting was not just about the facts, but about people’s feelings. And one word kept being repeated time and time again. The word was love. The Hillsborough families were people who loved each other, loved their families, loved and missed those who died, families who had cared and looked after those who were injured. In Liverpool, it was the Hillsborough disaster which brought people together. After centuries of rivalry between Catholic and Protestant, after the disaster, the world first witnessed the Church of England and the Catholic Church, the Bishop and the Archbishop, standing side by side. Since that time, as those of us who know Liverpool and its people can bear witness, the city has had an incredibly strong community feel, as strong as you will find anywhere. I myself witnessed the togetherness in 1997, when The Catholic Archbishop of the time (David Warlocke) read from the Bible standing (by chance) right next to me in a very full  Anglican Cathedral, assembled for the retirement of Bishop David Sheppard. It was a moment I shall never forget. It was as if Rabbi Bergson from Pinner shul had come to Kol Chai and read from the Torah in our synagogue: it seemed momentous, a huge act of friendship and reconciliation. But that’s how Liverpool is, how it has become.

 

What I heard on the news report on Tuesday was that at the very time when football supporters were being crushed to death in the overcrowded Hillsborough stadium, a false narrative was being constructed, the one which many of us read and heard at the time, that Liverpool supporters without tickets had forced their way into the ground. On top of that statement, now known to be a lie, further myths were constructed about drunkenness and irresponsible behaviour, and these myths have persisted for all these years even though there was plenty of TV footage from the day which didn’t pick it up.  Why was this possible, asked the BBC reporter?  It was something about what people thought of football supporters, what people thought of Liverpool, and of course putting the two together, what they thought of Liverpool football supporters.

 

One of those featured on the news programme was Trevor Hicks, who lost his two daughters, who wasn’t living in Liverpool at all but here in Hatch End. Three years ago I heard him speak at Middlesex New Synagogue, telling the told us the horrific story of how he lost both his daughters, aged 19 and 15 among the Liverpool supporters who died on that fateful day. One of the many things that went wrong was the police publicising the full names and addresses of those who died. Because not so many of them had London addresses, and because the media then as now were mainly based in London, Trevor and his wife found the next morning, after a sleepless night, an army of journalists and photographers camped outside their door. It was three days before they could leave the cul-de-sac where they lived.

 

In this world, the search for reconciliation demands justice, and the search for peace of mind after trauma demands truth. Sometimes the plight and the fight can go on for years, as organisations and public bodies become defensive. This week’s Torah section has a timely title “Acharei mot”, which meands “after death”. Aaron’s two sons had apparently done something wrong – but who knows, maybe that too was a false narrative written after the event to try to explain their deaths.  But the follow up to the story comes this week, as their father Aaron is instructed in a ritual of atonement. Two goats are to be taken, one for a sin offering and one for Azazel – one to be burned on the altar, one allowed to escape into the wilderness, the original “scapegoat.” This ritual became the centre of the huge Yom Kippur ceremonies in ancient times, and we still read about the details and remember it in our Musaf service every Yom Kippur to this day. But our machzor does not explore the link our Torah makes between the instructions for the ceremony and the death of Aaron’s two sons. The midrash explains that Nadav and Avihu had died because they came “too near to God” and therefore Aaron is here told not to enter the holiest part of the sanctuary. A simple explanation. But psychologically it’s much more complicated than that. It is well known that survivors often feel guilty for having survived when others have died: rituals of grieving and atonement (literally becoming “at one” with God) can help. Two people are at a football match: one dies, one survives. Lots are cast on two goats: one dies the other is set free: the difference being that with the goats, it is done deliberately as a ritual, a kind of sympathetic magic through which the guilt of the survivor, in this case Aaron, can be cleansed. There were no inquests or committees of enquiries in ancient times, but they knew something in those days we often forget: that public acknowledgement helps. May this weekend and the coming months be a time of healing for those who suffered at Hillsborough: and may the police and others who are left feeling they should have done so much more, may they get the help they need too, for it would be wrong to offer comfort to the survivors by scapegoating another group.  The need for penance after bloodshed is also the theme of our haftarah this morning, from Ezekiel 22;  “Thus says the Lord God: A city which sheds blood within itself; its time has come..You have become guilty by the blood that you have shed” But in the end this great denouncer of Israel came to preach the message of repentance: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” That’s how the Hillsborough families are feeling this weekend; may they find comfort not only through each other, but through their renewed hope in the system of justice with which they have struggled for so long.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DEALING WITH THE NAZIS

For the sin of silence,
For the sin of indifference,
For the secret complicity of the neutral,
For the closing of borders,
For the washing of hands,
For the crime of indifference,
For the sin of silence,
For the closing of borders,
For all that was done,
For all that was not done,
Let there be no forgetfulness before the Throne of Glory;
Let there be remembrance within the human heart;
And let there at last be forgiveness
When Your children, O God,
are free and at peace.
(From Gates of Repentance, p. 439)

Fama …
tam ficti pravique tenax quam nuntia veri.
(Virgil, Aeneid, 4. 174 – 188)

DEALING WITH THE NAZIS: HOW HAS THE HISTORY OF THE HOLOCAUST BEEN DISTORTED BY ANTI-ZIONIST PROPAGANDISTS

by Michael Hilton, published in European Judaism, 20:2 (1986), 30-40.

In our day, the Holocaust has become not just a historical issue, but a political one. Recently, the words “Six million lies” were found daubed on the Anne Frank Exhibition in London’s East End (Jewish Chronicle, 25th April 1986, p. 36). The slogan “Did six million really die?” has become a cliché of the far right. Academics have debated on television the question whether Hitler himself knew of the “final solution”. In these ways, anti-semites seek to deny the experiences, the memories, and the suffering of the Jews in Europe.

Among left-wing groups, where racism is not respectable, a different distortion has taken place. Here, the propaganda is directed specifically at Israel. The fact that the Holocaust took place is not in itself denied: but we can read of a “Holocaust in Lebanon”, and it is suggested that Israel’s “imperialism” has a historical explanation – it dates back to the days of Zionist co-operation with the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. It is these anti-Zionist distortions by the left which have been the subject of my researches. What do the propagandists say? In what sense does their anti-Zionism distort history? What really happened?

Let me begin in 1982, with an event which in a strange way has now become part of Leo Baeck College’s own history. 1982 was the year in which Sheila Shulman and Elizabeth Sarah became involved in the bitter and protracted row which was to lead to their leaving the mainstream women’s movement. The magazine Spare Rib, like other feminist publications in London, was known to take a pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist stance, but never before had it published anything quite like the double-page spread “Women Speak Out against Zionism” which appeared in Issue 121 (August 1982, pp. 22 – 23), in the wake of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Three women were interviewed: Nidal, introduced as a Lebanese woman, was reported to have said:

There is an enormous difference between being Jewish and being Zionist. The main idea behind Zionism is that all the Jews should get together and form a nation, because they are in danger from the ‘non-Jews’, what they call the Gentiles. Which is so similar to the Nazi ideology that the Jews should not be with the gentiles.

And Aliza Khan, the Israeli representative, continued the discussion:

Zionism claimed to speak in the name of the Jews. In fact, it was created by European Jews who used anti-semitism for their own interests. Its aim never was to fight anti-semitism, moreover, it saw anti-semitism as its best ally. Hertzel said ‘Anti-semites will be our most dependable friends … our allies’. After the second World War, Zionist leaders used to say that Jewish people should thank Hitler because without him, the state of Israel would never have been created.

After a flood of letters and a good deal of acrimonious debate behind the scenes, Spare Rib printed a response from Sheila, Elizabeth and other Jewish feminists (Issue 123, October 1982, pp. 20 – 21). The emphasis this time, however, was not on Middle-East politics, but on the women’s own Jewish backgrounds, and personal experience of anti-semitism, with this rationale –

anti-Zionism threatens to make our experience and history completely invisible. We refuse to be silenced in this way … I can think of no other group of women whose experience of racism is so consistently invalidated as ours.

In spite of these words, the Jewish women were to be silenced. The very next issue of Spare Rib carried an even more strident article dedicated “to the memory of the Palestinian and Lebanese massacred by the Israeli ‘Defense’ Force.” (“Women against Zionism”, Issue 124, November, 1982, pp. 38 – 39) The previous article had suggested an ideological link between Zionism and Nazism: now this article offered a historical analysis:

During World War 2, when the US and the UK refused to accept Jewish refugees, they met with no objection from the Zionist leaders. Those leaders preferred to use their refusal – and its implications for the thousands of Jewish people in danger – as a bargaining tool so as to obtain support from the West for the creation of a Jewish state. Therefore, and by its own admission, Zionism was involved in saving the lives of Jewish people only in so far as this meant bringing them over to Palestine as settlers. In the late 30’s, under the pressure of public opinion, various projects were proposed by the Americans, British and other governments for saving the Jewish people. The Zionist movement refused to co-operate and helped to shelve these projects. Moshe Sharett (who was later to become the first Foreign Minister and then second Prime Minister of Israel) put it like this:
‘The fate of Zionism is to be sometimes cruel towards the Jewish Diaspora; that is when the building up of this country requires it.’

This time there was no reply: after many months an editorial (Issue 130, May 1983, p. 4) revealed that “After numerous and exhausting discussions we have decided (not unanimously) not to publish any of the letters we received. As a collective we are united in a pro-Palestinian position…” There can be no doubt that the row had split the collective from top to toe: the editorial also revealed that more than half of their group had left within the preceding four months. One of those who left, Linda Bellos, told some of the scandal to the Jewish Chronicle, in an interview published on 20th May 1983. The rift was permanent: from this time on, Sheila, Liz and many other Jewish women felt excluded from the main-stream feminist movement in London. The Jewish women went different ways and followed different paths: Elizabeth and Sheila became full-time students at Leo Baeck College in October 1984.

Unfortunately, Spare Rib is not the only publication which has sought to draw ideological and historical links between Zionism and Nazism, between Zionists and Nazis. The theme has become a common one throughout the vast range of socialist, pro-Palestinian literature – from learned journals through to tabloid newspapers. What follows is only a very small sample of the allegations which have been made. All the examples I have found date from within the past fifteen years. It will be remembered that the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries broke off diplomatic relations with Israel following the six-day war in 1967. From then on, anti-Zionism became more and more fashionable, and historians and propagandists, aware of the boom in Holocaust studies, began to find links. In his article in the Leo Baeck Institute Year Book for 1976, Konrad Kwiet discussed the portrayal by East German historians of anti-semitism under the Nazis. He is able to pin-point the first inclusion of anti-Zionist propaganda in a historical work on the Nazi period to a book published in 1972 (Antisemitismus, by W. Mohrmann, Berlin, 1972, cf. Kwiet, p. 194). European Zionists are accused of failing to join in the anti-fascist resistance which “the objective logic of the class struggle” dictated (Kwiet, p. 197) – in other words, Zionists in the 1930s opted out by encouraging Jews to emigrate instead of taking up armed struggle against the Nazis – if all the anti-fascist forces had taken up this struggle, the Nazis could have been defeated much earlier and the Holocaust averted.

Populist pamphlets have taken up this argument in a less subtle and more extreme form. This is an extract from a Socialist Workers Party pamphlet, Palestine Lives!, published in London in 1981 (Marfleet, p. 17):

Many Zionists treated the rise of fascism as a golden opportunity to advance their own plans. They actually opposed the campaigns of some Jewish groups to pressure the countries of Western Europe and North America into accepting Jews fleeing from the Nazis. They required that Jews be directed in one way only – to Palestine.
And the most extreme Zionists, such as the Irgun group in Palestine, even identified with the popular racism and the para-military organisation of the Nazis. The Irgun, who were later to carry out the Deir Yassin massacre,and whose leader, Begin, was to become Israel’s Prime Minister, were open admirers of Mussolini …

A booklet published in Moscow in the same year with the title Zionism – Enemy of Peace and Social Progress, repeated these allegations and added others (Dadiani, pp. 20, 31, 32): –

The racist essence of Zionism … is manifested in Zionists’ reducing Hitlerite racism in fact almost exclusively to anti-Semitism … Hitler and his regime were reared by German Big Business … including a number of firms belonging to Jewish capitalists…

At the United Nations, for so long the international forum for anti-Zionist statements, there were allegations of collaboration. The following is taken from the published summary of a speech by the Iranian delegate, a Mr. Youssif, at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights at Geneva in February 1981 (United Nations, document E/CN.4/SR.1591, p.9):

The Zionists had always been and were still spiritual brothers of Fascists, since they followed the same ideology and were rabid racists. The only difference between them was that the German Fascists had created a cult of the Aryan race while the Zionists were seeking to create the cult of a superior Jewish race. In 1956, a former active Zionist had revealed that certain prominent Jewish politicians, including Chaim Weizmann and Ben Gurion, had collaborated with Adolf Eichmann during the Second World War. Furthermore, a number of books written by such Jewish authors as Ben Hecht, Hannah Arendt and Alfred Lilienthal contained a great deal of information which showed the spiritual relationship between Zionists and Nazis. As a result of their collaboration with the Nazis, the Zionists had learned the art of provocation for political purposes.

The last sentence quoted is a common theme of this type of propaganda: as a result of their collaboration with Nazis in the past, Israel today is imperialistic and militaristic. For those who think in this way, it thus becomes logical to use the word “holocaust” to describe the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. In London Labour Briefing in August of that year, Tony Greenstein compared the current actions of the Israeli army to Kristallnacht.

It is not difficult to respond to and to refute the more extreme manifestations of such propaganda. However, some of the quotations I have given do refer to real historical events, such as the haavarah agreement and the Joel Brand affair. Here the person who wishes to reply may well face a difficulty if he is uncertain of his facts. For example, the US delegate to the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1981, himself a Holocaust survivor, passionately denounced the Iranian’s equation of Zionists and Nazis. Like the Jewish feminists who responded in Spare Rib, he considered the allegations a denial of his own experience of anti-semitism, which he did not want to be forgotten. His own story, however, had no bearing on specific allegations such as a link between Eichmann and Weizmann. What, then, is the true story of these matters?

The reader seeking objective historical information on links between Zionists and Nazis will find little to guide him in the standard histories of the Holocaust: most writers have chosen to ignore or to play down so controversial an area. This is unfortunate, because, like the propagandists of the far right, their counterparts on the left have apparently scholarly historians to guide them – historians such as Lenni Brenner, born 1937, a New York Jew who has become passionately committed to the Palestinian cause. He has visited England and spoken on Palestinian platforms. His book Zionism in the Age of the Dictators was published in 1983, and deals exclusively with the relation of Zionism to Nazi fascism. His motive is clearly stated in his preface – “there is much that is politically embarrassing to be found in that record.” Brenner is not really a reputable historian: his use of souce material – so far as I have been able to check it – is accurate, but his analyses and conclusions fall within the realm of anti-Zionist propaganda. It is for that reason that the remainder of this essay will be devoted to the issues he raises. Rather than attempting to review the whole book, I have preferred to concentrate on various issues in detail, comparing both Brenner’s accuracy and sources with other accounts.

For Brenner, “it was anti-semitism – alone – that generated Zionism”, which he calls “the modernist-racist ideology of Jewish separatism” (p. 18). It is thus a counterpart of Nazism – both have a doctrine of blut und boden – a particular land for a particular race (p. 19). Brenner is a master of the selective use of quotation. For example, he quotes from Lucy Dawidowicz’ Holocaust Reader the reaction of Rabbi Joachim Prinz on being told that the Nazis would solve the Jewish question (Brenner 1983, p. 47):

Solution of the Jewish question? It was our Zionist dream! We never denied the existence of the Jewish question!

Of course, every historian of the holocaust is confronted by a bewildering panoply of primary materials – documents, photographs, and even survivors: what he selects will naturally depend on his individual interest and bias. But when is bias a legitimate exercise of a historian’s critical judgement, and when does it become a distortion of history? In Brenner’s case, there can be no doubt that his aim is to blacken the name of Israel – and that this aim draws him into conclusions entirely unwarranted by the evidence he brings. His basic thesis is thus a mistaken one. The truth of the matter is that, apart from the wierd attempt by the Stern Gang to form an alliance with the Axis powers in 1941 in order to defeat the British, the story of Nazi-Zionist links is not one of collaboration as such, but rather a series of different attempts to save Jews from their fate in Europe. The whole history of rescue attempts from the Holocaust is a sad and tragic one – a history of Allied indifference and Jewish powerlessness. The British exercised stringent quotas on entry into Palestine throughout the period, and no other country was prepared to accept large numbers of Jewish refugees. The areas I have chosen to concentrate on encapsulate many of the most controversial issues – the haavarah (transfer) agreement of the 1930s – and the fate of the Jews of Slovakia and Hungary between 1942 and 1944.

In considering the trade agreement of the 1930s, I shall balance Brenner’s use of sources against the sober and low-key article by Herbert Strauss in the Leo Baeck Institute Year Book for 1981. Both Brenner and Strauss give accurate details of the negotiations which led to the haavarah transfer agreement: they began shortly after the Nazis’ rise to power in January 1933. In April of that year, Sam Cohen, the director of a citrus growing company in Natanya, concluded an agreement under which German Jews could pay reichsmark into a blocked account. German industrialists were to export goods to Palestine, and be reimbursed from the account: the Jews in Palestine would sell the goods, and use the proceeds to reimburse the depositors when they made aliyah, at a preferential rate of exchange. This agreement was to continue until war broke out in September 1939: the rules were constantly being changed, but the essence of it remained the same. Later, as the Nazis imposed stricter and stricter conditions on Jews taking their money out of Germany, a tax was imposed on deposits – at first 30%, later 50% (Strauss, p. 349, Brenner 1983 p. 64).

The scheme did not remain long in Cohen’s hands. In May 1933 negotiations were taken over by the Director of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency in Palestine, Chaim Arlosoroff. He wanted to extend the scheme to include an aliyah quota. Brenner writes (p. 63):

In early May 1933, Arlosoroff and the Nazis came to a preliminary understanding to extend Cohen’s arrangements. He visited Berlin again in June, and returned to Tel Aviv on 14 June. Two nights later he was assassinated…

Members of Jabotinsky’s Irgun Zvi Leumi were suspected of carrying out the murder: the Zionist right wanted, like many Jews across the world, a complete boycott of Nazi goods. The row became public when the Nazi government announced the agreement in time to cause dissension at the Zionist Congress held at Prague. The executive of the Jewish Agency denied any involvement, but a call for a boycott was defeated because Jabotinsky, who supported it, was discredited by the Arlosoroff murder: it was not known that he had been to Berlin to negotiate the agreement (Strauss, p. 349: Brenner 1983, p. 63: Weinstock, p. 151).

Nevertheless, as time went on and the agreement remained in force, Jewish public opinion became increasingly disturbed. It is at this point that Brenner’s account begins to diverge radically from that of Strauss – Brenner concentrates in detail on the disagreements, while Strauss mentions them only in passing. For example, Brenner describes how American Reform Rabbis, including Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen Wise, spoke out strongly against the haavarah agreement, Wise calling it the “New golden calf – the Golden Orange”. He describes in detail how, in spite of the opposition, the next Zionist Congress, held in Lucerne in 1935, endorsed the agreement, and placed it officially under the Executive of the Jewish Agency: an unsuccessful attempt was made to prevent Wise from speaking. The endorsement by the Congress was condemned by the Jewish Chronicle. Haavarah contributed to the recovery of German industry. From 1934 to 1937, the haavarah office acted as a clearing house for the Palestine citrus exports. Brenner alleges that the citrus fruit could be seen being unloaded in Holland from Nazi ships. For Strauss, the whole agreement was one which assisted Palestine and opened the doors for escape: but for Brenner haavarah was a failure that assisted the Nazis and paved the way for the destruction of European Jewry, thus endangering the Jews’ own future, and human rights all over the world (see especially Brenner 1983, Chapter 6: Strauss, pp. 349 – 350).

Hannah Arendt has written of the popularity of Zionism among the Nazis in the 1930s in the chapter “The First Solution: Expulsion” of her Eichmann in Jerusalem. Eichmann himself attempted to visit Palestine in 1937, but was expelled by the British: later, he received emissaries from Aliyah Bet in Vienna, and helped them set up a training camp. Among the ordinary people, too, Zionism was seen as a “solution” to the Jewish problem. On 27th October 1938, when Polish Jews resident in Germany were deported, the streets of Hanover were full of people shouting “Juden raus to Palestine!” (Arendt, pp. 56 – 67, 228.)

The fact is, however, that the total amount of capital involved in the haavarah agreement [139 million reichsmark], although of very great significance for the economy of Palestine during this period, represented only a small fraction of Germany’s exports. And the scheme did enable many people to escape. Immigration to Palestine was based on the British Colonial Office’s estimates of the country’s “absorptive capacity”. This meant that although there were very few permits for ordinary workers, there was no restriction on those who had at least 1000 lirot. These were just the people who were able to benefit from the haavarah agreement. Between 1933 and 1936, more German Jews went to Palestine than to any other country (Strauss’ total of legal immigrants from Germany during this period is 55,000). (Strauss, pp. 345 – 350).
That, then, is the story of the haavarah transfer agreement. Those who escaped with the help of the Zionist groups remember them with affection, and have nothing but praise for their activities. The controversy which the agreement aroused in the Jewish world at the time had been largely forgotten, until it was revived by today’s anti-Zionist left for their own purposes.

So far, we have concentrated on the 1930s when escape was possible – a situation of persecution not unique to the Holocaust era. Throughout Jewish history, Jews have travelled and settled in country after country as a result of persecution. Flight has been a traditional response to anti-semitism since Biblical times. But when the doors are slammed shut and escape seems impossible, what then? Brenner’s remarks about the 1940s are even more controversial than what he says about the pre-war era. He deals with matters which aroused deep bitterness at the time, and which reopen old wounds when they are discussed today. For example, he takes up the complaints made by Rabbi Weissmandl of Bratislava against the Zionist Relief Organisations of the free world. Some words of introduction are necessary here, for Weissmandl happens to be one of the forgotten Jewish heroes of the Holocaust. Historians have tended to concentrate on two main responses – those who offered little resistance, and those who took up armed struggle. But a third, more controversial, response was possible – to attempt to bribe the Nazis. For Weissmandl, however, bribery was by no means controversial: he had no doubts – ransom was a mizvah, codified by Rambam (Hilkhot Mattanot Aniyyim 8.10): –

Pidyon shevuyim (ransoming of captives) comes before feeding the poor, and clothing them, and there is no greater mizvah than pidyon shevuyim, for not only is the captive included among the general category of the hungry, the thirsty and the naked, but he is in danger of his life.

Rabbi Weissmandl’s story was neglected until the recent publication of a biography in the Art Scroll History Series, The Unheeded Cry by Abraham Fuchs. The title of the book refers to the many letters which were frequently smuggled out from him, in which he asked and pleaded for assistance of various kinds, and to the lack of response, as he perceived it, both of the allied powers and of the Jewish organisations.

Yeshivah trained and a persuasive orator, Weissmandl’s rescue activities began in 1938, when he succeeded in obtaining sixty entry visas to Britain for Rabbis expelled from Austria: he obtained the visas by managing to fly out of Vienna under the eye of the Nazis and speaking personally to the Archbishop of Canterbury – he then flew back home! However, his many subsequent pleas to London and Canterbury on behalf of refugees were ignored. From 1942 – 1944, he was active in an informal rescue committee in Bratislava known as the “working group” or the Hazalah. The committee included a cross-section of Slovakian Jewry including the WZO organiser, Gisi Fleischmann, and a Reform Rabbi, Armin Frieder. In March 1942 the committee succeeded in bribing the SS officer, Dieter Wisliceny, who was in charge of the expulsion of Jews from Slovakia: following the payment of $50,000 the deportations stopped for two years.

It was by no means easy for Weissmandl’s committee in Bratislava to raise the funds which they used for this bribe. Money for bribing the Nazis had to come from abroad – Jewish-owned wealth in occupied Europe, which the Nazis could seize anyway, was of no use for bribes. But the Nazis believed that world finance was dominated by Jewish-owned capital, and some of them were anxious to get their hands on these imagined hoards. The largest source of funds was held by the American-based Joint Distribution Committee, which in fact spent millions of dollars on relief work, and was even allowed to operate inside the Warsaw ghetto: the story of the “Joint” and its work has been movingly and simply retold by Herbert Agar, in The Saving Remnant. The Joint’s representative in Switzerland, Saly Mayer, was one of those to whom Weissmandl wrote in August 1942, asking for money for Wisliceny. Mayer was President of the Swiss Jewish Community, a retired manufacturer of lace. Throughout the wartime period, he voluntarily devoted his time, money and effort to relief work across the border in Nazi lands. But Mayer was not interested in any undercover operations, and had no belief in the efficacy of bribing Nazis. He would attempt to keep negotiations going in the hope that delay would be helpful, but would not devote the funds at his disposal for bribery. In his reply to Weissmandl he pointed out that US law forbade the transfer of dollars to an enemy country, and the law had to be observed. It was not a reply Weissmandl could understand: he and Mayer lived in totally different worlds: for Weissmandl there was only one law, one that obligated every Jew to save lives. (Fuchs, Chapter 4, and Agar, Chapter 6)

Weissmandl was even more upset and annoyed with a letter he received from Nathan Schwalb, the representative of the Zionist organisation Hehaluz in Geneva. It took him a while to decipher it – it turned out to be Hebrew written in Roman characters. Because of the slow deciphering and the deep effect the letter had on him, Weissmandl claimed to have remembered its contents accurately. Both Fuchs and Brenner quote from this letter – Brenner in more detail (Fuchs, p. 76: cf. Brenner 1983, p. 237): –

About the cries coming from your country, we should know that the Allied nations are spilling much of their blood, and if we do not sacrifice any blood, by what right shall we merit coming before the long dining table when they divide nations and lands at the war’s end? Therefore it is silly, even impudent, on our part, to ask these nations who are spilling their blood to permit their money into enemy countries in order to protect our blood – for only with blood shall we get the land. But in respect to you my friends, rescue yourselves, and for this purpose I am sending you money illegally …

Lenni Brenner, anxious to exploit each and every link he can find between Zionist and Nazi ideology, makes a great deal of Weissmandl’s account of this letter. Walter Laqueur, investigating a different angle – the means by which news of the Holocaust leaked out to the Allies – complains that Schwalb’s correspondence has not been made accessible to historians (Laqueur, p. 144). One wonders why. Fuchs confirms that this letter, “coming from a man living in the free world to those who were slated to be the sacrifices, shook Rabbi Weissmandl to the very depths of his soul” (p. 78). For Weissmandl, the fact that Schwalb promised to send money for him to save himself and his friends, merely made matters worse. His motive was never to save his own skin. Schwalb could not even live up to his own abhorrent principles. If he could smuggle money for them, why not the total amount wanted? If Nazis could be bribed in small doses, why not in large? For the rest of his life, Weissmandl was a bitter opponent of the Zionist cause.

Once again, the facts Brenner gives are accurate but carefully selected: he fails to mention how Weissmandl did eventually obtain the money. In fact, the funds had come from Zionist sources, channelled through Istanbul and Budapest. After the negative replies from Switzerland, Weissmandl and his friends had to resort to subterfuge to explain the delay to Wisliceny. Weissmandl would forge letters to himself from a fictitious Jew in Switzerland, promising help. He would have the letters smuggled out to Switzerland and posted back to him. But this stratagem could only work for a while, and Wisliceny restarted deportations from Slovakia. In order to stress the urgency of the situation, Rabbi Weissmandl sent three telegrams to Hungarian Rabbis in Budapest on Yom Kippur. It was shortly after that the funds finally arrived, and the deportations were halted for two years. (Fuchs, Chapter 4: Weissberg, p. 58). In his eagerness to criticise the Zionists,Brenner ignores this, and instead concentrates on a very different conclusion (Brenner 1983, p. 238):

Schwalb’s letter …expressed the morbid thoughts of the worst elements of the WZO leadership. Zionism had come full turn: instead of Zionism being the hope of the Jews, their blood was to be the political salvation of Zionism.

All historians of Zionism are aware of the links between the events of the Nazi era and the founding of the state of Israel: and the citing of Yom HaShoah a week before Yom HaAzmaut has served to reinforce the connection in the minds of the Jewish public: few of them, however, are aware of how those hostile to Zionism and all it stands for are able to exploit this link for their own ends.

Brenner devotes a whole chapter of his book to the liquidation of Hungarian Jewry (Chapter 25, “Hungary, The Crime Within A Crime). How has the anti-Zionist propagandist distorted the history? Once again, the details with which he deals require a fair amount of background information if they are to be understood correctly. The story of the end of Hungarian Jewry was the final tragic chapter of the Holocaust. The Germans took over the country from its puppet government without a shot being fired on 19th March 1944. The deportations to Auschwitz began on 15th May, and ended less than eight weeks later, on 8th July. Rudolf Hoess, the commander at Auschwitz, boasted at his efficiency in being able to liquidate so many so fast. The total number is believed to be 437,000 – an average of eight thousand per day (Dawidowicz, pp. 152 – 157, Gilbert Atlas, Map 254).

When Weissmandl’s committee heard that the Nazis had occupied Hungary, they contacted Wisliceny and gave him the names of their Jewish contacts in Hungary. They hoped that a further bribe could be arranged. Yehuda Bauer thus describes the background to this affair (Bauer 1978, pp. 102 – 103):

the working group believed that its policy had stopped the deportations (from Slovakia in 1941). A further approach was therefore made to Wisliceny in November 1942, and a ransom payment offered for the release of all European Jews. This proposal, which came to be known as the “Europa Plan”, was to all appearances taken very seriously by the Nazis. Wisliceny went to Berlin to discuss the plan with his superiors – after the war he claimed that he had discussed it with Eichmann – and he came back to Bratislava demanding $2 million in foreign currency, to be paid up after talks on neutral territory. In return, the Nazis would desist from the deportation of West European and Balkan Jewry. These discussions dragged along until August 1943, because Jews in the free world to whom the “working group” turned for money did not take the German proposal seriously.

When Wisliceny arived in Budapest, he first contacted Rabbi Pinchas Freudiger, the head of the Orthodox community there: he showed him a letter of introduction from Rabbi Weissmandl. Weissmandl had meanwhile written secretly to Freudiger with details of the Europe Plan, and warning him that Hungarian Jews should resist rather than allow themseslves to be concentrated in ghettos. But nothing came of Wisliceny’s contact with Freudiger, because negotiations were taken out of Wisliceny’s hands, and taken over by Eichmann in person. (Fuchs, p. 160 ff.) There can be no doubt that Eichmann preferred to deal with Zionist leaders rather than an Orthodox Rabbi. He was fanatically hostile to religion (Hausner, p. 8), but knew some thing of Zionism and Zionists (see above, p. 6). Thus there entered onto the stage of history the Zionist group of Budapest, led by Dr. Rudolph (Israel) Kastner, and Joel Brand.

The story of Joel Brand is one which has been often retold. In addition to the article by Yehuda Bauer from which the quotation above is taken, there are two books on the subject, Advocate for the Dead by Alex Weissberg, (which is Brand’s own ghost-written autobiography), and a dramatic novel, Timetable by Amos Elon. Brand figures also in Weissmandl’s autobiography, and Fuchs’ book which is based on it. Furthermore, the Brand story was retold in two-well known court cases in Israel, and figures in the many books which deal with those cases. One was the Kastner libel action, in which Kastner successfully defended himself against charges of collaboration, but was subsequently assassinated: and the other was the Eichmann trial. Although the different accounts agree in the outline of the story, they differ greatly in their emphasis. For Weissberg and Elon, Brand was a hero, a lone voice that the world would not listen to: for Weissmandl, Fuchs and Bauer, he was rather an idiot, whom nobody could really take seriously. For Hausner, who saw him give evidence at Eichmann’s trial, he was a totally pathetic figure (Hausner, p.344):

Joel Brand, “the emissary for the dead,” then gave evidence on the fantastic “Blood for goods” deal. As he stood in the witness box imitating Eichmann’s barking yell – “A million Jews for ten thousand trucks is cheap!” – I realised that the man was no more than a receptacle for memories. He had no present; his life had stopped long ago, probably in the Cairo prison, where he was kept by the British for months banging his head against the walls, shouting that he had to get back, for every day ten thousand Hungarian Jews were being sent to their deaths. It was there that Brand’s soul had really died, though his body kept moving for twenty more years. All he could do was to keep telling the story of the mission that had fallen through. Even the Eichmann trial could not bring peace to his tormented mind …

It was on 25th April 1944, that Brand was summoned to meet Eichmann at the Hotel Majestic in Budapest. Weissberg dramatises what Eichmann told him as follows (Weissberg, p. 15):

I expect you know who I am. I was in charge of the “Actions” in Germany and Poland and Czechoslovakia. Now it’s Hungary’s turn. I have got you here so that we can talk business. I have already made investigations about you and your people and I have verified your ability to make a deal. Now then, I am prepared to sell you one million Jews. Not the whole lot – you wouldn’t be able to raise emough for that. But you could manage a million. Blood for money – cash for blood. You can take them from any country you like, wherever you can find them – Hungary, Poland, the Ostmark, from Theresienstadt, from Auschwitz, wherever you like. Who do you want to save? Men capable of procreation? Women who can bear children? Old people? Children? Sit down and tell me.

After two further meetings with Eichmann, Brand was flown out to Istanbul on a fake German passport with the offer. The date was 18th May 1944, three days after Eichmann had begun to transport the Jews of Hungary to Auschwitz as fast as he could. Every day that Brand took meant a further eight to ten thousand more Hungarian Jewish lives lost.

To this day nobody knows whether or not Eichmann was serious about his offer. For most historians it was a ruse, a game played by the master of deception. For Agar, the fact that the deportations continued was sufficient evidence of that – neither Himmler or Eichmann “had the power to release more than a handful of the condemned” (Agar, p. 156). Yehuda Bauer ingeniously argues that the Brand mission was merely a cover for an attempt by Himmler to negotiate a separate peace with the allies. We shall never know whether or not Eichmann was in fact serious, because Brand never returned from his mission.

Brenner blames the Zionists for the failure of Brand’s mission. He quotes with approval Brand’s own words to the Histradut as dramatised by Weissberg (Brenner 1983, p. 255, cf. Weissberg, p. 181):

‘You were the last hope of hundreds of thousands condemned to death. You have failed them. I was those people’s emissary yet you let me sit in a Cairo prison. . . You have refused to declare a general strike. If there was no other way, you should have used force.’. . . They hurried up to the reporters who were present and begged them to hush up the matter.

Is Brenner right in blaming the Zionist movement as a whole for Brand’s failure? Martin Gilbert blames the Allies. He devotes a whole chapter of his book Auschwitz and the Allies to the Brand affair, under the title, “A Gestapo Offer: ‘Unmanageable Numbers'”. The title refers to the frequently expressed British reluctance to countenance large numbers of refugees from Europe. The advice given to the British by the various Jewish leaders was contradictory. Moshe Shertok was convinced that the Nazi offer was a genuine one, sponsored “by really responsible and highly placed German authorities” (Gilbert 1981, p. 228). Nahum Goldmann advised that the scheme was “a genuine offer” but “manifestly unacceptable in its present form” (p. 228). On the other hand, Stephen Wise thought the offer was “primarily for purposes of psychological warfare blackmail” (p. 228), and Ben Gurion thought it “quite likely that the whole business was a trick” (p. 229). Yitzhak Gruenbaum wanted the Allies to channel their efforts into bombing the railway lines to Auschwitz (pp. 219 – 220) – a policy first suggested by Rabbi Weissmandl in coded telegrams. The general British reaction was that it would be quite inappropriate to negotiate with the Gestapo, and that the proper course of action was to protest officially about the deportations to the Hungarian government. Such protests from the Allies and the Vatican led to the cessation of the deportations in July 1944, too late to save most of Hungarian Jewry.

It seems likely that both Brenner and Gilbert are mistaken in their analyses of the Brand affair. Almost certainly his mission was doomed from the moment he got off the plane in Istanbul without a visa to enter the country. The Turks were suspicious and kept a very close watch on him: Brand himself, who was skilled at smuggling refugess across borders, knew nothing of visas and bureaucratic delays. He was unable to keep cool as each day passed, knowing that the deportations were continuing. He had thought that Chaim Weizmann was going to meet him in Istanbul, but he found only local officials with no money or power to negotiate. They contacted Shertok (later known as Moshe Sharrett) to come from Palestine to talk to Brand, but the Turks would not let him enter the country. The days turned to weeks and nothing happened. Finally, Brand agreed to travel by train to meet Shertok in Aleppo. As soon as he crossed the border into Syria, he was arrested by the British, and detained in Cairo for several months: they suspected his German passport, and thought he might be secretly working for the SS.

Although Brenner goes too far in his apportioning blame, he is right to point out that Brand’s mission brought to the fore deep-seated disagreements among the Executive Committee of the yishuv in Palestine. Both Elon and Weissberg dramatise the debate in their books. According to Amos Elon, Gruenbaum, a former deputy in the Polish Parliament, used arguments not dissimilar to those attributed to Nathan Schwalb (see above, p. 8) – he was anxious that no funds be sent from Palestine to occupied Europe (Elon, pp. 103 – 104):

The funds we have were collected for other purposes. They are consecrated to the upbuilding of Zion. We cannot touch this money … These funds are sacred!…Our main task is here …

When Brand finally met Gruenbaum,

He could only grant me a few minutes’ conversation about the matters which lay nearest my heart. I naturally assumed that he … would have studied our problems in detail, but I realise that he had never really appreciated what had happened – and what was happening – in Hungary.
He said to me at once, ‘Why haven’t you rescued my son, Herr Brand? You should have been able to get him out of Poland into Hungary … You ought to have thought of my son, Herr Brand. It was your duty to do so.’
I respected his grey hairs and said no more …
(Weissberg, pp. 178-9)

Gruenbaum was the Chairman of the Rescue Committee of the Jewish Agency.
Not everyone, however, dismissed the Brand mission out of hand. There were many debates and recriminations after the war. Moshe Sharrett was among those who thought a more constructive line might have been taken. But nothing further could be done once news of the proposal became public: Ribbentrop heard of it from a BBC broadcast and was not exactly happy: Himmler was questioned and had to admit his knowledge of the affair.

Surprisingly, negotiations between Jewish representatives and the SS did not come to an end after the press publicity given to the Brand affair. During the negotiations with Joel Brand, Eichmann had proposed to Kastner that several hundred Jews be allowed to leave the country when Brand arrived in Istanbul. A train was assembled, which eventualy had 1686 people aboard. Eichmann wanted to include “Jews of repute”, and it in fact included many communal leaders and Rabbis. It also, however, included large numbers of Kastner’s family and friends, chosen by Kastner himself – it was this which led to the accusations of collaboration after the war. Although it became clear that Brand was not going to return, Eichmann allowed the train to depart in July 1944, because he was paid 1000 dollars for each person, raised by the Budapest Rescue Committee. The train headed for the Austrian border, but was then diverted to Bergen-Belsen: its movements were tracked by Weissmandl, who reported them to Budapest, convinced that it had been diverted because no money had been forthcoming from abroad. After prolonged negotiations involving Sternbuch and the Swiss “Orthodox” group, 320 people from the train were allowed into Switzerland on August 21st. The rest had to wait until December, when, after further long and detailed negotiations between Mayer, Kastner and various SS representatives, they finally crossed the border to freedom. (Fuchs, pp. 198 – 207, Bauer 1977)

In 1955, recalling the recent trial in Israel, Adolf Eichmann shared with a Dutch Nazi his views on the Kastner affair. His remarks were recorded by his friend, and published in Life magazine on 5th December 1960. The passage here quoted was seized upon by Brenner, anxious to exploit any comparison between Nazis and Zionists (Brenner 1983, p. 258):

Kastner agreed to help the Jews from resisting deportation – and even keep order in the collection camps – if I would close my eyes and let a few hundred or a few thousand young Jews emigrate illegally into Palestine. It was a good bargain … for the price of keeping order in the camps … we were political opponents trying to arrive at a settlement, and we trusted each other perfectly … He would have made an ideal Gestapo officer … His main concern was to make it possible for a select group of Hungarian Jews to emigrate to Israel … there was a very strong similarity between our attitudes in the SS and the viewpoint of these immensely idealistic Zionist leaders who were fighting what might be their last battle … I believe that Kastner would have sacrificed a thousand or a hundred thousand of his blood to achieve his political goal … He was not interested in old Jews or those who had become assimilated into Hungarian society. But he was incredibly persistent in trying to save biologically valuable Jewish blood – that is, human material that was capable of reproduction and hard work. ‘You can have the others’ he would say, ‘But let me keep this group here’. And because Kastner rendered us a great service by helping keep the deportation camps peaceful, I would let his group escape. After all, I was not concerned with small groups of a thousand or so Jews.

Eichmann failed to mention the ransom for the release of the Bergen-Belsen train, nor did he indicate that by July of 1944, when the train left Budapest, he had been forced to stop the deportations to Auschwitz: when the deal was first discussed, perhaps he was concerned about “order in the deportation camps” – but not when the deal was concluded. That Eichmann should not have mentioned these important qualifications is not surprising: but it is strange that Lenni Brenner, the propagandist of the anti-Zionist left, should swallow so easily the Nazi account. It is a clear example of a purely subjective historical judgement on his part: his eagerness to show that Kastner was a collaborator leads him to the strangest of sources.

Perhaps, however, it is inevitable that such misuse of history will take place: the events described in this essay aroused storms of controversy at the time they happened, and provoked great arguments and recriminations after the war, particularly in Israel: they are ripe for exploitation today by those who wish to use history for their own ends. Thus it is that the story of the destruction of European Jewry can end with such wildly different conclusions as those offered by Dawidowicz and Brenner:

Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews, pp. 422 – 423:

Plain sense dictates that in a disaster one rescues as many as one can…The terminal decision to try to save some by yielding up others was humanly inevitable in circumstances without choice or opportunity.

And Brenner, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, pp. 263 – 264:

This was the working philosophy of the World Zionist Organisation throughout the entire Nazi era: the sanctification of the betrayal of the many in the interest of a selected immigration to Palestine.

The denial of the Holocaust by the far right has become well-known to the Jewish world: the accounts given by today’s anti-Zionist left are relatively unknown. Yet Brenner’s book may well be the first of many: in the current political climate others are likely to appear on the Politics shelves of London and New York bookshops. The issues raised are painful to many Jews: they touch our deep feelings of guilt for having survived ourselves, while others went to their death. Yet such books provide more fuel for the kind of extreme anti-Zionist statements given in the first part of this essay: if we are to know how to respond, we must not forget these controversial issues.

Bibliography of works cited:

AGAR Herbert (1960), The Saving Remnant: An Account of Jewish Survival, Viking Books, New York.

ARENDT Hannah (1977), Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Penguin, Harmondsworth.

BAUER Yehuda (1973), From Diplomacy to Resistance: A History of Jewish Palestine 1939 – 1945, translated by Alton M. Winters, Atheneum, NewYork.

BAUER Yehuda (1977), “The Negotiations Between Saly Mayer and the Representatives of the S.S. in 1944 – 1945”, in Rescue Attempts During the Holocaust (Proceedings of the Second Yad Vashem International Conference) ed. Yisrael Gutman and Efraim Zuroff, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, pp. 5 – 45.

BAUER Yehuda (1978), The Holocaust in Historical Perspective, University of Washington, Seattle.

BRENNER Lenni (1983), Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, Croom Helm, Beckenham.

BRENNER Lenni (1984), The Iron Wall: Jewish Revisionism from Jabotinsky to Shamir, Zed Books, London.

DADIANI Lionel (ed.) (1981), Zionism – Enemy of Peace and Social Progress, translated from the Russian, Moscow.

DAWIDOWICZ Lucy (1975), The War Against the Jews 1933 – 45, Penguin, Harmonsdworth.

EIN-GIL Ehud (1981), “Religion, Zionism and secularism”, in Khamsin, Ithaca Press, London, Vol.7, pp. 105 -. 124.

ELON Amos (1980), Timetable, Doubleday, New York.

FUCHS Abraham (1984), The Unheeded Cry: The Gripping Story of Rabbi Weissmandl, ArtScroll History Series, Mesorah Publications, Brooklyn.

GILBERT Martin (1981), Auschwitz & The Allies, Arrow Books, London.

GILBERT Martin (1982), Atlas of the Holocaust, Michael Joseph, London.

HAUSNER Gideon (1967), Justice in Jerusalem, Thomas Nelson, London.

Jewish Chronicle, London, 25th April 1986.

KWIET Konrad (1976), “Historians of the German Democratic Republic on Antisemitism and Persecution”, Leo Baeck Institute Year Book, Secker and Warburg, London, Vol. 21, pp. 173 – 198.

LAQUER Walter (1980), The Terrible Secret: An Investigation into the Suppression of Information about Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London.

LERMAN Tony (1981), The Abuse of Zionism, Institute of Jewish Affairs Research Report No. 20, London. Dec. 1981.

LEVAI Jeno (1963), “The Hungarian Deportations in the Light of the Eichmann Trial”, in Yad Vashem Studies, Vol.5, ed. Nathan Eck and Arieh L. Kubovy, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, pp. 69 – 103.

MARFLEET Phil, Palestine Lives!, Socialist Workers Party, London, no date.

SENESH Hannah (1971), Her Life and Diary, translated by Marta Cohen, Sphere, London.

Spare Rib, London, Issues 121 (August 1982) – 130 (May 1983).

STRAUSS Herbert A. (1981), “Jewish Emigration from Germany Nazi Policies and Jewish Responses (II)”, Leo Baeck Institute Year Book, Secker and Warburg, London, Vol. 26, pp. 343 – 409.

UNITED NATIONS (1981), Economic and Social Council Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, Feb – March 1981, Summary Records, (Documents E/CN.4/SR.1590 and 1591).

WEINSTOCK Nathan (1979), Zionism: False Messiah, ed. and trans. Alan Adler, 2nd. edn., Ink Links, London.

WEISSBERG Alex (1958), Advocate for the Dead: The Story of Joel Brand, translated from the German by Constantine Gitzgibbon and Andrew Foster: Melliar, Andre Deutsch, London.

FURTHER INFORMATION ON RABBI CHAIM WEISSMANDL

Rabbi Weissmandl became a remarkable intelligence gatherer: despite the Nazi efforts to keep the “final solution” a secret, he managed to build up a remarkably accurate dossier of the exterminations which had taken place. His committee became involved in relief work in Poland, smuggling jewellery across the border, which was used to bribe the German soldiers in the Lublin area: twice, Weissmandl was arrested, but managed to bribe his way out. Weissmandl was constantly surprised and horrified by the lack of reaction from the Allies and World Jewry to his smuggled reports. As soon as Eichmann started the deportations from Hungary to Auschwitz in 1944, Weissmandl wrote a detailed letter to Jewish organisations abroad, giving the number of trains each day, and the number of persons in each truck, the exact route of the railways to Auschwitz and their terrain, and sketches and maps of Auschwitz itself. In this and many subsequent letters, he repeatedly demanded that the Allies bomb the gas chambers at Auschwitz and the railway lines to the camp. It is for this request that he is best remembered, and the Allied response has been given detailed treatment by Martin Gilbert in his Auschwitz and the Allies. The tone of Weissmandl’s requests, however, is not so well known: here is a short extract from one of his letters (Fuchs, p. 170):

That is the order of events in Auschwitz to which…12,000 Jewish souls…will be taken daily to be choked, to be burned, and to be manure for the fields. And you, Brother Jews! And you, ministers of state in all countries! How can you keep quiet at this murder in which up till now some six million Jews have already been murdered and even now tens of thousands more are being killed every day?! From the desolation in their souls, the murdered Jews cry out to you: ‘You are cruel! You are murderers, because of your cruel silence and because you do nothing!’ … in the name of the blood of the millions and the tears of the millions, we beg you, we plead with you, we claim and demand of you: do something immediately!

One of those in charge of the Hungarian deportations was Wisliceny, the SS man whom Weissmandl had successfully bribed in Slovokia. Wisliceny had subsequently offered to stop expulsions throughout Europe for some two to three million dollars: according to Fuchs, the initiative for this had come from Weissmandl himself. The negotiations had foundered because it had proved impossible to raise the money. In Budapest, these negotiations were taken over by Wisliceny’s superior, Eichmann, who preferred to deal with the local rescue committee, run by active Zionists. This was the origin of the Joel Brand affair. Weissmandl was bitterly disappointed at the failure of this enterprise, and considered Brand an inept bungler, particularly for allowing the negotiations to be publicised in the Western Press. In fact, as we shall see, Brand, Saly Mayer, and the main Jewish organisations were totally out of their depth in trying to conduct this kind of negotiation: yet Weissmandl was able to grasp the full horror of the situation, and what might be done to stop it.

In the autumn of 1944, Weissmandl was himself put on a train to Auschwitz. He managed to saw through the lock with a saw he had hidden in a loaf of bread, and jump the moving train. In spite of a broken leg, he escaped to a bunker near Bratislava – one of a chain he had himself helped to establish. He and some of his yeshivah students survived the war – he took them to America, where he set up the Mount Kisco Yeshivah in Westchester County, N. Y. He died in 1957.

While the Allied powers and the Jewish world argued about how to rescue the Jews, Weissmandl had no doubts about what should be done. For him, there was no question about breaking international law – it was a matter of saving lives. His activities were in many ways similar to those of another hero he never met – Raoul Wallenberg. Both of them were single minded in pursuit of their goals: both battled with allied indifference: neither of them was deceived by the Nazi propaganda which sought to disguise the truth of extermination: neither of them fought with a gun, but both saved many other lives at the risk of their own – a risk not of battle, but of dealing with the Nazis direct, using the arts of deception and bluff.

NOTE ON HUNGARIAN JEWRY NEGOTIATIONS WITH THE SS

Surprisingly, negotiations between Jewish representatives and the SS did not come to an end after the press publicity given to the Brand affair. Kastner continued to talk to the SS in Budapest – but, after the lack of response from Istanbul, negotiations were once again conducted through Switzerland, where the Jewish representative was still Saly Mayer (see above, pp. 7 – 8). The story has been most fully documented by Yehuda Bauer, in a published Yad VaShem lecture entitled “The Negotiations Between Saly Mayer and the Representatives of the SS in 1944 – 1945.” As before, Mayer took the view that the best course of action was to prolong negotiations while offering as little of substance as possible, and so the dialogue continued almost to the end of the war.

This time, Mayer negotiated with the knowledge and agreement of the American Embassy in Switzerland, so from the start it was clear that no secret deal like the Weissmandl-Wisliceny one would take place. The Americans would not let Mayer supply money or goods, which Kastner said was all the Nazis would accept. At the same time, the Swiss told him that no individuals whose release was obtained by ransom would be allowed to enter Switzerland.

Bauer’s calm account fails to emphasise how remarkable were the scenes that took place. Mayer refused to enter Germany, and the Nazis were at first not allowed to enter Switzerland, so from August to October all the negotiations took place on the bridge at St. Margarethen, between the Swiss and Austrian customs posts. On every occasion the SS men were accompanied by Kastner himself. The SS representatives were frequently changing: at the first meeting, on August 21st, 1944, they were Kurt Becher, Max Gruson and Hermann Krumey. The Nazis demanded 10,000 trucks, in return for which they would allow Jews to leave for the US – Palestine was not now a possibility, because of the Axis’ alignment with Arab states, and the influence of the Mufti of Jerusalem. On September 3rd Mayer promised to deposit 5 million Swiss Francs in a Swiss bank account for the purpose of the negotiations, and on the 4th and 5th he managed, without promising anything further, to keep the negotiations going. Kastner, like Weissmandl two years earlier, became infuriated by the lack of progress – they and Joel Brand could never understand how the world outside could argue, fuss and delay while Jews in Europe went to their deaths. (Bauer 1977, pp. 5 – 21).

However, a few tractors were in fact sent to Germany in 1944 – not through Kastner, but because of another group in Switzerland – an Orthodox group who were trying to save Hungarian Rabbis. In October 1944, Musy, an ex-President of Switzerland, visited Himmler on behalf of the Jews, and Himmler demanded trucks and other goods in exchange. Bauer points out that until October 1944 the SS had consistently demanded what it had already requested from Brand – trucks and goods. Yet Agar, Gilbert and even Bauer himself insist that the Brand mission had no substance. One wonders how they can be so certain. (Bauer,1977, pp. 21 – 26)

On October 25th 1944, Mayer, probably realising there was a limit to how long he could keep negotiations going with nothing to offer, changed his tack. On that day Kastner and three SS officers were allowed to enter Switzerland. Mayer emphasised to them the impending defeat of the Nazis, and suggested to them that individual SS officers could perhaps save their own skins through favourable actions. He demanded a halt to the murder of Jews. Nevertheless, on November 8th Eichmann’s notorious death march set out from Budapest. Events now moved swiftly. On November 18th, Becher reported to Himmler that Mayer had no money. On November 20th a frantic Kastner cabled – completely fictitiously – that he had 20 million dollars. The Roumanian government, which had now joined the Allies, announced they would swop Roumanian Jews in Nazi lands in exchange for Germans in their country. Himmler thereupon halted the gas chambers at Auschwitz and the death march from Budapest. On November 30th Kastner met Nathan Schwalb, and told him Mayer was discredited with the SS: on the next day Mayer revealed to Kastner that his funds could be counted in thousands of Swiss francs, not the millions required – he did however send 165 thousand francs to pay for trucks for Germany. Kastner, however, persuaded Mayer to cable the SS he had 5 million francs: on December 5th Mayer, emboldened again, changed once agin his negotiating stance, and told the SS the delays were the result of Nazi persecution. As a result, on the following day the Nazis allowed a train carrying 1368 Jews to cross into Switzerland – the so called “Bergen-Belsen train”. (Bauer)