A life-saving swap
Over 500 Jews from Palestine, who were caught in Europe as World War II erupted, were spared probable death and returned home, thanks to an exchange agreement involving German Templers living in the Holy Land.
"The Eretz-Israeli residents that have been exchanged have arrived from the Reich," a Haaretz headline announced on November 17, 1942. "There's been much commotion at the Afula station," the article read, "in preparation for the arrival of 114 women and children, relatives of Eretz-Israeli and British residents, who've come from Germany. They were exchanged for German women and children from Eretz Israel, who were allowed to travel to Germany."
Ora Reshef, 73, from Kiryat Ono, may have been aboard that train to Afula. In 1939 she journeyed with her mother from Palestine to Poland, she thinks, "to celebrate Passover, and so that my grandmother and grandfather could get to know their grandchild." The grandparents, a wealthy couple, lived in a large wooden house, she recalls. After they occupied Poland, and return travel became impossible, "the Nazis came to the house and found us. Since we weren't Polish citizens, but had documents issued by the British Mandate authorities, Mother had to report to the police station every week. In 1942 they came and told us, 'You're going.' No one knew whether to believe them, but a few days later we were put on a train and got to Israel by way of Turkey."
Between 1941 and 1945, some 550 Jews arrived in Palestine under similar circumstances, having been trapped in occupied Europe and then released as part of the same deal, for Germans detained in Palestine. Some of them have remained in touch with each other to this day.
The German women and children who were deported from Palestine were Templers - members of a Protestant religious movement founded in Germany in the mid-1800s. The Templers worked to bring about salvation and the second coming of Jesus Christ, and believed the only way to do this was to live a productive life in the Holy Land.
By World War II, the Templer population in Palestine was already in its third generation, with communities in the German Colonies of Jerusalem and Haifa, as well as in Sarona (now the Kirya in Tel Aviv), Valhalla near Jaffa, Wilhelma (now Moshav Bnei Atarot), Beit Lehem Haglilit and Waldheim (now Alonei Aba). Although they lived in Eretz Israel, they maintained their German citizenship, studied in German and identified as Germans. Many supported the racist-nationalist ideology of Adolf Hitler; indeed, after Hitler's party rose to power in 1933, some Templers joined the Nazi cause. The Nazi regime decreed that their party would run all German affairs in Eretz Israel and placed Nazi activist Cornelius Schwarz at the head of the local community.
"They went from religious messianism to political messianism," says Prof. Yossi Ben-Artzi, rector of the University of Haifa and a professor in its Land of Israel studies department. He believes that the Nazi episode in Templer history has been blown out of proportion. "The members of the younger generation to some extent broke away from naive religious belief, and were more receptive to the Nazi German nationalism. The older ones tried to fight it."
In 1938 about 17 percent of Palestine's Templer community were members of the Nazi Party. British Mandate authorities were not happy to have Nazi activity in their own backyard. And at the end of August 1939, a few days before the war broke out, young Templer men eligible for the draft were conscripted into the Wehrmacht and left for Germany. Those who stayed behind became enemy nationals, imprisoned in their own homes. Palestine's German colonies were surrounded by barbed-wire fences and watchtowers, and effectively became detention camps. The British wanted to expel the German citizens from the country they controlled. And so the road was paved for an exchange of German citizens in Palestine for British subjects - Jews from Palestine, who had left for Europe just before the war and were stranded there, unable to return.
"In return for the Germans whom the British wished to deport, they received Palestinian citizens - Eretz Israeli Jews in occupied Europe," says Hebrew University Holocaust scholar Prof. Yehuda Bauer. "Jewish groups pressured the British government to negotiate an exchange of these British subjects for the Germans."
The swap, Bauer stresses, stemmed primarily from British and German interests: Just as the British wanted to get the Germans out, Germany was happy for the chance to rid itself of a few hundred more Jews. The exchange, however, was not an even one. The number of Germans deported from Palestine was greater than the number of returning Jews.
Bauer explains that despite the pressure they exerted, the various institutions affiliated with the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish community) wielded no real influence over the talks that ultimately enabled a group of Jews to escape the ghettos of Europe. It was the British who negotiated with the Germans, first under the auspices of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, and later through the Swiss.
"The Yishuv's leadership had no idea when the Jews exchanged for the Templers would arrive. They did not even know how far the negotiations had progressed - the British had that little regard for the leadership and its power," he says.
Ostensibly prevented from taking substantive action, Yishuv leaders settled for protest. Some 10 days after the second group of exchanged Jews arrived in November 1942, they thus decided to appoint a special committee "to oversee the response of the Hebrew Yishuv in Eretz Israel to the atrocities and the decreed extermination against the Jews in Poland and other German-occupied areas," Haaretz reported. Additionally, a special session of the Yishuv's parliamentary assembly was planned, in which the community's claims would be formally drafted.
On December 21, 1941, immediately after the arrival of the first group, Haaretz published a story about a woman who had left Palestine with her daughter before the war to visit her hometown and family in Poland. "Our little town did not even have a cemetery in ordinary times," the unnamed woman was quoted as saying, "but now the Germans have established one, and it contains hundreds of graves of local Jews and of others deported there from the big cities."
Leah Bartal, 77, from Haifa, was five years old when she left to visit her grandparents in Tarnow, Poland. Her parents made two such visits, returning to Palestine in 1939, just three weeks before the war broke out, after "they looked for work, but didn't find any," says Bartal. Meanwhile, she remained with her relatives in Poland. At first, she recalls, "there were rumors that all foreign nationals were being rounded up and killed, and people were terrified. But my grandmother, a smart and prescient woman, told me to guard my passport at all costs. She sewed a special pouch for it, which I always wore around my neck."
Although she was not listed among the Jews of Tarnow, Bartal moved into the city's ghetto along with her aunts. "My parents weren't with me, but I was a little girl surrounded by a great deal of love," she remembers. The aunts had to work outside the home, and she was forced to learn the art of survival herself: how to keep quiet, how to listen carefully, then run and hide at any small sound. Yes, she says, "it was alien to a girl who had grown up in Eretz Israel, partly on a kibbutz, but I didn't think of it. I was like all the other people, getting through one day, then another, then another." Later Bartal would survive two German roundups, one of which left many of the ghetto's children dead.
Bartal: "In May 1943, shortly before the ghetto was taken over, they said that all foreign nationals had to report in order to be sent home. There were 12 of us, mainly from Argentina and Eretz Israel. I went with another girl, Dalia, and her mother, Rachel Klein Handler, who took me under her wing as though I were her own daughter. There was much fear, but there had already been two roundups, and people saw that the end was near. That's what the rumors said, too, so there wasn't much to lose. The next day we reported to the German offices and walked out of the gate. My aunt stayed behind. The entire ghetto stood by the gates and waved goodbye. It was hard.
"We rode on the train to a prison in Krakow and from there, a few months later, we were transported to Bergen Belsen. They had a separate camp for foreign nationals - no forced labor or executions. I think the Red Cross was involved, because we got food and a shower once a week. Then we were taken to France, where we waited for the liberation, after which we sailed to Palestine on a British ship, half-filled with soldiers. It was not until a few years ago that I learned we had been part of the deal with the Templers."
Says Dalia Gavish, 72, from Haifa, who returned on the same boat, in September 1945: "My cousins were killed in the ghetto, and if we had not been part of the deal, we might not be here today. I remember that everyone at the port looked the same to me. Father was waiting for me; it was the first time I saw him. They gave us orange juice, and we all went our separate ways."
Among the people waiting to welcome Bartal in an apartment in Haifa was Rina Efraim, then eight years old. She, too, had spent time with her mother in Poland, but they had returned in late 1938. "The economic situation here was difficult then," she says, "so young mothers with children traveled to their families, if they could, till things improved or until their husbands could find work or lodgings."
Bartal, Efraim says, was referred to all through the war as "the girl who remained there": "On the day the ship docked at Haifa, we stood on the balcony, very many of us, and someone came and said they had arrived. They came home in a taxi, and when they got there - how people cried."
According to Prof. Bauer, most of the Jews who returned as part of the exchange were not residents of Palestine who had gone to Europe and gotten stranded there, but rather citizens who could prove they had relatives in Palestine and had secured immigration permits. All in all, the exchange involved five groups of Jews, the first landing in December 1941; the second group, consisting of 69 Jewish passengers and 45 British ones (as described above in the Haaretz article), arrived on November 14, 1942; the third and fourth groups landed in February 1943 and July 1944, respectively; and the final group, to which Leah Bartal and Dalia Gavish belonged, arrived in mid-April 1945, shortly before Germany surrendered. The total number of Jews extricated from Europe this way was about 550, in exchange for some 1,000 Templers sent back to Germany.
Despite the swap, Ben-Artzi notes, most of the Templers remained in Israel after the war. "They lived in open detention camps in Beit Lechem Haglilit, Waldheim and the other communities, and went to work every day under escort. The Yishuv pressured the English to expel them. When the fighting between Arabs and Jews broke out in 1948, they were caught in the middle. On April 17, 1948 Waldheim was captured, and a local couple was killed. The Templers realized they could not stay here, and they left. Waldheim was taken when the Israeli-Palestinian war was at its peak. That is, many of them did not think they needed to get out."