If the Nazis Had Come

In the second half of 1942, the Jewish public in Palestine was seized with great anxiety. Until the fall of that year, there was still a danger that the forces of the German "Desert Fox" - Erwin Rommel - would breach the British defense line in Egypt and conquer Palestine, too. The expectation was that the Arabs would join forces with the Nazis. The British stopped the German army while it was still in the desert; Bernard Montgomery gained worldwide fame; the feeling was that the Jewish public owed its salvation to him.

About two years ago, two German historians published a book that made waves: They said that the Nazis had indeed intended to annihilate the Jewish population in Palestine just as they destroyed European Jewry, and that the Arabs were supposed to assist them in this. One of the authors, Martin Cuppers, is due to give a lecture next week at an international conference, hosted by Yad Vashem and the Ben Zvi Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities in the East, on North Africa and its Jews during the World War II period.

The style will be academic, of course, but the book by Cuppers and Klaus-Michael Mallmann apparently provides a scholarly basis for the tendency to identify the Arabs with the Nazis, as Israel's official spokespeople have always done. Ahead of Cuppers' appearance in Jerusalem, a heated debate has been going on between him and an Israeli journalist and researcher living in Switzerland named Shraga Elam. Elam says the whole thing never happened and accuses Cuppers and Mallmann of falsification. Asked for a response by Haaretz, Cuppers says that Elam isn't worthy of a serious newspaper's attention.

According to Cuppers and Mallmann, the task of annihilating the Jews of Palestine was given to SS officer Walter Rauf, considered the inventor of the "death trucks" that were used before the gas chambers. The two cite a document dated September 14, 1942. The document deals with Rauf's return from Athens to Germany. Cuppers and Mallmann learn from the document that Rauf was sent to Athens to organize the destruction of the Jews in Palestine, in cooperation with the Arabs, and that he was called back to Germany when the Germans gave up hope of conquering Egypt, as happened shortly afterward at the Battle of El Alamein.

Elam disputes this: He says that Palestine is not mentioned at all in the document, nor is there any mention of cooperation between Rauf and the Arabs. According to Elam, the document also reflects the differences of opinion between the SS and the German army. Elam casts doubt on the notion that Rommel supported the destruction of the Jews; he backed the conspiracy of the generals who tried to assassinate Hitler. In the absence of solid evidence that there was in fact a plan to annihilate the Jews in Palestine, Cuppers and Mallmann's book should be considered anti-Arab propaganda, contends Elam in articles he has disseminated on the Internet and elsewhere.

In anticipation of his lecture in Jerusalem, Cuppers responded to an inquiry from Haaretz with a long and emotional letter. There is no basis to the claim that he and his colleague fabricated the history or are operating out of hatred for Arabs or Palestinians, he wrote. Their book is rich in evidence regarding the cooperation of Arabs with the Nazis, including the mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, who met with Hitler and with Adolf Eichmann.

As for the fact that Palestine is not mentioned in the document from September 14, 1942, Cuppers wrote: "This does not mean anything. Similar documents concerning Poland and the Soviet Union do not mention the exact arena of activity, since it was known to all." Thus, for example, a document from 1941, which talks about the cooperation between the SS formations and the Soviet army, does not mention the exact arena of activity. Therefore, one can also presume that when they wrote "Egypt" or even just "Africa," they could also have been referring to Palestine.

In response to Elam's claim that the document in question indicates nothing about the essence of Rauf's mission in Egypt, Cuppers says that the document from 1941 tells of a similar mission with which another SS unit in the Soviet Union was charged, and that there it says explicitly that, following the military conquest, the SS is authorized to take action against the civilian population. On the basis of this analysis, by the end of 1941, about a half million Russian Jews had been murdered, says Cuppers, who also warns against the argument that Rommel opposed the destruction of the Jews.

The conclusion that arises from Cuppers' letter to Haaretz is this: The document he and his colleague quote does not explicitly say what they assume from it. Historical logic, however, does support their thesis: There is no reason to assume that only in Palestine would the Nazis have protected the Jews' lives. There is no reason to assume that the Arabs would have displayed any more decency than the Lithuanians, for instance.

It happened in Germany in 1546. The prince of Brandenburg's police officers arrested a man who claimed that he planned to conquer Palestine in order to return it to the Jews. It's an intriguing story that only a few are aware of. As far as is known, only two documents from the period that describe it have survived, and both are kept at the German National Museum in Nuremberg; they are placed in a file entitled "Concerning the Jewish Conspiracy."

"The man's name is not known. He claimed that he was the king of the Jews, and also of the inhabitants of the Swedish island of Gottland, in the Baltic Sea. He also told his interrogators that he was a descendant of Amalek and that two ghosts appeared to him and delivered to him a prophecy on behalf of his ancestors that required him to conquer both Gottland and the Holy Land."

At this point, one would think the Brandenburg police would have asked themselves why they needed to deal with this lunatic at all. But if what is written in one of the two letters describing the incident is true, maybe he wasn't crazy after all.

Because among his possessions they found a lot of money as well as a document indicating that he was not acting alone: Well-known people, including leaders in six countries of Europe, stood behind him; they conspired with the Jews of the world who were supposed to pay for the operation.

The plan was fairly well-defined: First, the man would conquer Gottland and Sweden. Then he would recruit 200,000 troops and set off to conquer the Holy Land. The plan would take 10 years to execute. Jews all over the world would donate money to help see the plan through, in order to get their land back.

According to the document, German princes were also in on this secret conspiracy and several of them offered to ransom the prisoner, but the prince of Brandenburg ordered that he be kept under extra tight security, and intended to hand him over to the emperor himself.

The second letter in the file perhaps clarifies the matter: This was not a conqueror of lands or a mere lunatic, but a scam artist; the "plan" to restore Palestine to the Jews was basically intended to trick some wealthy Jews and rob them of their money.

Unfortunately, Jacob Rosenthal, who publicized this tale in the new edition of the history journal Cathedra, does not know how it ended.

He quotes another scholar who heard of the story in the 1920s and speculated that perhaps it was not entirely unbelievable: In the apocalyptic atmosphere of the 16th century, such things did happen.