Documents: U.K. Tried to Ship Holocaust Survivors Back to Germany

Plan never bore fruit due to public opinion largely sympathetic to Jews following Nazi genocide.

Newly released documents at Britain's National Archives show how the government tried to send thousands of Palestine-bound Jewish survivors of the Nazi genocide back to postwar Germany, where the final solution had been hatched, without inflaming world opinion.

Could it be done? The answer was no. The British decision to turn away the more than 4,500 Jews on board the Exodus refugee ship turned into a humanitarian and public relations debacle.

Just two years after the end of the war, the world was outraged by the systematic Nazi murder of 6 million Jews in what became known as the Holocaust. Despite the best efforts of early spin doctors to portray Britain's decision to send the refugees back to Germany in the most sympathetic light, the plan drew condemnation from many parts of the civilized world.

The story detailed in more than 400 pages of formerly secret documents made available to the public on Monday deals with the Jews who were on board the Exodus trying to enter Palestine illegally during the tumultuous months before the United Nations voted in 1947 to create a Jewish homeland on part of Palestine.

Britain was still governing Palestine, and the British government felt it had to keep the immigrants out to preserve the demographic balance between Arab and Jew. British forces turned away dozens of leaky immigrant ships of desperate refugees. But Britain did not have a safe place to send the Jews from the Exodus, who were placed on three smaller British steamers.

After much agonizing, the British concluded that the only place they could send the Jews was to the British-controlled zone of postwar Germany, where the Jews could be placed in camps and screened for extremists.

It made sound military sense. But the documents show that diplomats and military officers knew perfectly well that sending Jews back to Germany and putting them in camps so soon after the Holocaust would set off a firestorm of protest.

"These documents show the British perspective for the first time," said Mark Dunton, contemporary history specialist at the National Archives. "It's obvious in the files the British were sensitive to the claim they were putting Jews into concentration camps. When you read the reports, the camps do sound pretty awful."

The British did not put the Jews in former concentration camps, despite rumors to that effect.

The first rumblings came from a British diplomat in France who sent a coded warning to the Foreign Office in London in August 1947. The diplomat says bluntly that a public relations debacle lies ahead.

"You will realize that an announcement of decision to send immigrants back to Germany will produce violent hostile outburst in the press," he says.

He suggests an early measure of spin control - telling the press that the Jews will enjoy some freedoms even though they will be confined.

An unsigned cable from the Foreign Office on Aug. 19, 1947, explains that the decision to land the Jews in Germany has been made because it is the only suitable territory under British control that can handle so many people at short notice.

Three days later, a follow-up Foreign Office cable warns diplomats that they should be ready to emphatically deny that the Jews will be housed in former concentration camps after they are offloaded in Germany.

The Aug. 22 cable states that German guards will not be used to keep the Jews in the refugee camps and adds that British guards will be withdrawn once the Jews have been screened.

But security concerns were heightened on Aug. 30 when a secret telegram from the British Embassy in Washington warned of a possible terrorist attack by the Irgun and Stern gangs, two Zionist extremist groups determined to prevent the forced offloading of the Jews in Germany.

The Jews were successfully taken off the vessels by force, although a number were injured in confrontations with British troops that involved the use of batons and fire hoses to force some of the Jews off the ship.

An officer identified as Lt. Col. Gregson, in a formerly secret report on the removal of the Jews, praised his troops for handling the dangerous situation calmly. He said the Jewish resisters were throwing missiles at his men.

"It is a very frightening thing to go into a hold full of yelling maniacs when outnumbered 6 or 8 to 1," he said in the report.

Gregson said he considered using tear gas to subdue the Jews but decided not to risk inflaming the situation.

"The Jew is liable to panic," he wrote.

Security fears seemed justified after the Jews were removed when a large, homemade bomb with a timed fuse was found on one of the three ships. It was apparently rigged to detonate after the Jews had been removed, the cables indicate.

The size of the bomb was such that had it not been discovered it would have blown a hole in the ship of sufficient size to cause the ship to sink within a short while, writes the deputy regional commander for the British military government in Hamburg, whose signature on the document is too faint to read.

The postscript on the operation comes from the British regional commander who says that the disembarkation could be regarded as successful because it was carried out with only minimal casualties. But he says Britain's reputation was damaged by the highly critical press coverage of OASIS, as the operation was known in diplomatic and military circles.

It is impossible to deny that among the Hamburg population OASIS was one additional cause for reduction in British prestige, he ruefully concludes.

With the end of the British mandate and creation of the state of Israel in May 1948, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Europe streamed into the Jewish state.

The Exodus commander Yossi Harel, who died April 26 at the age of 90, commanded a total of four expeditions that brought thousands of refugees to the shores of Palestine, his daughter said.

Shany Payes, the author of "Palestinian NGOs in Israel: The Politics of Civil Society" and an expert on the postwar years, said Britain's policies were often contradictory when dealing with the idea of a Jewish state. She said Britain had promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine in the 1917 Balfour Declaration, even as it pledged to safeguard the civil and religious rights of the region's non-Jewish inhabitants.

"British policies were inconsistent and insecure and the government ended up with the cruelty of fate suffered by the Exodus victims as a result of it," she said.