Between the fences: 1938 and 2012
Can Israeli behavior toward refugees on the Egyptian border be accepted, given the memory of 1938 etched into our consciousness?
Israelis, whose historical memory is ingrained, are sensitive to the number 1938 - the year in which the Munich Agreement legitimized Germany's annexation of Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland. The suitable Zionist response would be: "Our fate will never be like Czechoslovakia's. We will not allow world powers to decide our destiny and impair our sovereignty." A mantra is a mantra, and so we will not complicate things by asking about the fate of Poland, which refused to be trapped in another "Munich," and was crushed in the ensuing war as a result. However, we will make things difficult by wondering why Israeli memory is so strong when it comes to the Munich mantra but draws a blank when it comes to Evian or Zbaszyn.
Let's start at the end. On October 27, 1938, almost a year before the outbreak of World War II, the Third Reich began deporting thousands of Jews with Polish citizenship from Reich-controlled areas to Poland, while the Polish authorities almost simultaneously decided to revoke the citizenship of Jews residing outside of Poland. Germany, as the director general of the German Foreign Ministry put it, feared that "tens of thousands of former Polish Jews would fall into its lap." In Nazi Germany, where Jews were defined as "vermin", a Polish-Jewish population supplement would be a major blow. In the name of the German national interest, more than 10,000 men, women and children were routed from their homes and beds to the other side of the "green border" - the Polish-German frontier.
The Poles responded to this unilateral move by prohibiting the entry of the "infiltrators." A picture should be etched into the collective memory of the house of Israel, of these tens of thousands of refugees moving through the border zone without food or water, in horrific weather, until they reached the detention camps for "infiltrators" near Katowice, Chojnice or Zbaszyn. These refugees were the victims of a struggle between countries whose sovereignty and nationalism were more important than humanitarianism.
A professional historian avoids comparisons between past and present events. In the present example as well, we miss the main point if we focus on the question of whether the Israeli interior minister learned from the Polish or the German minister, or if we focus on the details of the events that led the unfortunate people to a border between two racist states.
Rather, the heart of the matter is this: both cases, in 1938 and in 2012, involve heartlessness as to the fate of refugees. In both cases the refugees are stigmatized as "vermin" or "infiltrators." Both cases involve hairsplitting over the extent to which the lives of the refugees themselves are in danger. In October 1938, as now, the threat was not to the lives of German Jews but rather to their economic existence. It was only a few days later, after a member of one of the refugee families assassinated a German diplomat, that the resulting pogrom known as Kristallnacht took place, proving that there was indeed a danger to their lives.
One transgression leads to another. Germany and Poland could treat the unfortunate Jews who found themselves on the border in this manner because they had realized only a few months earlier, at the Evian Conference dealing with international aid to Jewish refugees from Germany, that other countries were indifferent to their fate. Hitler himself learned this lesson very well. Three months after the events of Zbaszyn he taunted the world: "If you care about the Jews so much, why are you not fighting over who will take them in?" Because he knew the answer, he pledged in that speech that the Jews would be destroyed in the next war.
Can Israeli behavior toward refugees on the Egyptian border be accepted, given the memory of 1938 etched into our consciousness? In 2012, this the matriculation exam in history for Israelis.
The writer is director of the Richard Koebner Minerva Center for German History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.