Jewish refugees.
Jewish refugees in transit camp, 1947. Photo by Getty Images
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Not far from the southern Austrian city of Villach, a camp was set up after World War II for about 200 Jewish refugees, Holocaust survivors from Poland. Early in 1946, British Labor Party politician Richard Crossman visited as a member of the Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry into the problems of European Jewry and Palestine.

The camp was run like a detention facility. British soldiers prohibited the refugees from leaving, lest they try to get to Palestine. Crossman spoke with the "camp policeman," a boy of about 16 who had been chosen by the refugees themselves. He had spent six of the years of his young life in concentration camps. Crossman asked him if he had relatives in America; the boy replied that his mother was there. Crossman asked if he was corresponding with her and the boy replied angrily: "I have cut her off root and branch. She has sold out the Jewish destiny."

Crossman asked what he meant. "She has run away to America in the company of a goy. The destiny of my nation is to be lords of Palestine," the teen replied.

Crossman asked how he knew this was his nation's destiny and the boy replied: "It is written in the Balfour Declaration."

This story appears in a book Crossman wrote in the summer of 1946. Many years later he recalled it in a conversation with British historian Martin Gilbert. This week Gilbert repeated the story during a lecture at Tel Aviv University about the end of the British Mandate.

Gilbert, 75, has written more than 80 books, which makes him one of history's most prolific historians. He authored Winston Churchill's most comprehensive biography and a number of other important books. He and Crossman met at the Weizmann Archive in Rehovot, related Gilbert, telling another story he heard from him: In one of the DP camps, two of the Anglo-American commission members saw a Jew from Poland tearing up a U.S. immigration certificate. He was afraid the Holocaust could repeat itself there too, he said.

Crossman believed most of the camp inmates were interested in settling in the Land of Israel, but he also asked himself what the refugees would decide if the United States were an option. America had not invited them; they had to choose between Palestine and their countries of origin, including Poland, which had become a communist and anti-Semitic state. They preferred Palestine. Crossman's question has remained open; Gilbert did not mention it.

It was a fine lecture, organized in chronological order. In the conflict between his country and Zionism seven decades ago, Gilbert is on Zionism's side. This is not a black-and-white story, he noted, and he quoted certain British officials who evinced sympathy for the Zionist alternative, including the British ambassador in Poland in the 1940s. However, most of his references reflected great hostility to Zionism and even to the concentration camp survivors. Those of the latter who wound up under British occupation in Germany and Austria were put into detention camps and their food rations restricted, as though they were not victims of the Nazis but rather captive enemy soldiers.

Many years later Gilbert met the British diplomat George William Rendel, who wanted to deliver a confession. "There is something I regret," he said. Gilbert pricked up his ears. "I regret I didn't do more to prevent the establishment of the State of Israel." Gilbert did not say that the British officials' hostility reflected anti-Semitism: Apparently they simply preferred Arab oil.

Ultimately the British left Palestine, in response to growing Arab terror. Gilbert did not mention the Arab Revolt, which had already given the British their fill of the Land of Israel at the end of the 1930s, as though it had no part in this story.

Gilbert's criticism of his country was very bitter. In Britain, Israeli historian Ilan Pappe is speaking in a similar tone, but he is attacking Zionist policy there. The difference between the two is this: Many Israelis consider Pappe to be a self-hating traitor. Sir Martin received a noble title from his queen and among those present at his lecture this week was Matthew Gould, the United Kingdom's first Jewish ambassador to Israel.