Eri Jabotinsky's Race Against Death

The 40th anniversary of Eri Jabotinsky's death is an appropriate occasion to recall Eri's heroic but little-known efforts to rescue Jews from Hitler's Europe.

Rafael Medoff
Rafael Medoff

On a warm June evening in 1937, in a work camp run by the Betar youth movement in Zichron Yaakov, a teenager tapped on the tent door of Yitshaq Ben-Ami, camp leader and activist in the Irgun Zvai Leumi underground militia. "Mr. Jabotinsky is here to see you," he announced.

The visitor was Eri Jabotinsky, a Betar leader, Irgun activist and son of Vladimir Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism.

Eri had come to tell Ben-Ami of an important new development: The Irgun had for the first time successfully smuggled a group of Jews from Europe to Palestine, by boat, defying British immigration restrictions. Its 14 passengers were "just the beginning," Jabotinsky told Ben-Ami. "We have thousands of trained youngsters in the movement's ranks in Europe who will take any risk to come to Eretz Yisrael."

That night, Jabotinsky and Ben-Ami began planning a desperate and dangerous campaign that would bring tens of thousands of Jews to safety during 1938-1940, just as the Nazi inferno was starting to engulf Europe.

Today, the 40th anniversary of Eri Jabotinsky's death, is an appropriate occasion to recall Eri's heroic but little-known efforts to rescue Jews from Hitler's Europe.

The launching of this Jewish version of the Underground Railroad was probably inevitable. Despite the Nazis' intensifying persecution of German Jewry and rising anti-Semitism across Europe, no country was willing to admit more than a handful of Jewish immigrants. At the same time, the British were starting to restrict legal Jewish immigration to Palestine, and beefing up border patrols to block illegals. To complicate matters for Jabotinsky and the Revisionist movement, the distribution of the available immigrant visas was controlled by the Labor Zionist-dominated Jewish Agency, which favored immigrants who had undergone agricultural training.

By contrast, the Irgun and Revisionists believed in mass "emergency aliya," regardless of an individual's level of preparation or political ties. The only way to accomplish that was for them to do it themselves. "Aliya bet" - alternative, or unauthorized immigration to Palestine - was borne of necessity.

Most of the boats succeeded in bringing their passengers safely to British Mandatory Palestine - "landing them on a dark night on some deserted Palestinian coast," as Eri put it. Historians estimate some 20,000 were saved in this manner on the eve of the Holocaust. But there were also ships that sunk, or were targeted by pirates demanding ransom, or captured by the British.

The case of the S.S. Sakarya was particularly agonizing. It took on more than 2,000 passengers - including Eri - at the Romanian port of Sulina in late 1939, but could not proceed because its Turkish owners demanded a huge extra payment as insurance against British seizure. Irgun fundraising efforts in the U.S. were rebuffed by mainstream Jewish leaders, who were reluctant to anger America's ally Great Britain. Eventually the money was secured, and on February 13, the Sakarya reached Haifa. The passengers were detained by the British, but then rleased, and allowed to stay in the country (many subsequent arrivals were less fortunate - they were deported to Mauritius). Eri, as the mastermind, was sent to Acre Prison.

By the time Eri was set free, in August 1940, the expanding war in Europe had rendered aliya bet nearly impossible. Jabotinsky went to the United States, where he became one of the leaders of the Bergson Group, a political action committee that promoted rescue by lobbying Congress, sponsoring hundreds of newspaper ads, and holding rallies. One of the more memorable events he helped organize was a march by 400 rabbis to the White House to plead for action to save European Jewry - although once again he was undermined by Jewish leaders, who persuaded president Roosevelt to refuse to meet a delegation of the rabbis. Nonetheless, these protests helped bring about the creation, in early 1944, of the War Refugee Board, a U.S. government rescue agency. The Board arranged for Eri to travel to Turkey in the spring of 1944 to facilitate the escape of Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine.

Thus began round two of Jabotinsky's rescue campaign. Only now, the stakes were considerably higher. By 1944, millions of Jews had already been slaughtered by the Germans, and the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz was under way. Eri found himself engaged in a race against death. He frenetically lobbied Turkish government officials, helped open escape routes for Jews to get out of Greece and Romania, and built relationships with the array of boat owners, black marketeers and assorted seedy characters willing to undertake what the author and Bergson Group activist John Gunther called "Jew-running."

The British, meanwhile, had been searching for a way to counter those involved in "illegal" life-saving. In the aftermath of the Stern Group's assassination of Lord Moyne, the top British official in the Mideast, London was able to persuade Turkey that Eri's past links to the Irgun (from which the Sternists had broken off years earlier) made him dangerous. In early 1945, the Turks sent him packing, and when he reached Palestine, the British arrested him.

To Eri, his multiple arrests for the "crime" of saving Jews from Hitler were a badge of pride. But they were also a source of great frustration, for they interrupted and impeded his rescue work.

Nonetheless, in defiance of Nazi killers, British interference, and the opposition of many fellow Jews, Eri Jabotinsky helped change history in ways few believed possible. Forty years ago today, a truly remarkable figure passed from this world.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

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