Holocaust History at Eye Level

This book offers history buffs an opportunity to set aside judgmental attitudes and the advantages of hindsight

"Beyn Magen David Le'tlai Tzahov" ("Between the Star of David and the Yellow Star: The Jewish Community in Palestine and the Holocaust, 1939-1945, Documents"), edited by Dina Porat and Yehiam Weitz, Yad Vashem and Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 457 pages

Much has been written about the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish community) in Palestine and the Holocaust, but from the start, the debate on this subject has been judgmental. It has been conducted like a public tribunal - accusations flying and verdicts issued as incriminating statements by Jewish and Zionist leaders of different ranks are read aloud. Since the conduct of the Yishuv during the Holocaust became a matter of public controversy in the mid-1950s, spearheaded by Shmuel Tamir - Malkiel Gruenwald's defense attorney, but etched more in our memories as Israel Kastner's prosecutor - it has been difficult, even impossible, to engage in any kind of rational discussion on this highly charged topic.

The first signs of the topic being broached in academia appeared in the first half of the 1960s, in the writing of Yehuda Bauer. Then came Yoav Gelber and Dalia Ofer with studies on the practical measures taken by the Yishuv, with or without the cooperation with the British: sending paratroopers to Europe, volunteering for the British army and illegal immigration. In the mid-1980s, Dina Porat's "The Blue and Yellow Stars of David: The Zionist Leadership in Palestine and the Holocaust, 1939-1945" was published, marking a breakthrough in the field. This book lay the groundwork for those who came afterward, establishing the chief parameters of the academic and public discourse in this sphere.

Next in line were Chava Wagman-Eshkoli and Yehiam Weitz, with their complementary studies on how Mapai dealt with the news of what was happening in Europe. David Ben-Gurion's response to these events was explored at length in the articles and books of his biographer, Shabtai Teveth. Four years ago, Tuvia Friling's "Arrow in the Dark: David Ben-Gurion, the Yishuv Leadership and Rescue Attempts during the Holocaust" more or less completed the cycle of research. It is highly doubtful that there is any document hiding out there that will substantially change the picture and overturn Friling's conclusion that the Yishuv could not do more than it did, or Porat's view that "the Yishuv could have done more if it had woken up and acted earlier, but probably not much more."

In addition to these academic publications, the subject was explored in other genres. A special place is reserved for S. Beit-Zvi's "Post-Ugandian Zionism in the Crisis of the Holocaust: A Study of the Causes of the Zionist Movement's Mistakes Between 1938-1945." On the borderline between research and journalism, there is Tom Segev's controversial book "The Seventh Million: Israelis and the Holocaust." This book, which livened up the academic debate and got the media involved, marked the first instance of the subject being crossbred with "post-Zionist" thinking - a development documented and analyzed mainly by Dan Michman, and basically more of a political and ideological stance than an attempt to discover the truth about the past.

Without hindsight

This is the context in which "Between the Star of David and the Yellow Star," edited by two of the top scholars in the field, has come into the world. The book is divided into four chapters. Chapter One, entitled "The First Years of the War," discusses events, responses, assessments and decisions during the first three years of World War II, before it became known that the Jews of Europe were being systematically wiped out. Chapter Two, "The Yishuv Confronting the Annihilation of the Jews in Europe, 1942-1945," is the core of the anthology and takes up more than half the book. It describes how the news trickled in and how it was responded to - in word (debates, decisions, declarations and letters) and in deed (protest activities, establishment of organizations and rescue plans). Chapter Three dwells on the consolidation of policy with respect to the survivors after the war, and Chapter Four, on the way the Holocaust affected the self-image of the Yishuv and the dilemma surrounding the question of whom to save.

For further reading:

Holocaust Studies / What did the messenger know?
No other Jews like them
Holocaust / No job for innocents

First of all, let it be said that the material accompanying the documents is de serving of high praise. Each chapter opens with an introduction that highlights the special features of the period. Together, these introductions constitute a self-standing essay that sets out the main points of the subject in clear, concise language. The appendices include a three-column table which shows the synchronization of events, in terms of what was happening in the Yishuv, how the Final Solution was being implemented, and how the war was fought from September 1, 1939 to May 8, 1945. The editors have added illuminating comments alongside the documents, and short biographical profiles of the persons mentioned appear at the end of the book. The selection of visual material - posters and political cartoons - bears out the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words.

This anthology of documents (and the book that preceded it, "The Jewish Press in Eretz Yisrael and the Holocaust, 1939-1945," edited by Dina Porat and Mordecai Naor) offers readers a glimpse into the historian's workshop: what the people of the time said and wrote while the events were going on, without the benefit of hindsight. But we need to remember two things: One - and the authors were aware of this - is that the act of selecting documents already implies a certain stance; and two, that the use of first-hand sources here is a reversal of the normal work sequence of the historian. Authentic documents are usually the material from which the historian molds the bricks that build the wall. In this case, the documents only illuminate a wall that is already standing.

Volatile debate

One of the more well-known episodes in the rescue efforts during the Holocaust is the "trucks for blood" ransom plan. In this book, we find a letter written by David Ben-Gurion, as chairman of the Jewish Agency executive, to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, on July 11, 1944, calling upon him to intervene in what might be the last opportunity to save European Jewry. Ben-Gurion makes two concrete requests: First, to immediately notify the other side, through the appropriate channels, of the willingness to appoint a representative to discuss the rescue and transfer of as many Jews as possible, and second, to notify the other side that putting an immediate stop to the deportations was a prerequisite for any negotiation.

The curious reader will flip through the book, looking for the follow-up. Was there a reply, and if so, what was it? The research shows that the letter reached its destination; it is in the National Archive in Washington. But - and here the "silence of the sources" is significant - no, there was no reply. The Zionists stood like beggars at the door of the Great Powers, and no one answered their desperate cries: 430,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to Auschwitz in the last year of the war.

The volatile political debate surrounding priorities in the rescue of European Jewry was based, to a large extent, on a memo written at the end of April 1943 by Apolinary Hartglas, the political secretary of the Jewish Agency rescue committee, which contained a section entitled "Whom Shall We Save?" Tom Segev, who quotes at length from this memo in "The Seventh Million," states that it "reflected not only the attitude of its author." There was a general consensus among the leadership of the Yishuv, he concludes, "that the few who could be rescued should be selected in keeping with the needs of the Zionist enterprise in Palestine."

Here we can read this document in its entirety, and it is certainly a tough one to digest. Having access to the full text does not dispel the gloom, but it does allow the reader a glimpse into the nuances. One begins to understand how little room there was for maneuver, and how the choice was really between the lesser of two evils. "If we had the means to save both types, there is no question that we would resign ourselves to the situation," writes Hartglas. "But to our regret, we do not even have the means to rescue the good people. Therefore we have no choice but to let the problematic ones go."

It is important not only to see this document in full, but to see it in its broader context, as one of many documents expressing other opinions. It is also made clear that the writer was a minor, even marginal figure in the administration of the Yishuv. As a unit, these documents and auxiliary materials contain an important lesson for anyone interested in history: How high up a person is in the hierarchy makes a difference, as do the context in which the remarks were made and the reason for making them.

The conventional thinking is that the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel were inextricably linked, and that Zionism exploited the Holocaust for its own purposes. These documents, however, show that during the war, when the dimensions of the horror came to light, the Yishuv and its leaders were worried that the Holocaust would deal a death blow to Zionism. After the annihilation of European Jewry, the fear was that there would be no one to found a Jewish state - and no one to found it for. A feverish search thus began for an alternative population to build the country and create a Jewish majority.

Since the mid-1980s, Yehiam Weitz has studied the Zionist movement's turn to Jews from Muslim countries as a possible alternative, to fill the void left by European Jewry. In this book, he presents some of the documents upon which he bases his conclusions. At the end of November 1942, soon after receiving credible reports of the systematic murder of the Jews of Europe, Eliyahu Dobkin, head of the Jewish Agency Immigration Department, informed the Mapai secretariat that "our job is to increase the size of the Jewish community in Palestine in every possible way." Since there was no knowing when immigration emissaries could reach the Jews of Europe, he advocated sending emissaries to North Africa, Egypt, Iraq and the surrounding countries.

`Archimedes' screws'

A few months after these ideas were broached in private, they reached the public arena: "In the wake of the horrors and reports from Europe about the extermination of the Jews, it is incumbent upon us to seek new `Archimedes' screws' for our enterprise in Palestine and the Diaspora ... We must `discover' new countries for pioneering training" (Jonah Goldberg (Yagol), "Niv Hakvutza," March 1943).

Ironically, the appearance of this collection of documents after the publication of serious, in-depth studies on the subject, is liable to bring on the relapse of two childhood illnesses suffered by Zionist historiography: overemphasis of political history and accentuating rhetoric as opposed to deeds. On the other hand, it has the capacity to remedy other ills, such as constructing towering theories on the basis of quotations taken out of context or the remarks of someone who was not representative of the spirit of the times; blurring the distinction between declarative statements designed to convey an educational or political message, and candid remarks in closed forums; and ignoring the speaker's rank in the political or organizational hierarchy.

"Between the Star of David and the Yellow Star" deals with political history. It does not explore the public mood, the sentiments that go beyond newspaper headlines, closed meetings and press statements. There is no mention, for example, of literary works such as "The Sermon," by Israeli author Hayim Hazaz, published just before reliable testimony about the atrocities in Europe began to seep in. In this short story, Yudke, a Yishuv pioneer, urges his listeners to divorce themselves from the troubled history of the Jewish people in the Diaspora. "Comrades! We have no history!" he says. "Go play soccer."

"The Sermon" itself, and the public discourse surrounding it, which began before the terrible news broke and continued afterward, are an important source for learning about "the Yishuv and the Holocaust." Depicted here are some of the Spartan features of Yishuv society, with its self-imposed emotional restraint, epitomized by the words of poet David Shimoni: "Do not moan / Do not lament / In a time / like this / Do not lower your head / Work, work! / Plowman plow! / Sower sow! / In a bad moment / Double the toil / Double the product!"

Alongside evidence of the "negation of the Diaspora" on an ideological and collective level, however, the book does allude to empathy for Diaspora Jewry on a personal and emotional level. After all, who were the Jewish inhabitants of pre-state Palestine if not recent arrivals from "over there," many of whom had left families behind? This is especially noticeable in the poems that open each of the four chapters, by Amir Gilboa, Natan Alterman, Moshe Tabenkin and Leah Goldberg, which were published in those dark days.

The editors of this book have thus drawn our attention to the fact that the picture is not complete: Literature can be a rich and reliable source for thoughts and feelings that do not come into play in political debates and journalistic writing. These are the materials that build history "from below," that teach us what ordinary people were feeling and thinking and dreaming, as they waited for a letter from their relatives, for some shred of information, biting their fingernails as time passed and there was no sign of life.

On a political level, most aspects of the Yishuv and the Holocaust may have been studied, but in two respects, at least, the work is not over yet. There are deeper layers and finer nuances to be probed, and Israeli society has not finished grappling with the residual impact of the Holocaust. Authentic documents from this period are a valuable contribution in these spheres. It is doubtful there is anything here that will disorient the post-Zionists (as the editors would like), but the book definitely offers teachers, students and history buffs an opportunity to set aside their judgmental attitudes and the advantages of hindsight, and look at history at the eye-level of those who were involved in making it.

Dr. Aviva Halamish teaches history at Netanya Academic College's School of Communications, and at the Open University.