Tragic, This Story of Helplessness

"Jews for Sale? Negotiations between Jews and Nazis, 1933-1945," by Yehuda Bauer, translated from English into Hebrew by Carmit Guy, Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 380 pages, NIS 69

"Jews for Sale? Negotiations between Jews and Nazis, 1933-1945," by Yehuda Bauer, translated from English into Hebrew by Carmit Guy, Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 380 pages, NIS 69

Yehuda Bauer is considered the doyen of Israel's Holocaust scholars. He has an international reputation and this book was first published by Yale University. The Hebrew edition was issued by Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, a state-sponsored institution where Bauer is a senior director. Thus, his book, like any official history text, should be approached with caution.

Two-thirds of nearly 450 footnotes refer readers to works by other scholars - in Israel and overseas. Thus, Bauer apparently intended to present not an original study, but rather a comprehensive, authoritarian and authoritative perspective of one of the most fascinating and most sensitive issues in Holocaust history. Bauer, now 75, is a member of the first generation of Holocaust scholars and his work is infected by the same childhood illness that has attacked the work of most of his contemporaries in Holocaust studies: Much of their efforts is invested not in research or even in narrative, but rather in the settling of national-historical and political-personal accounts. This book too is very argumentative, highly assertive, as well as arbitrary and full of rebukes. In almost every chapter, Bauer settles an account with someone.

The book seems to be directed at the general public: Bauer tries to use a quasi-popular style, but the results are disappointing. His tone is cold and arrogant, and he frequently uses the "royal we." Sometimes he switches to the present tense, a mannerism many historians are guilty of and which is unmatched as a device for destroying even the best of books.

Bauer is dealing here with a tragic tale that fires the imagination and which concerns the attempts of Jews during the Holocaust to save themselves through direct negotiations with the Nazis. Opportunities for such negotiations presented themselves on many occasions, from the rise of the Third Reich to the last few weeks prior to its collapse. Generally, the Jews offered ransom payments, and thousands of Jews were saved in this fashion. Some of the contacts were handled by Jewish organizations - Zionist as well as non-Zionist - and some by private Jewish individuals. The whole affair certainly deserves to be told.

Three central questions must be asked in this context. The first is essentially a moral one. Some people argued that it was forbidden to negotiate with or pay ransom money to the devil, that it was forbidden to agree to the rescue of one group of Jews while coming to terms with the death of other Jews, and that negotiations with Nazis could sabotage the Allied war effort. Bauer's position on this issue is clear and just: Such actions were not only permissible, they were mandatory.

The second question is, what were the prospects of success at every point in time. In each instance, did all the parties involved operate in a correct manner or did they err, thereby missing an opportunity for rescue? This is the most sensitive of the three questions, even from the political standpoint. Bauer finds it difficult to analyze it in an unbiased manner.

In order to respond to this question, an answer must first be obtained for the third: Why did the Nazis agree in the first place to negotiate with Jews? Some of the contacts were conducted with the knowledge and approval of Adolf Hitler himself. This is a highly complex issue and Bauer does not clarify it sufficiently.

In this context, the Nazis appear to be pragmatists prepared to engage in negotiations and to agree to tactical arrangements seemingly opposed to their central goal: The total extermination of European Jewry. Bauer denies any contradiction between the Nazis' ideology and their tactics, and he provides strong arguments to back his position.

The Allies, on the other hand, refused to budge from their guiding principle that any negotiations with the Nazis would focus on only one topic: their unconditional surrender. According to Bauer, the Allies were victims of a basic misunderstanding: They thought that the Nazis wanted to rule Europe when, as Bauer sees it, the Nazis' principal goal was to rid themselves of the Jews. No body of evidence is presented to support this thesis.

In "Jews for Sale?" Bauer focuses on three major issues: The transfer agreement between the Third Reich and the Jewish Agency, according to which German Jews could immigrate to Palestine and transfer a considerable portion of their property there; the attempt by Rabbi Michael Dov-Ber Weissmandel and others to use bribery to rescue Slovakia's Jews and then all the Jews of occupied Europe; and the attempts to save Hungarian Jewry.

The transfer agreement was made possible because of the convergence of the Jewish Agency's and the Nazis' interests: The Nazis wanted to rid themselves of the Jews, while the Jewish Agency needed those Jews in Palestine. The agreement aroused stiff opposition; however, Bauer describes it in positive terms. In doing so, he conceals one important fact: The agreement with the Nazis allowed the Jews to immigrate to only one place on earth - Palestine. Similarly, Bauer conceals the fact that David Ben-Gurion tended to oppose any attempt to rescue Jews during the Holocaust unless the destination was Palestine. The Germans' motives were unclear.

The fog surrounding the Germans' position becomes heavier when Bauer describes the heart-breaking and emotionally charged affair surrounding an ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Slovakia, Weissmandel, who tried to bribe the Nazis and who believed that, because of the bribe money he paid them, they stopped the deportation of Slovakian Jews for two years. He thought that additional money would enable him to delay the deportation even further and that additional money on top of that would enable the rescue of all European Jewry. After the war, he claimed that the Zionist movement abandoned his community because it was ultra-Orthodox.

Bauer attacks this issue from two directions. First, he states that the bribe money did not delay the deportation of Slovakia's Jews and that the "European plan" had not a breath of a chance of succeeding. He might be right in holding this position. Second, notes Bauer, the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) did not forsake Slovakian Jewry but did send the Slovakian Jews the money that they needed. The presentation of the chain of events in this important episode is rather puzzling. On page 120, Bauer writes that, by the end of September 1943, $184,000 had been sent. It is unclear where the money came from and how it was transferred to its destination.

Readers who take the trouble to switch to page 340 and look up footnote number 77 appearing there will uncover a very surprising point: In 1943-1944, claims Bauer, 100,000 pounds sterling or approximately $400,000 were transferred from Palestine to Slovakia. This is a very important piece of information: If it is true, it should not have been buried in a footnote. Even on this matter, Bauer does not say where the money came from, how it was sent, to whom it was sent, and what it was supposed to fund in 1944, because by that time most of Slovakia's Jews were no longer in Slovakia.

This is the most perplexing passage in his book. Perhaps the passage reflects something about the editor, not about the author: Any serious editor would have demanded a clarification here. The bottom line is that both the Jewish Agency and the JDC acted correctly. Neither organization can be accused of having missed the opportunity of saving Slovakian Jewry. This statement should have been made explicitly in the text; nonetheless, it does not erase the question mark hovering above this affair.

The Hungarian Jewry affair is similarly enshrouded in fog. Adolf Eichmann entrusted one of the leaders of the Budapest Jewish community, Joel Brand, with the task of presenting the Jewish Agency with the following proposed deal: 10,000 trucks in return for the lives of several thousand Jews. Together with Brand, another emissary left Budapest. The second emissary's assignment apparently was to establish a connection between Heinrich Himmler and the United States - such a connection would be a precondition for the signing of a separate peace treaty.

Rudolph Kastner, another leader of the Budapest Jewish community, meanwhile organized a rescue operation: The Nazis had granted him permission to remove from Hungary close to 1,800 Jews. At approximately the same time the Jewish Agency arranged for the infiltration of a small number of paratroopers behind enemy lines into Nazi-controlled territory. Three of them, including Hannah Senesh, managed to reach Budapest.

These are the elements compromising one of the greatest dramas of the 20th century and this drama demands a clear chronologically ordered narrative and, at least, some measure of inspiration. Bauer drowns the drama in a sea of minute details, with endless repetitions requiring both frequent use of the irritating phrase "as noted above" and many digressions in the direction of minor episodes. At the same time, he engages in acrobatic manipulation of the timetable of events, moving forwards and backwards and then backwards and forwards. The result is a heavy mantle of fog that makes it next to impossible to fathom what happened and when.

A central question in this affair concerns the involvement of both the Jewish Agency and Ben-Gurion himself. The Jewish Agency quickly informed the British authorities of the Germans' proposal. Although it may not have had any other alternative but to inform the British, the Jewish Agency did not make any serious effort to mislead the Germans, even if only to buy some time. Someone who did try to mislead the Germans to buy time was the JDC's representative in Switzerland, Saly Mayer. Bauer loves Mayer but adopts a patronizing attitude toward him.

Naturally, Bauer writes that Ben-Gurion understood the meaning of the plans to exterminate the Jews and that he was actively involved in the attempts to rescue them. The truth is that Ben-Gurion, first of all, regarded the extermination of Jews not as a crime against humanity or against the Jewish people but rather as a crime against the Zionist movement. On his part in rescue efforts during the Holocaust, Ben-Gurion himself wrote, in the 1950s, in a letter he sent to Kastner's brother: "I was not an expert, even while the events transpired, on the issues involved in the rescue of the Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe, although, at the time, I headed the Zionist Executive. The focus of my activities during that period was the mobilization of the Jewish people in the demand for the creation of a Jewish state." Bauer does not mention this letter.

One gets the impression that Bauer associates himself with those Holocaust scholars who tend to attribute to Ben-Gurion a higher degree of involvement in the attempts to rescue Jews during the Holocaust than Ben-Gurion himself admits to. Thus, it is bizarre to find the explanation Bauer offers for Ben-Gurion's position: Ben-Gurion and his colleagues sent the ransom money to Europe not because they believed that the rescue plan was realistic but rather because they did not want to be accused after the war of having missed an opportunity to save Jews.

According to this explanation, a cynical politician whose every move is calculated sends the Nazis $400,000 from the money of the Jewish people in order to preserve a proper image in the eyes of future voters.

Against the background of this accusation, there is something contemptible in Bauer's tendency to repeatedly rebuke historians who are less "establishment" than he is: He accuses Amos Elon (whom he defines, for some reason, as a "very popular writer") of having deliberately repeated a false story simply to blacken the Jewish Agency's face. Bauer considers such behavior anti-Zionist masochism "in the `best' of Jewish traditions." The question involved here is why Brand was not permitted to return to Budapest to continue negotiations with the Nazis. Writes Bauer: "We [that is, Bauer] can almost hear the argument ringing in our ears that the Israel Air Force should have parachuted him behind German lines." Here is a statement that should not have escaped a responsible editor's eye.

In the final analysis, it is difficult to determine whether Ben-Gurion and his colleagues in the Jewish Agency did act correctly: At the end of this affair Bauer places an exclamation mark when a question mark is what is really needed. In attempting to analyze the Germans' position, Bauer bases himself on the assumption that a rational explanation exists. However, that might be the crux of his problem: Perhaps there is no rational explanation.

The good people in his book are tragic heroic figures caught up in larger-than-life dilemmas: Rabbi Weissmandel, Kastner, Brand and, especially, Mayer, who was successful in his attempt to mislead the Nazis. Bauer justly points out that these people deserve to have streets named after them in Israeli towns and cities. In this context, he mentions the "members of Zionist youth movements." This is a rather forced reference because he says very little about their role in the rescue of Jews.

He frequently mentions German opposition to the transfer of Jews to Palestine. In his view, the Germans were influenced by the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. Here, Bauer is reinforcing the myth that Palestine at the time could have actually absorbed millions of Jewish refugees from Europe. The truth is that, to this day, Israel has not managed to absorb six million Jews and that all the Jewish Agency's immigration plans until the end of the war were based on the assumption that the immigration of millions of Jews would transpire over a period of several decades. That was the Zionist movement's real tragedy during the Holocaust: The movement's story is one of helplessness. The Zionist movement knew how to predict the danger, but the solution it offered was irrelevant. Bauer makes no mention of this point.

Yet he frequently attacks the Allies for not having done enough to save the Jews and for regarding them as a "mere hindrance." The book contains no body of evidence to support this argument. The Allies might have been able to do more; however, the only way to save millions of Europe's Jews was to defeat Nazi Germany. In this war, the Allies lost close to 20 million soldiers and many more civilians. Most of the Jews rescued owe their lives to the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. Simple decency would require mention of that fact from time to time. Bauer does not do so. Instead, he chooses to settle an historical account with the British Mandatory Government in Palestine and writes in a somewhat childish tone of gloating: "History had its revenge: The British lost not only Palestine but their entire empire." A sentence like that should also not have escaped the eye of a serious editor.

A more serious editor would have returned the manuscript to Bauer so that the latter could fill in the picture for at least a portion of the chapters of the drama that the author has missed. Depicting the negotiations between Mayer and a few SS officers on the Swiss-German border, Bauer writes that the Nazis "brought along" more than 300 Jews who had been removed for this purpose from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. What does the phrase "brought along" mean? In what condition were these Jews? How were they transported to the border? At what spot were they taken from the vehicle that had transported them? How were they treated? Where they were sent after being taken to the border? What did they feel? After all, these were human beings, not sacks of dried goods. Bauer's editor did not ask for a clarification.

Bauer tries to outline the characters of some of the persons involved in his story. He identifies two women simply by their first name, as if they were friends of his: "Margot was an intellectual, not a Nazi in terms of her character; Hermione was a skilled equestrienne and was not highly educated" (p. 264). Such a passage does not contribute much to his story.

Bauer's sarcasm is particularly aggravating. About one SS officer, he writes - twice - that he "liked people, especially Jews." Bauer also notes that the SS officer "contracted venereal disease (apparently in the context of his administrative duties); however, thank God (not the Protestant or Catholic God, but rather the one in whom every proud Nazi who contracted venereal disease believed in), he recovered and was assigned to a very important job in Berlin" (p. 266). This passage is unnecessary. Bauer's readers know that even those Nazis who did not contract venereal disease were bastards.