On December 31, 1941, after more than half the Jews of the Vilna Ghetto had been executed by the Germans in the nearby Ponary forest, Aba Kovner, leader of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement in the ghetto, told an assembly of Jewish youth: Hitler plans to destroy all the Jews of Europe, and the Jews of Lithuania have been chosen as the first in line. We will not be led like sheep to the slaughter . The only reply to the murderer is revolt! Better to fall as free fighters than to live by the mercy of the murderers.
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But there was no revolt in the Vilna Ghetto because the people there were opposed to resistance against the Germans. Vilna was not the only ghetto where the Jews wanted to believe they had a chance to survive and that resistance to the Germans would result in their wholesale destruction. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising broke out on April 19, 1943, only after 270,000 Jews had been sent to their deaths in Treblinka during the summer and fall of 1942 without any resistance.
Could events in the areas occupied by the Germans have developed differently? Could the Jews in the free world have influenced the turn of events? Raul Hilberg, the great historian who wrote the monumental work The Destruction of the European Jews, criticized what he called the Jewish collapse under the German assault. For 50 years, Yad Vashem refused to publish his book in Hebrew because in addition to detailing the crimes of the Germans, he ventured to criticize the victims.
As for the Jewish leaders in the free world during the war – the leaders of American Jewry and the leaders of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem – Yad Vashem's reigning school of thought for many years can be summarized in one sentence: They did not know, and in any case nothing could have been done.
The fact is, news of the mass murders that began in the summer of 1941 with the German invasion of the Soviet Union reached the Jewish leaders long before the November 1942 publication of the Riegner cable, sent in August that year by the World Jewish Congress in Geneva. The World Jewish Congress, the Jewish Agency and the Hehalutz movement all had offices in Geneva throughout the war and were in contact by post with Jews in the German-occupied areas. Letters received in Geneva and sent on to Jerusalem reported on the German atrocities and preparations for resistance. The information was disbelieved or disregarded.
The Jewish leaders in America, especially Rabbi Stephen Wise, the chairman of the World Jewish Congress and the leader of the Zionist Organization of America, felt bound by U.S. restrictions on the transfer of money or materiel to German-occupied territories, and were sensitive to charges that they might be interfering with the war effort. The Jewish Agency's leaders in Jerusalem focused mainly on promoting the Zionist endeavor in Palestine, almost to the exclusion of anything else.
Is it really true that the Jewish leaders in America and Jerusalem were powerless under these circumstances? That nothing could be done to influence events? To encourage and aid those preparing for resistance to the Germans? To pressure the U.S. government to take action that might mitigate the tragedy unfolding in German-occupied Europe? To pressure the British government to permit the entry into Palestine of Jews who had managed to escape from Europe and to avert tragedies like the loss of the ship the Struma in the Black Sea?
For decades there has been an understandable reticence to address these questions. The time has come.