Arrows in the Dark

David Ben-Gurion, the Yishuv Leadership, and Rescue Attempts during the Holocaust
By Tuvia Friling

The University of Wisconsin Press

Copyright © 2005 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-299-17550-4

Chapter One

Phases of Acknowledging

Information, Consciousness, Mental and Emotional Processing


In early summer 1936 Ben-Gurion flew from Rome to London. In his diary he wrote:

Of all the many flights I have made in an airplane, this was the most interesting.... About halfway between Rome and Milan, the ground below was covered with clouds, and it looked like very beautiful soapsuds. There was a brief glimpse of a green island, which soon disappeared.... As we approached the Po River I saw not the sky but the land, and the whole of northern Italy was revealed to me in all its green and fertile glory. The hills, the valleys, the mountains and slopes-all covered with grass and fruit trees. Not a single stretch is barren and untended. The streams leading to the Po cut across the land, coloring the landscape. But this was merely an introduction to what was to come after Milan. All the voluptuous splendor of the snowy mountains, the lakes sparkling in greens and blues, squares of forest between the mountainous ridges, dark abysses sprawling between rocky slopes, white strips of water meandering and disappearing into the steep hills and villages-as small as children's playthings-drowning among stretches of woodland that look like one big garden spread over the depths, and again lakes and white-topped mountains and green mountains ... and here and there layer upon layer of clouds floating above and between the hills-and all this is below you, while above the wide green and blue haze of endless sky stretches out to the horizon. You are flying above the snow-capped hills and no single moment resembles another; and before you have managed to take in one splendid sight, here comes another galloping toward you and in an instant is gone, because a new lake spreads itself out below, with new hills to decorate it and snow-covered peaks, and mountain follows mountain, and one valley hides behind another....

And then the snow-covered hills are replaced by the monotonous landscape of Germany ... only green fields and villages and rivers and narrow strips of railways-until you reach Frankfurt. And the charm fades away and all you remember is Hitler ... and the swastika; and only after you have left behind you the rising bear on the banks of the Rhine River and cross over Cologne and approach the flatlands and the canals of Holland can you heave a sigh of relief and you can ... step out off at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, [which are] not like Frankfurt and Cologne.

This highly lyrical description constitutes a departure from Ben-Gurion's usual stern and rather dry image, leading one to question the extent to which he introduced into his writing and speeches expressions that might be construed as containing a sense of foreboding and of imminent catastrophe. Was Ben-Gurion-whose supporters and enemies alike often endowed him with exceptional political intuition and outstanding powers of perception and foresight-aware of the evil winds blowing across Europe? What was his analysis of developments in the international arena since Hitler's rise to power, and how did he see the repercussions vis-��-vis the Jews? How did Ben-Gurion become aware of the Holocaust? Did he "prophesy" it?

There are plenty of references in documents concerning Ben-Gurion to suggest that he felt Hitler's increasing power in Germany was ominous. At a meeting of the Mapai Council in January 1933-two weeks before Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany-Ben-Gurion pointed out the "existential danger" to the Jews of Poland and Germany. During a visit to Poland for elections to the Zionist Congress in April 1933-only two months after Hitler's rise to power-Ben-Gurion referred to an imminent world war that would bring with it a terrible catastrophe for the Jewish people, who would be the first victims of the Nazi oppression and dictatorship. He believed that this world war would wreak global destruction and even declared unambiguously that Jews would be slaughtered.

Shortly after the publication of Hitler's Mein Kampf at the end of August 1933, Ben-Gurion bought and read this programmatic book. Based on the ideological platform he found in this book, at the beginning of 1934 Ben-Gurion stated that "the calamity of the Jews of Germany is not restricted only to Germany's borders," and that this government is a danger to the entire Jewish nation. From this point on, Ben-Gurion was to adopt an important and constant motive for clarifying the reasons for an inevitable collision between Nazism and Judaism. The most significant difference between Judaism and Nazism, he held, was Hitler's (and his henchmen's) deep and ingrained hatred of Judaism and all it symbolized. In his desire to force the German race on the entire world, Hitler made an ideological comparison between the Jewish nation-advocates of the ideals of righteousness and peace, liberty and human dignity-and "Satan." According to Ben-Gurion, war was fundamental to German government; without war it could not exist. As soon as he could, Hitler would begin a war; the destruction and horror resulting from this war would prove costlier than any previous one. Hitler's would not limit his war to the Jews of Germany alone: the entire Jewish nation would fall victim to Hitler's anti-Semitism. Ben-Gurion also foresaw an exact timetable: there were "maybe four or five years [if not less]" separating us and that "terrible doomsday." Throughout 1933 and 1934 Ben-Gurion would make many similar declarations.

An outstanding example of homo politicus, Ben-Gurion followed each and every main international event, not only because it was in his character to do so but because of his position and the sense of mission that had been with him from his first steps in the political arena. During the six years that separated Hitler's rise to power and the beginning of the Second World War, Ben-Gurion witnessed a constant and systematic process of dissolution of the democratic world in the face of increasing pressures from Nazism and Fascism.

Ben-Gurion's foreboding came in the wake of a series of large and small international crises in which Germany played a central role. In Ben-Gurion's opinion, they all added up to a rearguard war by the democratic world against Hitler's violence and aggression. "Satan," "Hooligan," and "leader of a gang of thugs," or "the housepainter," "the gangster," and "Attila the Hun" were words he used to refer to Hitler on various occasions during those years.

Ben-Gurion observed a system and a plan in Hitler's moves. He was convinced that Hitler was acting according to a carefully written script, with an early phase and a late phase, based in part on a thorough knowledge of his (Hitler's) people and so deep an understanding of the character of democratic nations that he was able to "pluck the strings of their slackness." Hitler was familiar with the weakness of the democratic system, the process of decision-making within a democracy, and especially the complexity of the decision to declare war. Thus, according to Ben-Gurion, Hitler gradually but systematically began to violate the military and political boundaries imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. He worked constantly to undermine and release himself from the confines of the agreement that nationalist Nazism saw as an expression of Germany's defeat and betrayal in the First World War.

As those six years between Hitler's rise to power and the outbreak of war passed, Ben- Gurion added layer upon layer to his analysis and his description of Hitler's "salami" methods against the democratic states. At every stage he would push a tiny bit further, based on the sound hypothesis that each such "push" would not be enough to serve as suitable casus belli against Europe's new tyrant.

Within the framework of this systematic violation of various aspects of the Versailles treaty, Ben-Gurion pointed out a series of steppingstones-including a violation of the treaty's military clauses regarding the German navy and especially the submarines-that had played so decisive a role in the First World War. The world press carried reports of Germany's new submarine fleet and strengthened air force. England, France, and Italy, all members of the League of Nations, reminded Germany of its restrictions under the Versailles treaty. Hitler responded with a rhetorical "peace" speech, delivered at the Reichstag on 21 May 1935. The Times of London received the speech with satisfaction. Ben-Gurion, unable to overcome a cynical tone, wrote in his diary that Germany had "promised" England not to deviate further from the rules of the treaty. "What is the value of such a promise once Germany has dug in?" Within a short time Hitler advanced a step further in his ongoing process of breaching the treaty. Germany now demanded a parity of forces, insisting that its forces be equal in number to those of Britain. To this end, Hitler demanded official recognition of his right to build submarines openly. Ben-Gurion was wise enough to note that "the shadow of war is undoubtedly darkening and thickening."

Among the big international events that, for Ben-Gurion, determined the character of the six years leading to the war were the Ethiopia crisis (1935), the Spanish civil war (1936), the Anschluss or annexation of Austria by Germany (March 1938), and the Sudetenland crisis and Munich Pact that followed in its wake (September 1938). For Ben-Gurion these were all links in a chain of developments that intertwined to form a complete historical structure, with its own internal logic-albeit worrying and insane-all of which would lead to a war and to a dreadful catastrophe for the Jewish nation.

In February 1938, one month before Germany annexed Austria and seven months before the Munich convention-apex of the capitulation process and later the symbol of appeasement of the aggressor-Ben-Gurion described these events with great accuracy: "England is concerned with serious international problems. The war with China, the war in Spain. Germany is swallowing up Austria-and tomorrow it will be Czechoslovakia's turn." Indeed, Czechoslovakia soon had its turn: Hitler completed the process of taking over this country in March 1939. Under the watchful eyes of the Western powers, Czechoslovakia was added to the Reich that was to last "a thousand years." Within a week the Lithuanian province of Kleipete-Memel was also added to the Reich, and yet another stone was laid on the structure that Ben-Gurion was pointing at.

Ben-Gurion saw the "swallowing up" of Czechoslovakia as a supremely significant move toward the erosion of democracy and capitulation to Nazi pressure. In September 1938 Ben- Gurion was in London, where he witnessed Neville Chamberlain, prime minister of England and the chief protagonist of appeasement toward Germany, trying to contend with the Sudetenland crisis.

Encouraged by Germany, the large German-speaking population of the Sudetenland-which was part of the Czech, Bohemia, and Moravia segments-began demanding special status in Czechoslovakia and special relations with the motherland. In less than a year it became clear that what at first had seemed a limited local action was, in fact, no more than a further stage in Germany's plan to take over the whole of central Europe and to annex the strongest country between Germany and the Soviet Union. Aided by Konrad Henlein, the leader of the Nazi party in this region, Hitler proceeded to bite off one part after another of Czechoslovakia until there was nothing left of the independent state.

The annexation of Czechoslovakia was an important stage in the violation of the balance of power in Europe. It canceled out two important international political arrangements: the defense agreement between France and Czechoslovakia in effect since 1925 and the mutual defense agreement signed by Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union in 1935. The Munich convention was convened on 28 and 29 September 1938 as part of an effort to appease the "rising bear on the banks of the Rhein." At this convention Germany's right was recognized over those actions demanded by Czechoslovakia, and it was thus that this country was left to its fate. After the Munich convention, it became clear that there was no longer any real validity to international agreements. For Ben- Gurion this was the clearest possible indication of what was to happen in the future: the smaller nations would be abandoned. After Czechoslovakia, the others would follow suit.

In London Ben-Gurion followed the diplomatic process closely. He reserved his grave thoughts and feelings for his diary and his closest associates. On 14 September 1938, when the BBC broadcast the dramatic announcement that Chamberlain was about to fly to Berchtesgaden, Hitler's vacation mountain retreat, for a meeting with the German leader, Ben-Gurion wrote: "It is hard to believe that Chamberlain's pretty eyes will change Hitler's mind. And who knows what price the Czechs will have to pay for the British prime minister's sudden flight."

In a long and bitter letter to Moshe Shertok (Sharret), head of the Jewish Agency's Political Department, Ben-Gurion described how democratic states such as Britain and France had knuckled under to Germany's demands. They handed Czechoslovakia over to the Nazis, and by shaking the belief in treaties and promises, they increased Hitler's prestige and the aura of totalitarianism. Clearly, these actions would "carve deeply into the hearts of the Arabs and facilitate the work of the agents of Hitler and Mussolini in the near East." Ben-Gurion made a connection between events in Europe and those in the Middle East; he foresaw a tightening of bonds between the mufti, Haj Amin al Huseini, and the leaders of the Nazi government. Moreover, the American tendency to remain aloof from events in Europe would increase, the nations of central Europe would be quick to make peace with the Nazis, and "a new and terrible catastrophe would befall European Jewry."

He also noted the political analysis he and Chaim Weizmann had received from Malcolm Macdonald, the British colonial minister. Macdonald believed that this time the Germans "did have a case," since they were entitled to the Sudetenland. According to Macdonald, there were two opinions on Hitler. The first goes "yesterday Austria, today Czechoslovakia, tomorrow Poland or Alsace, the next day the colonies-and in the end the entire world. The second has it that Hitler is a wise and practical man; his objective is to liberate the Rhein area, annex Austria and the Sudetenland-and that's all." Macdonald, tended toward the second version, which is one that ensures world peace. In summing up Macdonald's analysis, Ben-Gurion wrote, Weizmann asked the British minister if he had read Hitler's Mein Kampf. Ben-Gurion thought to himself, "God help a world whose fate is determined by the likes of these!" Through all the crises-Ethiopia, Spain, China, and Czechoslovakia-Ben-Gurion went on in his letter to Sharett, Britain and the rest of the democratic world were "constant" in their capitulation to the aggressor-and thus also in the matter of the Jews. "In this day and age," aid to the Jews is not a "negotiable currency. Hitler broke the backbone of the Jews-the job was completed with the handing over of Czechoslovakia. ... Hitler will gain control of Europe ... the Jews of Europe no longer have anything to lean on."

Ben-Gurion also described to Sharett the helplessness of the Jews of Europe and the trap into which they had fallen: on the one hand, a direct or indirect Nazi threat and the unfounded, illusory belief that there is one friendly nation that would never let them down; on the other hand, an inability to act. What could they do? Protest? And if they were to protest, "how would their protest get by the various censors? And if it did reach the government, would Malcolm Macdonald or Neville Chamberlain read an article in Hayent or hear the words of protest spoken in Pinsk?"

As he closed his analysis, Ben-Gurion urged Sharret to be prepared, since there was no knowing "what the next few days hold in store for us. I can imagine such worldwide catalyses as will turn everything upside down."


Excerpted from Arrows in the Darkby Tuvia Friling Copyright © 2005 by The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Excerpted by permission.
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