Thursday, September 8, 2016

133 - Sharett, Epilogue to Joel Brand’s book, On a Mission for those Sentenced to Death

In the Margins of the Book

I have willingly responded to the request of Yoel Brand to add to his book my clarifications and assessments. In my official capacity [as head of the Jewish Agency Political Department] in those days I had closely followed the whole saga of his mission, and took part in the efforts aimed at the rescue of Hungarian Jews which were exerted in the wake of that mission. Clearly, I could not do this without providing the reader with my knowledge and my perspective on the events described by Yoel Brand in his book.
            This book is to my mind the story of one man who physically and mentally went through the horrific chapter of the annihilation of Hungarian Jews; a man who became a messenger for a puzzling and imaginary operation which, according to its initiators, was meant, on the face of it, to save them; a man who firmly believed in his innocent heart that that operation, which was far beyond any bounds of practical logic in the circumstances of the time, was workable.
            As someone who experienced the events which are still boiling inside him to this very day, the writer is entitled to tell his story openly. The book presents the deep and agonizing impressions of the author regarding one of the most tragic chapters in the bloody history of European Jewry during World War II. Still, one cannot view this book as the complete story by itself. Naturally, the writer was not able to see, and certainly not at the time of his mission, the background and full scope of the events he was dealing with; nor could he understand and correctly evaluate the basic facts which had shaped international reality during the War years and which had determined the fate of the struggle to rescue multitudes of Jews from the hands of the Nazi hangman. Perhaps one is not allowed to pass judgement, after the events, on a writer who did not uncritically relate the experiences he went through during the days they took place. Yet, at the same time, he cannot expect that his book, which is undoubtedly a shattering human document of Jewish martyrology, would be accepted as well as a factual description, balanced and all-encompassing, of actual events.
            Below an attempt will be made to deal briefly with the factual errors of the story as told here and to correct the perspectives.

            A. The premise which prima facie comes out of this book, that the chapter of the saving of European Jewry began with Yoel Brand’s mission, ignores some basic facts. Already at the 21st Zionist World Congress, which ended in Geneva exactly on the eve of World War II, it was decided by the Labor parties that their emissaries working in Europe would each go back to his post in spite of the dangers involved, and precisely because of the danger looming at that time for all European Jewry. In those days a center was established in Switzerland for organizing the activity of contacts and help throughout the continent. With the outbreak of the war, the Jewish Agency’s and the Hagana’s efforts to move European Jews to Palestine “illegally,” against the White Paper policy, were strengthened in order to get them to safety in time. These efforts bore fruit. Many ships arrived in Palestine carrying refugees from Europe during the war. The Jewish Agency and the Hagana also strove, right from the beginning of the war, by cooperation with the British Army – the only possible vehicle for this purpose – to have teams of volunteers infiltrate into Europe to organize Jews to resist the Nazi enemy and to save themselves. The Jewish Agency fought hard, in some cases not in vain, to use all avenues of legal immigration of Jews from enemy countries. Many rescue efforts were undertaken by the World Jewish Congress and the [American] Joint [Distribution Committee], thanks to which many Jews and whole groups escaped from the hell in time.
            When the first shocking news about the annihilation and its scope reached us, it was not kept secret but was publicized all over the world. The news was summed up in a report published by the World Jewish Congress already in 1942. The news was impressively publicized in a series of public meetings in Palestine, during a session of the British Parliament in December 1942, and in a mass meeting in New York in 1943. Towards the end of 1942 a national “Rescue Committee” was established in Palestine by the Jewish Agency and the Va’ad Hale’umi [National Council], in which all yishuv organizations participated. A “Rescue Campaign” was created which organized a tax collected from the yishuv, a substantial part of its resources were channeled to the rescue of European Jews. A center was established in Istanbul, which strove and succeeded, mostly clandestinely, to gain contacts with several counties under Nazi occupation, transferred money for the financing of local rescue activities and collected information about the evolving situation there. This center organized a team of emissaries and couriers who carried out its missions on dozens of secret and dangerous trips. The center established action committees in the occupied countries for the purpose of renting ships and sailing them [to Palestine]. These committees functioned clandestinely, but sometimes used contacts with local officials of the occupation authorities in order to save Jews.
            The Istanbul center established contact with Budapest as well, and constantly exchanged information and consulted with the committee established there. Without this contact, which was attained thanks to the initiative of the Palestinian emissaries even before the eruption of the Shoah in Hungary, Brand and his comrades would never have arrived at the idea of his flight to Istanbul. The mission of Ira Hirschmann – an American Jew who functioned with special authority for dealing with refugees given him by the American President – came about on the initiative of organized American Jewry, which took much inspiration from the rescue activity in Palestine. Hirschmann arrived in the Middle East before Brand’s arrival, and once he was informed by the Jewish Agency’s representatives of this mission, he immediately set about finding out the possibility of making it successful. The anxiety regarding the fate of Hungarian and Balkan Jewry was worrying to the Jewish Agency and “Rescue Committee” activists ever since the appearance of the danger of their occupation by Hitler. The first news about the annihilation campaign in Hungary reached Palestine and alarmed the yishuv before Brand’s arrival in Istanbul.

            B. The writer has fallen prey to exaggerating the power and authority of the Jewish Agency in those days. Under the fear and solitude and the dark despair which suddenly engulfed Hungarian Jewry, it was only naturally that its activists would imbibe an exaggerated and mistaken conception of the Jewish Agency’s power and that of the Palestinian Jewish public in general to directly act and influence the Allies’ policy as well. But anyone cognizant of the concrete situation in those days, even superficially, would smile bitterly at Brand’s accusations against the emissaries stationed in Istanbul for not being able to immediately provide him with an airplane. For the sake of the reader who is ignorant of the circumstances of the time, let me note that all means of communication between Palestine and the outside world were in the hands of the British military authorities, and each journey and each flight to another country necessitated a permit, the getting of which depended on special efforts which were at times in vain. It so happened that the Head of the JA's Political Department [i.e., Sharett himself] did not receive a Turkish entry visa, and not always was a seat on an airplane made available for a flight out of Jerusalem in time. Generally, the freedom of action of the Istanbul “Rescue Center” was limited and dismal. Its activists had to constantly struggle against serious limitations born out of the existing regime of cooperation with the Allies, a system without which that Rescue Center could not function at all, and out of the constraints exerted by the Turkish authorities which maintained their regular contacts with Germany until the end of the war. Brand’s accusation regarding the lack of bombing of the annihilation centers in Europe and the railways leading to them is also a result of conceptions which had utterly no basis in reality – as if bombers, and long-range ones at that, were at the disposal of the Jewish Agency or the Hagana, or as if the British and American air forces were prepared to act according to Zionist directives. In fact, protracted efforts were made by the Jewish Agency to motivate the British to bomb those targets – precisely at the initiative of Yitzhak Gruenbaum, member of the JAE and head of the Rescue Committee, on whom the writer heaps his boiling wrath.

            C. Another element ignored by the writer – the most serious one – is the policy followed by the Allies regarding any contact with the enemy and any activity which could be of any help to him, and their attitude towards the problem of saving European Jews through the war years, and generally his ignoring the political background of the Allies’ war against Hitler and their inter-relations as members of a coalition fighting Hitler. The transporting of material help to the enemy, be it for the loftiest aim, was one of the most injurious [pasul] and improper deeds, which was unheard of. In vain would anybody ignore the fact that saving Jews was not among the aims of the Allies’ war against Germany – at most it was to be a by-product of their victory. Needless to say, the Allied powers shunned and even refused to define saving of Jews as a guideline for the operational conduct of the war. Moreover, from time to time the Zionist mission was confronted by unwillingness to accept its proposals for cooperation in the war, which emanated from a fear that the European nations would gain the impression that the war was being fought mainly for the sake of the Jews. Any demand that, while planning wartime operations, the frightening fact of the continuing annihilation of Jews should be taken into consideration, and that laws of war could be overlooked so that Jews might be saved, was met by one single response: the only efficient way to save your people is to guarantee and expedite the collapse of Hitler by concentrating all energies in the fighting itself. The fact that, meanwhile, millions were slaughtered like sheep was not weighed at all towards changing this policy, and for this reason alone the fate of the proposal that the Allies supply Germany, in the midst of the war, with food supplies and means of transport and other vital material was clear. This plan could not but be seen as an insane one, one which wholly contradicted the basic principles of fighting the enemy to the very end. Moreover, once the principle of “unconditional surrender” was fixed as a primary aim of the war, they became highly nervous to carefully refrain from any step which could be taken as possibly leading to some compromise with Hitler, or generally understood as the slightest deviation from the established policy. The mutual suspicion among the Allies in this matter, that is between the western powers and the Soviet Union, as well as the high sensitivity of any member of the partnership regarding his partner lest this or that step would be wrongly understood by him, were then at their apex. Evidently, one could certainly assume that if the question was of the annihilation of millions of Englishmen or Americans, public opinion in these nations would have compelled their governments – if they did not arise by themselves – to break all rules and forego any danger in order to save them, whatever happens. However, the question was that of millions of Jews, and since no such danger loomed over the heads of multitudes of Englishmen or Americans, the moral aspect of the hard position of the Allies was not put to a decisive test.

            D. Most obviously, Brand and his comrades did not, or could not, really grasp the malignant character of Britain’s position under the White Paper policy. Any action of saving Jews assisted by England, which ultimately could have any connection with Jews immigrating to Palestine, stood in contradiction to this negative policy and was seen as threatening the British authorities with an insoluble complication. The shocking tragedy of “Struma”{*}
{*} NOTE: This dilapidated vessel, which sailed from Romania to Palestine with 769 Jews, men women and children who escaped slaughter, was detained in Istanbul and stayed there for a whole month, with the knowledge of all powers. All efforts to prevail on the British authorities to allow the entry of these refugees into Palestine were to no avail. No country whatever proposed to accept them. Ultimately the Turkish authorities forced the vessel to return back while screams of despair and  pain were heard along the Bosporus shores. Upon entering the Black Sea, the vessel hit a mine and sank. Only one of its passengers was saved.

was decisive proof of the shocking situation reigning then. Even in the sphere of utilizing Palestinian Jews for the war effort within the framework of the British Army by enlisting them to the Army, building a fighting force and sending fighters into the enemy’s rear, England found itself shackled by itself on account of the policy she pursued on the eve of the war, maintaining it rigidly throughout the war period. Inasmuch as Zionist and yishuv action attained certain achievements in this sphere, they came very late and only after overcoming the obstacles placed before them by the White Paper. Several important initiatives of military actions failed because of that policy.

            E. And again, one cannot be surprised at the people of the Rescue Committee of Budapest, including Yoel Brand in view of their inability to see the full picture of the circumstances in the world beyond the wall of siege engulfing European Jewry, and as well as the real situation of the Jewish question within the camp of those fighting against Hitler. As people whose lives hung by a thread and who were deep in the darkness of the underground, it was only natural that  they were prone to cling to any spark of hope, be it the most illusory, of saving themselves and their many brethren. It was because of this blindness that they fell prey to believe that “Chaim” was none other than Chaim Weizmann, whose permanent home then was London, while in fact he was Haim Barlas, the Jewish Agency’s representative in Istanbul, who had been active there for a long time, organizing the immigration of refugees to Palestine and whose name was well known throughout the besieged Diaspora centers. The gap between the conceptions prevalent in Budapest and the realities beyond the wall became apparent immediately upon the arrival of Yoel Brand in Turkey, which caused him deep shock. He was astounded when not finding an entry visa to Palestine awaiting him in the Istanbul airport, for evidently he believed that the Turkish authorities used to fulfill any wish of the Jewish Agency’s emissaries. In fact, an entry permit was prepared for him, but matters were bungled up by the appearance with him of a companion, about whose arrival no prior information has been given, and who was known to the Allied authorities as a highly dubious personality.{*}
{*} NOTE: Reference is to Bandi Grosz (Andrei Gyorgy), who operated as a double, and probably a triple, agent. Some accounts treat the Brand mission as a cover for a different one entrusted to Grosz. For details, see Yechiam Weitz, The Man who was Murdered Twice: The Life, Trial and Death of Israel Kasztner. Transl. Chaya Naor (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem Press, 2011), 21, 170-72, and sources cited there.

Whatever happened to Yoel Brand in Istanbul, and later in Aleppo, astounded and frustrated Yoel Brand and struck him as some confusion or terrible misunderstanding or lack of seriousness towards himself, or even as criminal neglect of him. In contrast, it was crystal clear to all who were well versed in the real circumstances then and there, that the sudden appearance in Istanbul, which ostensibly was neutral, but in fact the Allies were quite powerful there, of an emissary from a enemy country, his being a Jew notwithstanding, accompanied by a suspicious fellow believed to be dangerous, was a totally incongruous happening, extremely problematic and one which the Jewish Agency, given its position, could not resolve.

            F. And here is, in short, what happened to Yoel Brand from the day of his arrival in Istanbul onwards, as is known to the people who were involved in the matter. I will first bring forth some evidence regarding their dealings with Yoel Brand by members of the Istanbul Rescue Center. When he appeared before them and related the proposition he was entrusted [by Adolf Eichmann] to carry with him from Budapest – “Blood for Merchandise” – members of the center were astounded upon hearing this for it sounded like something beyond any human logic. Still, they stuck to it. Here is what one member of the team, Menachem Bader, related in his book, A Sad Mission:
                 As if stoned we listened to what Yoel told us – the description of the havoc, the details of the negotiations, the price demanded for the lives of Jews in Hungary, the promise of a respite, or, in Eichmann’s words, “putting the Jews in cold storage for two weeks, since this period would suffice till your international decides whether it is interested in the transaction.”
                 The first reaction – after Yoel finished talking – was a desire to rise up and scream: A lie with a latchet! it’s all a ruse, an outrage! The Germans are clearly assuming that the Allies would oppose this [proposed] agreement, for the Nazis are aware of their not hurrying to help us evacuate the Jews from Bulgaria and Romania, and it is clear that only one intention is hidden in Eichmann’s proposal: to prove to the world at large that Germany’s enemies, too, do not care for the fate of the Jews, and that those harboring sympathy for Jews would not make any sacrifice for saving the Jews who are about to be thrown into the furnaces. But this first reaction was checked within our heart before we cried out. Each of us asked himself how could he answer in the negative and burden his conscience with the rejection of this chance, albeit a most dubious one? Even if such evil intentions are apt to deceive us, there is no alternative. Since the annihilation has been decided upon anyway, perhaps here is something...
               We decided that one of us would immediately go to Palestine and relate the proposal to the national institutions [i.e., the JAE and yishuv leadership], together with our appeal to do even what is beyond human power for carrying it out.
           Immediately upon Yoel Brand’s arrival in Istanbul it became clear that, whatever happened, he would not be able to stay there for long. The Turkish authorities were about to send him back to where he came from, and obtaining a permit for each additional day of his stay in the city was as difficult hard as parting the Red Sea. At the same time it was clear that it was axiomatic that we could not let him go back empty-handed, because his returning with no answer at all would free the hangmen from any “undertaking” and allow them expedite the pace of the annihilation which had begun already.
            In view of this situation, first of all in order to gain time and somewhat restrain the murderers by creating an impression that the Jewish Agency was taking Brand’s mission most seriously, and mainly in order to achieve whatever was possible and impossible in terms of actual rescue, our people in Istanbul suggested that Brand be brought to Jerusalem, and one of them immediately journeyed to Palestine to arrange for this. However, we members of the Jewish Agency Executive in Jerusalem feared that, once Brand crossed the Syrian southern boundary into Palestine, which is governed by the Allies, he would not be permitted to go back to an enemy country, and his not returning there was tantamount to returning empty-handed, and that meant the end of the last remaining hope of saving Hungarian Jews. Thus, under the pressure of these difficulties, an idea was advanced that the meeting with Yoel Brand should take place in Aleppo, the Syrian city close to [Palestine’s] northern boundary. The British in Istanbul agreed with this plan and promised that Brand would be allowed to go back. True, from the beginning there was some fear that the British would not stand by their word, but we concluded that, anyway, we had nothing to lose. Bringing Brand to Aleppo, inasmuch as it involved some danger, was seen by us as the least evil. However, what happened is that the moment Brand’s train arrived at the Aleppo station, accompanied by Ehud Avriel, a member of our Istanbul team, he was arrested – to the extreme frustration of Avriel and myself and the people who accompanied me on my journey from Jerusalem to Aleppo. When I later protested against this action during my meeting with the British High Commissioner of Palestine, saying there was a breach of trust here, he pronounced a sharp answer: we are at war and there is no ground for any questions or arguments. The unflinching adherence to the war policy entailing the avoidance of rescue operations of Jews was evident here in full.
            However, the Jewish Agency did not raise its hands in despair even after Brand’s arrest and his being sent to prison in Egypt. On the basis of the report he gave me in Aleppo in the presence of a British officer, I immediately flew over to London. There the president of the Jewish Agency, Chaim Weizmann, accompanied by me, saw Foreign Minister Anthony Eden and demanded that all regular wartime principles be put aside for the sake of saving multitudes of Jews. We encountered a response ostensibly full of empathy, but a wavering and very reserved one. In fact negative. According to what the British told us, consultations did take place among the Allies. The Russians, they said, expressed totally negative opposition to any dealing with the plan. No positive response came from the Americans. The general attitude towards the plan was to see it as something that there is no point whatsoever in discussing. Nevertheless, talks with the British Foreign Office continued. In one of them the director of the refugee department said to the Jewish Agency’s representative: If indeed it were possible to extricate one million Jews from Europe, what then could we do with them? How could we transport them? Where would we have accommodated them?{*}
{*} NOTE: Sharett flew to London on June 25, 1944. See his report to the ZE, London, dated June 27, 1944. The text of this report was published in Ma'ariv during the Kasztner-Gruenwald trial (see diary entry for June 10, 1954, and notes there), and later in Ha'aretz, June 3, 1961.

            Following several more attempts of beating our heads against the wall, there was nothing left to the Jewish Agency but to deal with the freeing of Yoel Brand himself so that he could come to Palestine.

            G. Even before the Brand episode, on the eve of the Germans’ entry into Hungary,  the Jewish Agency presented the British Middle East Military Command with a detailed plan for sending Jewish armed groups into Hungary and the Balkan countries for the purposes of sabotage operations behind the lines, the enlistment of Jews into the resistance and the carrying out efforts to save Jews. Following the failure of the Brand episode, a chance was seen that this plan would be approved as a kind of compensation. Indeed, approval was given by Churchill after a way to personally reach him was found. Several concrete preparatory steps were carried out. But, at long last, the negationists won over the supporters. Again the reservations emanating from the White Paper decided matters, and this plan was buried as well.

            It is evident from all the above that one must accept this book as a trustworthy attempt to present a detailed description of what was going on inside Hungary; as an expression of the inner struggles, the pains, the despairing efforts of one individual who found himself at the centre of the dreadful episode; and as additional evidence of the terrible experiences our European brethren went through at the time, experiences which became an unrelenting nightmare for many of the survivors. At the same time, however, it was beyond the power of the writer to correctly evaluate the concrete possibilities of rescuing Jews on the other side of the front, given the background of the Allies’ position. It is also evident that he had no intention – and he stresses this point more than once – to lay down an accusation against those who, while struggling constantly with difficulties and obstacles, endeavored to do all that was seen as possible, as well as what was definitely impossible, in order to save their brethren from death.
            The whole episode of the rescue efforts during World War II – its endeavors, achievements and failures, its few shining lights and its heavy shadows, the burning devotion of the yishuv leaders invested in it and the impotence in which they were immersed – has not yet been told and aptly summarized. It is still awaiting an objective, fully- and well-informed, penetrating analysis.

SOURCE: Joel Brand, B’shelihut Nidonim Lamavet [On a Mission for those Sentenced to Death], as told by Alex Weissberg, with N. Raban. (Tel Aviv: Ayanot, 1956), 231-38.