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Holocaust--search words: Rossel, Seymour Rossel, Holocaust, Genocide, Hitler, anti-Semitism, prejudice, ladder of prejudice, war crimes, war crimes trials, World War II, Second World War, Himmler, Eichmann, concentration, concentration camps, ghetto, ghettos, shtetl, Nazi, Nazis, Nazism, Nuremberg, Kristallnacht, boat people, revolts, Warsaw ghetto, death camps, Heydrich, rescue, escape, slavery, discrimination, racism, racist, racists, Shoah, aftermath, roundup, roundups, transport, transports, selection, selections, medical experiments, Nazi hunters, echoes of Holocaust


10
ATTEMPTS TO ESCAPE
AND PLANS FOR RESCUE


In the late 1930s, before the outbreak of the war, thousands of Jews fled Germany by car, by train, even on foot. Most went to nearby countries, remaining in Europe where the German armies later caught up with them. Other Jews traveled longer distances, setting out for North and South American countries or for Palestine. Some reached their destinations; others faced unexpected ordeals.

The Boat People

The ship St. Louis set sail from Germany on May 13, 1939. Aboard were 930 German Jews bound for the United States. But people who wished to settle in the United States required an official immigration number. Immigration numbers were based on a person’s country of origin, and each country of origin had a quota. Since so many Jews were coming from Germany, the German immigration quota had rapidly been filled. Over seven hundred Jews on the St. Louis had immigration numbers, but for most of them, there would be a waiting period of between three and three and one-half years before they would be permitted to enter the United States. Knowing this, they planned to wait in Cuba.

When the ship reached Havana harbor, however, the Jews found that the Cuban government had changed its mind--only thirty Jews were allowed to disembark. Messages were sent to the United States, but the U.S. government refused to allow the passengers to enter before their scheduled time. At last the St. Louis was forced to set sail again, bound for Germany!

Jewish leaders around the world went begging to government after government, even as the St. Louis sailed. No government would agree to accept all 900 Jews, but four countries--France, Great Britain, Belgium, and the Netherlands--finally agreed to divide the refugees among them. So it happened that many of the refugees found temporary safety in Europe, only to be captured again as the Nazi army overran France, Belgium, and the Netherlands at the start of the war.

Meanwhile, other boatloads of Jews were also turned away from port after port. Few places would accept them. Great Britain and Australia took in a few, but refused to open their borders to more. Switzerland even made it illegal for Jews to cross its borders (Switzerland had decided to remain neutral in the war, and wanted to give Germany no reason for invading). France, before it was conquered, refused to accept any large number of Jewish refugees, saying the country was already overcrowded with Jews. It seemed only logical that many Jews should turn toward Palestine (today's State of Israel), where a Jewish community was anxious to welcome them.

Toward the end of 1941, 769 Romanian Jews crowded aboard the small ship Struma and set out for Palestine. Palestine was then controlled by Great Britain. The Jews and Arabs living there were on very unfriendly terms (they would later go to war), and the British wanted to keep the Jewish population of Palestine from growing too rapidly. They decided to limit Jewish immigration. When the Struma neared Palestine, the British refused the ship permission to enter port.

The Struma next approached Istanbul in Turkey (another nation which was neutral). Here, the ship broke down. But the Turkish government would not allow the Jews to land without British permits for Palestine. Newspapers around the world reported the story of the Jews forced to live at sea, unable to find a place of refuge. But no government came forward to accept these Romanian refugees. Seventy-four days after the journey of the Struma began, the ship sank in the Bosporus a few miles from the Turkish shore of Istanbul. All but two of the passengers were drowned.

Rescue Plans

By August 1942 the Nazis had destroyed as many as one and one-half million Jews. One American Jewish leader, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise of New York City, brought report after report to the State Department of the United States describing the Nazi plan for the "Final Solution" and giving evidence that the Jews were being sent to death camps and murdered. It was not until November that the State Department verified the reports and accepted the truth of Dr. Wise's statements. Even then no immediate action was taken. A declaration was issued by the Allies in December stating that the Nazis would be punished after the war for what they had done to the Jews.

But Stephen Wise wanted to save Jewish lives. In 1943 he worked out a secret plan for saving seventy thousand Jews. Money was to be placed in Swiss banks for the purpose of bribing Germans to save Jews. President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States gave his support to the plan, but the British Foreign Office wrote that they were "concerned with the difficulty of disposing of any considerable number of Jews should they be released from enemy territory." The plan failed.

Other plans were proposed, and failed as well. That same year, when the Nazis saw that the war was going against them, Eichmann agreed to "sell" thousands of Hungarian Jews in return for trucks, tea, coffee, and soap. The Allies refused to allow this exchange to take place, saying that these goods would help the Nazis in their war efforts and cause the war to last longer. One hundred thousand Hungarian Jews might have been "bought" from Eichmann and saved. Instead, most of them died.

In the view of the Allied governments, fighting the war was more important than negotiating for Jewish lives. Once Germany was defeated, they said, the world would be safe not only for the Jews, but for all peoples. It was a strong argument, but not convincing to the leaders of the Jewish world who realized that Hitler was determined to exterminate all the Jews within his power.

The Jewish scientist and statesman Chaim Weizmann of Great Britain tried to convince the Allies to accept a different kind of plan proposed by a Rabbi of Slovakia. He suggested that the Allies bomb the railroads carrying Jews to Auschwitz and other camps, and bomb the gas chambers and ovens in the death camps. But the British insisted that only military targets should be bombed--though in the end, the Allies proved willing to bomb German cities, too.

Help From Organized Religion

For a long time the Jews hoped that the religious establishments of Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity might speak out against the slaughter of innocent human beings. Above all, the Jews hoped that the Pope, Pius XII, the most prominent Christian leader, would publicly declare his support for the victims and condemn the Nazi killing program. This, the Pope was never willing to do. It may be that he was afraid of what might happen to the Catholics of Germany. Hitler could easily turn his death machine against Catholics as well as Jews. And what if Hitler won the war?

On the other hand, though the religious establishments did not speak out officially, some religious leaders did. Those inside the conquered territories--especially Catholics in France--risked their lives in doing so.

Out of their sense of what was right, religious individuals did even more. Many nunneries were opened to Jewish children who then could pose as Catholics and escape being rounded up by the Germans. Hundreds of Jewish children were saved in this way. After the war many of these children were returned to the Jewish community. Many were taken to Israel, and some were restored to family members who had survived.

The Protestant and Catholic clergy in Belgium did all they could to help Jews, especially Jewish children. One priest, Father Andre, arranged to hide many children. He even took it upon himself to continue their Jewish education rather than educating them as Christians.

Unsung Heroes

In addition to those who were rescued by the Catholic and Protestant clergy of Europe, many Jews were aided by hundreds of non-Jewish people who risked their lives to lend Jews a helping hand. These brave souls earned a special term in the Jewish vocabulary. Today, they are known as "The Righteous among the Nations."

In the Netherlands, Jews were hidden in the homes of neighbors who were not Jewish. In fact, so many Jews were hidden in this way that the Nazis had to make house-to-house searches to find them.

When anti-Jewish laws were passed in France, one prefect of police, Andre Chaigneau, called a meeting of Jewish leaders to convey his personal apology for the laws and to promise that he would "not allow any arbitrary acts against the Jews" in his district. The French resistance forces made the smuggling of Jewish refugees across the Alps and the Pyrenees mountains a part of their regular activities. And the Nazis were once forced to arrest four hundred policemen in France who refused to round up and arrest Jews.

One Dutchman, Joop Westerweel, led group after group of Dutch Jewish youngsters on grueling marches to the foot of the Pyrenees where they crossed into Spain. In the summer of 1944, after many successful expeditions, Westerweel was captured by the Nazis. They tortured him and finally announced that he would be tried before a military court. He was allowed to write one last letter. He wrote to a doctor friend:

I will not reveal any names [of those who helped me] ... I am certain of this. I still feel strong. At night when there is a respite from the torture, my wounds have a chance to heal. Mornings, when questioning resumes, I am rested and alert. I will remain silent. I am confident of this. ... If we do not meet again, I hope that what we did together will remain a sacred memory for life. ... [Quoted in Philip Friedman, Their Brothers’ Keepers]

That summer, the Nazis executed Westerweel. Along with many other brave non-Jews, whose names may never be known, he had risked his life and lost it.

Even Whole Nations

There were rare moments when a whole nation raised its voice to help. In the small country of Bulgaria, when the Nazis came to round up the Jews, people gathered in the streets to demonstrate, crying, "We want the Jews back!"

More splendid still is the story of what happened in Denmark. The Germans occupied Denmark in 1940. For two years they tried to force Denmark to adopt anti-Jewish laws as other countries had done. The Danes refused to cooperate. When a Nazi official spoke to King Christian X of Denmark about the "Jewish problem," Christian replied: "We have no Jewish problem in our country. The Jews are a part of the Danish nation." When the Nazis told King Christian that the Jews would be forced to wear yellow stars, the king replied, "If the Jews are forced to wear the yellow star, I and my whole family shall wear it as a badge of honor." In the end the Nazis stopped trying to convince the king to help them.

In August 1943 the Nazis issued an order for the Jews of Denmark to be deported and sent to the death camps. The Danes, learning that the Nazis would soon act, organized themselves into a nation of rescuers. Jews were hidden in their neighbors’ houses and then smuggled in small groups to the fishing villages along the Danish coast. From there they were taken in fishing boats, pleasure craft, and sailboats across the channel to Sweden, which had not fallen to the Nazis. Almost seven thousand Danish Jews--nearly the entire Jewish population of Denmark--were saved in this rescue.

As if this were not enough, the Danes refused to profit from the absence of their Jewish neighbors. They protected Jewish property throughout the war; Jewish homes and apartments were sealed. After the war, when Jews returned to Denmark, they found their belongings as they had left them, their homes and apartments were freshly painted, their businesses were still waiting for them, their bank accounts had been untouched and had even continued to earn interest.

A Jewish Rescue Team

The British finally agreed to help in a rescue effort in 1944. Thirty-two Palestinian Jews were parachuted behind enemy lines in the Balkans. One of these was Hannah Senesch who had a personal reason for wanting to go back into Hungary where she was born: her mother was still there. She and two others landed in Yugoslavia and secretly made contact with the Hungarian resistance fighters. Their troubles had just begun. When they reached Hungary and the Hungarians learned that the three were Jewish, they betrayed them to the Nazis. One of the three, Joel Nussbacker, escaped capture by hiding in the French embassy in Budapest. The other two were captured, tortured, and finally put to death. Later, Hannah Senesch's diary and poetry she had written were found and published. Her name and the story of her heroism became legendary in Israel. Every Israeli schoolchild can recite the opening line of her most famous poem:  "Blessed is the match that is consumed in kindling flame ..." This poignant line sums up both the bravery and the futility of her mission.

Joel Nussbacker, the Palestinian who escaped, managed to set up a small Jewish underground. Posing as German officers, he and his group saved several thousand Jewish lives. To smuggle Hungarian Jews out of the country, they forged hundreds of passports.

Nussbacker, Senesch, and the other Palestinians had wanted to do much more--to save all of Hungary’s Jews. But it was not to be. Eight of the would-be rescuers were killed, some were captured, and some escaped only after suffering Nazi torture.

The hard fact is that taken altogether, the rescue efforts of nations, of clergy, of individuals--both Jews and non-Jews--saved only a few thousand lives, while the Nazis managed to murder six million.


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“Seymour Rossel, a long-experienced and gifted educator, here gives yet another important contribution for readers of every age and background. This book is a rare and valuable overview of an enormously challenging subject. Every chapter is accessible, intelligent, and compelling.”David Altshuler, PhD, Founding Director, Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York

 


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