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
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.
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
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,
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
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.
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
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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