The Jewish Chronicle
Triumph and its traumas
And Daniel Snowman consider detailed accounts of desperate moments either side of the end of the Second World War
War of Shadows: Codebreakers, Spies and the Secret Struggle to Drive the Nazis from the Middle East
Eighty years ago, the North Africa campaign pitted Reichsmarschall Erwin Rommel — the “Desert Fox”— against British forces. This resulted a year later, in November 1942, in the great victory of El Alamein. If Montgomery had failed in defending Egypt, Walther Rauff and his Einsatzgruppen were gleefully waiting in the wings, ready to enter Palestine and practise the deadly techniques they had finessed in Poland. This is the Jewish story within the broader episode related in this comprehensive work by the Jerusalem-based writer, Gershom Gorenberg.
With Italy’s entry into the war in 1940, Mussolini’s aircraft bombed Tel Aviv and Haifa, an event conspicuously celebrated by the Mufti of Jerusalem. Italian forces then threatened Egypt from Libya. However, it was the arrival of Rommel and the Germans that sparked a wave of frantic departures by Egyptian Jews — for Turkey, Sudan and Palestine. Gorenberg reveals that King Farouk was already making quiet overtures to the Germans via Franco’s envoy in Cairo.
British Empire forces in Tobruk, less than 100 miles from the Egyptian border, stubbornly held up the Nazi advance. If those forces had been driven from Egypt, they would probably have regrouped to make a last stand, protecting the oil reserves in Iraq — and Palestine’s Jews would have been left to their fate.
Hitler’s plan was for Rommel to join up with other Nazi forces, emerging victorious from the Soviet Union and marching through the Caucasus towards the Middle East. As history records, the Germans did not prevail at either El Alamein or Stalingrad.
War of Shadows also testifies to Churchill’s forethought in sending three armoured regiments to the Middle East at the height of the Battle of
Hitler’s plan was for Rommel to join up with other Nazi forces to march towards the Middle East
Britain, providing a launchpad into Italy and ultimately Germany.
Gershom Gorenberg gives a brief account of the exploits of the SIG (Special Interrogation Group) — mainly German Jews who had escaped to Palestine. They were trained to goosestep, sing German songs, use “Panzerarmee Afrika” slang — and were sent in Nazi uniform and vehicles to wreak havoc behind enemy lines.
Gorenberg describes, too, the difficult discussions that were taking place within the leadership of the Yishuv, the Jewish settlement in Palestine, about a possible German invasion. Some were opposed to joining British forces because they were the occupying power in Mandatory Palestine. Gorenberg mentions the far left who objected, but the right went further — Avraham Stern sent emissaries to the German Legation in Beirut.
Figures such as Yitzhak Tabenkin and Yitzhak Gruenbaum advocated an armed resistance if the Germans invaded Palestine. A defiant enclave in the Carmel mountains would hold out — and if it fell, then future generations would remember this new Masada. Gorenberg interestingly discovered that the religious Zionist leader, Moshe Haim Shapiro, opposed resistance, believing that some would survive in a Nazi ghetto.
Gorenberg’s research is impressive, especially regarding the role of Bletchley Park in the intelligence game to outwit the Germans. His book is a highly detailed account but nevertheless accessible to a general readership — with the writer doubling up as narrator. It is a timely reminder of what was and what could have been.
The Last Million: Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War
By David Nasaw
We all know about the Second World War: Hitler and the Holocaust, Churchill and the Allies, D-Day and the end of the War in 1945. And then, shortly afterwards, the rise of the Cold War that threatened our lives with possible nuclear annihilation for the next 40 years.
But, as the American historian David Nasaw reminds us, it is false to the facts simply to leap over history from World War to Cold War as though there was little of international consequence in between. The Western victory in 1945 may have brought an end to military confrontation. But it left in its wake millions of suffering Displaced Persons (DPs), human beings scattered across the devastated map of Europe, most of them far from any kind of home: Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Jews rescued from Nazi concentration camps, former citizens of the devastated Baltic states and many another.
They were often too sick to look after themselves and lacked adequate food or clothing. These millions were as much victims of the war as those who had already perished. And it was up to the principal victors – the British, Americans and Russians – to help save them. Many were returned, often involuntarily, to their official countries of origin. But there was still the “last million” of David Nasaw’s title, who remained, for the most part assigned to a temporary camp in one or other of the Allied zones in Germany where they awaited eventual removal to a permanent, civilised place they could henceforth think of as home.
It didn’t always work out like that. Where, for example, was a safe homeland for someone from Latvia who had helped support his nation’s Nazi occupiers in the hope of protecting it from the Soviets? Or for the Jews, one of the largest groups among that last million? Many Jews, without an obvious or safe homeland, dreamed of creating one in Palestine, a British mandated territory and home to large numbers of Arabs whom the British under Clement Attlee – and especially his Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin – had no wish to alienate. In the event, many Jewish DPs managed to make their way (illegally, often via Cyprus) to mandatory Palestine and then, after May 1948, to the newly established state of Israel.
Nasaw follows the complex and politically packed history of the “Last Million” through its many vicissitudes, every political breakdown or breakthrough explained and often enriched by individual anecdote or quotation. As the story finally evaporates into the history that succeeded it, we bid farewell to them (many at this point virulent anti-Communists in 1950s America) with a reminder from Nasaw that we cannot understand any war without considering how the past continues to haunt the present.
Daniel Snowman is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research (U. of London). His books include ‘The Hitler Emigrés: The Cultural Impact on Britain of Refugees from Nazism’.