80 Years Ago: Erwin Rommel and Jews in the Middle East

Eighty years ago, Passover 1941, the festival of freedom was clouded for Jews in the Middle East with a deep fear for the future. British forces were being pushed back from Libya as German forces advanced — the conquest of Egypt became more important than the exodus from Egypt.

Two German academics, Klaus-Michael Mallman and Martin Cüpper, have shown that during the two attempts to conquer Egypt, in the spring of 1941 and in the summer of 1942, Walther Rauff’s einsatzcommando unit were poised to repeat in Palestine what had previously been enacted in Poland. Indeed, the gassing of Jews began in Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka in the summer of 1942. The first selection had been made at Auschwitz in July 1942.

In early 1941, Erwin Rommel was appointed by Hitler to establish the Afrika Korps and effectively supplant the militarily incompetent Italians in the Middle East. Italian bombers in September 1940 missed the oil refineries in Jaffa and dropped their deadly payload instead on Tel Aviv, killing 137 civilians.

Mussolini had entered the war in the Middle East in the hope of creating a new Roman Empire. Italian radio boasted that “the sword of Titus” once more threatened the Jews of Palestine — recalling the Roman conquest of Judaea almost two millennia before. The Arch of Titus in Rome, the broadcast stated, would commemorate a twentieth century victory of the Italians over the Jews. Despite such delusions of grandeur, the British easily defeated Italian attempts to take Egypt and Palestine.

In the Yishuv, the Jewish settlement in Palestine, the Chief Rabbinate ruled that daily prayers should be recited for a British victory after Rommel’s initial successes in 1941. More air-raid shelters and hospitals were being constructed. National institutions such as the Jewish Agency, the JNF and the Hebrew University urged their employees and members to volunteer for the Allies’ war effort. A battalion of Australian troops paraded down the main streets of Tel Aviv in the hope of promoting enlistment.

German propaganda attempted to paint a different picture. It said that there was “indescribable panic” in Palestine with Jews selling land and fleeing across its borders. Chief Rabbi Herzog was said to have applied for a visa from the US Embassy.

In this country, Chief Rabbi Hertz spoke of his “unshakeable faith in a British victory” and strongly identified “with all who join in the defence of Palestine, the Holy Land of three faiths against the barbaric paganism of the Nazis”.

There were many Jews serving in Allied units in the Western desert. Rabbis such as the Australian Eliezer Goldman and Britain’s Louis Rabinowitz and Isaac Levy responded to the call of duty and ministered to the troops. Simie Weinstein, a Hebrew teacher from Oudtshoorn, was the lay chaplain with the South African forces and officiated during Jewish festivals to large numbers of Jewish soldiers.

In June 1941, Hitler made the fatal error of fighting on two fronts — and invaded the territory of his silent ally, Stalin’s USSR. This step drew forces away from Rommel’s North Africa campaign to the Soviet front and was reflected in the inability of the Germans to take the port of Tobruk for many months. The Nazi plan was probably to overrun Moscow, capture the oil-rich city of Baku and proceed down the Caucasus to the Middle East where they would join up with Rommel’s forces. The German armies, so it was argued, would vanquish the Allies in the oilfields of Iraq — and the war would end in a Nazi victory. The extermination of the Jews of the Middle East would add to the numbers already murdered in Europe. As history records, the battles of Stalingrad and El Alamein turned Hitler’s plan to dust. The entry of the United States into the war sealed the Führer’s fate.

A tactic of Nazi Germany was to appeal to nationalists who wished to rid themselves of their imperial masters. IRA men who desired a united Ireland, Chandra Bose who wanted an independent India and Anwar Sadat, the future President of Egypt, all favoured the defeat of the British by the Nazis. To this list should be added the name of Avraham Stern of ‘the Stern Gang’. He believed that the central enemy of the Jews in Palestine was the British occupier and not the Nazi invader.

Arab nationalists were to be cultivated. Mein Kampf in Arabic was distributed to students at al-Azhar University in Cairo. Axis radio stations in Bari and Zeeson put out stories that Syria would be absorbed into a future Jewish state while Radio Athens under Nazi control recalled the Damascus blood libel of 1840. In Iraq, the pro-German Rashid Ali was ousted by British forces and immediately followed by the Farhud, a killing of hundreds of local Jews. Rashid Ali together with several Palestinian Arab leaders sojourned the war years in Berlin.

Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, famously had tea with Hitler and congratulated Rommel on his victories in 1942. Arab students in occupied Paris fulsomely praised ‘the Desert Fox’ and hoped that his military advance towards Egypt would lead to ‘the liberation of the countries from the Jews and the British’.

This period of Rommel’s second attempt to invade Egypt was known in the Yishuv as the ‘Two Hundred Days of Dread’. The Palmach’s commander, Yitzhak Sadeh, planned to turn Mount Carmel into an armed enclave if the Germans invaded. There would be a landing strip for Allied aircraft which would bring in arms and supplies. The topography of the area between Mount Carmel and the Jordan Rift Valley was thought to be very unfavourable for the passage of Rommel’s Panzers.

Zionist leaders such as Achdut Ha’avodah’s Yitzhak Tabenkin felt that it was better to fight to the death than to capitulate. If a new Masada came about and the defending Jews were all killed, then Tabenkin reasoned, it would set an example for future generations on how Jews should act in dark times. Ben-Gurion was advised that the Carmel Plan stood only a 50:50 chance of success.

With Rommel’s defeat by Field Marshal Montgomery at El Alamein in November 1942, German forces occupied Vichy France’s protectorate, Tunisia. One German diplomat suggested bringing tens of thousands of local Jews to the front to face the Allied forces — as a human shield. During the short time that the Axis was in Tunisia, the einstazcommando commander, Walther Rauff, busied himself by establishing work camps and ordering the recruitment of 3,000 Jews as virtual slave labour. In his diary, he wrote:

“I gave an order to mark all the Jews with a yellow star. The financing, the need for food and sleep will be the responsibility of the Jews themselves without any onus on the German authorities. I announced that if the order is not complied with, then severe reprisals should be expected.”

Fortunately Rauff and his accomplices stayed only a few months in Tunisia before German and Italian forces surrendered to the Allies.

The experience of the Jews of Tunisia indicates what might have been the fate of the Jews of Palestine.

Collaborators in Palestine would have viewed any Nazi occupation as a window of opportunity to settle scores. The Mufti would have been returned to Jerusalem as a compliant puppet and gleefully wreaked his vengeance on the Jews with a beneficent Hitler looking on.

Following his release from imprisonment, Primo Levi asked us to “consider that this has been”. But “what might have been” extends his request to the darker reaches of imagination — this is the underlying message of the festival of freedom for those who did not experience the Nazi terror.

Jewish Chronicle 19 March 2021

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