Don’t Mention the War

Holocast and Rescue: Impotent or Indifferent? Anglo- Jewry 1938-1945 by Pamela Shatzkes. Palgrave. 336pp. £45The question of whether more Jews could have been saved by the British and by Anglo-Jewry before and during the Second World War has been a source of debate for more than 50 years. Were the British duplicitous and devious, unwilling to lift a finger to help doomed Jews? Or was the terrible reality that nothing could be done?

Shortly after the war, writers such as Norman Bentwich wrote in praise of Anglo-Jewry’s efforts before and after 1939. The pendulum then swung in the other direction in the 1980s with the release of government documents that elicited harsh criticism from “new historians.” Anglo-Jewry, they contended, was worried more about indigenous anti-Semitism, the sort of Jews entering the country, and questions of loyalty to the British state than about saving its European brethren.

In the 1990s, other Jewish historians mounted a counter-interpretation and suggested that Anglo-Jewry had staged a determined but often unseen campaign to save European Jewry. The “new historians” were accused of being influenced by opposition to Thatcherism and to the restrictions on new waves of immigrants.

These British historians, Pamela Shatzkes suggests, followed their American colleagues in attacking their host communities for failing to deliver what was required of them in the most difficult of times.

Clearly, British Jews during the Holocaust operated in a complex reality. Neville Laski, who became president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews in 1942, insisted that “our duty as citizens must override our sentiments as Jews” – clearly a leader who believed in king and country. At a conference organized to determine reaction to the refugee crisis caused by the Munich Agreement, Laski pointed out that “above all, British Jews’ primary obligation is their stern and unswerving allegiance to their citizenship.”

Shatzkes argues that such sentiment was a sign of the times, and not simply a defense mechanism against growing anti-Semitism. The civic values of Britain in the 1930s defined all, including the Jewish community.

Perhaps as a result, the board preferred quiet diplomacy over direct action. As Laski pointed out, “the strongest condemnation of mass hysteria – whether exhibited in meetings or in boycott protests – is its failure to make any impression on Nazi Germany.” Clearly this was one president of the Board of Deputies who believed that chaining himself to the railings in Downing Street was gesture politics of the most futile variety.

And yet, within these restrictions, the Jewish community did much to help their European peers.

As soon as Hitler came to power, Jewish leaders pledged to the British Cabinet that “all expenses, whether in respect of temporary or permanent accommodation or maintenance, will be borne by the community without ultimate charge to the state.” Anglo-Jewry raised more than £3 million in the midst of the Depression, and from a community numbering no more than 330,000.

Shatzkes argues that Anglo-Jewry’s record in admitting and sustaining refugees before the war was a qualified success, given the small size of the community. During the war she paints a picture of a depressed, frustrated, insecure leadership peppered with uncharismatic figures. Two factors, it is argued, mitigated against saving more lives. First, Jewish leaders lacked the necessary skills – with few cards in their hands – to negotiate with the smooth civil servants who represented His Majesty’s Government. Second, the British government believed that only a speedy, total victory over Nazism would save the Jews – and that all efforts had to be directed towards that end.

All very well, but when victory was finally assured in the spring of 1945, how many Jews were still alive to welcome their saviors? As Shatzkes points out: “The most disastrous periods in the European Jewish tragedy coincided with the greatest pressure on the British and Allied governments, so that the persistent importunity of the Jewish organizations occured at times when it was least likely to meet a positive response.”

Jewish leaders reflected the desperation of their communities to do something – and to be seen to be doing something. Even for those who thought outside the box and were willing to cut corners, the few who were saved were but a drop in the ocean.

Even with hindsight, it is difficult to judge whether more could have been done, especially at a time when the Jews had no power and no independent course of action. Can we judge the actions of yesterday’s leaders by the caliber of today’s? The distinctions between “new historians” and their opponents are perhaps more subjective than actual. We still cannot decide if more lives could have been saved. The reader comes away from this book in great sadness at the inability of Jewish leaders to save millions of fellow Jews from their terrible fate.

Jerusalem Post 6 December 2002

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