Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Polish Jews’ pre-Holocaust plea to Chamberlain: "Please Let us into Palestine" May 1939

In March 1939, weeks before the notorious White Paper, Polish Jewry sent London a desperate telegram, published here apparently for the first time. At terrible cost, it was ignored

The sordid history of the May 1939 British White Paper, the notorious document with which the British all but slammed shut the doors of Palestine to European Jewry, has been documented many times. Less-remembered is how the (Jewish-owned) New York Times took British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s side the day after the White Paper was issued, incurring the wrath of Chaim Weizmann and the Zionist leadership. Virtually unknown, however, is that the Polish Jewish community had sent a desperate plea two months earlier to Chamberlain — a telegram begging him to keep the gates of Palestine open.
Future Israeli prime minister David Ben Gurion, center, and future president Chaim Weitzmann, seated to his left, with other Jewish delegates at the London Conference, St. James Palace, February 1939.

This is the story of that plea.
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Although the dispatch of the telegram was reported at the time, this article apparently marks the first time the document itself is being published.
The missive was discovered after 82 years in a British Colonial Office file; there is no evidence that Chamberlain or anyone in his office discussed it or, indeed, ever even saw it.
By late 1938, the Jewish position in Europe, already precarious in Germany and countries under the threat of German invasion, had worsened dramatically. On September 30 of that year Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement, allowing Hitler to annex the Sudeten areas of Czechoslovakia.
Chamberlain naively believed appeasement would bring “peace in our time,” but in actuality, the opposite occurred — Chamberlain’s weakness emboldened Hitler to launch World War II just 11 months later. By June 1940, Hitler was bombing the civilian population of London.
The Munich Agreement also paved the way for the Holocaust, which began less than six weeks later with the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 9, 1938. Thousands of Jewish businesses and synagogues were destroyed throughout Nazi Germany. Hundreds of German Jews lost their lives in the overnight orgy of violence, a precursor to the fate awaiting six million other Jews throughout Europe. After Kristallnacht, no one could claim ignorance of Hitler’s intentions toward the Jews.
As 1939 dawned, the outlook for European Jews had never been worse. The Jewish Agency desperately urged the British government to allow more European Jews to immigrate to Palestine. The Arab Higher Committee, representing the Palestinian Arabs, adamantly opposed any further Jewish immigration.
In Palestine, the Arab Revolt inspired by Haj Amin Al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem and acolyte of Hitler, had been raging for nearly three years, costing hundreds of lives. The British government abandoned the Palestine partition scheme its own Peel Commission had urged in a comprehensive 1937 report.
The Woodhead Commission, appointed to conduct a follow-up technical analysis of the Peel Commission’s partition proposal, declared the plan unworkable. In a cruel twist of irony, the Woodhead Commission published its report on November 9, 1938, only a few hours before the onset of the Kristallnacht pogrom.
In the wake of the commission’s findings, the British government announced it would invite representatives of the Palestinian Arabs and the neighboring Arab states, as well as representatives of the Jewish side, to a conference in London in early 1939 to discuss the future of Palestine.
The London Conference opened on February 7, 1939, at St. James’s Palace. Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, later the first president and first prime minister of the future State of Israel, respectively, led the Jewish delegation.
In his opening statement — made to the British Government and Jewish delegates only, as the Arab delegates refused to sit in the same room with the Jews — Weizmann stressed the extreme danger Hitler posed to European Jewry, prophetically noting “the fate of six million people was in the balance.”
But Weizmann’s warnings fell on deaf ears. By late February 1939, less than three weeks after the London Conference began, British officials began leaking to the press their intention to propose independence for Palestine in 10 years under majority Arab rule, along with immediate and severe limitations on Jewish immigration to Palestine.
As the Times of London reported on February 28, 1939, “[t]he Arabs were jubilant about the proposals, the Jews cast down and bitter.” The same Chamberlain who foolishly believed appeasing Hitler represented the best way to keep the peace in Europe not surprisingly decided that appeasing the mufti was the best way to restore peace to Palestine.
By mid-March everyone realized Britain planned to close the doors of Palestine to all but a small trickle of Jewish immigrants. On March 15, 1939, the Times of London published additional leaked details of the British proposals for Palestine, including capping Jewish immigration at 15,000 per year for the next five years.
That same day, March 15, 1939, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, and German forces triumphantly marched into Prague.
The Jewish community in Poland followed the ominous developments at the London Conference and in Czechoslovakia with increasing alarm and worry. The German military action against neighboring Czechoslovakia raised the unmistakable and terrifying specter of a potential German invasion of its other eastern neighbor, Poland. That prospect, combined with the news leaks from London indicating Britain planned to virtually close Palestine to further Jewish immigration, plunged Polish Jewry into crisis.
Against this backdrop, two days later, on March 17, 1939, the United Zionist Organization of Poland and Agudas Israel of Poland sent a desperate, two-page telegram to Chamberlain. The telegram begged the prime minister of the United Kingdom to keep the doors of Palestine open to Polish Jewry, to allow them at least a chance of escape from the imminent Nazi threat.
This is the text of the original telegram:
In the darkest and most tragic hours of history and life of Jewry three and a half million Jews in Poland appeal to His Majesty’s Government the authority which has undertaken responsibility to create a seat in Palestine for the Jewish people to consider both the confidence which the Jewish people have placed in England and the most sacred hopes of Jewry and not to apply a policy in Palestine which throws the Jewish masses into an abyss of despair.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Warsaw office published a brief dispatch two days later, March 19, 1939, headlined “Polish Jews Ask Britain to Keep Faith.” The dispatch purported to quote from a telegram from Polish Jewry to the British Government, but the language was different from the original telegram shown above:
In the darkest and most tragic hour of Jewish history, three and a half million Polish Jews appeal to the British Government not to betray the confidence of the Jewish people in Great Britain and not to destroy the sacred hopes of the Jewish people by adoption of a policy bound to drive them to despair.
Perhaps the language quoted in the JTA dispatch was from an earlier draft of the telegram, or perhaps the author of the dispatch failed to record the exact language of the original telegram. In any event, it appears the original telegram has never previously been made public, until now. That is not surprising, given the telegram has sat unnoticed for the past 82 years in a British Colonial Office file marked “Palestine: Original Correspondence.”

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