Monday, May 5, 2008

British Documents from Their Archives

U.K. papers shed light on plan to return Jews to postwar Germany in '47

The Associated Press
Monday, May 5, 2008

LONDON: Newly released documents at the British national archives show how the government tried to send thousands of Palestine-bound Jewish survivors of the Nazi genocide back to postwar Germany, where the "final solution" had been hatched, without inflaming world opinion.

Could it be done? The answer was no. The British decision to turn away more than 4,500 Jews on board the refugee ship Exodus turned into a humanitarian and public relations debacle.

Just two years after the end of the war, the world was outraged by the Nazis' systematic murder of six million Jews in what became known as the Holocaust. Despite the government's efforts to portray the decision in the most sympathetic light, the plan drew condemnation from many parts of the world.

The story detailed in more than 400 pages of formerly secret documents made available to the public Monday concerns Jewish refugees who were on board the Exodus and trying to enter Palestine illegally during the tumultuous months before the United Nations voted in 1947 to create a Jewish homeland on part of Palestine.

Britain was governing Palestine and the British government felt that it had to keep the would-be immigrants out to help preserve the demographic balance between Arabs and Jews. British forces turned away dozens of leaky immigrant ships carrying desperate refugees. But it did not have a safe place to send the Jews from the Exodus, who were placed on three smaller British steamers.

After much agonizing, the British concluded that the only place they could send them was to the British-controlled zone of postwar Germany, where they could be placed in camps and screened for extremists.

It made sound military sense. But the documents show that diplomats and military officers knew perfectly well that sending Jews back to Germany and putting them in camps would set off a firestorm.

"These documents show the British perspective for the first time," said Mark Dunton, a contemporary-history specialist at the archives. "It's obvious in the files the British were sensitive to the claim they were putting Jews into concentration camps. When you read the reports, the camps do sound pretty awful."

The British did not put the Jews in former concentration camps, despite rumors to that effect.

The first rumblings came from a British diplomat in France who sent a coded warning to the Foreign Office in London in August 1947. The diplomat said bluntly that a public relations scandal lay ahead.

"You will realize that an announcement of decision to send immigrants back to Germany will produce violent hostile outburst in the press," he wrote.

An unsigned cable from the Foreign Office on Aug. 19, 1947, stated that the decision to land the Jews in Germany had been made because it was the only suitable territory under British control that could handle so many people on short notice.

Three days later, a Foreign Office cable warned diplomats that they should be ready to "emphatically" deny that the refugees would be housed in former concentration camps after they reached Germany.

The Aug. 22 cable stated that German guards would not be used to keep the Jews in the "refugee camps" and added that British guards would be withdrawn once the refugees had been screened.

But security concerns were heightened on Aug. 30 when a secret telegram from the British Embassy in Washington warned of a possible terrorist attack by the Irgun and Stern gangs, two Zionist extremist groups determined to prevent the forced landing of the Jewish refugees in Germany.

They were taken off the vessels, though a number were injured in confrontations with British troops that involved the use of clubs and fire hoses to force some to disembark.

In a formerly secret report on the removal of the refugees, an officer identified as Lieutenant Colonel Gregson, praised his troops for handling a dangerous situation calmly. He said Jewish resisters had thrown "missiles" at his men.

"It is a very frightening thing to go into a hold full of yelling maniacs when outnumbered 6 or 8 to 1," he said in the report. Gregson said he had considered using tear gas to subdue the refugees but decided not to risk inflaming the situation. "The Jew is liable to panic," he said.

Security fears seemed justified after the refugees were removed when a large, crudely made bomb with a timed fuse was found on one of the three British ships. It was apparently rigged to detonate after the refugees had been removed, cable messages indicated.

The postscript on the operation came from the regional commander of the British military government in Hamburg, who said that the disembarkation could be regarded as successful because it had been carried out with minimal casualties. But he said Britain's reputation had been damaged by the highly critical press coverage of Oasis, as the operation was known in diplomatic and military circles.

With the end of the British mandate and creation of the state of Israel in May 1948, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Europe streamed into the Jewish state. The Exodus commander, Yossi Harel, who died April 26 at the age of 90, led four expeditions that brought thousands of refugees to the shores of Palestine, his daughter said.