In the view of Philip Roth’s narrator in The Plot Against America—a fictional account of how fascism might have come to the United States in 1940—history as schoolchildren study it is the story “turned wrong way around”: a tale told after the fact, with “everything . . . chronicled on the page as inevitable.” By contrast, the narrator asserts, history experienced in real time is a story of the “relentless unforeseen.”
Historians have a term—“hindsight history”—for accounts that ignore the daunting uncertainties and moral dilemmas presented by history as it actually unfolds. That is precisely what Jehuda Reinharz and Yaacov Shavit set themselves against in their important and provocative book The Road to September 1939: Polish Jews, Zionists, and the Yishuv on the Eve of World War II (2018). Bringing us right up to the edge of the destruction of European and particularly of Polish Jewry, they seek to recover the story of the “relentless unforeseen.” As they put it in the book’s preface:
We do not intend to describe the events by reading history backward. We have tried not to read the story from its endpoint, but rather to tell it as much as possible in the “present.” Before August 1939, as well as during that month, no one really knew what was in store. It is only a retrospective reading that determines that the events moved inexorably toward an unequaled calamity and that it was impossible to halt their course.
The authors are themselves distinguished historians. Reinharz has to his credit a magisterial two-volume biography of the great Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, a major figure in the events narrated here, and Shavit is a longtime scholar of another major figure of the time, Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, and of Jabotinsky’s Poland-centered Revisionist Zionist movement. With an important exception to be discussed below, the two authors succeed admirably at their task. Theirs is an extraordinary account of a horrific time, told mostly through the letters, diaries, and recorded thoughts of those who lived through it.
Moreover, in telling this tale of uncertainty, the authors shed light on a key question that has troubled—and still troubles—countless minds: could Jewish and Zionist leaders have done more than they did to rescue the Jews of Poland?
As of 1939, Poland, with nearly four million Jews—ten times the number in Germany—was home to the largest Jewish population in Europe. Reinharz and Shavit write that once the war began with the surprise Nazi invasion in September, followed by the Soviet invasion two weeks later, “the fate of European Jewry was virtually sealed.”
Some sensed this almost immediately. In early October—just five weeks into the war—Moshe Shertok, head of the Zionist Executive’s political department, traveled from Palestine to London to inform Jewish dignitaries there that “half of Polish Jewry is being ground to dust” by the Nazis while the other half “has entered the Soviet prison,” totaling three million Jews “erased from the national balance sheet.”
But could more have been done before the war? Unlike in Germany, where blatant and ever-increasing Nazi oppression of Jews had been evident since 1933—and was being closely followed by observers abroad—the fate of Polish Jews, as Reinharz and Shavit write, was not “on the public and international agenda.” And, after all, compared with the Jewish situation in Germany, the Polish circumstances might well have seemed more favorable. Only a half-decade earlier, in the years before 1935, Poland under Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, the founder of the Second Polish Republic, still seemed to many Jews, and to many Zionists among them, a place where despite the declining situation there was still hope for a better future.
But in 1935, which is where Reinharz and Shavit begin their story with the May 12 death of Pilsudski at age sixty-eight, the fate of Polish Jews started to turn dire. Pilsudski’s funeral in Warsaw attracted 800,000 people, an unprecedented outpouring but one that presaged, in Reinharz and Shavit’s words, “not only the end of an era in the history of independent Poland but also the beginning of a new chapter—the last chapter before the Holocaust—in the hundreds of years of Jewish existence in Poland.”
With Pilsudski’s death, the acceptance of Jews as Polish citizens became precarious. The marshal was succeeded by his political allies, but they lacked his charisma and personal authority and sought to compete by stealing the platform of their major political opponents, the anti-Semitic National-Democrats. The latter saw Jews as “lethal to our society” and sought to “get rid of them.” But riddance to where? In September 1935, just months after Pilsudski’s death, his successors—many of whom had been moving in an increasingly anti-Semitic direction for years—submitted a memorandum to the League of Nations arguing that the large-scale emigration of “superfluous Jews” to Palestine would ease Poland’s demographic density and was therefore a matter of Polish economic urgency.
In the following years, the movement to boycott Jewish businesses intensified and waves of violence swept the country, with more than a hundred attacks on Jewish communities. Contemporaneous reports of the pogroms, as well as later memoirs, portray a Jewish community pervaded by a looming sense of mortal danger. Reinharz and Shavit reproduce many examples of such writings. In a novel by the American Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein, occasioned by a visit to his Polish hometown in mid-decade, a local Jewish character describes the Poles as “pogromists by instinct” who would be “happy to bathe in our blood.” The character summarizes the hatred facing the Jews:
They hate us for observing the Sabbath and they hate us for violating the Sabbath. They hate pious Jews and they hate freethinkers who eat lobster. They hate our capitalists and they hate our beggars. They hate our reactionaries and they hate our radicals, those who earn their bread and [those who] die three times a day from starvation.
By July 1939, the atmosphere, according to the report of a visiting kibbutz member from Palestine, was one of all-encompassing anxiety. “On the train they are scared to read a Jewish newspaper so as not to attract attention, lest they be recognized as Jews. Fear is everywhere.”
In such circumstances, one might assume that Polish Jews themselves would have been urgently considering emigration. But that, perhaps, is hindsight history. At the time, as Reinharz and Shavit document, most thought the right course was to stay put. Some believed that calls for mass emigration were both irresponsible and counter-productive, endangering the Jews who would remain behind. Others, like the Bund, the Jewish socialist movement founded in Vilna in 1897, inveighed against Zionism itself as such a danger. Still others regarded leaving as impossible or at least highly impractical.
Among the latter group, perhaps surprisingly, were the mainstream Zionist leaders. Not only were they conscious of the restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine already imposed by the British Mandate authorities, but they also feared that a “torrent” of Polish Jews coming to Palestine could overwhelm the Zionist project. The foremost exponent of this view was David Ben-Gurion, then the chairman of the Zionist Executive—not because he did not care about the fate of Europe’s Jews, but rather because he thought the relatively small community in Palestine would be unable to absorb huge numbers of diaspora Jews, whom he considered largely unsuited for the socialist economy he was trying to build.
Therefore, Ben-Gurion told the Nineteenth Zionist Congress in 1935, “the main thing is for [the half-million Jews already in Palestine] to take root in this country so that even an uncommon storm will not be able to uproot us.” He also worried that “fueling Poland’s wish to get rid of the Jews” could backfire. After all, the Polish government could not force the British to permit a massive number of Jews to enter Palestine, and in its frustration might try to reopen a long-settled issue and “send the Jews to Madagascar” instead.
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Virtually alone among Zionist leaders, Jabotinsky saw things differently. In 1935, in the same month as Pilsudski’s death, he had founded in Warsaw the New Zionist Organization (NZO) as a breakaway rival to the established Zionist Organization (ZO) led by Weizmann in London and Ben-Gurion in Palestine. Where the ZO, for political and diplomatic reasons, had chosen to keep ambiguous its definition of a Jewish national “homeland,” and to leave unspecified the timeline for its realization, the NZO pushed for the immediate establishment of a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan River (the area of the Jewish national home envisioned at the time of the 1917 Balfour Declaration).
In 1938, Jabotinsky warned that “time was running out” for Polish Jews and that they could save themselves only by leaving. To his mind, this was both a matter of life and death and an opportunity not to be missed. Poland’s interest in removing its “superfluous Jews” coincided with Jewish interests, he argued, because it made Poland a de-facto supporter of Zionism and an important ally in the international struggle over Palestine’s future.
Indeed, two years earlier Jabotinsky had published an “Evacuation Plan” for the organized transfer, over a ten-year period, of nearly a million Polish Jews to Palestine. The Polish Foreign Ministry was receptive to this plan. In June and July of 1937, Jabotinsky met with Foreign Minister Jozef Beck, who had been a close associate of Pilsudski, and in a subsequent letter suggested to Beck that in the name of both “humanitarian principles and [Poland’s] own political interests,” the Polish government should urge the British authorities to accept a large-scale settlement of Polish Jews in Palestine. In September 1937, Jabotinsky dined with a group of senior Polish officials and then met with the prime minister, receiving favorable reactions to his plan from the key leaders of the Polish government.
From here the debate between mainstream and Revisionist Zionists played itself out in the halls of European power. A month after Jabotinsky’s meeting with him, the Polish foreign minister hosted Nahum Goldmann, co-founder and chairman of the World Jewish Congress (a new organization initiated by Rabbi Stephen W. Wise). Goldmann argued that Palestine could not absorb all Jewish emigrants, that those wishing to emigrate were in any event not necessarily suited to life in Palestine, and that mainstream Zionists did not oppose directing Jews to other countries. He urged the Polish government to “cherish no illusions with regard to the actual possibilities” of Jabotinsky’s evacuation plan.
In July 1937, Britain’s Peel Commission on Palestine had issued its report recommending the formal partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. Undeterred by Beck’s interchange with Goldmann, the Polish government communicated to Britain its opposition to any partition whose allotment to the Jews would limit the number of those seeking entry to a “selected elite” of socialists willing to work the land; instead, Poland urged a larger Jewish territory that could accommodate millions of refugees, including urban Jews.
Similarly, in 1938, Beck instructed the Polish ambassador in Washington to convey to the American government Poland’s “great urgency in starting a large-scale, constructive emigration activity.” In early 1939, Poland informed Germany that “the emigration of Polish Jews . . . is more necessary than ever, and therefore we are presenting this case to the countries of Western Europe in the most decisive terms.”
As it turned out, Britain ignored the Polish position. The United States was uninterested as well. And most Jews, agreeing with such mainstream Zionist leaders as Weizmann and Ben-Gurion, similarly opposed the efforts to organize a mass evacuation of Polish Jews.
As Reinharz and Shavit approach the massive, coordinated Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939, the tension of their narrative increases. The reader knows exactly what is coming; the Jews of Poland, whatever their inchoate fears, do not. Eerily, on the morning of September 1, the day of the Nazi Blitzkrieg, the Warsaw Yiddish newspaper Haynt (“Today”) published a poem by Israel Stern about the Polish Jews:
We are sleeping, we are sleeping,
Like buildings late at night
Without knowing what is looming—
The daily Haynt had begun publication in Poland in 1906; by the end of 1939, it had ceased to exist. Reinharz and Shavit offer Stern’s haunting lines as the epigraph for their book.
Much praise is due Jehuda Reinharz and Yaakov Shavit for their wide-ranging, heart-breaking work of historical reconstruction “lived forward.” But, as mentioned above, their book has a flaw—and unfortunately it is a significant one. It lies in the treatment of Jabotinsky in general and of his evacuation plan in particular.
In their first chapter, the authors make clear what they think of that plan. Jabotinsky’s “great Evacuation Plan,” they write, along with the alternative idea of removing one million Polish Jews over a period of ten years, was “completely illusory”: a “pipe dream” that “had no chance to manifest itself in reality.” Pushing their argument repetitively, they contend that Jabotinsky’s plan “had no chance of being realized” and assert that Jabotinsky “deluded himself” about Poland’s ability to pressure the British to open Palestine to Jewish masses. At the end of the book, the authors conclude that Jabotinsky did not register any “real achievements” and, repeating this judgment in only slightly different words, assert that the independent diplomacy pursued by his Revisionist Zionists likewise “failed to register any achievements.”
All this is akin to criticizing the April 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising on grounds that it was unrealistic, had no chance of success, was delusional, and “failed to register any achievements”—in short, an example of history told backward, not forward. In real time, however, Jabotinsky’s efforts to alert and evacuate the Jews from Poland were heroic, by no means deserving the disdain that Reinharz and Shavit render at both the beginning and the end of their book.
Jabotinsky’s efforts, after all, reflected the only actual plan to save European Jewry, as is evident from his testimony in February 1937 to the Peel Commission. Previously the commission had taken testimony from Weizmann and Ben-Gurion. Now Jabotinsky was asked what differentiated his policy from the “orthodox Zionism” of the others. At first, he begged off answering:
Will you allow me just as a matter of personal favor to forgo this question, because it would lead me into criticism of another Jewish body, which is really something I should like to avoid?
But the chairman of the commission pressed him to answer, and Jabotinsky then responded as follows:
Jabotinsky: I can put it very mildly and say . . . no “blueprint.” They have no plan [for moving masses of Jews to Palestine]. . . . They never had one, and the first attempt . . . at drawing up such a plan was the Revisionist program. That is where we differ from them.
Chairman Peel: You mean you are more definite in your scheme of planning than you think the others are?
Jabotinsky: I am forced to say I think we are definite. Not that we are more definite. We are definite; they are not.
Weizmann’s address to the Twentieth Zionist Congress in Zurich six months later, on August 4, 1937, effectively supports Jabotinsky’s claim. Weizmann recounted there how he himself had told the Peel Commission that only some Jewish youths could be saved through emigration to Palestine. As for the Jewish adults, who constituted two-thirds of those in danger, Weizmann resigned himself to their demise, telling the delegates:
The old ones will pass, they will bear their fate, or they will not. They are dust, economic and moral dust in a cruel world. . . . Two millions, and perhaps less: sh’erit ha-pleytah—only a remnant shall survive. We have to accept it.
Jabotinsky refused to accept such fatalism. “We have got to save millions, many millions,” he had testified before the Peel Commission earlier in the year:
I do not know whether it is a question of re-housing one-third of the Jewish race, half of the Jewish race, or a quarter of the Jewish race. I do not know, but it is a question of millions. Certainly the way out is to evacuate those portions of the diaspora . . . and to concentrate all those refugees in some place which would not be a diaspora, not a repetition of the position where the Jews are an unabsorbed minority, within a foreign social, or economic, or political organism . . . [W]ith 1,000,000 more Jews in Palestine today you could already have a Jewish majority, but there are certainly 3,000,000 or 4,000,000 in the East who are virtually knocking at the door asking for admission—i.e., for salvation.
The authors quote, not once but twice, from a 1938 document they misidentify as a letter from Jabotinsky to British Colonial Secretary Malcolm MacDonald (the cabinet member most hostile to Zionist goals), suggesting a plan to bring to Palestine all of the Jews of Germany (about 400,000) and a half-million more from Eastern Europe, over two years. The document is actually a cable, sent not to Malcolm MacDonald but to James G. McDonald, the former League of Nations high commissioner for refugees (and later the first U.S. ambassador to Israel), who in 1938 was not only chairman of FDR’s Commission on Political Refugees but also a leading member of the American delegation to the international Evian Conference, which convened in July 1938 to address the issue of Jewish refugees.
Both times the authors quote from this cable, they omit the key section, in which Jabotinsky assured McDonald regarding the plan that
This can be done. A supreme effort will be required both by Jews and non-Jews but the solution when achieved will be permanent and will eliminate danger of future anti-Semitic developments. May I remind you that over a million Greeks were transferred from Asia Minor in less than a year. Of these, 800,000 were settled in Macedonia, which is smaller than Palestine. They were helped by a League of Nations loan of ten million pounds. We Jewish people can raise the necessary funds, we can make the supreme effort, we can with your help solve the problem. . . . I beseech you to use your influence with [the] British government to secure its consent to this radical way of solving the problem confronting us all.
The document as it appears in The Road to September 1939 is an inconsequential letter to an antagonistic British official. In fact, Jabotinsky sent his message on an urgent basis to a key American official, one who both knew and admired him and who held the position and the stature within the Roosevelt administration to promote an evacuation plan with a recent historical precedent: the transfer of “a million Greeks . . . in less than a year.”
Jabotinsky continued to push the emigration plan throughout 1938 and into 1939. In November 1938, a week after Kristallnacht, he sent telegrams to various European governments, seeking help for the “repatriation to Palestine within the coming years of all the German Jews plus half a million others from other countries where there is Jewish distress.” If this plan was impractical, one of the reasons was that the Zionist movement had failed to coalesce behind it.
In American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, the distinguished historian Joseph J. Ellis criticizes hindsight history as “usually not history at all but most often a condescending game of one-upmanship in which the living play political tricks on the dead, who are not around to defend themselves.” In fact, Ellis writes, hindsight is a “double-edged asset,” since its “clairvoyance . . . actually obscures choices perceived by the participants caught in the moment.”
The Jews of Europe in September 1939 were overwhelmed by a whirlwind of hatred, hunted by the armed ideologies of Nazism and Communism, abandoned by countries seeking to stay out of the conflict until in the end it enveloped them as well. Perhaps, in hindsight, no evacuation plan could have succeeded in rescuing the Jews. But in history told forward, rather than backward, the emphasis must not be, or be only, on accomplishments, but on aspirations and initiatives—on what key individuals did to try to change the story as it was unfolding.
By this standard—the standard explicitly embraced by the authors of The Road to September 1939—Jabotinsky’s refusal to accept other people’s “reality” deserves to be emphasized and praised, not denigrated. In the late 1930s, no Zionist leader came closer to understanding the moment. He built by far the largest Zionist organization in Poland, where most of the European Jews lived. He negotiated personally and efficaciously with the prime minister of Poland and the king of Romania to bring pressure on Britain to open Palestine to the Jews, and he endeavored to involve the American government as well. Traveling widely and addressing large crowds in fluent Polish, French, English, and Yiddish, he incessantly warned his fellow Jews to leave.
Like others, Jabotinsky did not predict the onset of the war in 1939; he thought it would be averted. As the authors note, however, “no one could have known that on September 1 war would break out, much less imagine that Poland—which many saw as a strong European country—would collapse in a matter of weeks.” Nor could anyone imagine the monstrous plan for mass murder of the Jewish people across the continent.
But Jabotinsky saw the clouded future more clearly than any other Zionist leader. And he did it without the assistance—indeed, against the opposition—of other Zionist leaders and organizations. In an otherwise admirable book about a frightful time, in which the participants faced an existential threat without the benefit of hindsight, he deserves an especially large measure of admiration.