How Zionism Saved Lives During the Holocaust

During the Holocaust Europe's Jews were cut off from and disowned by the outside world. Jews were systematically impoverished, starved and murdered. Where Jews did try to fight the Nazis, Zionists were prominent in the resistance.

It's documented that the Zionist movement's influence on European Jews had tremendous impact on getting Jews out of Europe leading up to the Holocaust. From the 1920s until 1939, hundreds of thousands of Jews made emigration from Europe to pre-state Israel.

What's not as well documented is how the Zionist movement saved lives during the Holocaust as well. For example:

· The Yishuv (Jewish settlement in Palestine) sent 37 parachutists into Europe to aid Jews under Nazi oppression. The Nazis caught and shot seven of the parachutists, including Hannah Szenes (in Hungary). The Yishuv also organized "illegal" immigration to Palestine, in an ongoing operation known as Aliyah Bet.

· Zionist groups, especially their youth components, facilitated the migration of both individuals and small groups from Vienna, Berlin, Prague, and Warsaw, among other places. Initially, the Aliyah Bet ships left from Greek ports. Later, the main route was by boat down the Danube River, via the Black Sea, to the Mediterranean. These voyages, which became more difficult once the war began, were carried out under the auspices of two rival political organizations in Palestine: the Labor Zionists and the right-wing Revisionists. Despite the dangers, 62 such voyages were carried out from 1937 to 1944. From January 1939 to December 1944, 18,879 Jews reached Palestine by sea. Some 1,393 documented travelers are not known to have reached Palestine and may have drowned en route.

· In France, three Jewish organizations, among them the Mouvement des Jeunesses Sionistes (a Zionist youth movement), operated nationwide to provide hiding places for Jewish children, especially for more vulnerable foreign refugees. They also arranged the release of children from internment camps, and then smuggled them to safety in Switzerland or Spain. Thanks to the efforts of this group as well as others, as many as 12,000 to 15,000 Jewish children were saved from deportation and almost certain death.

· In Hungary, the Relief and Rescue Committee of Budapest was founded in 1941 and was involved in various efforts to save Polish, Slovak, and Hungarian Jews. In 1943, the group became a recognized arm of the Jewish Agency for Palestine. In May 1944, following the German occupation of Hungary, they approached SS officers Adolf Eichmann (one of the central figures in the "Final Solution") and Kurt Becher. It is believed that Eichmann offered to "exchange" one million Jews for certain unspecified goods. While the deal was never finalized, due to Allied objections, the Committee's negotiators eventually persuaded the Nazis to allow a transport of 1,684 Hungarian Jews to leave Budapest on June 30, 1944. After a short stay in Bergen-Belsen, these Jews reached Switzerland.

· In Slovakia, the "Working Group," a secret Jewish rescue organization headed by Zionist women's leader Gisi Fleischmann and Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandel, offered a bribe to SS Captain Dieter Wisliceny, Eichmann's deputy in the SS Jewish section and the official supervising the deportation of Slovak Jews in 1942. There is no definitive evidence that the deportations from Slovakia were halted because of the bribe, although it may have influenced the decision. More certain is that the Working Group's bribes of Slovak officials helped lead to the opening in 1942 of Novaky, Sered, and Vyhne -- three forced-labor camps to which Jews could be deported and remain in comparative safety, rather than to extermination camps.

· Escape via East Asia was an option that saved the lives of thousands of Polish Jewish refugees in Lithuania. Organized by Zionist leader Zorah Warhaftig, many refugees were able to obtain transit visas from Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Kovno, as well as from sympathetic Dutch diplomats. They then had to negotiate with Soviet authorities to obtain exit visas. Armed with this documentation, some 2,178 Polish Jewish refugees entered Japan between October 1940 and August 1941. Most of them were subsequently sent to Shanghai, in Japanese-occupied China, where they remained for the duration of the war.

· After the war, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency of Palestine provided substantial aid to Holocaust survivors in displaced persons camps. Of course, they also helped Jewish survivors of the Holocaust find refuge outside of Europe.

· Similarly, an organization called the The Koordynacja ("Zionist Coordination") was an organization in postwar Poland which located and took care of Jewish children who had either been living with Christians, in hiding, with the partisans, or returned from the USSR.

Finally, the planning and implementation of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprisings of 1943 included the participation of both right- and left-leaning Zionist organizations. Overall, the Zionist movement was responsible for saving hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives during the war. Of course, that also includes the millions of Jews it saved before the war by encouraging immigration to pre-state Palestine from Europe.

Source for the above content: US Holocaust Memorial Museum

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