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The Jews Will Not Return

The Postwar »Jewish Question« before the Holocaust

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In February 1940, Edward Raczyński, the ambassador of the Polish government-in-exile in London, told Selig Brodetsky, director of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, that there would need to be a large-scale emigration of Jews from Poland after the war. A few months later, Stanislaw Kot, interior minister of the Polish government-in-exile, shared with Brodetsky a plan according to which only a third of Poland’s prewar Jewish population would be allowed to remain in Poland after the war. At around the same time, Edvard Beneš, president of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, shared similar ideas with a group of Jewish representatives from Czechoslovakia. In December 1941, Beneš told Chaim Weizmann, president of the Zionist Organization, that at least a third of Czechoslovakia’s prewar Jewish population would have to emigrate after the war, as many Czechoslovaks have taken possession of Jewish property and jobs. According to a report about this meeting, Beneš argued that simply dispossessing Czechoslovaks after the war in order to restore this property to its original Jewish owners »was scarcely a solution.«

There is a general assumption that World War II and the Holocaust constituted one and the same event. Up until roughly 1943, however, Jewish leaders, Eastern European governments-in-exile, and Allied officials were overwhelmingly convinced that the postwar »Jewish problem« would be the problem of the Jewish refugee. Before knowledge of the Holocaust and its vast extent had dawned upon observers outside occupied Europe, many believed that the war would end with millions of Jewish refugees – perhaps the largest refugee crisis the world had yet seen. In May 1941, just a month before the Nazis had started to carry out the mass extermination of Jews, Weizmann estimated that three to five million stateless Jewish refugees would roam the continent after the war. When Europe emerged from the rubble, declared the authors of a wartime study entitled The Jewish Refugee, Jewish leaders would be faced with an enormous task – turning millions of uprooted Jews »from refugees to builders of a Jewish future.« The Polish and Czechoslovak plans to prevent the reintegration of a significant percentage of their prewar Jewish populations formed one of multiple answers to the question: what should be the fate of these Jewish refugees after the war?

Many Jewish leaders sought to fight these plans and to protect Jewish rights in Central and Eastern Europe. Following an advocacy campaign by Jewish organizations, Władysław Sikorski, president of the Polish government-in-exile, published a declaration in which he promised equal rights for all Jews in Poland after the war. Although Jewish leaders regarded this declaration as an achievement, they still harbored doubts over the Jewish future in Poland. The declaration dealt with equal rights but did not mention minority rights, which Jews and other minorities had been granted by the League of Nations after World War I. Moreover, the meeting between Weizmann and Beneš discussed above took place just a few months after this declaration had been published. In the interwar period, Czechoslovakia had a reputation as a state that protected the rights of its minorities. Jewish leaders feared that Beneš’ support for such plans would serve to legitimize similar ideas promoted by states with a far worse record of protecting their Jewish citizens.

The following document is a protocol of a meeting between Polish and Czechoslovak Jewish representatives that took place in New York in April 1941 under the aegis of the World Jewish Congress. In this meeting, the representatives decided to establish a committee that would publish a joint declaration against the plans of their respective governments. This meeting reflected their recognition that the fates of Jews in Poland and Czechoslovakia were intimately connected. If Jewish rights in any one of those countries were to be assaulted, they believed, then the rights of Jews in the neighboring country would be endangered, too.

Minutes of a meeting of World Jewish Congress representatives from Czechoslovakia and Poland held in New York in September 1941, USHMM, C-11 03, World Jewish Congress, Advisory Council on European Jewish Affairs, 1941–1943.
Minutes of a meeting of World Jewish Congress representatives from Czechoslovakia and Poland held in New York in September 1941, USHMM, C-11 03, World Jewish Congress, Advisory Council on European Jewish Affairs, 1941–1943.
Minutes of a meeting of World Jewish Congress representatives from Czechoslovakia and Poland held in New York in September 1941, USHMM, C-11 03, World Jewish Congress, Advisory Council on European Jewish Affairs, 1941–1943.
Minutes of a meeting of World Jewish Congress representatives from Czechoslovakia and Poland held in New York in September 1941, USHMM, C-11 03, World Jewish Congress, Advisory Council on European Jewish Affairs, 1941–1943.
Minutes of a meeting of World Jewish Congress representatives from Czechoslovakia and Poland held in New York in September 1941, USHMM, C-11 03, World Jewish Congress, Advisory Council on European Jewish Affairs, 1941–1943.
Minutes of a meeting of World Jewish Congress representatives from Czechoslovakia and Poland held in New York in September 1941, USHMM, C-11 03, World Jewish Congress, Advisory Council on European Jewish Affairs, 1941–1943.

As news of the extermination of Jews started to arrive in the Allied capitals, the debate about these plans faded away. In August 1942, Gerhart Riegner, secretary of the World Jewish Congress, sent his famous telegram from Geneva, in which he argued that the Nazis were carrying out a mass extermination campaign of Jews. A few months later, Richard Lichtheim, the representative of the Jewish Agency in Geneva, estimated that only about half a million to a million Jews would survive the war. The Polish and Czechoslovak plans were created at a time in which the general expectation was that millions of Jews would survive the war. The new reality of the Holocaust made these plans obsolete.

Nevertheless, this episode remains important for our understanding of the Holocaust. It shows how central Jews were to the processes of ethnic homogenization of European nation states. After the war, Poland and Czechoslovakia expelled millions of Germans and members of other ethnic groups. These states formulated their expulsion plans at the same time as they discussed plans to prevent the reintegration of Jews after the war. Had the war ended with millions of Jewish refugees, as was initially expected, would the fate of these Jews also have been that of mass expulsion? This alternative historical narrative makes sense when we remember that the first plans to expel minorities from Central and Eastern Europe were developed in the 1930s and targeted Jews. Nazi Germany adopted policies that pushed Jews to emigrate out of the territory of the expanding Reich. During the 1930s, the Polish government officially advocated the emigration of its »excess« Jewish population. At the same time, humanitarian organizations, Zionist leaders, and territorialists spoke about the need to facilitate the emigration of masses of Jews from Eastern Europe, as they grappled with the fate of some 350,000 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.

The history of the debate about the postwar »Jewish question« before the Holocaust underscores an important point: Even as the Polish and Czechoslovak governments-in-exile strongly opposed Nazi Germany, they still envisioned a future without many of their prewar Jewish citizens.

Dr. Gil Rubin is a postdoctoral fellow at the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, Yale University. He studies the history of Jews in modern Europe, the Holocaust, and the history of Zionism and the State of Israel. He is currently writing a book, The Future of the Jews. Planning for the Postwar World | gilsrubin(at)gmail.com

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