Over the last few months, archivists, historians and the media have been preoccupied with the 100th anniversary of the First World War. However, this week also marks the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, which had such devastating consequences for the Jewish people.
At the time the Zionist movement faced a major clash with the British government. In May 1939 Britain issued a White Paper severely restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine and Jews' right to buy land, as part of its efforts to end the Arab revolt and to win Arab support in the coming war with Germany. This decision condemned masses of Jews trapped in Europe, who might have found refuge in Palestine, to persecution and later to death. Nevertheless Chaim Weizmann, the president of the World Zionist Organization, realized that if Britain was going to fight Nazi Germany, the Jews could not stand aside. They would have to support it and even to join the British Army.
In August 1939 the Zionist Congress was held in Geneva. In his speech to the Congress Weizmann harshly criticized the British government for its betrayal of the Mandate and the Jewish people. On 22 August news arrived of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact between the USSR and Germany, making the invasion of Poland possible. The Congress was hastily wound up, and, as the borders closed, Weizmann and his family returned to London.
|Slogan on a German troop train on its way to Poland|
"We're going to Poland to thrash the Jews"
Photograph: Yad Vashem
On 29th August he wrote to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to confirm previous declarations "that the Jews stand by Great Britain and will fight on the side of the democracies…The Jewish Agency has recently had differences in the political field with the Mandatory Power. We would like these differences to give way before the greater and more pressing necessities of the time." You can see this document in the ISA's commemorative volume (in Hebrew) on Chaim Weizmann, who became Israel's first president.
Weizmann and the heads of the Zionist movement saw recruitment to the Army as a duty, but also hoped to form a Jewish fighting force which would pay political dividends after the war. This hope was only partially realized. Nevertheless Palestine played an important role in the British war effort in the Middle East and the ISA holds many files of the Mandatory Government on wartime production, emergency organization and related subjects. We'll show you some of these another time.
Weizmann and his wife Vera paid a heavy price during the war, when they lost their son, Michael, a pilot in the Royal Air Force, who failed to return from an operational flight over the Bay of Biscay in February 1942. Weizmann's other son Benjamin served as an anti-aircraft gunner in England and suffered a breakdown from which he never fully recovered.
|Michael Weizmann in RAF uniform|
Photograph: Yad Chaim Weizmann,Weizmann Archives, Rehovot, Israel