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What The Holocaust Has To Do With Today’s Palestinian Conflict


What does the Holocaust really have to do with the Palestinian conflict?

On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion declared the state of Israel was established. That’s 70 years ago. That’s so long ago that my mom was watching “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” and my dad, well, his family didn’t even have a TV yet.

On June 10, 1967, at the close of the Six-Day War, Israel took control of East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan and of the Gaza Strip from Egypt. That’s more than 50 years ago, two years before we landed on the moon.

Yet there are about 5 million individuals today classified as Palestinian refugees. Why? Here’s the background.

Who Survived the Holocaust?

Not long ago, my family and I paid a visit to the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie. The museum, as one might expect, takes one from Nazis’ pre-war treatment of the Jews to the Polish ghettos to the death camps, then extends the story, past the “Schindler’s List” happily-ever-after to the postwar displaced persons camps.

The display talked about the “baby boom” in those camps, as the Holocaust survivors were disproportionately young adults. But then the next exhibit board shifted from young couples with babies to elementary school-aged children, and I thought, Whoa! Where did those kids come from? It was only after reading a new book on the Holocaust, “Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews,” by David Cesarani, that I learned the answer.

Who were the survivors of the Holocaust, and how did they survive? According to Cesarani’s account, in Poland, the numbers looked like this:

  • 30,000 to 60,000 Jews survived by hiding in the cities or forests.
  • 20,000 were still alive in ghettos and camps in Poland.
  • A few thousand returned from camps in Germany.
  • Between 13,000 and 20,000 returned from military service in the Red Army.

But the largest number of Polish Jews had been deported by Joseph Stalin to Siberia and central Asia during the period from 1939 to 1941, when the Soviet Union split Poland with Germany, then treated Polish Jews just as poorly as countless others who were internally deported because they were politically suspect. Many died due to the conditions in the camps to which they were deported, but 166,000 survived and were repatriated after the war.

This puts the total number of Jews in Poland at about 250,000, the majority of which were repatriated from the Soviet Union—and these were the ones who survived as families. These returnees were not welcomed home by neighbors happy to see they had survived. Instead, they faced further violence, by neighbors unwilling to return homes and property to the survivors, and by Polish nationalists who (before the communists had fully taken control) viewed the Jews as communist collaborators. It’s been calculated that 600 to 750 Jews were killed by Poles after the war, including a massacre of 42 Jews in July 1947.

As a result, initial efforts at rebuilding within Poland were abandoned, and the displaced persons (DP) camps the Allies had so busily been emptying out refilled with Polish Jews, who concluded that Poland could no longer be their home. Cesarani writes,

In December 1945 there were only about 1,800 children in the Jewish DP camps of Germany and Austria. One month after the Kielce pogrom the number reached 16,000 and by the end of the year there were 26,500 Jewish children in the US zone alone. The Polish Jews who had been exiled to the USSR had departed and come back as family units. Although conditions in places such as Kazakhstan were harsh it was possible to preserve family life, marry, and have children. Now these Polish Jews brought their families to Germany, creating new demands on the relief agencies and also generating new possibilities. The overall Jewish population rose to 141,000 in the American zone and 50,000 in the British zone during 1946, peaking at about 190,000 in Germany plus some 60,000 in other refugee centres. Although the vast majority of the Jewish DPs were now Polish, only a small proportion had actually endured German camps and ghettos. (p. 775)

So the first thing to wrap your mind around is the irony that Stalin’s deportations, while they destroyed communities and countless lives, in this case saved lives.

Postwar Displacement and Expulsion

Here’s something else to consider. All those displaced people were waiting for the opportunity to leave for Israel or America. To America, the path was cleared for an eventual 140,000 Jews (not just those in DP camps, but from elsewhere, too) by the Displaced Persons Act of 1948.

To Israel, Britain, which controlled Palestine after the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, aimed to control the borders to prevent Jewish immigration to Palestine, and even kept would-be immigrants in camps in Cyprus. But large numbers came in illegally, and ultimately legally after Israeli independence in 1948.

One of the arguments one frequently reads from Palestinian activists is that “the West gave Palestine to the Jews to make up for the Holocaust, but that’s unfair because the Palestinians had nothing to do with it.” They’re not wrong when they say that, prior to the Zionism movement beginning in the late 1800s, Jews comprised only a small percentage of the residents of the region of Palestine (e.g., less than 10 percent).

Palestine was, of course, not an independent country but simply one part of the Ottoman Empire, which saw movements of people of various sorts. Whether that means Jews’ arrival subsequently amounts to “colonialism,” in the pejorative sense of displacing and perpetrating injustices on the indigenous people, is another question, though.

The rejoinders have to do with Jews’ historical connection to the land, the continuity of at least some numbers of Jews living there, and the claim that, until Jews began moving to the region, the area was a backwater, underdeveloped and sparsely populated. It was the economic growth and farming advancements Jews brought in that allowed the region to support its growing population. Also, the oft-cited claim that only with a “national homeland” can Jews protect fellow Jews from persecution makes a heck of a lot of sense.

But it seems to me that looking at the formation of the state of Israel through the lens of the Holocaust isn’t really the right way to understand it. Instead, what really matters is the postwar history.

This Was a Time of Global Upheaval

After the last shots were fired, there were massive relocations and expulsions of ethnic groups, voluntary and not. Poles were removed from the part of Poland the Soviet Union kept for itself after the war, and Ukrainians in Poland left for Ukraine or the Soviet Union. Ethnic Germans were expelled from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and the parts of Germany that Poland and the Soviet Union (Kaliningrad) had taken.

These were not the actions of criminal states like the Nazis, but of countries acting within established norms.

Farther afield, the Partition of India relocated millions of Hindus and Muslims in 1947, and closer to home, but further back in time, the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in the early 1920s, though more orderly, nonetheless was a further instance of rearranging people by ethnic group. These were not the actions of criminal states like the Nazis, but of countries acting within established norms. The United Kingdom’s Winston Churchill and United States’ Harry Truman were completely on board with the border re-drawing and deportations, via the Potsdam Agreement.

This is a part of my family history, or, rather, my husband’s. My mother-in-law was an ethnic German born in Poland during the war. In the immediate postwar period, according to my grandmother-in-law’s account, they kept suitcases packed, ready to be expelled from their homes even in the middle of the night. They once were sent off to the train station, and sent back home only because the train never arrived.

That was fortunate because her father, after having fought for the Polish army at the start of the war, had been conscripted into the German army and was a prisoner in Siberia while these expulsions were taking place. For whatever reasons, they were not taken again, but lost their family home for a one-room basement apartment, tight quarters for a family of five. The border was subsequently closed, and only later, in the mid-50s, could they apply to leave for West Germany as refugees.

Had they been deported to West Germany, they would have faced substantial hardships. More dramatically, among the Danube Swabians, many died along the way or were held in labor camps in Yugoslavia or in the Soviet Union, and many came to the United States as refugees.

This was the backdrop to the experience of the majority of the DPs: deportation to the Soviet Union, then a not wholly voluntary departure for the West. It was a time when populations were rearranged as the powerful saw fit, and the players in the fight to establish the state of Israel were following those norms.

Self-Determination Is a Dream Rarely Realized

The bottom line is this: fundamentally, ideals of self-determination of nations and ethnic groups, and the notion of multi-ethnic countries singing kum-ba-yah—well, these are ideals, nothing more.

The plain fact of the matter is that the Palestinians are not going to get East Jerusalem back, nor a Right of Return.

The state of Israel was established nearly 70 years ago. The Six Day War was 50 years ago. Poles, Ukrainians, Germans, and ethnic Germans have long since settled into their new homelands, but the Arab former residents of Israel still languish in “refugee camps,” or, if resettled elsewhere, consider themselves refugees. What’s more, only a fraction of the original refugees from the 1948 exodus, some 30,000 to 50,000 of the original 700,000, are still alive. A further 300,000, more or less, became refugees after the 1967 war. The remainder are descendants of this original group.

The plain fact of the matter is that the Palestinians are not going to get East Jerusalem back, nor a Right of Return, any more than Russia is going to return Kaliningrad/Königsberg to the Germans, or that all of the countries that expelled ethnic German will restore the land and property they lost. It might have been unfair that the local Arab residents, who had their own nationalist aspirations during the British Mandate period, lost out, but this simply can’t be undone.

It might even be the case that, were this to happen now, rather than half a century ago, we would intervene militarily. But perhaps we wouldn’t do any more than wring our hands and express our unhappiness. So maintaining the fiction that someday Palestine will get their wish, rather than settling for something less, just prolongs the conflict and causes more suffering in the meantime.