Restoring the Record: European Jews on the Eve of the Holocaust
A new book by Professor Bernard Wasserstein glosses over some important facts.
May 21, 2012 - 12:00 am
Jabotinsky did not live to see the Holocaust or the re-creation of Israel. On August 3, 1940, at age 59, he died suddenly of a heart attack in New York, where he had gone to urge American Jews to support a Jewish Army to help repel the Nazis. Three days later, more than 12,000 people stood outside his funeral services on Second Avenue, with three rabbis, 200 cantors, and 750 invited guests inside (including British, Polish, Czech, and other diplomats). A throng of 25,000 people followed the cortege and lined the 50-car motorcade to the cemetery. Today, his burial place is on Mt. Herzl in Israel.
Back in 1940, Jabotinsky’s assistant was a 30-year old named Benzion Netanyahu, who would become a distinguished historian of the Jews and the father of an Israeli prime minister. Writing in Haaretz on May 1 this year about Benzion’s death last month, Ari Shavit noted that:
[Benzion Netanyahu] never forgave the Zionist leadership for ignoring the warnings of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and failing to evacuate Europe’s Jews from the killing fields in time. He never forgot that the United States didn’t heed his warnings about the Holocaust in the 1940s.
Prof. Wasserstein slights Jabotinsky with faint praise, dismissing him with a cursory analysis, denigrating even his appearance. He quotes this recollection of an eight-year old boy who met Jabotinsky in 1938:
Jabotinsky was small; he was dressed in a gray suit with a pale stripe; he seemed calm and self-assured, and more interested in us than I had expected him to be. But what struck me most of all about him was that he had some powder on his face. It was, I suppose, some kind of talcum powder which he had put on after shaving and which he had not bothered to wipe off; but then it seemed quite mysterious to me, and not a little embarrassing.
The quotation comes from a 1961 memoir in COMMENTARY by Dan Jacobson, recalling Jabotinsky’s visit to Jacobson’s boyhood home in Kimberly, South Africa two decades before. Jacobson’s father had often told him that Jabotinsky was a great man who had “talked to kings.” Jacobson had been surprised to discover that Jabotinsky was only 5’ 7” with powder on his face.
Years later, Jacobson and his father visited a museum in Israel, finding a roomful of Jabotinsky relics: manuscripts, photos, his Jewish Legion uniform; and pictures of the Jabotinsky followers who fought for a Jewish state in Palestine after his death. “The wars that Jabotinsky had prophesied for Europe had come about; the wars he had anticipated in Palestine had been fought — and won. The State, for whose realization he had expended his life, was in existence.” Jacobson concluded with this:
As we came out of the museum, it was not just the glaring sunlight and the hooting traffic which dazed and assailed me; it was my own ignorance. I remembered the visit of the great man of my childhood to Kimberley; I remembered my own incomprehension as to what the visit had been about. How much more, how much better, did I comprehend now? I knew at least what I had not known then: that time passes; that men act; that out of their acts a history is made.
From Jacobson’s powerful memoir, the only part Prof. Wasserstein included in his book was the eight-year old’s observation of Jabotinsky’s small size and talcum powder.
Prof. Wasserstein’s image of flies slowly suffocating is a portrait of powerlessness in the face of history. It is a view of history Jabotinsky would have rejected. He traveled the world telling his people they were the sons of ancient kings; that their historical heroes included Samson; that it was not enough for them to be an educated people: they needed to learn how to shoot. He formed a “revisionist” movement espousing neither a return to the ghetto nor reliance on the goodwill of strangers, but rather a return to Zionism’s Herzlian roots and the goal of a Jewish State throughout Palestine, not merely an indistinct homeland.
In 1938, Jabotinsky’s South Africa address was titled “Na’hamu, Na’hamu Ami” (“Be Ye Comforted My People”), a phrase commanding that “just at the moment of the deepest darkness the Jew should never lose his ability to see the light beyond the horizon and to give comfort to himself and to his brethren [from] that adamant faith and conviction which has been the secret of our eternal vitality.” He quoted a poet’s observation that a ship in a gale could go in either direction — it was the set of the sail that determined the direction — and ended with this:
I do not believe in the blackness of the horizon. I see light. I think that the good set of the sail can transform that storm into a wind of salvation and of redemption. … What did the world know about Palestine and the Jews except two things? First, that the Jews had been turned out of Palestine by force; and second, that the Jews have never ceased claiming Palestine back. … And it is not true that there is no plan and no alternative [to the hopeless, squalid depression in Jewish ranks]. The ten-year plan of transforming Palestine into something which will save us … is what we stand for.
Jabotinsky’s youth movement in Poland had about 50,000 members in 1938. Its leader was a 25-year old Jew named Menachem Begin. Ten years later — on the day Israel was reborn and was attacked by surrounding nations — Begin addressed his “fighting family” in the Irgun. He recalled what had happened over the prior decade:
[D]o you remember how we started? With what we started? You were alone and persecuted, rejected, despised and numbered with the transgressors but you fought on with deep faith and did not retreat; you were tortured but did not surrender; you were cast into prison but you did not yield; you were exiled from your country but your spirit was not crushed. … [As we fight], we shall be accompanied by the spirit of those who revived our Nation, Zev Benjamin Herzl, Max Nordau, Joseph Trumpeldor and the father of resurrected Hebrew heroism, Zev Jabotinsky.
Times passes; men act; out of their acts a history is made. History has long since vindicated Jabotinsky, but Jewish historians have yet to fully and fairly restore him to the historical record.