Jewish Enemies — Then and Now
The issue of Jewish collaboration with the Nazis is probably the most challenging aspect of Holocaust history for Jews. The idea that Jews cooperated with their mortal enemies — and had a hand in the murder of their brethren — is abhorrent, and patently antithetical to the Jewish ethics that are the backbone of our longevity as a people. Sadly, what people are willing to do to survive is not always honorable, and the Holocaust era was no exception.
Anna van Dijk was a Dutch Jew, who helped the Nazis track down hidden Jews in Amsterdam, in exchange for her life. Her collaboration may have resulted in the death of as many as 700 Jews, including her own brother and his family. She was executed for war crimes in 1948.
Chaim Rumkowski was a Polish Jew appointed by the Nazis in 1939 to head the Jewish council in the Lodz ghetto. He eagerly cooperated with his overseers, turning the ghetto into a ruthlessly run labor camp, and provided the Nazis with lists of the young and elderly, or anyone he believed would not contribute to the productivity of the ghetto. Everyone on such a list was sent to their deaths, and Rumkowski knew it. According to at least one account, fellow Jews beat Rumkowski to death when he eventually arrived at Auschwitz in 1944, shortly after the Lodz ghetto was liquidated.
These are just two examples of the dark side of the Holocaust narrative, a side we would all prefer not to dwell on. People like Anna van Dijk and Chaim Rumkowski undoubtedly rationalized their collaboration by telling themselves that any Jew who died as a result of their cooperation with the Nazis would probably have died anyway.
In any event, the actions of a few individuals are hardly a collective indictment against the Jews of Europe, the vast majority of whom refused to engage with the Nazis at any level.
The issue becomes more complex, however, when we address the issue of Jewish organizational collaboration with the Nazis — in particular, the formal agreement in August 1933 between the Zionist leadership and the newly formed Nazi government. Known as the “Ha’avara Agreement,” the accord enabled German Jews to immigrate to Mandatory Palestine and export their possessions and other German goods there, which was also economically advantageous to the Nazis.
Although Hitler was not directly involved in the negotiations, he most certainly approved the final agreement, which resulted in the immigration of 60,000 Jews — among them, my great-grandparents and three of their children.
The Ha’avara Agreement was considered extremely controversial as soon as it was signed — long before the Nazis began to murder Jews in death camps. The agreement would later be used, along with other examples of official Zionist cooperation with Nazi authorities, as proof that the Zionist movement had lost its moral compass in its zeal to create a Jewish state.
This judgment is deeply flawed for a number of reasons — principally because hindsight is not a valid basis for condemnation. Over many centuries, Jews have negotiated with all kinds of vile despots and evil murderers to ensure Jewish survival.
What, then, are we to make of former London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s claim that “when Hitler won his election in 1932 [sic] his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel … [Hitler] was supporting Zionism”? Earlier this week, Livingstone was suspended from the UK Labour Party for a year — although, remarkably, he was not expelled — because his remarks were found to be antsemitic, thereby damaging the reputation of the party.
Livingstone, like so many other antisemites and racists, is convinced that he is not guilty of any prejudice, and that those who are offended by what he said just don’t have his grasp of the facts. After all, he argues, even Jews have told him he’s right — as if the subjective views of some Jews is evidence of his innocence. Unfortunately, Livingstone has helped make it legitimate to synonymize Israel with Nazis in polite conversation.
Part of the Haggadah liturgy recited on Seder Night is the song “Vehi She’amdah”: “It is only this covenant that has stood for our ancestors and for us. It is not one enemy that has risen against us to wipe us out, but in every generation there have been those who have wanted to wipe us out — and God saved us from their hands.”
I have always been struck by the words “one enemy,” and the notion that our “covenant” and “God” have been our salvation. We usually see our enemies as the easily identifiable bad guys — Cossacks, Nazis, Islamic terrorists — but we are deluding ourselves. Enemies are not monolithic; they come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they appear in the form of public figures who cite “historical facts” while claiming to be our friend. Other times, they can appear as defenders of Palestinian rights who support a two-state solution. Whatever the case, we would do well to realize that we can only defend ourselves by our loyalty to the covenant, and by our faith in God.