Commentary: The Jews couldn't go home
Ah, another teachable moment!
This one comes to us from Helen Thomas, the longtime White House reporter and columnist who announced her retirement on Monday. Thomas, of Lebanese ancestry and almost 90, has never been shy about her anti-Israel views, for which, as far as I'm concerned, she is both wrong and entitled. Then the other day, she performed a notable public service by revealing how very little she knew. Asked if she had any comments about Israel, Thomas said, "Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine. ... Go home. Poland. Germany. And America and everywhere else."
Well, I don't know about "everywhere else," but after World War II, many Jews did attempt to "go home" to Poland. This resulted in the murder of about 1,500 of them -- killed not by Nazis but by Poles, either out of sheer ethnic hatred or fear they would lose their (stolen) homes.
The mini-Holocaust that followed the Holocaust itself is not well-known anymore, but it played an outsized role in the establishment of the state of Israel. It was the plight of Jews consigned to Displaced Persons camps in Europe that both moved and outraged President Truman, who supported Jewish immigration to Palestine and, when the time came, the new state itself. Something had to be done for the Jews of Europe. They were still being murdered.
In the Polish city of Kielce, on July 4, 1946 -- more than a year after the end of the war -- rumors of a Jewish ritual murder triggered a pogrom in which 42 Jews were killed. All were Holocaust survivors. The Kielce murders were not, by any means, the sole example of why Jews could not "go home." When I visited the Polish city where my mother had been born, Ostroleka, I was told of a Jew who survived Auschwitz only to be murdered when he tried to reclaim his business. In much of Eastern Europe, Jews feared for their lives.
For that reason, those who had struck out for home soon returned to DP camps and the safety of -- irony of ironies -- Germany. Some of the camps were under the command of Gen. George S. Patton, a great man on the screen, a contemptible bigot in real life. In his diary, Patton confided what he thought of Jews. Others might "believe that the Displaced Person is a human being," Patton wrote, but he knew "he is not." In particular, he whispered to his diary, the Jews "are lower than animals."
The Jews, he felt, had to be kept under armed guard, otherwise they would flee, "spread over the country like locusts," and then have to be rounded up and some of them shot because they had "murdered and pillaged" innocent Germans. All of this is detailed by Allis and Ronald Radosh in their book "A Safe Haven."
For the surviving Jews of Eastern Europe, there was no going home -- and no staying, either. Europe was hostile to them, not in the least appalled or sorry about what had just happened. Even the American military, in the person of the hideous Patton, seemed hostile. For most of the DPs, America was also out of the question. The U.S., in the grip of feverish anti-communism and already unreceptive to immigrants, maintained a tight quota. When the Jewish DPs were polled, an overwhelming majority of them said they wanted to go to Palestine. They knew life would be tough there but they would be among their own people -- and relatively safe.
The Radoshes cite Branda Kalk, a Polish Jew who lost her husband to the Germans in 1942. Along with the rest of her family, she fled east to Russia where they remained until the end of the war, when they returned to Poland. There, a pogrom wiped out what remained of her family. Kalk herself was shot in the eye.
"I want to go to Palestine," Kalk told members of a U.N. investigating committee. "I know the conditions there. But where in the world is it good for the Jew? Sooner or later he is made to suffer. In Palestine, at least, the Jews fight together for their life and their country."
Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., understandably canceled Thomas' commencement address. It would be wonderful, though, if Thomas could go through with it and tell the graduates what she had learned in recent days. I hardly think it would turn her into a supporter of Israel, but it might lead her to understand why so many others are.
Richard Cohen's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.