Eighty years ago in April 1940, British Jews sat down to celebrate the festival of freedom at their Passover Seder with a sense of foreboding and trepidation. A few days before, Nazi Germany had invaded Norway and Denmark.
While the Nazis initially viewed Denmark as a model protectorate, there was fear for the fate of German Jewish emigrés such as the literary scholar, Walter Berensohn and the economist, Julius Hirsch.
Norway, however, was treated according to the Nazi template — a placard was placed in front of a “shop in the town of Moss on the Oslo Fjord, indicating that it was “a Jewish business”. Housewives spontaneously flocked to the shop to buy whatever was on offer.
Within a month, Belgium and Holland were overrun by the Nazi war machine, followed by the fall of France, the evacuation at Dunkirk — and the fear that Britain too would be next despite the 20 miles of clear blue water separating Calais from Dover. By the summer of 1940, over three million Jews in Europe were under Nazi subjugation.
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah in September, the Anglo-Jewish historian, Cecil Roth, compared the events of the passing year, 5700, to that of the massacres of Jews during the first crusade in 1096 and the Chmielnicki pogrom of 1648. European Jews had gone from freedom to slavery and truly eaten the bread of affliction.
The JC editorial 80 years ago told its readers that “the eternal war for liberty that must be fought again and again” and sought to provide comfort and hope from the lessons of Jewish history — “cruelty and injustice are a denial of God’s existence”.
Suddenly British Jews were rudely awakened from the slumber of the phoney war and began to comprehend the danger that they were in. They were shocked when declarations of neutrality did not protect the low countries — and certainly not its Jews. Leaflets were dropped from German aircraft stating that the invading German armies had come to liberate Belgium from their Jewish masters.
In other parts of Europe, discrimination proceeded apace.
In Prague all municipal baths displayed notices that Jews should not enter. In Memel (Klaipeda) — once more under German control — the last Jewish families were expelled. In Hungary, the Budapest municipality dismissed Jewish tram and bus drivers.
As France collapsed, Mussolini entered the war on Germany’s side. The Italian press advised “Italian Aryans” who had Jewish sounding names to change them while Jews “who were spreading lies from listening to the BBC” had their radios confiscated.
In France, La France au Travail, funded by the German embassy in Paris, suggested transporting all French Jews to far away islands such as Madagascar.
Would-be führers, fellow travellers with Nazism, such as Quisling (Norway), Seyss-Inquart (Austria), Henlein (Czecholovakia) catered to Hitler’s every whim. In Belgium, the fascist leader Léon Degrelle was arrested days before the German invasion while in Eupen and Malmedy police discovered a list of prominent Belgian Jews in the offices of Flemish nationalists, presumably for the future use of the Gestapo.
The fall of France forced Britain to round up and imprison its own fifth columnists: Sir Oswald Mosley, who had made the ideological journey from the Fabians to the Fascists, and Captain Archibald Ramsey, Conservative MP for Peebles, well-known for his virulent antisemitism. By mid-June 1940, over 500 local fascists had been arrested.
Lord Haw-Haw (William Joyce), broadcasting from Germany, told his listeners “to throw Churchill into the Thames and clear out the Yids”.
Dejected members of the British Union of Fascists who remained at freedom spoke of a “Jew-run government” and told East End Jewish shopkeepers that “your turn will come when Hitler arrives”.
The converse of this was the deepening fear of foreign spies such that the Home Secretary ordered the roundup of “Germans and Austrians, males between 16 and 60” and their internment on the Isle of Man. Many, of course, were Jews who had been persecuted by the Nazis.
The assault on Belgium and Holland propelled Winston Churchill into Downing Street. His speeches in the House of Commons during those dark days were deeply inspiring for British Jews. They provided not only fortitude and determination, but the sense that British Jews were part of something bigger — the desire to rid the world of the Nazi plague.
When the Evening Standard published David Low’s iconic cartoon of a British soldier waving his fist at German bombers in a black sky, with its caption, ‘Very well. Alone’, it communicated the very opposite to British Jews — that they were actually not alone in their struggle for survival.
The evacuation from Dunkirk was seen by British Jews as a defiant deliverance from the fires of evil and all synagogues recited special prayers of gratitude during their Shabbat services.
The future Chief Rabbi, Israel Brodie, ministered to Jewish troops at Dunkirk. Capt. J. Reynolds, a Jewish New Zealander, studying in London, was awarded the Military Cross for his initiative in moving the wounded to the beach at Dunkirk. The War Office commented: “By his prompt action, he saved many lives and showed a complete disregard for his personal safety”.
JC editorials reproduced long quotes from Churchill’s passionate rhetoric and described him as “the true leader of a nation”. Churchill’s “We shall never surrender” speech resonated with British Jews. It related to the fight for Jewish freedom and to a stubbornness that British Jews would not go the way of their brethren in occupied Europe.
When Churchill made his “finest hour” speech, the JC reflected on the refusal of Jews down the centuries to accept the values of oppressors and persecutors, often at the expense of their own lives.
An editorial commented: “Britain will not wear the slave livery of the Nazi bosses. It will not eat, drink, breathe and sleep under the whip of the Gestapo... every Jew whatever his age and condition must know himself — a soldier of Britain, of civilisation and of Jewry.”
Yet Churchill’s government was not prepared to establish a Jewish Battalion and believed that British Jews should simply enlist in the armed forces.
In Palestine, despite the bombing of Tel Aviv by the Italians, there was a similar reticence on the part of the Mandatory authorities. The Jewish Brigade only came into existence at the end of the war in the autumn of 1944.
Many Jews who had managed to escape the Nazis scrambled to find passage abroad from Lisbon. Some sought to depart for the United States which had not yet entered the war. Yet America did not always welcome “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free”.
Baron Eugène de Rothschild had hoped to sail on the Nea Hellas, but Washington invalidated all visitors’ visas from 6 June 1940. His wife, an American citizen, did manage to leave.
During the election year of 1940, President Roosevelt more than once promised not to let Americans fight in a foreign war to appease a nervous public. Surveys indicated a majority for “no foreign wars” even if Britain went under. One conservative Republican opponent, Senator Robert Taft, strongly promoted isolationism and called upon the American electorate to stop Roosevelt from extending “socialism” in the United States.
The Battle of Britain prevented the establishment of death camps on British soil. The next two years brought defeat after defeat — until the battles of El Alamein and Stalingrad and the entry of the US into the war turned the tide. Only then were church bells allowed to ring out.
When film of Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen reached London cinemas in mid-April 1945, huge queues stretched from Charing Cross Road to Trafalgar Square and beyond. Most people in Britain were unable to imagine the unimaginable.
It was only then that it was brought home to many Jews in this country just how fortunate they were to have survived the journey from Pesach 1940.