Good Human Material

Review of In the Shadow of the Holocaust: The Struggle Between Jews and Zionists in the Aftermath of World War II  by Yosef Grodzinsky. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press,  2004. First published in the Journal of Palestine Studies, winter 2006.

 

Perhaps the most preeminent advocate of Holocaust remembrance in the United States, Elie Wiesel has long held that the sacred memory of the murdered Jewish millions ought not to be sullied by base, partisan political concerns. He held to this putatively apolitical view even when he was the leader of the process that led to the establishment of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

In this English version of an earlier work published in Hebrew, Yosef Grodzinsky shows how early on, Zionist politics collided with the needs of Holocaust survivors, those Jews who were gathered in Displaced Persons (DP) camps after World War II in Germany, Austria, and Italy.  For the author, a professor at Tel Aviv University, this is not simply a detached work of scholarship; rather, it is a personal response to and revision of the way he was raised as a youth in Israel:  “We were told that virtually all the survivor DPs immigrated to Palestine/Israel, after a courageous struggle against the British. Those who joined the army, we were told, registered for the draft upon their arrival in Palestine; we were also told that refugees and survivors arrived in Palestine eagerly, ready to join the forming Israeli society and assist in the war effort. But the real story was kept from us” (p. 231).

In the early chapters, Grodzinsky gives meticulous attention to the process of how the survivors of the Nazi extermination machinery came to be concentrated in Displaced Persons camps under Allied administration and organize themselves.  Throughout, one sees clearly the author’s compassion for what the survivors had experienced, both during the war, and the chaos and poverty they faced afterwards.

What David Ben-Gurion and other Zionists needed for the project of statehood was, in their expression, “good human material” (Hebrew, chomer ‘enoshi tov), meaning persons able to fight for the Zionists against the British and the Arabs.  By the end of the war, the Zionists turned to this physically weak, yet numerically strong concentration of the “Surviving Remnant” of the Holocaust (Hebrew, She’erith ha-pleyta).

Both Zionist and non-Zionist Jewish groups came to the camps to assist the survivors. Given their mission of establishing a Jewish state, the Zionist organizers worked assiduously to try to bring the survivors over to their side. Drawing on new archival records, the author points out that not all Jews in the DP camps were convinced of the personal need to go to Palestine.   In fact, he refers to Bundist Jews who had other conceptions and convictions of Jewish identity than those of the Zionists.

Grodzinsky highlights two crises that reveal the priority of Zionist ideology over the needs of the survivors.  One involved the opportunity to get Jewish children out of the camps and into Britain and France where they would be cared for.  Due to Zionist pressure, particularly Ben-Gurion, the children remained in the camps.  The author then concludes that the “value of human suffering for political bargaining was very clear to Ben-Gurion, who was quite willing to use it years before Arab leaders used the 1948 refugee problem in a similar vein” [97-98].

The second crisis occurred after the U.N. Partition Plan of November 29, 1947. The Haganah began to mobilize and needed all the person power it could get.  The Zionist envoys and the leaders in the DP camps started a voluntary conscription drive.  But when the numbers signing up proved to be disappointing, a compulsory draft was initiated.  Intimidation, threats, and physical violence were used to impress upon survivors their duty to the Jewish people.  One Bundist paper Unser Shtime (Our Voice) commented how unbelievable it was “that Jews, the standard victims of Fascism and terrorism, would be capable of the kinds of violence Zionists in the camps exercise toward their Bundist and other non-Zionist political rivals” (p. 207). The compulsory draft thus brought to Palestine/Israel men and youth who didn’t necessarily desire to come to Palestine, but ultimately had no choice.  They became fighters in the first battles of the State of Israel.

In the Shadow of the Holocaust is part of the on-going project by Israelis and others to subject the Zionist movement and Israeli policies to demystification.  Grodzinsky’s book shows how the Zionists subscribed to “might makes right” in the transcendent cause for Jewish statehood in Palestine.   With Holocaust survivors, children and adults, treated in such a fashion, one might not be too surprised at the treatment to be meted out to the indigenous Palestinians.

Grodzinsky

2 Comments

  1. Noam Chomsky: “About twenty years ago I was having dinner with a friend who was working at the YIVO Institute for Jewish research, in New York, the leading center for the study of East European Jewry and Yiddish. I asked her a question that had always bothered me: Why did the Jews from the concentration camps end up in Palestine, later Israel? Half of Europe would have come to the United States if they could. Surely the Jews in the DP [displaced persons] camps would have wanted to come here. My friend said that she had been translating letters frompeople in the camps and most of them in fact wanted to come to the United States.The camps were being run by Zionists, who, by withholding food and other means, were forcing them to go to Israel/Palestine, to be cannon fodder, which they didn’t want to do. I asked her why she didn’t write something about it, and she said YIVO had transferred all the archives to Israel. I later mentioned this to Grodzinski, an Israeli friend and colleague. He knows Yiddish, and he checked and found the archives were open. All these famous Holocaust historians had never bothered to look at them, so he was the first person to use them.

    And what he found was just as my friend had described. The Zionists had sent in agents right away to run the camps. His book in Hebrew is called “Good Human material”–there’s a different title in English–because the Zionists wanted “good, human material” to be forced to go to Palestine, and that meant able-bodied men and women between seventeen and thirty-five–they didn’t really care about the rest of them–to be cannon fodder in the war that was coming….Grodzinski wrote the book in Hebrew an it got pretty good reviews in Israel from fairly mainstream people. The Holocaust historians, however–Yehuda Bauer and the rest–went crazy, because it exposed things they had kept hidden. But Grodzinski’s findings were solid, and in Israel, when people made a criticism, he was able to answer it. He finally got it translated here and it’s a very interesting book.”

    –in Noam Chomsky and Gilbert Achcar, Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy: Dialogues on Terror, Demcoracy, War, and Justice, p. 186.

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