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British faced post-war Jewish refugee dilemma

Newly released documents released show how the British government tried to send thousands of Palestine-bound Jewish survivors of the Nazi genocide back to postwar Germany without inflaming world opinion.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Newly released documents released show how the British government tried to send thousands of Palestine-bound Jewish survivors of the Nazi genocide back to postwar Germany without inflaming world opinion.

Could it be done? The answer was no. It was just two years after the end of the war and the world was outraged by the systematic murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazis in what became known as the Holocaust.

Despite the best efforts of early spin doctors to portray the move in the most sympathetic light, the decision to turn away the more than 4,500 Jews on board the Exodus refugee ship turned into a humanitarian and public relations debacle for Britain.

The story is detailed in more than 400 pages of formerly secret documents at Britain's National Archives made available to the public on Monday.

New documents made available
The Jews aboard the Exodus were trying to enter Palestine illegally during the tumultuous months in 1947 before the United Nations voted to create a Jewish homeland in part of Palestine.

Britain was still governing Palestine and the British government felt it had to keep the immigrants out to preserve the demographic balance between Arab and Jew. But Britain did not have a safe place to send the Jews from the Exodus, who were placed on three smaller British steamers.

After much agonizing, the British concluded that the only place they could send the Jews was to the British-controlled zone of postwar Germany, where the Jews could be placed in camps and screened for extremists.

After Germany, many of the passengers were eventually detained in military camps in Cyprus along with other Jews deported from Palestine. When the state of Israel was founded in 1948, the Exodus' passengers were able to move there.

The Exodus' ordeal focused world attention on the British blockade of Palestine and the plight of Jews fleeing Europe after World War II.

The documents show that diplomats and military officers knew that sending Jews back to Germany and putting them in camps so soon after the Holocaust would set off protests.

"These documents show the British perspective for the first time," said Mark Dunton, contemporary history specialist at the National Archives. "It's obvious in the files the British were sensitive to the claim they were putting Jews into concentration camps."

Officials anticipated backlash
A British diplomat in France sent a coded warning to the Foreign Office in London in August 1947.

"You will realize that an announcement of decision to send immigrants back to Germany will produce violent hostile outburst in the press," he says.

He suggests an early measure of spin control — telling the press that the Jews will enjoy some freedoms even though they will be confined.

An unsigned cable from the Foreign Office on Aug. 19, 1947, explains that the decision to land the Jews in Germany has been made because it is the only suitable territory under British control that can handle so many people at short notice.

Three days later, a follow-up Foreign Office cable warns diplomats that they should be ready to "emphatically" deny that the Jews will be housed in former concentration camps after they are offloaded in Germany.

The Aug. 22 cable states that German guards will not be used to keep the Jews in the "refugee camps" and adds that British guards will be withdrawn once the Jews have been screened.

But security concerns were heightened on Aug. 30 when a secret telegram from the British Embassy in Washington warned of a possible terrorist attack by the Irgun and Stern gangs, two Zionist extremist groups determined to prevent the forced offloading of the Jews in Germany.

The Exodus passengers were successfully taken off the vessels in Germany, although a number were injured in confrontations with British troops that involved the use of batons and fire hoses.

An officer identified as Lt. Col. Gregson, in a formerly secret report, said he considered using tear gas to subdue the Jews but decided not to risk inflaming the situation.

"The Jew is liable to panic," he wrote.

Homemade bomb found aboard ship
Security fears seemed justified after the Jews were removed when a large, homemade bomb with a timed fuse was found on one of the three ships. It was apparently rigged to detonate after the Jews had been removed, the cables indicate.

The postscript on the operation comes from the British regional commander who says that the disembarkation could be regarded as successful because it was carried out with only minimal casualties. But he says Britain's reputation was damaged by the highly critical press coverage of OASIS, as the operation was known in diplomatic and military circles.

"It is impossible to deny that among the Hamburg population OASIS was one additional cause for reduction in British prestige," he ruefully concludes.