Opening Palestine’s Doors

The reflections of three Jerusalemites, who were Zionist student activists in the 1940s in America, shed light on what was arguably the most pivotal decade in modern Jewish history.

by Rafael Medoff

When Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin and I, together with guest speaker Moshe Arens, launched our new book in Jerusalem recently, it was our bad luck that a surprise sandstorm struck that evening, leaving us with a smaller than expected audience. But there was plenty of good luck that evening, too. For among the hardy book lovers who braved the erratic weather were three eyewitnesses to the very events recounted in our book, “The Student Struggle Against the Holocaust” (Schechter Institute and Wyman Institute, 2010 ).

Documents may be central to the study of international responses to the Shoah, but so is the testimony of the men and women who were actually there, helping to shape that critical period in Jewish history. Haviva Wiener, Miriam Bobrow and Rabbi Mordechai Chertoff are three such eyewitnesses.

As a teenager in interwar Latvia, Haviva Sudarsky (today Wiener ) joined Betar, the youth wing of Zeev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionist movement. “We hiked, we studied, we held marching drills,” she told me in a recent interview. “Most of all, we dreamed of going to Palestine.” But the British White Paper of May 1939 choked off all but a trickle of Jewish immigration, so the United States, not Palestine, became her destination. When war erupted that September, Haviva’s parents sent her to New York together with her cousin, Moshe (Misha ) Arens – who would later serve in important academic and government posts in the State of Israel – and his family.

“During the journey across the Atlantic,” Wiener says, “Misha and I spoke at length about Palestine and Zionism. We decided we would join the local Betar as soon as we arrived.”

When the rest of the Sudarsky family reached New York City the following January, they were not surprised to find that Haviva, with her passionate Zionist beliefs, was deeply involved with Betar’s Bronx chapter. But they were taken by surprise when her activism landed her behind bars.

It was the height of England’s war against the Aliyah Bet illegal immigration movement. The British navy was working overtime to intercept the barely seaworthy boats trying to bring Jewish refugees to Palestine. Some ships were forced to return to Nazi Europe. In other cases, the immigrants were arrested and interned, and crew members were prosecuted.
Despite the desperation of Jewish refugees trying to escape Hitler, many mainstream American Jewish leaders sided with the British against Aliyah Bet. Rabbi Stephen Wise (leader of the American Jewish Congress and World Jewish Congress ) argued that since England was at war with Germany, Jews needed to “march shoulder to shoulder” with the British on all issues, “even if the Zionist cause suffered.” Wise’s Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs claimed that the immigrant ships “resemble concentration camps.”

The young activists of Betar felt otherwise. On a freezing afternoon in February 1940, Haviva and several dozen of her comrades picketed the British Consulate in Manhattan. Brandishing signs with slogans such as “Open the Doors of Palestine” and “Don’t Send Jews Back to the Nazis,” they marched in front of the building until a squad of policemen arrived and arrested them all for demonstrating without a permit. The Betar members were taken to a local police station and then quickly released – except for Haviva and a second girl, named Leah, who were not quite 16 and therefore subject to different procedures.

“It was my first demonstration,” Wiener recalls. “The last thing I expected was that I would spend two and a half days in jail!”

During those days, Haviva and Leah were required to attend a juvenile prison school, alongside girls who were, in some cases, openly anti-Semitic. Nor was there any kosher food available.

“But some of the girls were sympathetic and gave us their vegetables, so we managed,” she says. On the third day, her father was allowed to post bail for her.

“The director of the prison’s juvenile section called me and my father to his office, to reprimand me and to urge me to ‘follow the example of [Supreme Court Justice Louis] Brandeis and obey the law,'” she remembers. “He made my father promise to ‘keep a better eye on your daughter.’ Of course my father promised, but when we left, he gave me a big hug and told me he was proud of me for what I did.”

It was ironic that the prison official cited Justice Brandeis because, unbeknownst to the public, he was, in fact, a private supporter of Aliyah Bet. In one recently discovered document from 1939, Brandeis rebuffed an American Jewish leader who referred to that immigration effort as “illegal.” The justice told him “that any attempt to curtail immigration was in violation of the terms of the Mandate [and, therefore, while] it may be considered illegal by Great Britain, we Jews considered it to be legal.”

Haviva Wiener, who has lived in Israel since 1948, has no regrets about her activism on behalf of immigration. “It’s sad that more American Jews were not outspoken to support Aliyah Bet,” Wiener says. “I’m proud that I contributed in a small way.

Shattering the silence

Haviva’s sister, Miriam Bobrow, also contributed in her own way. Needing a little more time to wrap up their affairs in Latvia, she and her parents stayed behind for several months after Haviva left for the United States. Finally, on January 1, 1940, they boarded a ferry for what they thought would be an uneventful overnight trip from Riga to Stockholm, the first leg of their journey to America. But their boat was intercepted by the Germans in the North Sea, and forced to dock in a German port.

Over the course of five anxiety-ridden days, the Germans took away all the German-born Jewish passengers – except the Sudarskys because, having previously spent several years in the United States, they held American passports. They were allowed to continue on to Sweden, where, on January 6, 1940, they boarded the S.S. Drottningholm – the last ship to make the trip from Stockholm to New York City.

Once they had settled in their new home, Miriam joined her sister Haviva and cousin Moshe in the Bronx chapter of Betar. “We had educational meetings, sang songs about Eretz Israel, learned Hebrew, handed out leaflets on subways, that sort of thing,” Bobrow recalls. She was at the Betar camp in upstate New York in July 1940, where the founder of that Zionist youth movement, Zeev Jabotinsky, suffered his fatal heart attack; she was one of the youngsters who stood guard outside Jabotinsky’s tent until he was taken for burial the next morning.

In early 1943, when Bobrow was a senior at Manhattan’s George Washington High School, Betar leader Ahron Propes issued a call for volunteers to participate in a dramatic pageant that was scheduled to take place at Madison Square Garden, called “We Will Never Die.”

The pageant, written by famed Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht, was the first serious attempt to shatter the news media’s virtual wall of silence surrounding the Holocaust. The sponsors, a Jewish activist group headed by Irgun (pre-state underground militia) emissary and future MK Hillel Kook (who also used the name Peter Bergson ), rejected the cautious approach of the mainstream Jewish organizations and decided the time had come to raise a public outcry about the mass murder of Europe’s Jews.

The Bergson group, as it was becoming known, assembled a theatrical dream team for the production: award-winning director Billy Rose, world-famous composer Kurt Weill, and legendary actors Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni and Stella Adler. Against a backdrop of over-10-meter-high replicas of the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the characters chronicled Jewish contributions to civilization throughout history, the suffering of the Jews in Nazi Europe and the need for rescue action. There were several crowd scenes, which is where Bobrow and a number of Betar friends came in.

“I didn’t have any lines or anything,” Bobrow says. “We wore blue and white, and waved Zionist flags.” They may have been only teenagers, but there she and her friends stood, on Manhattan’s biggest stage, alongside some of Hollywood’s most famous actors and actresses, participating in an event that was nothing less than historic.

More than 40,000 people viewed “We Will Never Die” at its Madison Square Garden premier performances. Many more saw it subsequently in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, or Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall, where the audience included more than 200 members of Congress, six Supreme Court justices, numerous foreign diplomats – and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was so moved by the performance that she devoted part of her syndicated newspaper column to the pageant and the plight of Europe’s Jews. For the more than 100,000 people who saw the shows, and the many more who read Mrs. Roosevelt’s popular column, it was the first time they heard about the Nazi mass murders. Making the public aware was the first crucial step toward bringing about U.S. government intervention.

“American Jews, the American government, and the rest of the world should have done much more than they did,” Bobrow says today. “It’s shameful that they neglected their duty, and that there was opposition to the Bergson group.”

‘An amazing sight’

Mordechai Chertoff was in the audience at Madison Square Garden for “We Will Never Die.” He was, he says, “completely blown away” by the performance: “The atmosphere, the stirring music, the whole idea of Jewish issues being portrayed on the stage at Madison Square Garden – it was an amazing sight.”

Chertoff was a Zionist activist on the campus of the City College of New York in the spring of 1943. “I was very aware of the contrast between the silence of many Jewish leaders and the activism of the Bergson group,” he recalls. “The response of the American Jewish leadership to the news from Europe was clearly inadequate. Rabbi Stephen Wise jealously guarded his access to President Roosevelt, but then he seldom used his access, because he didn’t want to upset FDR. It took a long time, but most Jews today recognize that Roosevelt was not our friend when we needed him.”

That summer, Chertoff unexpectedly found himself with another front-row seat to the world of Jewish controversy, when he was hired to work on the public relations staff for the American Jewish Conference, a five-day gathering of U.S. Jewish organizations. In the weeks leading up to the conference, activists lobbied to put the rescue issue on the agenda, while established leaders argued that the focus should be on the future of Palestine and other issues that would be addressed after the war. Rescue was finally added to the agenda, but the conference then became consumed by a debate over whether or not to support Jewish statehood. Ultimately, the overwhelming majority supported statehood, and the anti-Zionist delegates stormed out in protest. This event marked the rise to power of the activist wing of the movement, led by Abba Hillel Silver, and the beginning of the end for more cautious leaders such as Rabbi Wise.

Chertoff went to Palestine in 1946, served in the Haganah and the Israel Defense Forces and received his rabbinical ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in absentia. He later returned to the United States where he worked for the World Zionist Organization and served as editor of its Herzl Press for two decades, before moving back to Jerusalem, where he lives today.

Unique reflections

Although they live today in united Jerusalem, watching their children and grandchildren build their lives in a sovereign Jewish state, Haviva Wiener, Miriam Bobrow and Mordechai Chertoff will never forget what it was like to live in a time when such things were distant dreams, and the Jewish world was in flames. Escape from the Nazis, the White Paper, Jewish statelessness, the struggle to rescue Jewish refugees, the battles over Zionism – we may catch a glimpse of those events in old newsreel footage or yellowing newspaper clippings, but they were very much a part of the lives of these three unique people, who by chance I had the privilege to meet on that stormy evening in Jerusalem. Their unique reflections help bring into perspective what was arguably the most pivotal decade in modern Jewish history.

(Ha’aretz, February 4, 2011)

February 2011