News of the German invasion of the Soviet Union reached Menachem Begin while he was travelling on a prison train towards Siberia. He had been arrested by the Russians with all the other Polish non-Communist political acivists who had fled into the territories allotted to Stalin by the German-Soviet Pact in 1939. The Polish government-in-exile and the Soviets were bitter enemies until the German invasion of the Soviet Union, but even then there were still irreconcilable conflicts between them, most notably over the eastern territories. Nevertheless Stalin announced a general amnesty for all Polish prisoners, and the Polish Prime Minister, Wladyslaw Sikorski, ordered all males to join a Polish army-in-exile.
'Those of Moses' Faith Step Forward'
In the last months prior to the war the Revisionists, prominent among whom was Begin (then heading Polish Betar), had negotiated with Captain Runge, head of the Security Police in Warsaw, to set up separate Jewish army units under Polish commanding officers. They hoped that, after the Poles and Jews had beaten the German Army, the Jews, without their Polish commanders, would go on to conquer Palestine. The scheme failed because of the hostility of the Bund, who opposed such plans to segregate the Jews. In September-October 1941, in the Volga region of the Soviet Union, while the Nazis were stalking towards Moscow, the proposal was raised again by Miron Sheskin, Commander-in-Chief of the Brith HaChayal (Union of Soldiers), the Revisionists' veterans organisation, and Mark Kahan, editor of the Warsaw Yiddish daily newspaper Der Moment. The Polish exile army was dominated by anti-Semites, who were concerned to keep Jews out of their army, and this proposal of Jewish self-segregation was attractive to them. However, at the highest levels around the army's commander, General Wladyslaw Anders, it was understood that the proposal would not be acceptable to either the Soviets or the British. Nevertheless some of the officers at the army's staging area in Samara Oblast were old associates of the Revisionists and believed they would be doing the Jews a favour by separating them into their own units; and Colonel Jan Galadyk, the former commandant of the pre-war infantry officers' school, volunteered to lead such a battalion. After the war Kahan described the unit as a model for the hoped-for Jewish Legion and he gave a positive picture of it as a successful example of Jewish-Polish relations. But Yisrael Gutman has researched the history of 'Anders, Army' and warns us that Kahan is unreliable. The truth was better served by rabbi Leon Rozen-Szeczakacz, an Agudist but a supporter of the Legion idea, in his Cry in the Wilderness.
On 7 October 1 941 , at Totzkoye, all Jews were summoned to a field and an officer called out 'those of Moses' faith step forward'. Most of those who did so suddenly found themselves dismissed from the army. Those few, including Rozen-Szeczakacz who were not summarily discharged were totally segregated from the rest of the army. Barbarities commenced immediately. The majority of Jews were issued boots that were too small for them which meant that they had to try to protect themselves with rags in the -40° Soviet winter. They were transferred to another location and left out in the fields for days on end, and the army would 'forget' to feed them. When Rozen Szeczakacz, whom the army's top command had made into a chaz lain, arrived at the battalion's new location at Koltubanka, his first task was to start burying the large number of dead. Eventually, after much suffering and death, things improved as word of their plight reached the Polish ambassador and the exiled Bundist leaders, and the battalion turned into a smart military unit. However, the larger plan for a Jewish Legion disappeared.
Anders' Army finally left the Soviet Union for Iran, where they linked up with the British military; the anti-Semites tried to leave behind as many Jews as possible and healthy youths were rejected for service. Approximately 114,000 people were evacuated in March-April and August-September 1942. About 6,000 were Jews, 5 per cent of the soldiers and 7 per cent of the civilians. To put this into perspective, in the summer of 1941, before the anti-Semitic recruiting line was imposed, Jews had comprised about 40 per cent of the army's enlistees. Despite the discrirnination against the Jewish troops, the Revisionists Kahan, Sheskin and Begin managed to get out through their military connections.
Zionist Acceptance of Anti-Semitism in the Polish Army
One of the ironies of the Second World War is that a Polish Army-in-exile, with its large contingent of anti-Semites, was finally glad to arrive in Palestine. It was still there on 28 June 1943, when Eliazer Liebenstein (Livneh), then editing the Haganah's paper Eshnab, ran a secret Order of the Day that General Anders had issued in November 1941. He had told his officers that he 'fully understood' their hostility toward the Jews; however, they had to realise that the Allies were under Jewish pressure but, he reassured them, when they got back home 'we shall deal with the Jewish problem in accordance with the size and independence of our homeland'.This was understood to mean that he was hinting at the post-war expulsion of any Jews who might have escaped Hitler's claws. The presence of the Polish Army in Palestine made it impossible for the WZO to ignore the scandal and finally, on 19 September, the 'Representation of Polish Jewry' confronted Anders with the Order at the home of the Polish Consul in Tel Aviv. The General declared that the whole thing was a forgery. He then spoke of the desertions of Jews from his army while in Palestine. He told them that he did not care that 3,000 of the 4,000 Jews in his ranks had walked away, he was not going to search for them, and the Zionists took the hint. Shortly after the encounter the Consul sent the Polish Foreign Ministry in London a memorandum about another meeting between his deputy and Yitzhak Gruenbaum, then on the Jewish Agency Executive. The Deputy Consul had repeated the lie about the Order and asked the Zionist to help hush up the whole affair. After discussing the situation with the other members of his Executive, Gruenbaum agreed to concur with the Polish deception. Later, on 13 January 1944 in London, Dr Ignacy Schwarzbart, the Zionist representative on the Polish National Council, and Aryeh Tartakower of the World Jewish Congress, met Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, a Peasant Party politician who had succeeded Sikorski as Prime Minister and, again, the Zionists agreed to lie about the Order. Schwarzbart told the Pole that:
there are witnesses, among them ministers, who fought against the order when it was issued. We know that one of the cables referred to the order as a forgery. I have no objection against making such a claim for external consumption, but on the inside, no one should expect me to believe that it was a forgery.
Even in Britain Jewish soldiers were told by their commanders that they would be shot in the back when they went into battle, and Polish officers repeatedly made statements about deporting Jews after the war. Some bluntly announced that those Jews who might survive Hitler would be massacred; in January 1944, some of the Jews finally had enough. Sixty-eight deserted and threatened to go on hunger strikes, and even commit suicide, rather than stay with the Polish forces' although they had no objection to fighting in the British Army. In February, 134 more Jews deserted and in March more soldiers walked out. The Poles' first reaction was just to let them go, but finally they announced that 31 men would be court-martialled and that no further transfers would be allowed. Some Labour Party members took up their cause and Tom Driberg put down a question on the subject in the House of Commons. No sooner had he done so than Schwarzbart phoned, begging him to withdraw the question so as not to attract further attention to the matter. Driberg ignored this suggestion; both he and Michael Foot denounced the forthcoming trials at a mass meeting on 14 May, and there were demonstrations in Downing Street. The government-in-exile was compelled to back down and drop the charges. Years later Driberg touched upon the incidents in his book, Ruling Passions. He was still amazed at the behaviour of the Anglo-Jewish misleadership:
The odd thing was that we had pursued this matter in the House against the advice --the almost lachrymose pleading-- of the official spokesmen of the Jewish community in Britain. They felt that any publicity about this might lead to more anti-Semitism, perhaps directed against their own flock.
Driberg's interpretation of the Anglo-Jewish leaders' motivation is undoubtedly correct. They eventually spoke out, but only after the Labour members had roused the public and they could be absolutely sure that it was safe to do so.
Schwarzbart had earlier participated in another rather shameful episode in Polish Jewish affairs. In 1942 Mme Zofia Zaleska, an Endek, had proposed to the exile Sejm that a Jewish homeland be established outside Poland and that the Jews be asked to emigrate. Rather than oppose this, Schwarzbart tried to amend Zaleska's resolution to name Palestine specifically as the homeland. His suggestion was defeated and Zaleska's original motion was accepted by the Sejm. Only Shmuel Zygelboym of the Bund and a representative of the PPS voted against it. Schwarzbart abstained.
The Polish exiles were dependent on Britain and, after the arrival of the Polish Army in Palestine, the Zionists could have put extra pressure on the British. Anders was right when he told his officers that the Jews always had the ability to pressurise the British on the question of anti-semitism in the Polish armed forces, and the success of the Driberg-Foot intervention in 1944 shows what could be done. Instead the WZO, in both Palestine and London, colluded with the Poles to conceal the Anders' Order of the Day and intervened to persuade the Labour members to call off their protest. Similarly the Revisionists connived with the Polish Army while still in the Soviet Union, in the interests of a Jewish Legion to help conquer Palestine; in 1943 their good friend, Colonel Caladyk, helped train the Irgun in Palestine. Those who had sought the patronage of the anti-Semites in pre-war Poland never fought Polish anti-Semitism, even in Britain and Palestine where the advantages were all on their side.