Having fled Hitler’s Berlin, Oscar Westreich gained a new identity in Palestine. He eventually joined the British army, whose training of Jewish soldiers proved crucial to the formation of Israel, as his daughter, Mira Bar-Hillel, explains.
On February 27th, 1933, as my father was about to graduate from high school in Berlin and four weeks after Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany, the Reichstag building was set alight. Historians still argue about whether the arson was an attack by the Communists or a deliberate provocation by the Nazis. But for 18-year-old Oscar Westreich the message was loud and clear: it was time to get out.
That both his parents had died before he reached his teens probably saved my father’s life; there was no one to stop him going. He was idealistic enough not to worry about leaving Berlin with little more than the shirt on his back. And he knew where he was going: Palestine.
Shortly after arriving in the Holy Land my father did two things: he changed his name to Yehoshua Bar-Hillel (in memory of his father, Israel Hillel) and he joined the Hagganah, the Jewish defence organisation.
The British had been policing the region since General Allenby’s forces defeated the Turks during the First World War; the British Mandate of Palestine and Transjordan was formalised by the League of Nations in 1922. Britain’s role was made increasingly difficult and eventually impossible by two things. The first was the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which committed the British government to ‘view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’ – as long as this did not ‘prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’. The second was the outbreak, conduct and consequences of the Second World War.
When his declaration was made in a letter to Walter, 2nd Baron Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour described the position of the British Cabinet as one of ‘sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations’. At that time the Jewish population of Palestine was under 80,000, outnumbered by almost ten to one by the Arab population. Moreover for all the Zionist fervour in the diaspora, Jewish immigration was no more than a trickle: by 1931 the numbers of Jews in Palestine had risen to no more than around 175,000. The rise of Fascism in Europe made a difference: by 1939 the number had reached 445,000. They were still outnumbered two to one, but the requirement of the second half of the Balfour Declaration was becoming harder and harder to overlook.
Thus in May 1939 the British government under Neville Chamberlain issued a White Paper which abandoned the idea of establishing a Jewish Commonwealth and restricted Jewish immigration to 75,000 over the following five years. But six months later Hitler invaded Poland and Britain declared war on Germany. Chamberlain became history in more ways than one and for his successors the Palestine issue became an insoluble dilemma. With the best intentions in the world there could be no correct answers to the situation. The White Paper was never withdrawn but it became another casualty of the war. In Palestine the Jewish leader David Ben-Gurion famously declared:
We will fight the White Paper as if there is no war, and fight the war as if there is no White Paper.
Great rhetoric, but not a tenable position to hold or to uphold. Decisions and choices had to be made by both the Jews and the British Government.
The president of the World Zionist Organisation, Chaim Weizmann, who had brokered the Balfour Declaration 22 years earlier, offered the British government the co-operation of the Jewish community in Palestine and tried to establish an identifiably Jewish fighting unit under the auspices of the British army. While around 26,000 Jews joined the British army from Palestine, his request for a separate unit was rejected.
It was obvious to the British that, once the war with Germany was won, the Jews of Palestine would turn on them and try to drive them out of the country in order to establish a Jewish state. Even during the war with Hitler two Jewish factions, the Irgun and Lehi (aka the Stern Gang), continued to attack the British in Palestine. In such circumstances, and given that Britain was not yet ready to walk away, the acts of arming and training Jewish units and allowing them to fight – even a common enemy – under their own flag were seen as simply storing up trouble for the future.
As Rommel’s Afrika Corps made headway and the threat of Palestine being overrun by the Nazis became real and present, many more Jews in Palestine wanted to enlist. Their option was the East Kent Regiment (‘The Buffs’), which my father joined in January 1943. Within the Buffs, the Palestine Infantry Regiment was formed in September 1942. It contained three Jewish battalions totalling 1,600 men. My father was in the first.
The British intended to recruit – and tried to insist on recruiting – an equal number of Jews and Arabs, but this proved unsuccessful: the Jews had every motivation to join and fight the Nazis, while the Arabs had none. Indeed, the Mufti of Jerusalem formed an alliance with Hitler, the better – he hoped – to get rid of both the British and the Jews.
The conflict between British and Jewish interests was, however, far from over. On April 29th, 1943 British secret service agents raided the recruitment centre looking for any signs of subversion. In response the Jewish Agency closed the recruitment centres which massively curtailed the number of men who enlisted.
For the men who had already joined the Palestine Regiment, however, there also followed years of frustration. The British government and military trained them and armed them but, for the reasons mentioned above, would not allow them to fight the Germans. They were not even allowed the outward symbols they wanted such as a unique badge and shoulder patches, not to mention the stifling of all efforts to hoist the Star of David flag. The official British position demanded even-handedness between Jews and Arabs in Palestine and so it was to remain until the war was nearly over.
What the members of the regiment did is probably one of the reasons why so little has been written about this particular bit of Second World War history. Restricted to backroom functions like guard duties and vehicle maintenance, at the same time as news of the horrors befalling their relations in Europe began to pour in, members of the Palestine Regiment, now stationed mainly in Egypt and Libya, started taking their fate into their own hands. With the outcome of the war and its consequences still unknown, the aim was to establish in Palestine a fortress, possibly of last resort, where surviving Jews could at least put up a fight to the death rather than just be taken away to face extermination, the fate of millions in Europe.
The means to this end was a sustained campaign of theft by what were British soldiers from the British army. Everything that could be taken – weapons, ammunition and other military supplies – was taken, including the lorries used to transport it all to Palestine, where it was stored for future use in underground bunkers (known as ‘slicks’) beneath various kibbutzim.
It was all illegal and, given that there was a war on, arguably treasonable. But the circumstances were so extreme that, even on the occasions when they were caught, the perpetrators were treated with lenience by their commanders in the field, many of whom – non-Jews included – felt they could well understand what was driving their frustrated comrades and were inclined to let them off with no more than perfunctory reprimands.
I cannot say what my father’s role in this was, but it could explain why, in spite of serving George VI for three years, he hardly ever spoke about it. As a professional philosopher and a man of courage and integrity deciding whether the end justified the means would have, for him, been almost impossible and I expect he simply preferred to stay silent. As the horrors of Nazi Europe and the fate of its Jews became apparent, policies emanating from London were increasingly ignored by the Jewish combatants.
By the summer of 1944, however, when news of the Holocaust began to dominate reporting of the war by the allied forces, Winston Churchill made his move. He had previously adopted the position that, while he favoured the formation of a Jewish fighting unit, he had to bow to the objections of his colleagues in the colonial departments. Now his priorities were changing and the need to impress US public opinion came to the fore.
Churchill sent a personal telegram to the US president Franklin D. Roosevelt suggesting that ‘the Jews ... of all races have the right to strike at the Germans as a recognisable body’. The president replied five days later saying: ‘I perceive no objection.’ The brakes were off – although the condition remained that the senior officers be hand-picked and be both Jewish and non-Jewish.
On September 20th, 1944 an official communique by the War Office announced the formation of the Jewish Brigade Group of the British army. The Zionist flag was officially approved as its standard. It comprised more than 5,000 Jewish volunteers from Palestine, including the three infantry battalions of the Palestine Regiment and several supporting units, among them the 200th Field Regiment (Royal Artillery) under the command of Edmund de Rothschild. Its overall commander was Brigadier Ernest F. Benjamin, a Canadian Jew.
The frustrations did not, however, end there. Once formed, the Jewish Brigade was moved from North Africa to Italy, closer to the theatre of war. It was stationed in Tarvisio, near the border with Yugoslavia and Austria, where it continued to train. But, in spite of everything, the Jewish fighters were only able to engage with the Germans once. The Battle of the River Senio took place in April 1945, when the war was effectively over – the first and last time men bearing the Star of David fought men wearing swastikas.
Yet, and perhaps because it took so long for the brigade to come into being, it was not disbanded as soon as the armistice was declared. My father was demobbed and returned to Jerusalem in February 1946, but the units finally ceased to exist only in September – 65 years ago. In its final 18 months they reverted to the pattern of activities which prevailed before it was formed, but with an added twist. The cargo that brigaders were now picking up and delivering to Palestine included refugees from all over Hitler’s Europe. This was, again, to the utter dismay of the British authorities in Palestine, in total contravention of the White Paper, but it met with the silent understanding of the field commanders who knew full well that the Holocaust survivors had nowhere else to go.
Another twist was the formation of the Tilhas Tizig Gesheften (‘kiss my arse business’). Brigaders who had discovered the fate of their own family members in Hitler’s death camps took it upon themselves to seek out known SS and Nazi Party members and execute them. This activity was recently depicted – appallingly – in Inglourious Basterds, a travesty of a film by Quentin Tarantino, which does, however, contain a grain of the historic truth that remained untold for over 50 years.
With hindsight it seems to me that the true legacy of the Jewish Brigade did not unfold until 18 months after it was disbanded, in May 1948, when the State of Israel was declared and the fledgling’s Arab neighbours declared war on it. It was then that the brigaders’ training and discipline – courtesy of the British army – proved all-important, as did the caches of nicked weapons they had stashed away and the refugees they had spirited to Palestine, many of whom took part in the fighting before they could even speak the local language.
My father, who was discharged from the British army as a sergeant, joined the newly-formed Israel Defence Forces two years later as a lieutenant. He commanded the conquest of the Jerusalem suburb of Katamon, where he lost an eye and gained an armful of shrapnel. He was typical: a scholar and a man of peace who would never have taken up arms had he not been compelled to and who would not have known what to do with them had the British Army not trained him to do it.
Gideon Fiegel, a contemporary of my father, joined the British army in 1944 aged 18, fought with the brigade and then served as an officer with the Israeli Defence Forces in 1948 and beyond. His view is clear: ‘Had it not been for the 1,200 men of the brigade, which formed an elite command unit, and the 26,000 other Palestinian Jews who were trained by the British and fought alongside them in the Second World War, the outcome of the war of 1948 would have been very different. Jerusalem would have fallen to the British-trained Jordanian Legion and we would have been unable to withstand the attacks from other Arab armies. The State of Israel would have emerged within unviable borders – or even not at all.’
POSTSCRIPT: My father’s soldier’s service and pay book lists the training courses he took and passed. On May 5th, 1943 it says, he ‘passed the gas chamber’. A veteran brigader explained to me that this was training based on First World War experiences of enemy gas attacks. A year later I expect the terminology would have been different.