In the Shadow of the Holocaust

Spannos: Maybe you could begin by summarizing the reasoning underlying the belief that Zionism and its product — the state of Israel — is the ultimate manifestation of Jewish identity? Where does this reasoning come from?

Grodzinsky: Zionist discussions of Jewish identity frequently question the nature of Jewish existence in Diaspora, and its feasibility. Can a Jewish national identity survive without a designated territory, and independent of Zionism? Does it require a national language (and if so, should it be Hebrew)? Must a Jew be religiously Jewish? The Zionist outlook on these questions has always been crystal clear: Jewish nationalism is Zionism; Hebrew is the national language, a Jew is a member of the Jewish religion. Fritz (Yitzhak) Baer, doyen of Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, helped shape this view, which was then espoused by the Zionist leadership. “The Galut [state of exile],” he wrote in the 1930s, “means that the Jews have left their natural place. But everything that leaves its natural place loses thereby its natural support until it returns. The dispersion of Israel among the nations is unnatural. Since the Jews manifest a national unity, even in a higher sense than the other nations, it is necessary that they return to a state of actual unity.” Baer’s clear world view had immense influence on the thinking of leaders and activists, especially on David Ben-Gurion, prominent leader and Israel’s first prime minister. Interestingly, while these positions date back to the origins of the Zionist movement, looking at current Zionist thought, it has remained the same.

Spannos: Many Diaspora Jews recognize a radically different view acknowledging a diversity of outcomes for Jewish identity. Could you elaborate on this view and it’s origins?

Grodzinsky: Diaspora Jews, especially those in the West who had more freedom of movement than others, tended to acknowledge the multiplicity of future plans for Jews, which to them legitimized multiple Jewish agendas. I mean, their existence was the very proof that such agendas were feasible. Salo Baron of Columbia University, the first professor of Jewish Studies at an American university, presented a view radically different from Baer’s, his contemporary. To Baron, Jewish ideology and politics correlated with migration patterns and residential loci, in a way that did not deprive a Jew of a national identity: “One essential symptom of Jewish history, which appears to be of particular significance nowadays, is that the life of the Jewish people more or less regularly takes place in worlds set apart from one another.” The Baer/Baron debate, then, revolved around issues of unity versus diversity of Jewish fates, choices, and identities. Little, if any, residue of this debate still exists, unfortunately. This is due, in part, to the Holocaust (as will become clear below), but also thanks to a remarkable propaganda success of the Zionists, who have made world Jewry align with their view. Question the singularity of the State of Israel as the ultimate expression of Jewish nationalism, and you risk being accused of anti-Semitism; do so as a Jew, and you should expect to be dubbed a self-hater.

Spannos: How did the Holocaust impact this debate?

Grodzinsky: The Holocaust put an end to the intense debate regarding the relationship between the Jew and the forming Zionist entity. In its shadow, it has often been said, Jews could no longer be safe anywhere but in Eretz Yisrael, their homeland. Jews, on this view, should either live in the Jewish national home in Palestine, or support it vigorously, because it is their fallback option, should all hell break loose. I have been hearing the rhetoric about Israel’s role as a “safe haven” for Jews in danger since my childhood; rarely have I heard the opposite position, one that’s in fact valid today, to my mind: that the State of Israel and its actions actually put world Jewry at risk.

Spannos: Zionist organizers frequently used the callous phrase chomer ‘enoshi tov, or “good human material”. What does this phrase say about how Zionists viewed Jews in the Displaced Persons (DP) Camps? Why was this population so important for the Zionists?

Grodzinsky: We are now moving to my book, whose Hebrew version is titled chomer ‘enoshi tov. I was interested in the relationship between Jews and Zionists at times of crisis, and focused on Jewish survivors in post-war Germany – on Displaced Persons’ (DP) camps that the US Army and the UN set up after the War, to assemble and care for millions of civilian victims of the Nazi regime. Jews were quickly put in separate camps, and became the miserable dwellers of the Jewish DP camps, the main location of my story. I went there (I mean, to archival material about these places) in order to see what the Zionists, by now close to accomplishing their goal and establishing an independent Jewish state, did to help Jews in need. Jerusalem dispatched hundreds of trained envoys to post-war Europe. What did they want and do? Their goal was openly stated, expressed by Ben-Gurion: “to populate Palestine with multitudes of Jews.” This translated into a plan to bring all the survivors to Palestine. Hence, survivors seeking Palestine immigration were dubbed “good material,” whereas the others were viewed as weaklings. Here’s an example: “The camps now house just the remainder of She’erit ha-pleyta [The Surviving Remnant]. The pioneering human material, that with human, Zionist awareness, has already left the camps on its way to Palestine through a variety of routes […] What has now remained is that stuff that is glued to the old soil, like the remains of a meal stuck to the bottom of a burnt pot, which must be scrubbed and removed. No attempt at convincing them can work: “The homeland is on fire!” “Could a son not rush to save his home from the fire?” These words reach their ears, but leave their hearts untouched.” I read these documents, much to my amazement, in the correspondence between envoys in Germany and their Jerusalem leadership, housed in the Central Zionist Archives. Now, when you read such expressions, you can’t help but be reminded of the objectionable phrase “human dust,” used by General Patton in reference to Holocaust survivors. It was such expressions that gained him his notoriety as an anti-Semite, and ultimately led him to lose the command of the US Army in Germany late summer 1945. Zionist envoys, you see, were not anti-Semitic, of course; nor were they hateful. But as the text shows, their attitude towards the survivors did not regard their value as human beings who had just been through horrific suffering, humiliation, exploitation, and loss; rather, those who could help the Zionist endeavor in Palestine were became good material, whereas others, who sought to rebuild their lives elsewhere, were despised.

Spannos: How did Jews in the DP Camps feel about the creation of a Jewish state? What kind of discrepancy was there between how they felt and where they actually migrated over time?

Grodzinsky: The Zionist idea appealed to most Jewish survivors. Taking part in the Zionist plan was a totally different matter. Much to the chagrin of the Zionist organizers, the majority of the Jewish DPs were more interested in immigrating to the United States than to Palestine. America harbored promise, and thus Jewish survivors flocked to the American Zone of Germany in the hundreds of thousands, hoping to obtain a U.S. immigration visa. A demographic survey I conducted indicates that while almost all Jewish DPs said they wished to go to Palestine, only 40% actually moved to the Jewish state, with the rest dispersing to all parts of the West. Of these, about 120,000 went to the United States, once it opened its gates to DP immigration in late 1948.

Spannos: In your book you illustrate how, where there was a conflict between Zionist interests and the interests of Jews in DP camps, Zionist organizers, planners and activists put their interests before the well- being of the Jewish refugees. Let’s look at your first illustration, the 1945 children’s affair. What happened o Jewish children in DP camps during 1945?

Grodzinsky: It is important to see the utilitarian logic behind the Zionist stance: As the ultimate goal was to populate Palestine with multitudes of Jews, they tried to target weak Jewish populations. Strong communities were less interested in Palestine immigration: When things are good, as they were in America (relatively speaking, of course), why move to a war zone? Thus a decision was made to focus on the Jewish DP camps, and envoys were dispatched to Germany, driven by Ben-Gurion’s vision to bring 250,000 survivors from Germany to Palestine. If this is the goal, then a Jew heading west is not an asset. This is why the Zionists objected to initiatives aimed at evacuating Jewish child survivors from Germany right after the war. This is a shocking affair. Several thousand sick, malnourished, and vulnerable orphans, still at great risk, were forced by the Zionists to stay in the camps, even though arrangements were made for them to arrive to safety in England and France. The rest of this tragedy constitutes chapter 4 of my book.

Spannos: Another illustration of Zionist self interest over Jewish suffering post-holocaust is the 1948 compulsory draft of Jews, from DP camps, into the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). How did Zionists institutionalize forced conscription in the DP camps?

Grodzinsky: Indeed, the drive to bring Jewish DPs to Palestine reached its peak in 1948, when the end of the British Mandate over Palestine, and the subsequent declaration of statehood, led to a full-scale war. Serious manpower shortages led the Israelis to look for volunteers for the IDF in the DP camps. Survivors were reluctant: “We have already smelled fire,” said many “let others smell it now.” The failure to recruit volunteers led to a forced conscription, officially enacted on April 11th, 1948. It brought 7,800 new draftees to Palestine, a significant addition to the fighting army. I recognize that the thought of a Zionist forced conscription in the U.S. controlled zone of Germany sounds insane. Yet it actually happened, as massive documentation I discovered in the Jewish DP archives in New York and Tel Aviv indicates: The American military government quite generously let the DPs run their camps as almost fully autonomous localities; Zionist survivors, together with envoys from Palestine, organized and took control of these camps early on, as I detail in the book. When the time came, they could exercise this control, sending holocaust survivors to fight in a land they had never seen, whose language they did not speak, and most importantly, for a cause they did not necessarily support.

Spannos: I understand that the Zionists at times even resorted to using violent methods against Jews in DP camps for the purposes of conscription. What did this look like?

Grodzinsky: Yes, violent methods were used when necessary. I was shocked to find eviction orders issues to draft deserters, fines, other punishments, and in some instances, even physical beating. Most important, to my mind, is not the violence itself but the coercion, And the irony: The very movement that was created to bring deliverance to the Jews now took possession of Jewish national identity, and in its name expropriated the rights of the people, so that its own needs could be served. Thus, while the establishment of the state was predicated on a conflict with the Arabs over territory, it also led to a conflict with Jews over people. Much has been written on the former, less on the latter. My book is an attempt to fill this gap by focusing a critical lens on the actions of the pre-state Zionist movement. As I was writing it, I tried to give a voice to simple, ordinary Jews, whose suffering as they were ground by the mills of big ideas is rarely discussed. I sought to emphasize the fate of regular individuals, whose life stories form a rich web of alternative Jewish paths.

Spannos: You write that “If we would like to see the gravity of the problem, and also try to connect it to our present day existence, it is important to understand what in the eyes of the Zionists legitimized the conscription of Jews in Europe to the Israeli army.” How did they legitimize it and how was it made possible that it — historically — was able to make sense to them?

Grodzinsky: We can perhaps end this interview where we started: The feeling among Zionists that they have the fate of all Jews in their possession. As rabbi Michael Lerner, in his preface to my book, puts it “Zionist arrogance did not start with the Palestinians”. Primo Levi, in his book The Truce, tells about a post-war incident where Zionists hooked up an extra car to a train he was riding on his long way home from Auschwitz. They were focused, self-assured, confident, he writes. They did not ask anyone whether they could connect their car to the train – they just did it. Many good things happen in this way. But not always. Regarding Holocaust survivors, the Zionists were focused, clear headed, with a coherent plan. That’s no small matter. Yet this self-assurance – ever so familiar to many a reader I’m sure – has also led to much suffering and destruction.

Yosef Grodzinsky is professor of Psychology at Tel Aviv University, and Professor and Canada Research chair in NeuroLinguistics at McGill University.

Chris Spannos volunteers for ZNet and is currently working in a shipyard in Bangor, Maine. He can be reached at

“In the Shadow of the Holocaust: The Struggle Between Jews And Zionists In The Aftermath Of World War II” is published by Common Courage Press. You can find out more information also by visiting the book’s web site.

Leave a comment