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The Failure of the Jewish Rescuers at the Onset of the Holocaust

by Raul Hilberg

Too Fantastic to Be True


During their dispersion, the Jewish communities of the world had acquired a patina of timelessness. History and destiny were merged in a chain of generations. Diaspora Jewry also maintained an identity across boundaries and oceans. A bond of familiarity connected Jews everywhere.

Seven million Jews were subject to German domination or the rule of one of Germany’s satellite states. Nine million were outside this sphere, fewer than twenty thousand in pivotal neutral Switzerland, somewhat more than two million in territories of the Soviet Union not overrun by the invaders, a few hundred thousand each in Britain and Palestine, and the largest number, near five million, in the United States.

The Soviet Jews were not, and could not be, independent actors on the political scene. They were cut off from the rest of the world and voiceless in their own country. With the onset of the German assault, the Soviet Jews were entirely dependent on their own individual initiative and on the possibilities provided by the Soviet government for flight.

The Jewish community of Great Britain had much more freedom than the Soviet Jews, and by the 1930s British Jewry numbered more than 300,000, but many of these people were immigrants or the children of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Jews did not arrive in Britain with the Romans. They came after William the Conqueror, and under the Angevin kings they were only thousands, engaging in moneylending, speaking French at home, and maintaining connections with the Continent. By the end of the thirteenth century they were expelled. But for a handful of Spanish Jews who set foot in Britain after 1492, Jews did not return to the British Isles until the middle of the seventeenth century. The newcomers were mainly Sephardic, that is to say, Spanish, Portuguese, or Italian in origin. One of their sons, Benjamin Disraeli, was the convert who became an empire builder in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the Jews were still few. In 1880, they were about 65,000, and only in the next sixty years did they increase fivefold. By and large, the absorption of the new immigration wave had been a successful venture, and during the First World War British Jewry could demonstrate its allegiance with the deaths of thousands of Jewish men in the British army. In this sense, British Jews acted just like the Jews in the German, Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Ottoman armies who patriotically shot at Britons, Christian or Jewish.

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