British faced post-war Jewish refugee dilemma
Newly released documents released show how the British government tried to send thousands of Palestine-bound Jewish survivors of the Nazi genocide back to postwar Germany without inflaming world opinion.
Could it be done? The answer was no. It was just two years after the end of the war and the world was outraged by the systematic murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazis in what became known as the Holocaust.
Despite the best efforts of early spin doctors to portray the move in the most sympathetic light, the decision to turn away the more than 4,500 Jews on board the Exodus refugee ship turned into a humanitarian and public relations debacle for Britain.
The story is detailed in more than 400 pages of formerly secret documents at Britain’s National Archives made available to the public on Monday.
New documents made available
The Jews aboard the Exodus were trying to enter Palestine illegally during the tumultuous months in 1947 before the United Nations voted to create a Jewish homeland in part of Palestine.
Britain was still governing Palestine and the British government felt it had to keep the immigrants out to preserve the demographic balance between Arab and Jew. But Britain did not have a safe place to send the Jews from the Exodus, who were placed on three smaller British steamers.
After much agonizing, the British concluded that the only place they could send the Jews was to the British-controlled zone of postwar Germany, where the Jews could be placed in camps and screened for extremists.
After Germany, many of the passengers were eventually detained in military camps in Cyprus along with other Jews deported from Palestine. When the state of Israel was founded in 1948, the Exodus’ passengers were able to move there.
The Exodus’ ordeal focused world attention on the British blockade of Palestine and the plight of Jews fleeing Europe after World War II.
The documents show that diplomats and military officers knew that sending Jews back to Germany and putting them in camps so soon after the Holocaust would set off protests.
“These documents show the British perspective for the first time,” said Mark Dunton, contemporary history specialist at the National Archives. “It’s obvious in the files the British were sensitive to the claim they were putting Jews into concentration camps.”