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The Iron Wall

Lenni Brenner

The Iron Wall

10. Begin During the Holocaust


Exodus from Poland

The German invasion of Poland shattered the Revisionist fantasy of a Polish-based invasion of Palestine. During the first days of the war the government carried on with some of its regular functions, which meant continuing to encourage Jewish emigration, even in the teeth of the war and its manpower needs. Two of Begin’s biographers write that he and his wife, as well as their friends, Nathan Yalin-Mor and his wife, were given exit visas. [1] However, the government quickly decided to abandon the capital for a new defence line on the Bug, and called upon all able-bodied men to leave Warsaw. The leaders of all the Jewish ideological tendencies, without exception, followed the governmental order. If Begin and YalinMor and their wives intended to retreat to the Bug, the proposition became quite academic with the entry of the Soviet army into the eastern territories and the total route of the Polish army. Begin does not pretend that he intended to stay in Poland, and he told an interviewer in 1977 that:

With a group of friends, we reached Lvov (Lemberg) in a desperate and vain effort to try to cross the border and try to reach Eretz Yisroel – but we failed. At this point, we heard that Vilna would be made the capital of an independent Republic of Lithuania by the Russians. [2]

The Bund’s leaders left Warsaw with the greatest reluctance, convinced that they could not have got the Jewish masses to make a last-ditch suicidal defence of their homes and families, and that any attempt to do so would have brought down the wrath of the Poles, who would have blamed the Jews for the further destruction of their capital. However, they had underestimated their comrades of the Polska Partja Socjalistyczna, who decided that it was psychologically crucial for the development of the future resistance that the capital not fall without a battle. They convinced General Tshuma, the commandant of the garrison, to countermand the evacuation order. When the Bund’s central committee reached the Bug and heard of the decision they instructed two of their leading figures, Bernard Goldstein and Viktor Alter, to return to the city. There is no evidence that any of the Zionist parties made any similar attempt to send representatives back to Warsaw and its Jews.

Begin and Yalin-Mor were not alone in fleeing to Vilna. Amongst the more prominent of the refugees were Moshe Sneh, the chairman of the Polish Zionist Federation, Zerah Warhaftig of the Mizrachi, and the central committees of both the Hechalutz and the Hashomer Hatzair. Within the next few months, only the youths of the Hechalutz and Hashomer made any effort to return any of their leading cadres to German-occupied Poland. The rest of the Zionist leadership in Vilna sought, and in many cases succeeded in obtaining, immigration certificates for Palestine and turned their backs on their kin, their movements and their people. According to two of Begin’s Revisionist biographers, he was condemned by his Palestinian comrades for his flight from Poland:

he received a letter from Palestine criticizing him for having fled from the Polish capital when other Jews were stranded there. As captain of Betar, the letter stated, he should have been the last to abandon the sinking ship. Begin was torn by feelings of guilt; it took strenuous efforts on the part of his comrades to keep him from this impulsive act, which probably would have cost him his life. [3]

In his post-war book, White Nights, which deals with his Lithuanian and Soviet period, Begin does not refer to any such letter. Instead he attempts to justify his flight from Warsaw: “There is no doubt that I would have been one of the first to be executed had the Germans caught me in Warsaw.” [4] There is no reason to believe that this would have been his fate. While all Jews were subject to savage oppression, there was never any special persecution against either Zionists as such or Revisionists in particular at any time during the German occupation. To the contrary, even after the invasion of the Soviet Union, Josef Glazman, Begin’s counterpart as head of the Lithuanian Betar, was appointed inspector of the Jewish police in the Vilna ghetto. There can be no doubt that Begin simply abandoned his Polish comrades. The Revisionist historian Chaim Lazar-Litai is brutally frank in describing the isolation of the Polish movement:

at the time when panic and chaos reigned in Warsaw, the Betar rank and file was left leaderless, without help or guidance ... the Revisionist movement was the only Jewish body in the Ghetto that was not in touch with its central institutions abroad. [5]

At no time did Begin ever intend to return to Poland. In White Nights he wrote that he informed his Stalinist interrogators, in 1940, in Vilna’s Lukishki Prison, that

I had received a laissez-passer from Kovno for my wife and myself and also visas for Palestine. We were on the point of leaving, and it is only my arrest that prevented me from doing so. [6]

A few pages later he put in, as an afterthought, “We were about to leave ... but we had to surrender our places to a friend.” [7]

Begin’s Motives for Fleeing

Begin was scarcely motivated by cowardice in his abandonment of his movement in Poland, but rather by his political perspective. With the exception of the few anti-Nazi boycott demonstrations that the Revisionists had organized in the early years of the Hitler regime, the struggle against Nazism was never a priority for his movement, and certainly they had done nothing to mobilize the Jewish masses against Polish anti-Semitism during the pre-war period. There can be no doubt that he also completely shared his mentor’s conviction that, even after the war, there could be no future for Polish Jewry. What sense was there in returning to a situation that was not only horrible in the immediate here and now, but which was historically an anachronism, devoid of any solution at ground level? Begin had become famous within his movement for his unique prescription for the Jewish dilemma: the immediate conquest of Palestine. A fanatic amongst fanatics within Revisionism; seeing the rival leaders of the mainline Zionist currents also frantically scrambling for immigration certificates, it was impossible for him to suddenly reverse course, to place the organization of an underground struggle above his voyaging to Palestine. He was not fleeing from the greatest disaster in Jewish history, he was rushing towards the only opportunity for a Jewish future.

Today, in the post-Holocaust era, we all understand that Hitler’s crime was so humanly overwhelming that not even a profound fanatic such as Begin can escape guilt feelings over his decision to abandon Polish Jewry. Every once in a while, Begin, who never hesitates to try to use the Holocaust to blackmail his gentile critics, shows his psychological ambivalence over the Holocaust. The October 1977 issue of Martyrdom and Resistance, organ of the American Federation of Jewish Fighters, Camp Inmates and Nazi Victims, reported the furious opposition of the entire survivors movement to a proposal by the new Israeli Prime Minister to abandon the decades-old Israeli day of special commemoration for the Holocaust, the 27th of the Jewish month of Nissan, and merge it with the Tish of Av commemoration of the destruction of the ancient Jewish temples of Jerusalem. [8] (The proposal sank without a trace.) Equally bizarre was his remark, made to the Knesset, on 2 March 1982. Begin rose up to ask the body: “How many people in Parliament are there who had to wear the Star of David? I am one.” [9] Begin fled before the Nazis, and there were no yellow stars in Lithuania while he was there.

Arrest of Begin

According to a 28 September 1939 amendment to the Nazi-Soviet pact, Lithuania, excepting a south-western region, was placed in the Soviet sphere of influence. On 10 October Vilna has handed over by the Soviets to the Lithuanians and the Red Army was “granted” several bases in the country. On 15 June 1940, the Red Army fully invested the country, with formal annexation coming on 3 August. On 1 September, a messenger appeared at the house the Begins shared with Israel Scheib (Eldad), with an “invitation” for Begin to come to the town hall to deal with an “application” that he was alleged to have made. Begin understood that, as he had made no such application, the invitation was from the secret police. He made no effort to escape: “my decision was not simple, but I will not go into it”. [10] There can be no doubt that the events of the war, the destruction of Poland, the conquest of France, the Soviet occupation, and the news of Jabotinsky’s death, had demoralized him. He knew that he could hide out, at least for a brief period, but, with his world being destroyed by the two great dictatorships of the time, his new-found pessimism is easily understandable. At a memorial for Jabotinsky he had recently told the gathering that “We will yet have the privilege of fighting for Zion. But if we are prevented from doing so, it will also be good to suffer for Zion.” [11]

The NKVD openly watched the house for several days before finally collecting their prey:

Wherever you looked, there was suffering. A sea of suffering, deep and wide as the ocean ... in days of mass catastrophe ... it is then that man asks himself: Why do they suffer? ... if you are unable to save; then nothing remains but the spectre of inequality in suffering; a fearsome phantom that almost takes away the very zest of living. Therefore, I am telling nothing but the truth when I say that when the fateful day came ... my principal emotion was one of intense relief. [12]

Imprisonment and Interrogation

The story of Begin’s imprisonment at the hand of the Stalin regime comes to us primarily through his book, which is extremely readable and wholly appealing at the human level. He had not the slightest understanding of Stalinism, he even told one of his interrogators that he “simply [did] not recall Jabotinsky’s ever having spoken to me about the Soviet Union”, but he was curiously fascinated by the opportunity created by his change of fortune:

I found a certain satisfaction in having the opportunity. .. of observing, at close quarters, from within, the methods, thesecret workings and the rulers of the realms of the NKVD. I am telling the truth when I say that as I sat opposite my interrogator I felt I was, by inner recognition, a student observer, and a detainee only by some external decree. The power of curiosity! [13]

He hastened to assure us that, had he been forced to serve his full sentence his curiosity most certainly would have vanished, if he himself did not simply die outright, but, while it lasted, the mood brought on by his strange circumstances and the intense ideological discussions with the NKVD, produced some absurd, but very human manifestations. One morning, after one such debate,

I felt as if I was returning from a conference where I had participated in a heated discussion on the future of my people, and was now on my way back to my hotel room ... the illusion was so realistic ... I turned to the duty officer and asked, as if he were the hotel manager: “Did anything come for me?” The officer gave me a peculiar look, and cursed. [14]

These interrogations were extraordinary, if grotesque. Begin was being accused of anti-Soviet activity but, in the end, he was actually being condemned for having been the head of Betar in Poland. He was a trained lawyer, and pointed out to his tormentors that Betar was completely legal in Poland, his activities had nothing to do with the Soviet Union, nor had he fled into the Soviet Union, but rather into Lithuania, and the only reason that he was in the hands of the NKVD was because the Soviet Union had seized that country. He not only had not engaged in anti-Soviet activities there, but was only too eager to leave: “So how can I be punished for what I did in the past, within the law?” He was duly told that the laws against counter-revolution applied everywhere: “Do you hear? In the whole world.” [15]

The interrogation-discussions were extensive, going on for many nights, and Begin was confronted with every conceivable charge that could be raised against Zionism. He is never very forthcoming about his pre-Palestinian career, understandably so, given Revisionism’s now discredited ties with the anti-Semites of the time, but in dealing with these “debates” he was compelled to more or less try to defend the pre-Holocaust policies of Zionism and Revisionism. Begin had asked for a Yiddish translator, who turned out to be an “anti-Zionist Encyclopaedia”, with the result that, at times, the sinister inquisition took on a serious dimension:

My comrade has reminded me of the letter sent by that Herzl of yours to Plehve, the Czarist hangman Plehve, asking the Czarist government for support for the Zionist plan, and promising that Zionism would keep young Jews from joining the ranks of the revolution.

Begin had his ready answer for his interrogator:

I would ask you to understand that Herzl felt that a catastrophe was about to befall his people, and we see how right he was. He was a statesman but he had no power behind him. He wanted to speed up the rescue of his people and looked for help. What the interpreter said is not at all new. Herzl worked at a particular period. He went to the Sultan, too, to the German Kaiser as well, he even went to the Pope. He felt that the Jewish people could not wait. Jabotinsky also had this feeling. We all had it. May I give you an example, Citizen-Judge? A fire breaks out in a house, and you happen to pass by. What do you do? Naturally, you hasten to telephone the fire brigade, but if you hear the voice of a woman or a child screaming in the flames, will you wait for the fire brigade to get there? Of course you won’t ... That was exactly our situation ... Could we wait? Let us suppose that the Revolution was a sort of fire brigade for the Jews who were being persecuted by anti-Semitism in Poland or Germany ... but we could not wait for it to come. [16]

Quite regardless of the merits or follies of Begin’s repartee, a dialogue with a Stalinist jailer could only have one outcome. Begin duly signed his confession, but, in so doing, he has provided an invaluable first-hand explanation as to why so many courageous figures, of many persuasions, had similarly confessed, before him, to crimes which they had never committed:

The rulers in Moscow ... had learnt that one of the decisive factors ... is the “blood-witness” of the persecuted ... Because of this ... Jewry was able to stand up to its persecutors ... Christianity ... became a world religion ... Therefore, they will not permit any heroics, any martyrology on the public platform of the trial ... The choice before the accused is: Either a trial with ideological annihilation, or physical destruction without a trial ... inexperienced observers ... come out with the idea that drugs are used ... But even a layman may ask: ... Are there lie drugs?. ... I was not tortured and I was not beaten ... In the prison cells and in the Correctional Camp huts I came into personal contact with hundreds of other prisoners of that period. Not one of them had been beaten up or tortured ... They signed ... out of lack of sleep, out of an overwhelming desire to finish, to bring the mental torture to an end ... I learnt from close up ... what the decisive factors are ... The first in importance is – isolation ... if the fighter knows that his service is rendered worthless, that no one will hear what he says ... then the thread between him and the ideal is likely to be severed ... and his tortured soul asks: Who will know? ... What point is there in my suffering ... They will ... answer: There is no point. When that happens the prisoner is doomed ... to serve the ideal of his hangman. [17]

The Polish Exile Army

On 1 April 1941 Begin was sentenced. without trial, to eight years hard labour and in June he started the long journey to the Pechora-Lag, a railway construction camp on the line to the now famous Vorkuta camp near the Barents Sea. While en route, word was passed through the train that the Nazis had invaded the Soviet Union. On 30 July the Soviets signed a pact with the Polish government-in-exile re-establishing relations and calling for the establishment of an exile army on Soviet soil. It is estimated that between a million and a million-and-a-half Polish citizens had fled into the Soviet-occupied eastern territories of the former Polish republic in the van of Hitler’s oncoming armies. Approximately half of these had ultimately been imprisoned and, within a few weeks, found themselves free again.

Jewish Legion Proposals

In September and October 1941, two Revisionist ex-prisoners, Miron Sheskin, the former commander of the Brit HaChayal (Union of Soldiers), their veterans organization, and Mark Kahan, the editor of Der Moment, a Warsaw Yiddish paper, arrived at the staging area for the new exile army, in the Volga region, and began to propagandize the Polish military on behalf of their pre-war proposal to segregate the Jews into a Jewish legion. While the idea had a natural appeal for the anti-Semites running the local camp, the army’s commander, General Wladyslaw Anders, though a former Tsarist officer and an intense anti-Semite, always understood that the proposition would be unacceptable to the Soviets and the British and Americans. However, some of the Polish military had pre-war connections with the separatist Revisionists and, whatever concerns their higher-ups might have had, they determined to try to set up such an outfit, which they hoped would be a practical substitute for a Jew-free army. Colonel Jan Galadyk, the commandant of the pre-war officers’ academy, offered to head an initial battalion. After the war, Kahan presumed to describe the battalion as a prototype for his proposed Legion. However, a much more accurate and severe picture was portrayed by the unit’s rabbi, an Agudist, Leon Rozen-Szeczakacz, in his own post-war book, Cry in the Wilderness.

On 7 October, at Totzkoye in the Samara Oblast, an officer called for the soldiers “Of Moses’ faith” to step forward. Most of those who did so suddenly found themselves to be civilians again and those who were not discharged were segregated from the rest of the army and ordered off to a new location at Koltubanka. Monstrous treatment began immediately. Most of the battalion were issued boots that were too small for them, meaning that they had to try to protect themselves with rags from the ~40o winter. They would be left out in the open for days and the army would forget about feeding them. When Rozen-Szeczakacz, their chaplain, arrived, his first task was to start burying the dead, hundreds of miles from the nearest front. [18] Eventually word got to the Polish embassy as to their plight and the ambassador, concerned about adverse Allied reaction, saw to it that conditions improved. However, the larger Revisionist cum anti-Semite scheme for a full-blown Jewish Legion died in the midst of the exile army’s more overriding concern to leave the Soviet Union.

Departure of the Army-in-Exile

There was no possibility of the exile army co-operating with the Red Army. The government-in-exile had never reconciled itself to the Soviet annexation of the eastern territories, in spite of the fact that ethnic Poles were a distinct minority there. Nor could the Soviets openly tolerate the blatant anti-Semitism of the Polish army’s commanding officer. Firmly convinced that Hitler would conquer the Soviet Union, Anders determined to get his soldiers out of the country via Iran, where they would link up with the British army. Stalin was willing to see them go: militarily they were far from crucial, and their withdrawal gave him a legitimate excuse to set up his own Polish force, under Communist control.

The anti-Semites tried to leave behind as many Jews as possible, and healthy youths were summarily rejected for service. Approximately 114,000 people were evacuated in t942, with Jews making up only 5% of the soldiers and 7% of the civilians; this in spite of the fact that Jews made up about one-third of the Polish citizens then in the country and, before the anti-Semitic recruitment policy began, about 40% of the army’s first enlistees had been Jewish. Naturally, Kahan and Sheskin had no trouble going out with the army, despite the discrimination.

White Nights scarcely touches on the Legion plot: “Sheskin ... told me ... he had begun negotiations for the creation of a Jewish military unit within the Polish Army, but he did not succeed.” [19] When Begin tried to join the army he was rejected, the reason given being his bad heart and near-sightedness, both of which were quite real, whatever could additionally be said about the anti-Semitic motivation behind his rejection. He then wrote to the Chief of Staff, implying that if he was not taken in he would be re-arrested. Sheskin “saw to it that the letter reached the Chief of Staff”. [20] He was called in for an interview with the General and a letter was sent to the draft board telling it to accept this Jew. Now the doctor found his “heart and lungs, excellent! ... you are actually shortsighted, but in the army you’ll learn to shoot properly”. [21] Thus the later Prime Minister of Israel, through his movement’s intimacy with the anti-Semites, left the Soviet Union, thereby ensuring that he would never see combat against the Nazi murderers of his mother and father.

It is one of the supreme ironies of World War II that the British routed the Polish army-in-exile, totally dominated by anti-Semites, to Palestine for further training. Their Zionist collaborator tells of his arrival in his “homeland”, in early May 1942:

here was Transjordan. Our heritage ... The military convoy stopped ... I left the automobile, waded a little way into the grass, and drank in the odour of the fields of my homeland. [22]


1. Haber, Menahem Begin, p.53; Gervasi, The Life and Times of Menachem Begin, p. 105.

2. Hyman Frank, The World of Menachem Begin, Jewish Press, 2 December 1977.

3. Eckman and Hirschler, Menachem Begin, p.50.

4. Menachem Begin, White Nights, p.79.

5. Chaim Lazar-Litai, Muranowska Seven, p.44.

6. Begin, White Nights, pp.84-5.

7. Ibid., p.87.

8. Survivors Lead Protest Against Change In Observance of Yom Hashoa V’Hagvurah, Martyrdom and Resistance, October 1977, pp.1, 3.

9. David Shipler, Israel Hardening Its Stand on Visits, New York Times, 3 March 1982, p.7.

10. Begin, WhiteNights, p.13.

11. Ibid., p.28.

12. Ibid., p.16.

13. Ibid., p.21.

14. Ibid., pp.73-4.

15. Ibid., p.81.

16. Ibid., pp.71-2.

17. Ibid., pp.98-104.

18. Yisrael Gutman, Jews in General Anders’ Army, in the Soviet Union, Yad Vashem Studies, vol.XII, p.226.

19. Begin, White Nights, p.217.

20. Ibid., p.218.

21. Ibid.

22. Begin, The Revolt, pp.24-5.

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