Documents released yesterday 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 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 yesterday.
The Jews aboard the Exodus were trying to enter Palestine illegally during the tumultuous months in 1947 before the UN voted to create a Jewish homeland in part of Palestine.
Britain was still governing Palestine and London 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.
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.
“It’s obvious in the files the British were sensitive to the claim they were putting Jews into concentration camps,” said Mark Dunton, history specialist at the National Archives.
A British diplomat in France sent a warning to the Foreign Office in London in August 1947.
“You will realize that an announcement of decision to send immigrants back to Germany will produce violent hostile outburst in the press,” he says.
An unsigned cable from the Foreign Office on Aug. 19, 1947, explains that the decision to land the Jews in Germany has been made because it is the only suitable territory under British control that can handle so many people on short notice.
But security concerns were heightened on Aug. 30 when a secret telegram from the British embassy in Washington warned of a possible terrorist attack by Zionist groups determined to prevent the offloading in Germany.
The passengers were taken off the vessels in Germany, although a number were injured in confrontations with British troops.
Fears seemed justified when a bomb with a timed fuse was found after the refugees were taken off. It was rigged to detonate after the Jews had been removed, the cables indicate.
The postscript on the operation comes from the British regional commander who says that the disembarkation could be regarded as successful because it was carried out with only minimal casualties.