Many British Jews emigrate to Israel

Saved stories: eleven Jewish families in the 20th century

Kim Wünschmann

The historian Dr. Kim Wünschmann is a research assistant at the Chair for Contemporary History at LMU Munich, where she coordinates research and teaching between the university and the Center for Holocaust Studies at the Institute for Contemporary History. She researches the history of National Socialism and the Holocaust, Jewish history and culture, and the fate of civilians in war.
Email: [email protected]

Among the many countries in which European Jews found refuge from Nazi persecution and extermination, Palestine holds a special place. Refugees who emigrated to Palestine hoped to be citizens of a Jewish nation-state in the future, while in all other exile countries they would continue to belong to a social minority.

Emigrants from Germany at passport control in the port of Jaffa (& copy National Photo Collection Israel)

After the end of Ottoman rule, the League of Nations transferred the mandate for Palestine to Great Britain in 1922. The British were supposed to implement the Balfour Declaration here, in which they had promised the "establishment of a national homeland for the Jewish people" in 1917. For Zionism, the political movement that aimed to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, the Balfour Declaration was an important recognition. Until the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, the Zionists fought to keep their promise.


Zionism and Emigration to Palestine


An important goal of Zionism was and is to promote the Aliyah to Eretz Israel, the emigration (literally "ascent") of Jews to the Land of Israel. In several waves of immigration from the 1880s until the Nazis came to power in Germany, over 200,000 Jews came to Palestine. They organized themselves in a community with pre-state structures, the so-called yishuv. Until 1933, most of the immigrants came from Eastern Europe. Poland was the center of Zionist activity. Zionists in Poland were organized in numerous parties, associations and youth movements. With the mixed Polish and Hebrew language Tarbut schools, they also had their own educational system. In the film about her life, Haya-Lea Detinko, born in Rivne, Poland, tells of attending the Tarbut School and joining the socialist-Zionist youth organization Hashomer Hatzair, to which her older sister was also a member. Her brother Aron decided to join the Betar, the youth organization of the revisionist wing in Zionism. The siblings found friends in the Zionist youth movement. Together they collected donations for Palestine, participated in pioneer camps and prepared for emigration.

Before 1933, Zionism was a minority movement that attracted mostly young people who were ready to face the challenges of building a new life with many hardships in a contested country far from home. For most of the Jews who left Europe, the prospects for settlement in Palestine were too uncertain. Their main destination was North America, where nearly three million emigrated. The situation changed when the Nazis came to power in 1933 and openly persecuted Jews. The US, like many other countries, only provided a limited number of entry visas - not enough to accommodate the large flow of refugees. In order to escape National Socialist violence and legal discrimination, many Jews became unwilling Zionists. From 1933 to 1936, Palestine was the most important country of exile for refugees from Hitler's sphere of influence. Among the immigrants were also many children and young people who came into the country separately from their families with the youth aliyah. Like the young Kurt Brodmann, who fled Vienna to Palestine without his parents and older brother in 1938, they found acceptance in a kibbutz, the rural collective settlements of the Zionists with a socialist orientation.


New beginning in the Holy Land


By the end of 1938, over 200,000 Jews from Western and Central Europe immigrated to Palestine. Their comparatively high level of education, their professional qualifications and experience promoted the economy, the development of the health, education and administrative systems as well as the culture of the Yishuv community. Many Jews from Germany, referred to as "Jeckes" in Palestine, did not find it easy to adapt to the Mediterranean lifestyle and the hot climate. Their stiff manners, their bourgeois clothing style, their exaggerated politeness and their adherence to the German language made them stand out. For many, the move was associated with a loss of status. In the film, Rosa Rosenstein, who was born in Berlin, tells of the difficulties her family members had in gaining a foothold in Palestine in the 1930s. When her brother-in-law could not find a suitable job for him, he had to deliver newspapers. Her sister worked as a cleaning lady. Jindřich Lion from Prague, who arrived in Palestine at the age of 16 and began an apprenticeship as a locksmith there, also remembers how difficult it was at first to communicate in Hebrew. Herbert Lewin, who came to Palestine in 1939, reports of the homesickness of the new immigrants who met in the evening after work and sang songs from their old homeland.


British immigration policy and its limits

Anyone wishing to immigrate to Palestine needed a certificate from the British Mandate Government. These certificates were awarded within the framework of a quota system that was based on the applicant's assets or professional aptitude. In order to get a so-called "capitalist certificate", a minimum capital of 1,000 pounds had to be raised. Activities that were important for the Jewish settlement were primarily agricultural or manual skills that those wishing to emigrate could acquire practically on special teaching materials. Young people in particular took part in such a hachshara, the preparation for life in Palestine. Herbert Lewin worked from 1937 to 1939 on an estate in the Yugoslavian Subotica, which was operated by the Zionist organization Hechaluz. Here the young men and women learned to cultivate the vineyard and the fields, to look after the animals and to run the farm. Herbert Lewin cooked and baked bread for the community. However, as the British restricted immigration more and more, Lewin and his friends only tried to get to Palestine without a legally valid certificate. Like thousands of other Jews, they immigrated illegally.

Alija Bet, illegal immigration, was a dangerous undertaking because the refugee ships could be spotted at any time by British patrol boats guarding the coast of Palestine. In not a few cases, the attempt to secretly get ashore failed and the refugees were sent back or interned. With their restrictive immigration policy, the British responded to the growing resentment with which the Arab population in Palestine was facing the increasing number of Jewish immigrants. In 1936 an armed uprising broke out, which continued until 1939 in a series of acts of violence against Jews and the British mandate. From October 1939 to April 1940 the British imposed an immigration ban. During the Second World War, another 80,000 Jews came to Palestine, the vast majority of them illegally.


The situation after the war

When the war ended in May 1945, the Jewish refugee question was not also resolved at the same time. On the contrary: the mass exodus of Jewish Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe, especially from Poland and Romania, to the western occupation zones of Germany, Austria and Italy exacerbated the situation. In all three countries, reception centers for these so-called “Displaced Persons” (DP) have been set up. Which country should it host? Only about 3,000 Jewish DPs were allowed to enter Great Britain between 1945 and 1950. Around a quarter of a million waited in the DP camps, some for years, for the chance to build a new life in a new home. It was not until the state of Israel was founded in May 1948 that the barriers fell. More than 100,000 new Jewish immigrants had arrived in Israel by the end of the year; by December 1951 their number rose to nearly 700,000.

Most of the immigrants came from Eastern Europe, where they had lost their livelihood and were threatened by new anti-Jewish violence. Significantly fewer Jews immigrated from Western Europe. Rosa Rosenstein, who settled with her husband in Vienna after the war, describes the decision against living in Israel. While she would have loved to go there herself to be reunited with her family, her husband decided that without the necessary equity he would not succeed as a businessman in Israel. The desire to regain the former standard of living in Europe and the longing for their old homeland and their mother tongue caused some Jews to leave the less developed and politically contested Israel. Jindřich Lion and Herbert Lewin were among the returnees.

After the end of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989/90, a huge wave of immigration brought another million people to Israel. Before that, the Soviet Union had only allowed Jews to leave the country to a very limited extent. At times, Zionists like Haya-Lea Detinko were also persecuted for their allegedly anti-Soviet attitudes. Like her friends from Hashomer Hatzair, she was arrested in 1941. She suffered for many years in camp detention and subsequent exile in Siberia. After 1989, Haya-Lea Detinko felt too old to immigrate to Israel. But she uses her new freedom and visits her family in the Holy Land.