Ironies from Israel #4: The Embarrassing Benefactor

Well, this is not exactly an irony from Israel but rather an irony from the Third Reich that has put Israel in an ironic position.

Israel has a circle of honor for those who rescued Jews from the clutches of the Third Reich, whether it be one or thousands. Nominations are sent to a department of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial (built on land confiscated from Palestinian families, we must not forget), where the cases are checked and researched and then passed to a committee of ten Holocaust survivors, which makes the final decision. 24,356 people from forty-seven countries, five hundred of them Germans, have been so honored as the “Righteous Among the Nations.”

On the face of it, the case now facing the committee should be extremely simple. The candidate aided several dozen Jews and non-Jews in escaping from the Reich and set up Swiss bank accounts to help the exiles. On a number of occasions before the war he saved individual Jews from assault by Nazi thugs, and as an executive with the vast Skoda works in Czechoslovakia he aided resistance fighters and supported anti-German sabotage. He once took a truck to the Theresienstadt concentration camp and demanded workers for the Skoda factories, then driving them to a woods where they were released. All these activities are documented by witnesses, most especially the people (or their children) he helped to survive.

The only problem: the man’s name is Albert Göring.

Yes, the man in question was Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring’s little known younger brother. He was an apolitical engineer and a dapper womanizer, but despite his family connections he was also anti-Nazi and despised Hitler. Rather than turn a blind eye, however, he used those connections to rescue people from the system in which his brother was the number two man.

He obviously fits the bill for the honor of being a member of the Righteous Among the Nations, but his name is Göring, which might be a bit difficult for Israel to accept. But there is a way out. There is a rumor that Albert was actually the child of his mother and the family doctor, who was a Jew. This would give the Israelis an opportunity to avoid what might be an embarrassment in proclaiming a Göring one of the Righteous Among the Nations, since only non-Jews are eligible for the honor. There is, however, absolutely no evidence for this claim of a Jewish father, and even the Reichsmarschall would have had some difficulty protecting his brother had the Reich suspected Albert of carrying Jewish blood.

Confirmation of Albert Göring’s role in rescuing Jews would be a victory of truth over image, but unfortunately, Israel, more than most states, has allowed the image of its past to be built upon serious distortions of the truth, beginning with “A land without a people for a people without a land.” This must have been a baffling proclamation for the millions of Palestinians already living in the “land without a people.” Closer to the subject of this essay, missing from the list of the Swedish Righteous is the name Folke Bernadotte, who saved at least 1600 Jews (among tens of thousands of others) near the end of the war. But as a mediator during the Arab-Israeli conflicts of 1947-1948 Bernadotte earned the ire of the extremist Stern Gang, and in 1948 he was assassinated on the orders of its leaders, one of whom, Yitzhak Shamir, was later Prime Minister of Israel. Clearly, it would be awkward to encourage public review of Bernadotte’s life.

With Jews, Czech resistance fighters and others defending him Albert Göring was completely cleared by the allies, but out of loyalty to his family he refused to change his name, and even a talented engineer could not find work in Germany with the name Göring. He died a poor man in 1966, his deeds unknown to the world until an Australian writer published an account in 2009.

Sheol Welcomes Yitzhak Shamir

Yitzhak Shamir, a founding father and two-time Prime Minister of Israel (1983, 1986-1992), died on June 30.  He was given a state funeral and praised as an outstanding patriot by virtually every Israeli political leader of prominence, including Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he had fought politically.  Interestingly, in praising him his daughter took the opportunity to stick it to the current leadership: “(My father) belonged to a different generation of leaders, people with values and beliefs. I hope that we have more people like him in the future.”

There is no question that Shamir was a patriot and a brave man, who essentially dedicated his life to serving his county.  But of course the same could be said about Adolph Hitler, and while Shamir is certainly not in the same league as the man who murdered his family, life does reveal that Israeli patriotism can accommodate serious brutality.  As in the days of the First Temple, when the Lord of Hosts often expected His people to treat their neighbors with utter barbarity, so too in modern Israel does serving the country sometimes involve behavior generally condemned by democratic societies.

Shamir was born in 1915 in a Jewish village in Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire, became a Polish citizen after the Russian-Polish war of 1920 and moved to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1935.  There in 1940 he joined the Irgun, a paramilitary organization fighting the British, and when it split into two factions a short time later, he went with the more extreme Lehi, also known as the Stern Gang after its leader.  Financing themselves with bank robberies, the group was so anti-British that it actually had talks with the Nazis and proposed a Jewish state based on fascist principles.  After Stern was killed in 1942, Shamir became one of the leaders of Lehi, which gravitated towards the USSR, declaring in 1944 that it supported a national bolshevism (whatever that is).  While under Shamir’s leadership Lehi assassinated the British Resident Minister in Cairo in November of 1944 and subsequently engaged in terrorist acts both in Palestine and the UK, tactics which Shamir justified with references to the Old Testament.  He was arrested by the British in 1946 but escaped and found political asylum in France, where he was when the state of Israel was established in 1948.

Shamir immediately returned to Palestine and Lehi, which teamed up with the Irgun in March for an attack on the Arab village of Deir Yassein.  The Irgun was then led by Menachim Begin, another future Prime Minister (1977-1983), whose group had blown of the King David Hotel in 1946, killing 103 people, many of them Jews.  In the Deir Yassein operation over a hundred villagers were killed, many of them women and children, and according to the later testimony of an Irgun fighter 80 prisoners were executed.  The massacre was condemned by the two chief rabbis in the area, by the leadership of the Haganah and even by Ben-Gurion, but no one was punished.  Then, in September of 1948 Lehi assassinated the UN mediator, Folke Bernadotte, fearing his peace proposals would surrender coveted territory.  This was too much even for the Israeli provisional government, since during the war Bernadotte had rescued some 30,000 inmates from Nazi camps, about 10,000 of them Jews.  Lehi was declared a terrorist group and its members arrested, only to be pardoned the following year.  In 1980, seemingly as part of the sanitizing of the country’s origins, Israel created a military decoration, the Lehi ribbon, becoming the only democratic state to officially celebrate a terrorist organization.

After the war for independence Shamir served from 1955-1965 in the Mossad, where he could indulge his penchant for assassination.  He entered politics in 1977, and in 1983 the one-time terrorist became the Prime Minister of Israel.  And there he would wield his righteous sword against a new group of terrorists, this one seeking to end the Israeli Mandate in Palestine.

The irony is neverending.