When the eternal victims struck back

March 01, 1996|By Jack L. Levin

AT THIS season 50 years ago appeared a startling new development in the long history of the Jewish people. For the first time since ancient days, Jewish victims began fighting back as Jews against their oppressors.

Nothing like it had happened since the Maccabees resisted Greek efforts to force them to abandon their religion and since Shimon Bar Kochba, with his followers, fought successfully for three years against the mighty Roman legions. Through most of the millennia that followed, Jews became known as ''the Martyr Race'' who passively accepted persecution rather than yield to pressure to convert.

Of course, Jews had fought bravely as citizens of other nations in the American, French and Russian revolutions, the American and Spanish civil wars, and the great wars of the 19th and 20th centuries (although often as second-class participants).

Resisting the British

But in 1946, the Israeli Irgun Zvi Leumi, the Organization of the National Army, started the battle against the British Army of Occupation in Palestine. Those forces had been ordered by the British foreign minister Ernest Bevin to turn back the rickety ships crowded with wretched survivors of the Holocaust.

The Irgun, under such commanders as Menachem Begun, was determined to admit these fellow Jews to the only land that would take them in. The fighters struggled to prevent the refugees' compulsory return to live with those who had robbed and brutalized them and murdered their families. This effort required driving out the British Army of Occupation, a formidable task for the ill-equipped Irgun fighters.

The Irgun was condemned by virtually all the Jewish establishment organizations of the time. David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir and other Israeli leaders were still in London pleading with Bevin to relent and admit the hapless refugees to Palestine.

The Irgun was officially perceived as terrorists, hooligans, fascists and worse -- hotheads upstaging the Haganah, the main body of the Israeli army, which was preparing for the anticipated attack of five Arab armies after the imminent declaration of Israeli statehood. The Haganah was keeping its powder dry for the decisive battle; it resented the Irgun's activities.

Three Baltimoreans

But at least three Baltimoreans saw the Irgun as patriots doing the same job as the Minutemen of 1776 -- driving out the British Army. Two of us were Jews: Jimmy Swartz of Mano Swartz Furs was in charge of fund-raising. I was organizer and publicity director of the newly formed Maryland Chapter of Americans for a Free Palestine. (That organization, founded by Ben Hecht and Peter Bergson, lasted only two or three years, but they were exciting ones.)

The third man was Oliver B. J. Krastell, a West Baltimore Irish Catholic furniture retailer, whose zeal as chairman of the chapter was rooted in his low opinion of the British occupiers of Ireland and his concern for the Jewish people. He taught me that no one is more effective at raising money for a Jewish cause than a good Christian.

In 1946, we formally organized the Maryland chapter, enrolled members and raised funds and support for the Irgun's battle to save the Holocaust survivors.

After Israel declared its independence, the three of us, with a few friends, organized the first Rally for Israel and the Irgun in Baltimore's huge Fifth Regiment Armory.

The response from the Jewish community was immediate and overwhelming, despite Irgun's notoriety. The overflow crowd was estimated by police at more than 14,000, the largest assembly of Baltimore Jews before or since. The crowd packed the Armory, filled Hoffman Street and extended up Linden Avenue on a rainy night. Amplifiers had to be set up outside so that those standing in the rain could follow the proceedings.

The new hero

Behind the speakers was a huge blow-up of Arthur Szyk's drawing of an Irgun fighter, the new hero of Jewish history. It inspired the audience and the speakers.

Maj. Samuel Weiser, a former member of Field Marshal Montgomery's staff, was the principal speaker. He had organized the George Washington Legion of American War Veterans, who had volunteered to fight beside the Irgun in Palestine. Also featured on the program were Barney Ross, boxing champion and U.S. Marine Silver Star winner, Sen. Herbert R. O'Conor, Rep. Abraham Molter of New York and Baltimore's exuberant Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro.

Invocations were delivered by the Rev. John S. Martin of St. Vincent's Catholic Church and Rabbi Samuel H. Vitsik of Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Congregation.

Mrs. Louis Untermeyer, a former judge, delivered a message written for the occasion by her husband, the editor-author. Karl Shapiro, Baltimore's Nobel prize-winning poet, contributed a poem that was read by the actor Murray Slatkin. Tevya's speech to the United Nations, an excerpt from Ben Hecht's 1946 drama on Broadway, ''A Flag is Born,'' was presented passionately by 14-year old Alice Shecter, winner of the city-wide Hebrew school's declamation contest.

Roar of the crowd

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