Chapter 16




Czechoslovakia-2.4 Per Cent of an Empire


With the downfall of the three great empires of Eastern Europe in the wake of the First World War a new arrangement of power emerged under the domination of French and British imperialism. Isolation of Germany and the Soviet Union were their two main goals, and their determination to confine the Germans led the Allies to encourage the Lithuanians, Poles and Czechs to carve themselves pieces of ethnic German land. Hungary and Bulgaria, as allies of the Germans, also suffered territorial losses. The result was the creation of a group of states cursed with intense national cleavages. Anti-Semitism was inevitable in this maelstrom of communal hatred.

Zionism succeeded in generating enough strength in the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe to send representatives to the parlia-ments of Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Austria; even in Yugoslavia, where the total Jewish population was less than 70,000, efforts were made to run Jewish slates in the municipal council elections in Zagreb. However, Zionism --as the separatist ideo-logy of the weakest of the ethnic groups in the region-- was never able to cope with the crisis of East European nationalism.

Czechoslovakia had a fine reputation in the 1930s as a democratic oasis amid the region's dictatorships, but it was little more than a Czech version of the Habsburg Empire. The Czech bourgeoisie dominated the Slovaks and crudely incorporated pieces of German, Hungarian, Polish and Ukrainian territory into their mini-empire. The Czech leaders were also sui generis anti-Semites; the Jews were seen as Gemman and Magyar culture agents, and the early days of the Czech republic saw anti-Semitic riots. The army was dominated by former Czech legionaires who had deserted the Habsburgs for the Russians during the First World War, and then fought alongside the White Guards on their way out of Russia; the generals were outspoken anti-Semites. The Hasidic youths of Carpatho-Ukrainia, where Jews made up 15 per cent of the population, were always the butt of their officers' ill-humour, and a Jew from Slovakia was assumed to be a Magyariser. It was unthinkable that a Jew could become a high officer. No one had any rights in the Czechoslovak Army except Czechs and those Slovaks who accepted Czech domination.

The Czech bourgeoisie did not want the Jews to mix with the Germans or Magyars, but only the Czech Social Democrats encouraged Jews to enter the Czech community. The bourgeois formula was patronage of 'national Jewry', and Jews were allowed to list themselves as Jews by nationality on the census. There were 356,820 Jews in the country in 1930 --2.4 per cent of the total population; of these 58 per cent listed themselves as Jews, 24.5 per cent as Czechs, 12.8 per cent as Germans and 4.7 per cent as Magyars.

The Czechoslovakian Zionists operated in local politics through the Jewish Party, the Zidovska Strana. From 1919 they were able to put members on the municipal councils in Prague and other cities and towns, but it always proved impossible to elect anyone to the national Parliament on a straight Jewish vote. In the 1920 elections a United Jewish Parties ballot received only 79,714 votes, and in the 1925 poll the Jewish Party, standing alone, garnered 98,845 votes. By 1928 even the most committed Jewish separatists realised that they had to ally themselves to some non-Jews if they were ever going to get into Parliament, and they found suitable partners in the Polish Middle-Class Party and the Polish Social Democrats of the Cieszyn area. In 1929 their joint effort won 104,539 votes, enough to send two Zionists and two Poles to Parliament. But the alliance was strictly for the election: the Zionists remained loyal to the Czech government, whereas the Poles oriented toward Poland. In Parliament the Zionists ran into another problem, because speaking rights in debates were alloted by voting strength. They were therefore compelled to find refuge in the Czech Social Democratic faction as 'guests'. The Social Democrats already had Jews in their party as good Czechs, and they took in the two Zionists simply to get two more votes for the government which they supported. The Jewish Party's extremely narrow interests, opposition to Sunday closing laws and their efforts to get the government to subsidise Hebrew-language schools in the Carpatho-Ukraine, did not disturb Czech domination of the state. The Zionists always looked toward the Czechs for fulfilment of their ambitions, and they never saw themselves as the allies of the subordinate ethnic groups, not even the Poles with whom they had an electoral pact. For all their Jewish nationalism, they were simply an adjunct of the Czech supremacy. In their own fight against linguistic assimilation they had come to regard the fight for the rights of the other nationalities as a form of radical assimilationism. Their prime goal was central government support for their fledgeling school system, and to get this they remained loyal to the Czecho-slovakian state and Thomas Masaryk and Edvard Benes.

After the surrender of the Sudeten in 1938, and the concomitant fall of Benes's government, the patronage of the rump Czech state for 'national' Jewry evaporated. The new Czech leaders, actually the right wing of the previous government, were determined to adapt to the new reality of Nazi domination of Central Europe, and they knew that Hitler would never consider coming to terms with them if the Jews had the free run of their new 'Czecho-Slovakia'. The new Prime Minister, Rudolph Beran, leader of the Agrarian Party, which had been the dominant party in the Cabinet under the Benes Republic, informed Parliament after the Munich Conference that anti-Semitism would now be the official policy of his government. It was necessary to 'limit the tasks of the Jews in the life of the nations which are the bearers of the state idea'. His declaration was accepted with one dissenting vote. A Czech rightist rose in defence of the Jews, but the deputy of the Jewish Party, who had never spoken up on behalf of the oppressed under Benes, now did not raise his voice in defence of his own people.


Romania-'Yids to Palestine!'


Romania before 1914 was determinedly anti-Semitic. Most of its Jews had come as refugees from Russia, and the Romanian government simply denied them and their descendants the right to become citizens. The fact that Romania sided with the Allies during the First World War provided new territories at Versailles, which brought many thousands of additional Jews into the expanded state. Now the Jews received citizenship rights, as the Versailles powers insisted that Bucharest grant minimal rights to its millions of new non-Romanian subjects. Discrimination against the Jews continued of course, and began for the other non-Romanians, but ethnic hostility was only one of the country's problems. Apart from the fundamental economic problems, the government was notably corrupt: 'Rumania is not a country, it is a profession', became a celebrated Yiddish proverb of the day.

Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s there was some improvement in the status of the Jews. They were 5.46 per cent of the population and the politicians began to court their vote; the King, Carol II, even took a Jewish mistress, the famous Magda Lupescu. All progressive elements saw anti-Semitism as an integral part of the general backwardness that the country had to overcome. Although the Social Democrats were extremely timid, the National Peasant Party (NPP) and the Radical Peasant Party were more vigorous in opposing anti-Semitism. They wanted land reform and more democracy, and realised that those who would deny the Jews their rights were also opposed to democracy in general.

Jews supported all parties except the extreme anti-Semites. Many of the prosperous Romanian-speakers even voted for the more moderate anti-Semitic parties, as long as they used the police against hoodlums. Other Jews, in Transylvania, were passionate Hungarian nationalists. A minority voted for the Social Democrats or backed the outlawed Communists. The Zionists, based on the non-Romanian-speakers, slowly put together a Jewish Party which, after some experience in the local elections, ran for the national Parliament in 1931. They did well, in their own terms, and gained 64,1 75 votes --over 50 per cent of the Jewish vote, and four seats in the Parliament, although this only amounted to 2.19 per cent of the total vote. In the July 1932 elections they did slightly better, getting 67,582 votes or 2.48 per cent of the poll, and they held their four seats.

The leaders of the Jewish Party were from the small-town middle class. They appreciated that the NPP opposed anti-Semitism and they allied themselves loosely with the peasants in the Parliament, but they were, at best, only lukewarm supporters of the peasant cause. Their middle-class base saw itself threatened economically by the co-operative movement, which always followed on the heels of a peasant awakening. Instead of facing up to the real political challenge confronting Romania during the inter-war period, the Zionist leaders busied themselves in Jewish communal activities, not realising that they were weakening the Jewish position by remaining isolated from the struggle for democratic changes.

The extreme anti-Semites were already violent in the 1920s. Corneliu Codreanu, the founder of the Legion of the Archangel Michael and its terrorist Iron Guard, had been acquitted of murdering the chief of police in Jassy in 1924. A Jewish student had been murdered in 1926 and the killer acquitted, and there were riots in 1929 and 1932, but there was no chance of the extreme right coming to power until after the impact of Hitler's victory in 1933. With the Nazi triumph, the slow trend away from anti-Semitism was sharply reversed. The Fascist forces now had a number of psychological advantages. If Germany, a highly civilised state, could turn anti-Semitic, the local extremists could no longer be written off as backward fanatics; nor were the Iron Guard part of the universal corruption.

Although the erosion of parliamentary democracy was fairly rapid, there was substantial resistance. The National Peasant Party spoke out against anti-Semitism until the 1937 election, when it suddenly changed direction and formed an alliance with the anti-Semites. The Radical Peasants continued to speak out and even, in some cases, physically defended the Jews, but they were no match for the far right.


'Put up their own . . . Candidates and Vote among Themselves'


Disaster had already hit the Jewish Party in the December 1933 elections. Hitler's triumph in Berlin made the election of Codreanu in Bucharest much more of a possibility, and many of the party's supporters realised that if they were going to live in safety in Romania they would have to have the protection of Romanian allies. The Jewish Party vote dropped to 38,565 (1.3 per cent) and all four seats were lost. In 1935 the Social Democrats raised the call for a Popular Front of all liberal forces, but excluding the Communists. They, in their turn, supported an alliance with the socialists and the NPP. Both parties wanted to combine with the NPP, not the other, but the NPP refused to unite with either, and signed a 'non-aggression pact' with the Fascists for the December 1937 elections. The Socialists, Radical Peasants and the Jewish Party all stood individually and the Communists, consistent with their view that the NPP were absolutely necessary for an anti-Fascist government, told their supporters to vote for the NPP. The election was a rout for the fractured anti-Fascists; the Social Democrat vote dropped from an already anaemic 3.25 per cent to 1.3 per cent and they were wiped out as a parliamentary group. The Jewish Party hoped to go back into Parliament with the votes of Jews who could not now vote for the NPP. But their gain was too tiny, and they only achieved 1.4 per cent of the poll.

Had the Jewish Party and the Social Democrats joined forces, they at least would have gained the statutory 2 per cent required to obtain one seat but, of course, a united-front effort would have drawn other forces to them as well. For a separate Jewish party to stand for election alone was political suicide. It was exactly what the anti-Semites wanted; Octavian Goga, who became Prime Minister after the election, had told the Jews during the campaign to 'remain in their homes or put up their own lists of candidates and vote among themselves'.


'Emigration Deals are in Order'


No wing of the Zionist movement had shown any interest in the struggle against the anti-Semitic wave in Romania. In November 1936 the American Labor Zionist Newsletter, which expressed the ideological guidance of Enzo Sereni and Golda Myerson (Meir), who were then the Poale Zion emissaries in the United States, stated the strategic position of the dominant tendency in the WZO: 'Unless the Peasant Party seizes power immediately the country will be taken over by the Nazis, and will become a satellite of Germany. Emigration deals are in order.' A pact was envisioned with the incumbent regime or its successor --be it the NPP or the Fascists-- to encourage some of the Jews to emigrate to Palestine as a method of relieving some of the 'pressure' of the presence of 'too many Jews'. But such a 'deal' would have been taken by the anti-Semites to mean that if they tried harder they would be able to get rid of even more Jews, and it would have triggered further demands by the anti-Semites in other countries for the Jews to start 'voluntarily' leaving Europe. Rather than help organise the struggle against the oncoming Fascists, the WZO was projecting a disastrous extension of its Ha'avara strategy to Eastern Europe.

'Jidanii in Palestina!' (Yids to Palestine!) had long been the warcry of the Iron Guards and other anti-Semites. The only sensible way for the Jews to respond to the menace was to seek unity with all others who were willing to make a common stand for liberty; but the Zionists, who had the electoral support of the majority of the Jews at the start of the right-wing upsurge, never made a move in that direction. Fascism did come to power, and the country was to witness the horrors of the Holocaust.

In January 1941 the Iron Guard broke with its allies in the government, and a short but furious civil war was waged in the capital. The Guard used the occasion to slaughter at least 2,000 Jews in the most barbaric fashion. Some 200 Jews were led to the slaughterhouse and had their throats cut in imitation of the Jewish rites of animal slaughter. Yet there was another side to the story. The dairy farmers of Dudesti Cioplea, a little village near Bucharest, sent messengers to the Jewish quarter: any Jews who could escape to their town would be protected. Over a thousand Jews fled there and were protected by peasants using their hunting rifles. The Iron Guard tried to break in, but was resolutely turned back. That there were not more Dudesti Ciopleas was due to the failure of the anti-Fascist forces, including the Jewish Party, to unite against Codreanu's killers in the 1930s.