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Feb 23, 2011

Smuggler Without Borders

In 1947, the Haganah gave him the mission of a lifetime: help the Holocaust survivors stranded on the Exodus. Professor Meier Schwarz, scientist, historian, and former Haganah member, was no stranger to secret operations. Already an orphan when he fled from Germany to Eretz Yisrael at age thirteen, he helped smuggle thousands of refugees into the Holy Land, learning his lesson early on how to be self-reliant and how to place duty before emotions

Libi Astaire

“There were Torah-observant Jews in the Haganah?”

Professor Meier Schwarz stares at me, as if to ask, “What's the question?”

What's the question, indeed? There's an old saying that goes, “History is written by the winners,” and the history of the modern State of Israel is no different. Therefore, when most people think of the Haganah -- the paramilitary organization that defended Jewish settlements during the British Mandate and brought tens of thousands of Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors to Eretz Yisrael illegally -- the image that comes to mind is not that of a frum yungerman from Nuremberg.

But on a wintry day in Jerusalem, which just happens to coincide with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Professor Schwarz, eighty-five, sets the record straight: “Everyone on my kibbutz joined the Haganah. We helped them and they helped us.”

“Us” were the members of a religious kibbutz that later became known as Kibbutz Chafetz Chaim. Its members were mostly young people who had fled Nazi Germany alone, as children -- people like Meier Schwarz. And so before we talk about the dramatic events that took place during those twilight years between World War II and the founding of the State of Israel, Professor Schwarz -- who was part of the clandestine operation to run illegal immigrants against and around the British blockade -- puts his German childhood into the perspective of his future brush with history.

If Only … “I was born in Nuremberg, in 1926,” says Meier Schwarz -- current head of Beit Ashkenaz, a historical research organization dedicated to preserving the memory of Germany's destroyed Jewish communities -- describing a childhood that was cut off in the middle. “My father was an officer in the German army in World War I. He was also one of the heads of our synagogue, Adas Yisrael, which was burned down on Kristallnacht. My mother came from a little village not far from Nuremberg. I had an older brother, Yosef, who was five years older than me.

“Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany in January 1933, and it took just a few days to realize that something was different. But most German Jews didn't leave. They said, 'I have a business here. I have money. My family has lived here for hundreds of years. What can happen to me?'”

The Schwarz family found out in September 1937 -- a full two years before World War II began. Ludwig Schwarz, Meier's father, was on his way to work when he was pulled off the train by some Germans and killed.

Yet despite the deteriorating situation in Germany, Meier remembers taking a walk with his brother on a Sunday morning, intending to enjoy the beautiful spring weather. The atmosphere became tense when they spotted an official-looking limousine. “In the front seat was a chauffeur. In the backseat was Hitler. No one else was around -- no one. If only my brother or I had had a gun, we perhaps could have changed history.”

But they didn't have a gun, and so the diabolical plans of the Nazi regime continued. Meanwhile, Meier's mother became ill and was taken to a hospital, where she was refused medicine because she was Jewish. And then came Kristallnacht. The two brothers were alone when five Nazi soldiers stormed inside their family's apartment at two in the morning and smashed everything in sight. Yosef, as the acting head of the family, decided that the time had come to get Meier out of Germany.

Goodbye Forever By this time, the Kindertransport was sending Jewish children to England, but Meier wasn't eligible since children who spoke some English were given preference. “In my school, we learned French. So I wasn't accepted.”

Meier also didn't qualify for the Aliyat HaNoar (Youth Aliyah) program that was sending Jewish children to Eretz Yisrael. Children had to be at least fifteen, and he was only thirteen. But then a new program -- Aliyat HaYeladim (Children's Aliyah) -- was started for children who were thirteen or younger and Meier was accepted. Somehow Yosef came up with the 25,000 German marks needed for all the paperwork and train and boat tickets, and Meier packed his suitcase.

“I said goodbye to my mother, who was in the hospital. Then I went with my brother to the Munich train station. He put me on the train.”

That was the last time Meier saw his family. His mother died in the hospital in 1940. Yosef, who was the head of a hachsharah institute -- an agricultural school that trained young people for life in Eretz Yisrael -- refused to leave Germany unless everyone in the institute could emigrate as well. He was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 and died a year later.

Meier, alone in Jerusalem, studied at the Horev School, dorming with other children who were refugees from Nazi Germany. It was a lonely time, but it was there that he learned qualities that would serve him well later on: how to be self-reliant and how to place duty before emotions.

He left Horev when he was fifteen and joined an Aliyat HaNoar group that became the nucleus of a new religious kibbutz that later became Chafetz Chaim. There was no water amusement park back then -- just a lot of hard work; the young men spent half a day in the fields and half a day learning Gemara.

“We didn't know what was going on in Europe,” Meier explains. “On the kibbutz there was one newspaper, which we all had to share. News about Europe was never on the front page. No one could believe that so many Jews were being killed.”

While Meier was living on the kibbutz, he received one letter from his brother, which was delivered to him by the Red Cross. “A person was allowed to write twenty-five words, and you couldn't complain. In my brother's letter he wrote, 'Tomorrow we are going to the East.' From that I understood that he was being sent to Auschwitz.”

Professor Schwarz is silent for a few moments, but he is not someone who dwells in sadness. Already he is moving on to the next stage of his life, which began after the end of the war: “I decided that I wanted to help Jewish people come to Palestine.”

For the full article, buy the current edition of Mishpacha.com

2 comments:

  1. Kind of remarkable that on a Poalei Agudat Yisrael kibbutz, 'everybody' joined the Haganah. A different attitude and behavior from what we think of with Agudah today.

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  2. there were also religious Jews in the Mossad. In "The House on Garibaldi Street," Isser Harel wrote that one of the members was a religious woman who was only eating bread and eggs in Argentina. For her real story see http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1025999.html

    ReplyDelete

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