“And over here is where the gas chambers didn’t exist…”

October 10, 2010

[Note by Tom Gross]

This is the latest in an occasional series of dispatches on anti-Semitism. The subject is relevant to the Middle East peace process because it forms part of the Israeli world view. Attacks on Jews elsewhere undoubtedly have a bearing on Israel’s reluctance to entrust the international community with questions affecting its security and even its existence. Can Israel rely on international protection if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, or if the sea border to Gaza is fully open to allow arms to flow in?

The recent increase in anti-Semitism can sometimes be exaggerated. But one shouldn’t use instances of exaggeration as an excuse for neglecting or underestimating the ugly and often horrifying persistence of this problem. All the incidents outlined below have occurred in the last couple of months or so.

This dispatch is split in two for space reasons. The second part of the dispatch (“Because what he said wasn’t true; & How long did this take?”) can be read here.



1. Polish group takes legal action against David Irving for Auschwitz tours
2. British MI6 carried out bomb attacks against Holocaust survivor ships after WWII
3. Britain and Spain, the only two OECD countries to boycott Israel
4. Greek judiciary denounced for siding with notorious anti-Semite
5. Jewish pilgrim stabbed to death near rabbi’s tomb in Ukraine
6. Bomb explodes outside synagogue in Russia
7. Lithuanian Jews outraged as pig’s head placed at entrance to synagogue
8. Bishkek police investigate attack on synagogue
9. “WW2 Britain blew up Jewish refugee ships” (By Andrew Roberts, The Daily Beast)
10. “To equate Soviet and Nazi crimes is dishonest” (By Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian)

[All notes below by Tom Gross]


A human rights group in Poland is taking legal action against the British “historian” David Irving for minimizing the scale of Nazi atrocities after Irving last month began giving tours of the Warsaw Ghetto and of former Nazi death camps, including Auschwitz and Treblinka.

Dariusz Gabrel of Open Republic Poland said “Material evidence clearly shows that Irving has broken the law. Poland, the country in which the Nazis committed many of their crimes against humanity, should be especially sensitive to Irving’s kind of crime.”

Irving arrived in Poland last month to lead his much criticized tour of Nazi sites, for which wealthy far-right sympathizers from across Europe are paying $2,650 each.

Irving was convicted of Holocaust denial in 2006 by a court in Austria and sentenced to three years in jail.

The Polish anti-racist group Nigdy Wiecej (Never Again) called on the Polish government to ban Irving from entering the country. The Polish Embassy in London said that Irving could not be barred from the country but said its secret service would closely monitor his movements.

On one tour last week, Irving tried to argue that Treblinka, where almost a million Jews were exterminated on arrival, was a place where inmates were merely held in barracks to perform manual work for the Third Reich.



The British intelligence service MI6 used bombs and covert tactics to try to thwart Jewish Holocaust survivors and refugees reaching pre-state Israel in the aftermath of World War II, according to a new book by Northern Irish historian Keith Jeffery on the history of MI6.

This is not some speculative spy story that can be denied by the authorities since Dr. Jeffrey’s book is, in their own words, “published with the permission of The Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the Controller of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.”

Jeffery says that the British undertook the effort – dubbed Operation Embarrass – in order to curry favor with oil-rich Arab states upset over Jewish migration to the Middle East. In 1947 and 1948, MI6 planted explosives to disable ships docked in Italian ports before they could transport Jewish men, women and children from Europe to Palestine, which was at the time under British control.

In addition to the direct physical sabotage, the British launched a disinformation and propaganda campaign against Jews to impede the establishment of their state. The British Foreign Office helped in these efforts, according to the archives cited by Jeffery.

MI6 even considered blowing up the Baltimore steamship President Warfield (which later became famous as the “Exodus” ship that “launched a nation”) while in port in France.


Please also see Andrew Roberts’ article on this subject further down in this dispatch. He notes that “The depth of the animosity that Establishment Britain, especially the Foreign Office, felt toward the Jews of Palestine clearly went even further than we had ever imagined, and even 70 years later is by no means extinguished.”



The Israeli paper Ha’aretz and the pan-Arab network al-Jazeera report that the governments of Britain and Spain are the only two in the OECD to announce that they will not attend the OECD tourism conference, which this year takes place in Jerusalem

Their decision comes despite the fact that Israel’s tourism minister has made clear that OECD delegates will not be taken to East Jerusalem in the conference.

Other delegates (including those from countries with governments hostile to Israel, such as South Africa and Turkey) will participate. Apparently hostility to the Jewish state is even greater in the British and Spanish governments than it is in the Turkish one.

The Paris-based OECD is an intergovernmental body committed to democracy, market economics, and sustainable economic growth and world trade.


The British embassy in Tel Aviv tells me that the story above, which was reported in Ha’aretz, al-Jazeera and elsewhere, is not true. The embassy says that while the U.K. is indeed not sending a delegate, the absence is not for political reasons and it didn’t send a delegate to an earlier meeting of the same group that took place in Paris. But it is sending a delegate to another OECD working group meeting in Jerusalem later in October.



Three Greek human rights activists have gone on trial for speaking out against judges who acquitted a notorious anti-Semite and extreme-right politician in Greece.

American Jewish leaders called on the president of the European Parliament to send an official envoy to monitor their trial in Athens and criticized the Greek judiciary for acquitting the self-declared anti-Semite Konstantinos Plevris and for now trying to silence the critics of this decision.

“The American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants” said: “Holocaust survivors are appalled that the Greek judiciary has initiated proceedings in which the victims are on trial while a vile hate monger stands as the accuser. Rarely have we seen such a grotesque perversion of justice. For the Greek courts to effectively act as an agent for a notorious Holocaust denier is a disgrace and an indictment of the Greek judicial system. Plevris has called Jews ‘subhuman’ and is an open admirer of the Nazis. We demand that Greece’s political and religious leaders speak out against this monstrous miscarriage of justice.”

Plevris, who is a lawyer, has repeatedly called for Jews to be killed so that “our [Greek] race can survive Zionism.” Plevris is an open admirer of National Socialism, and is author of a book titled “Jews: the whole truth”.

The trial of the Greek human rights activists who condemned Plevris opened on September 22 and has now been adjourned until December.



A young ultra-Orthodox Israeli was stabbed to death two weeks ago near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman, a place of traditional pilgrimage in Uman, Ukraine.

Shmuel Tobol, a 19-year old member of the Bratslav Hasidic community, who wear the distinctive dress of ultra-orthodox Jews, was set upon and stabbed to death by local Ukrainians. His brother was also injured.

Rabbi Nachman died of tuberculosis at age 38 in Uman surrounded by a small handful of followers; 200 years later, tens of thousands of religious Jews are influenced by his teachings and try to make a pilgrimage to his gravesite in Ukraine.



A homemade bomb exploded recently outside a synagogue in the Russian town of Tver, 170 km northwest of Moscow. The device damaged the entrance hall of the synagogue and shattered windows in several apartments nearby. Thankfully no one was injured. The Russian news agency Interfax reports that Russian anti-terrorism police have joined crime experts to investigate the incident.

“The explosion was a culmination of repeated attacks on practicing Jews,” the Federation of Russian Jewish Communities said in a statement. “Before this, anti-Semitic slogans had appeared on the synagogue’s walls, anti-Semitic leaflets had been circulated in the city, and 140 gravestones at the Jewish part of the city cemetery were defaced last year.”

No one has been arrested.



Jewish organizations representing the remainder of Lithuania’s once thriving Jewish community have expressed revulsion after a pig’s head was left at the entrance of a synagogue in the country’s second largest city, Kaunas.

Lithuania was once home to a 220,000-strong Jewish community, and Vilnius was known as the ‘Jerusalem of the North’. During the Holocaust, 95 percent of Lithuania’s Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators and almost all of Vilnius’s 100 synagogues destroyed.

(Please see the related article below by Jonathan Freedland, who reported from Lithuania, where I also visited recently.)



Police in the Kyrgyz capital have opened an investigation into an attack on the city synagogue. An explosive device detonated after it was thrown into the synagogue yard during Jewish New Year celebrations last month.

Nobody was reported hurt in the explosion, which caused minor damage to the synagogue. About 1,300 Jews remain in Kyrgyzstan, the majority of whom live in Bishkek. The rest have left for Israel and elsewhere.


There is also much anti-Semitism in the Arab world. Among recent dispatches on this, please see these cartoons concerning June’s Turkish flotilla to Gaza.


I attach two articles below related to items above, by historian Andrew Roberts and by Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland. (Both are subscribers to this email list.)

[All notes above by Tom Gross]



WW2 Britain blew up Jewish refugee ships
By Andrew Roberts
The Daily Beast
September 2010

A new book uncovers shocking secret attacks launched on ships bearing Holocaust survivors en route to Israel. Andrew Roberts on the violent lengths to which post-war Britain went to appease oil-rich Arab states.

As Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, the pitiful remnants of History’s greatest crime, tried to make their way across an often hostile Europe at the end of the Second World War, toward at least a semblance of safety in the Holy Land, they had no shortage of problems with which to contend, including disease and malnutrition, Polish anti-Semitism, Soviet indifference, Allied bureaucracy, and Arab nationalism. Now we discover that they faced yet another peril in the shape of bombs planted on their transport ships by Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6.

A new book to be published next week entitled MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949, by the distinguished British historian Keith Jeffery, reveals the existence of Operation Embarrass, a plan to try to prevent Jews getting into Palestine in 1946-’48 using disinformation and propaganda but also explosive devices placed on ships. Nor is this some speculative spy story that can be denied by the authorities: Dr. Jeffrey’s book is actually, in their own words: “Published with the permission of The Secret Intelligence Service and the Controller of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.”

When on June 1 this year the British government denounced as “completely unacceptable” the way that the Israelis landed troops on the Turkish flotilla to Gaza we did not know that its predecessor had done much the same, actually blowing up one ship and damaging two more vessels of a genuinely humanitarian flotilla that was trying to bring Jewish survivors of the Nazi death camps to their people’s ancient homeland.

Of course the hostility of the British establishment toward Jewish immigration into Palestine since long before the notorious 1939 White Paper on the subject is well-known – even King George VI wrote that year to say that he was “glad to think that steps are being taken to prevent these people leaving their country of origin” – nonetheless this is the first indication of the violent lengths to which post-war Britain was willing to go in order to appease the oil-rich Arab states of the region.

For it now emerges that in late 1946 the Labour government of Clement Attlee asked MI6 for “proposals for action to deter ships masters and crews from engaging in illegal Jewish immigration and traffic,” adding, “Action of the nature contemplated is, in fact, a form of intimidation and intimidation is only likely to be effective if some members of the group of people to be intimidated actually suffer unpleasant consequences.”

Among the options contemplated were “the discovery of some sabotage device, which had ‘failed’ to function after the sailing of a ship,” “tampering with a ship’s fresh water supplies or the crew’s food,” and “fire on board ship in port.” Sir Stewart Menzies, the chief of the SIS, suggested these could be blamed on an invented Arab terrorist group called The Defenders of Arab Palestine.

Operation Embarrass was therefore launched after a meeting held on February 14, 1947 between officials from MI6, the armed services, the Colonial Office and the Foreign Office, the last represented by William Hayter, the head of Foreign Office Services Liaison Department, a high-flier who later became ambassador to Moscow. I knew Sir William Hayter in later life, but needless to say he never breathed a word about this operation. In his defense, it must be said that Hayter did order MI6 to ensure that arson “must be arranged, if at all, when the ship is empty.”

The Operation Embarrass team was told that “the primary consideration was to be that no proof could ever be established between positive action against this traffic and His Majesty’s Government [HMG].” A special communications network, codenamed Ocean, was set up with a budget of £30,000 ($47,000), a great deal of money in 1947. The operation had three aspects: direct action against refugee ships, a “black” propaganda campaign, and a deception scheme to disrupt immigration from Black Sea ports. A team of former Special Operations Executive agents – with the cover story of a yachting trip – was sent to France and Italy with limpet bombs and timers. If captured, “they were under no circumstances to admit their connection with HMG” but instead claim to have been recruited in New York “by an anti-Communist organization formed by a group of international industrialists, mainly in the oil and aircraft industries,” i.e. to lay the blame on rich, right-wing, unnamed Americans. They were told that this cover “was their final line of defense and, even in the event of a prison sentence, no help could be expected from HMG.”

During the summer of 1947 and early 1948, five attacks were undertaken on ships in Italian ports, of which one was rendered “a total loss” and two others were damaged. Two other British-made limpet mines were discovered before they went off, but the Italian authorities did not find their country of origin suspicious, “as the Arabs would of course be using British stores.” Operation Embarrass even considered blowing up the Baltimore steamship President Warfield when in harbor in France, which later became famous in Israeli history as the “Exodus” ship that “launched a nation.”

The country that ought to be embarrassed by Operation Embarrass – indeed shamed – is Great Britain, which used explosives to try to stop truly humanitarian flotillas after the Holocaust, but now condemns embattled Israel for halting entirely politically inspired flotillas to Gaza despite her rights of legitimate self-defense. The depth of the animosity that Establishment Britain, especially the Foreign Office, felt toward the Jews of Palestine clearly went even further than we had ever imagined, and even 70 years later is by no means extinguished.



I see why ‘double genocide’ is a term Lithuanians want. But it appals me
To equate Soviet and Nazi crimes is dishonest and historically false. Why has this poisonous idea taken such deep root?
By Jonathan Freedland in Vilnius
The Guardian
September 14, 2010

No one wants to live surrounded by death. It’s understandable that people who now live on the spot that was once the Kovno ghetto, where close to 35,000 Jews were herded, starved and eventually led to their deaths, would not want to be constantly reminded of the fact. So I was not too surprised this week to watch fathers pushing baby buggies and mothers carrying groceries on Linkuvos Street, a residential road in modern Kaunas, Lithuania, with just one small obelisk – barely visible amid the traffic at a junction – marking the site where the gates to the ghetto once stood. The wording, in Hebrew and Lithuanian, is brief: no death toll, no mention of the unspeakable suffering that happened within.

I understand, too, why there are no special road signs directing visitors to make the short drive to the Ninth Fort, the place where the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators dug deep, vast pits – into which they shot almost 10,000 Jews, including 4,273 children, on a single day in October 1941, the so-called Great Action. I can see why the people of Kaunas would prefer the Ninth Fort to be seen only by those people who come looking for it.

Memory and history never belong solely in the past; they are contested in the here and now, as freighted with politics as any other aspect of the present. So it is in Lithuania, which, along with neighbouring Latvia and Poland, had a walk-on part in British politics last year, when David Cameron came under fire for partnering his MEPs with assorted ultra-nationalist fringe parties from eastern Europe. This week, searching along with my father for the roots of our family – one branch of which once lived in the Lithuanian village of Baisogala – I had a chance to examine what had once been a faraway Westminster battle on the ground and up close.

I have now seen for myself, for example, that the Ninth Fort includes not only a massive, Soviet-era socialist-realist memorial to the dead buried in those pits, but a newer exhibition hall, covering the oppression of the Soviet years – even though the connection between subject and location is tenuous at best. Of course, I can see why Lithuanians want to remember the era of the gulag and forced exile to Siberia. It was more recent than the second world war; it lasted longer; and it affected families still living in Lithuania. Besides, for four postwar decades to speak of that pain was forbidden, leaving a yearning for commemoration and recognition.

Pushing myself hard, I could almost empathise with the “double genocide” approach, officially endorsed in Lithuania and other former Soviet lands, which holds that nazism and communism were twin evils of the 20th century and ought to be remembered alongside each other – an approach embodied by the Ninth Fort, with its double museums, one recording the horrors of Hitler, the other counting the crimes of Stalin.

After all, this is not a competition – and if it is, it’s not one any Jew would want to win. Jews don’t want or need a monopoly on grief. Tears are not in finite supply: there are more than enough to go around.

But, no matter how great an effort of empathy I make, I cannot go along with the “double genocide”, especially not now that I’ve seen how it plays out in practice rather than in theory. For one thing, the equation of Nazi and communist crimes rarely entails an honest account of the former. The plaque at the Ninth Fort, for instance, identifies the killers only as “Nazis and their assistants”. It does not spell out that those assistants were Lithuanian volunteers, enthusiastically murdering their fellow Lithuanians. In my travels, visiting a whole clutch of sites, I did not encounter one that gave a direct, explicit account of this bald, harsh truth: that Lithuania’s Jews were victims of one of the highest killing rates in Nazi Europe, more than 90%, chiefly because the local population smoothed the Germans’ path. Indeed, they began killing Jews on June 22 1941, before Hitler’s men had even arrived.

Second, even if the theoretical intention is to remember a “double genocide”, it rarely stays double for very long. Take the Museum of Genocide Victims, off Vilnius’s central Gedimino Boulevard. You would think such a place would feature the genocide of which Vilnius was close to the centre, namely the slaughter of the Jews. But you’d be wrong. The Holocaust is not mentioned. The focus is entirely on the suffering inflicted by the KGB. Outside, there are two prominent stone memorials for Moscow’s victims. If you wish to remember Lithuania’s 200,000 slain Jews, you have to wander far from the main drag, up a side street, to the tiny Green House – which is anyway closed for renovation and whose director, under pressure from state officials, is fighting for her job.

It’s the same story with a 2008 change in the law that, in the name of equivalence, banned not just Nazi symbols but Soviet ones too. As if that were not bad enough – banning a veteran of the anti-Hitler resistance from parading his medals – in May, a Lithuanian court held that the swastika was not a Nazi symbol after all, but part of “Baltic culture” and therefore could be displayed in public.

Even if the authorities were rigorous in maintaining a balance, and telling both stories honestly, I would still reject this “double genocide”. For the symmetry here is false. No one wants to top the persecution league table, but nor can one accept that those who were “arrested, interrogated and imprisoned” – to quote the Vilnius museum – suffered the same fate as those Jews who were murdered, despite the exhibit’s attempt to equalise them under the bland umbrella term “losses”. The oppression of the Soviet years was terrible, but it was not genocide: to be arrested is not to be shot into a pit. They are different and to say otherwise is to rob “genocide”, a very specific term, of all meaning.

Finally, there is a sinister undertone to all this equivalence talk. Professor Egidijus Aleksandravicius of Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas told me that many Lithuanians like to imagine that if their forebears killed Jews it was only as “revenge” for all that communists (for which read Jews) had inflicted on them. On this logic – warped because Soviet rule hit Jews as hard as anyone else – the “double genocide” in effect says: you hurt us, we hurt you, now we’re even.

Why has this poisonous idea taken such deep root? Dovid Katz, who taught Yiddish at Vilnius University until his contract was not renewed this year, suspects geopolitics: “It supplies a massive stick with which to beat today’s Russia,” he says. Lithuania wants its European Union partners to see Moscow as a genocidal regime that has not made restitution.

He detects another motive too: the nationalist desire for Lithuanians to see themselves as a pristine people, free of stains on their record. Admitting the truth of the wartime past threatens that; insistence on victim status preserves it.

This may inform the action the rest of the world should take. Professor Aleksandravicius calls for a “soft hand”, for outsiders to understand how psychologically difficult it is for people to realise that victims can be perpetrators too, to accept that having suffered in the first Soviet rule of 1940-41, “Lithuanians turned on the weakest people of all, the Jews”.

I respect that approach: memory is a sensitive business. But governments will have to speak more forcefully. Lithuania is in the EU and Nato: its partners in those bodies have a duty to tell Vilnius plainly that it needs to reckon with its past truthfully, no matter how painful that may be. Only then will the haunting spirits of the past let it rest.



Lithuania’s double genocide policy

Jonathan Freedland has done a service in highlighting the disturbing trend in historical memory in Lithuania (I see why ‘double genocide’ is a term Lithuanians want. But it appals me, 15 September), a phenomenon with parallels in rather too many parts of Europe. That said, we should also acknowledge that, however inadequate Lithuanian memorialisation of the Holocaust may be, it is in many ways an improvement on that found in the Soviet Union.

Communist party policy ignored sites of Jewish suffering for decades, attested to most famously by the lengthy struggles involving Yevtushenko, Shostakovich and others for a memorial at Babi Yar in Kiev. Even if eventually constructed, monuments referred blandly to “Soviet citizens” or “victims of fascism”.

By contrast, most killing sites in Lithuania are now at least marked with memorials which explicitly mention the identity of the victims and, very occasionally, the perpetrators. Jonathan is, though, sadly correct in noting that few Lithuanians pay them any heed.

Martin Winstone
Author, The Holocaust Sites of Europe

Lithuania has taken more than a “walk-on part in British politics”. When the European parliament called on its members, in April 2009, to mark 23 August as the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism, and when the OSCE, in July 2009, adopted the Vilnius Declaration on increasing awareness of totalitarian crimes, we too became party to the equation of Nazi crimes with those of communism in the Baltic states. By accepting the parallelism, we also have excused collaborators, ignored the unspeakable savageries perpetrated in Lithuania between 1941 and 1945, condoned the pardoning of every single Lithuanian war criminal until today, and endorsed the prosecution of Jewish resistance fighters, whose situation remains unresolved.

Professor Tessa Rajak

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.