The five and a half years of the Second World War in Europe (September 1939 - May 1945) were one of the darkest periods that the Jewish people had ever known. Prior to the outbreak of the war, the Jews numbered a record 17 million; until the Nazis, with their mechanism of destruction, reduced that number by six million.
The extent of the horror of the Holocaust only became known at the end of 1942, Until then it was assumed that in spite of the fact that the Nazis were not averse to killing and had ample opportunity to do so, millions of Jews would remain in Nazi-occupied countries, With hindsight, there are those who claim that the Jewish leadership throughout the free world, especially the Zionist leaders, did too little too late to save the Jews in occupied Europe, Those accused claimed that for a long period there was no clear information regarding the horrors being inflicted on the Jews, and therefore there was not much that they could do. This added to the atmosphere of disbelief, so that when the shocking reports began to filter through, few actually believed them ("Such a thing can't be!").
Zionist activity during the war focused on three places: London, Jerusalem and New York. Zionist leaders, especially Weizmann, Ben-Gurion and Sharett, did all they could to enlist the support of the World Zionist Organization and the organized Yishuv in Eretz Israel to the British war effort. They proposed that the British recruit thousands of Jews in special units in the war against the Nazis. The British rejected the request, preferring to recruit, in the first stage, professionals without a national designation to different ancillary units. Only after the situation deteriorated, due to German successes, did they agree to establish Jewish infantry companies. In 1944, five years after the outbreak of the war, they agreed to allow the establishment of a Jewish Brigade consisting of more than 5,000 soldiers, with a Jewish national flag and insignia. The Brigade took part in the final offensive in Italy.
Zionist action during the war was led mainly by David Ben-Gurion, chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive. He adopted a policy that called for the immediate establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel, while cooperating with WZO president Dr. Chaim Weizmann. Ben-Gurion was of the opinion that just as World War I gave Zionism the Balfour Declaration, so World War II - after putting in place new political measures in the world - would produce a Jewish state. To this aim he invested all his time and energy. In spite of the war, he traveled a great deal between Palestine, England and America. Here he met with leaders and shapers of public opinion, as well as with Jewish leaders (especially in the US) and recruited Zionists and non-Zionists who supported the establishment of a Jewish state. Activities reached a peak in May 1942 when the Biltmore Program was approved at the Extraordinary Conference of American Zionists, which constituted the basis for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Six months later this program was adopted by the Inner Actions Committee of the World Zionist Organization in Jerusalem.
Jewish Eretz Israel developed impressively during the war years. At first there was a serious economic crisis with 10% of the Jewish Yishuv unemployed. But from 1942 the picture changed dramatically. The British turned Palestine into the first economic and logistic center of its kind. Industry developed at an astonishing rate in order to supply the myriad needs of the great British army; the immense building effort and the many services that the Jewish Yishuv provided the army and soldiers brought a prolonged period of prosperity. The standard of living rose and relations with the Arabs stabilized. In spite of the fact that there were differences of opinion on a number of subjects, like the continued White Paper policy, it was considered a positive time, from the point of view of achievements and future prospects. However, the terrible shadow of the destruction of European Jewry on the one hand, and the successes in Eretz Israel - where it was "business as usual" - on the other, only made the awkwardness of this special situation more apparent.
Throughout the war the Jewish defense force in Palestine took a number of important steps forward. The Hagana expanded its forces and its training, and established for the first time a permanent conscripted brigade - the Palmach. Tens of thousands of Yishuv members served in the British army and underwent advanced training in one of the best armies in the world. Etzel split at the beginning of the war due to its support of the British in the war. Those that left established Lehi (Lohamei Heret Israel). This small organization carried out acts of sabotage against the British, even during the darkest days when the Germans were close to conquering Palestine. In 1944, Etzel also began to operate against the British, and, consequently, clashed with the majority of the Yishuv and the Hagana.
In 1945, with the war at an end and the true extent of the Holocaust revealed, the Zionist heads and leaders of the Yishuv believed that the British would help them. Considering how badly the Jews had been treated in the war, they believed a change in British policy would result (first and foremost with regard to the White Paper of 1939), and that survivors of the Holocaust would be allowed to enter Palestine. In the months that followed these hopes were dashed.
World War II breaks out. The Zionist leaders and the Jewish Yishuv in Eretz Israel inform the British that the Yishuv is at the disposal of the war effort in the joint struggle against the Nazi adversary.
The first volunteers from the Yishuv are conscripted into the British army.
David Ben-Gurion defines the short-term aim of the Yishuv and Zionism: "We shall fight the war against Hitler as if there were no White Paper, and the White Paper as if there were no war." Throughout the Yishuv in Palestine a "national census of volunteers in the service of the homeland" takes place. More than 135,000 men and women are counted who are ready to join the British army and serve the Yishuv.
The Hagana puts all its forces at the disposal of the struggle against the Nazis. Etzel also announces that it is ending its struggle against the British and joining the war against the Germans.
Pinhas Rutenberg, head of the Palestine Electric Company, is made a member of the National Council due to the state of emergency, and is elected president.
The British announce the recruitment of volunteers to a pioneer corps. There is opposition in the Yishuv and a demand for recruitment to fighting units and not to auxiliary and service units.
Weizmann meets in London with Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty. Churchill declares that after the war Britain must aid in the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine consisting of three to four million people.
At the end of 1939, with a decline in the bloody riots initiated by the Arabs, the "stockade and tower" project comes to an end. Throughout the year, 17 settlements have been established by this method.
Information on the killing of Jews, expulsions and harsh edicts in Nazi-occupied Europe filters through.
Enormous progress for the WZO in the United States: within seven years the number of members grows from 8,000 to 43,000. By the end of the war, the number rises to 200,000. At the end of 1939, the Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs is established in neutral America in order to handle vital Zionist-related issues during the war.
During the first few months of the year, clandestine immigration continues, and thousands of Jews escaping from Nazi-occupied Europe look for ways to enter Palestine. The British do everything they can to put an end to this "illegal" aliyah and are unwilling to consider the danger to the lives of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.
British mandate land regulations come into effect as part of the policy of the White Paper, and Jewish land acquisition in Palestine is limited to a small part of the country. There is fury in the Yishuv, which finds expression in protest demonstrations.
Spring - Summer
With the fall of France to the Nazis and the joining of Italy with the Germans, the British army's situation in the Mediterranean and in the Middle East deteriorates. Syria and Lebanon are in the hands of the Vichy (the pro-Nazi authority in France) and Italian planes are positioned in Rhodes.
A split in Etzel leads to the departure of some members who object to helping the British, even in time of war. Those that leave establish a new underground organization, later to be called Lehi (Lohamei Herut Israel). It is led by Avraham Stern (Yair).
Italian planes bomb Haifa. Nine days later, an additional bombing leaves 50 dead.
Italian planes bomb Tel Aviv, resulting in more than 100 dead, many wounded and extensive damage to property. The Italians also prove a threat in the south as the Italian army is invading Egypt via Libya.
The British change their policy towards conscripting members of the Yishuv and are ready to recruit them to Jewish infantry companies. At the same time, they recruit Arabs to Arab infantry companies. The British permit the Jewish Agency to open recruitment offices in addition to the government recruitment offices.
A terrible disaster in Haifa port. The Hagana sinks the "Patria", a French ship carrying 1,700 "illegal" Jewish immigrants who the British are preparing to deport to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. The amount of explosives needed to damage the ship enough to prevent her from sailing is miscalculated and the ship sinks; more than 200 refugees lose their lives.
Information continues to arrive from Europe regarding German treatment of the millions of Jews in the countries under their control.
As the year progresses, the economic situation in Palestine worsens - due to the war, imports and exports cease and unemployment rises. Keren Hayesod conducts a large-scale emergency campaign in response to the Arab revolt of the late 1930s.
An increase in the conscription of Jewish Yishuv members to the British army. Leaders of the Yishuv and the WZO demand repeatedly that the British establish a large Jewish fighting force, or division. The British do not respond.
Dr. Chaim Weizmann, president of the WZO and a well-known chemist, arrives in the United States in order to recruit American scientists for the British war effort against the Germans.
The German army attacks the British in Libya. This constitutes a danger to Egypt and raises fears of a German invasion of Palestine. At the end of May, the German forces, under the command of General Rommel, reach the Egyptian border. The British army retreats.
A great German attack on the Balkans. Yugoslavia and Greece succumb to the Germans. Among the thousands of British soldiers taken captive in Greece are 1,500 Jewish soldiers from Eretz Israel.
Increased fears of a German invasion of Palestine. In order to strengthen the Yishuv, a special commando unit of the Hagana is established - the Palmach (short for Plugot Mahatz).
The "Ari HaYam", with 23 Hagana and Palmach fighters and a British officer on board, sets sail for Lebanon (where the French pro-Nazis are in power) on a sabotage mission. The ship disappears and the mystery is never solved.
The British army invades Syria and Lebanon, from Palestine, and conquers them from pro-Nazi Vichy France. The danger to Palestine from the north has passed. The first Palmach fighters help the British with the invasion. Among them are Moshe Dayan, Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin.
The Italians return and bomb Haifa and Tel Aviv.
Nazi Germany attacks the USSR with great force, and in a number of weeks conquers vast areas. There is tremendous fear in Palestine for the fate of the millions of Jews in Europe. Horrific news arrives daily regarding the slaughter of Jews in Romania, Lithuania, Poland and the USSR that have fallen into German hands.
Weizmann reiterates his demand that the British approve the establishment of a large Jewish division to fight the Germans. The British government, once again, does not respond.
David Ben-Gurion, chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, arrives in the United States for an extended visit in order to advance the Zionist cause during and after the war. He remains there until September 18, 1942.
German pressure on Egypt decreases following the British counterattack.
The economic crisis in Palestine continues.
A low point for Jewish aliyah to Eretz Israel. Only 4,500 Jews arrive in Palestine during the year, including "illegal" immigrants - the smallest number in ten years.
News regarding killings, expulsions and forced labor of Jews in occupied Europe continues to reach Palestine. Unconfirmed reports claim that death camps are being set up.
In Wannsee near Berlin the senior Nazi leaders convene and agree on the "final solution"-the destruction of all European Jewry. Reinhart Heidrich and Adolph Eichmann are to head the action.
In the January 1942 edition of the prestigious journal "Foreign Affairs", Dr. Chaim Weizmann publishes an article called "The Role of Palestine in the Solution of the Jewish Problem." In it he writes: "One must clearly say to the Arabs that the Jews will be encouraged to settle in Eretz Israel... [and they] can achieve freedom and self-rule by establishing their own state.. ."
The recruiting of Yishuv members to the British army increases. For the first time women are also recruited - to the ATS, an auxiliary corps for women. By the end of the war, the number of recruits reaches 30,000, among them 4,000 women.
The "Struma", an "illegal" immigrant ship that left Romania for Eretz Israel with 770 passengers on board, is sunk in the Black Sea, not far from Istanbul. Only one passenger survives.
The Extraordinary Conference of American Zionists, initiated by David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann, convenes in New York and approves the Biltmore Program (named after the hotel in which the Conference is held). The central issue is the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel after the war.
June - July
Rommel's army once again advances to the Egyptian border, crossing it eastwards. It arrives in El Alamein, 100 kilometers from Alexandria. There is increasing fear that the British will evacuate Palestine and that Germany will invade.
In the Jewish Yishuv a state of emergency is declared and plans are made to fortify the Carmel in case of a German invasion. The advance of the Germans in Russia toward the Caucasus also raises fears of a German invasion of the Middle East from the north.
Due to the deteriorating situation, the Yishuv's institutions implement a general call-up of all childless single and married people up to the age of 45. By the middle of 1942, some 20,000 men and women from the Jewish Yishuv join the British army.
The number of volunteers in the Arab community of Palestine is far less.
Palmach units are sent to southern Palestine, and to its shores, in order to aid in thwarting an invasion or landing of Germans from the sea. Due to the tense situation, conscription to the British army increases.
The Inner Actions Committee convenes in Jerusalem and adopts the Biltmore Program by a large majority. From this point on the program becomes the formal political program of the WZO.
The British army, under General Montgomery, attacks the Egyptian-Libyan front, repels Rommel's army and goes in pursuit of him. The German threat to Egypt and Palestine is over. There is great relief in the Jewish Yishuv. At the same time, there is also a dramatic change on the Russian front - a Russian victory on the Stalingrad front. This proves a turning point and constitutes the beginning of the fall of Nazi Germany.
In Eretz Israel the first reliable news regarding the horrifying extent of the Jewish Holocaust in Europe is published. Institutions of the Yishuv declare three days of mourning.
The economic crisis comes to an end due to the great demand for manpower and goods by the great British army. Throughout Palestine dozens of army camps and airports are set up.
The institutions of the Yishuv declare a 30-day mourning period in light of the Jewish Holocaust in Europe.
Following the sinking of the "Struma" and concern for the lives of the "illegal" immigrants arriving in Palestine by sea, clandestine immigration from Europe is stopped. HaMosad leAliyah Bet turns its efforts to bringing the "illegal" immigrants to Palestine by land from countries of the Middle East. Aliyah continues but is at a low point; only 4,200 Jews arrive in Palestine.
In the Yishuv and throughout the free world, conferences, assemblies and demonstrations are held denouncing the Nazi slaughter in occupied Europe and the lack of intervention on the part of the Allies.
A Jewish rebellion breaks out in the Warsaw Ghetto against the Germans.
A breakthrough in Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel: in the Negev three agricultural hilltop settlements (mitzpim) are established for exploring future settlement prospects in desert areas: Gvulot, Revivim and Bet-Eshel.
The first paratrooper, among the dozens trained from the Jewish Yishuv to operate behind German lines, is parachuted into Yugoslavia. Eleven more are to follow.
The British government establishes a Cabinet sub-committee to discuss the future of Palestine. Some months later the committee presents a proposal - to divide Palestine between the Jews and the Arabs.
Throughout the year, the activities of Jewish soldiers from Palestine in the British army increase and they demand a blue and white flag, an insignia, and freedom to use the Hebrew language. This indicates their uniqueness as a national Jewish army. The British reject these demands. From their point of view the Jews are "Palestinian" soldiers. The struggle reaches its peak in October when the soldiers of the second battalion of the Buffs regiment in Libya wave their national flag without permission.
Yishuv leaders and the WZO continue to demand from the British that they concentrate the Jewish recruits from Palestine in their own division. The British refuse again and again.
Economic prosperity in Palestine continues due to the large amount of work needed for the war effort. The unemployment that marked the first years of the war is disappearing.
Etzel, which until now has not acted against the British because of the war, changes its policy with the arrival of a new commander - Menahem Begin - and declares a rebellion. It instigates a series of attacks on British buildings.
Clandestine maritime immigration resumes. Ships sail from Romania to Turkey, and from there refugees are sent by train to Palestine.
US President Franklin D. Roosevelt declares that America never agreed to the policy of the White Paper.
A new wave of conscripts. According to a national leadership order, every high school graduate must enlist in the British army, the Palmach or the Noterim.
Throughout the Yishuv a "Day of Outcry" is held - a call to the world to rescue the remaining refugees in Europe. Businesses and places of entertainment close.
Elections to the fourth Elected Assembly are held after a break of more than 13 years. Mapai holds onto first place, although its power is reduced due to a split in its ranks. The workers' parties enjoy a 60% majority.
The struggle for establishing a Jewish fighting force in the framework of the British army continues and is finally successful: the British government announces the establishment of a Jewish Brigade Group, an enhanced brigade of 5,000 fighters with a flag and special insignia. Its Hebrew name: Hativa Yehudit Lohemet.
Relations between the Hagana and Etzel are coming to a head. Hagana and Yishuv leaders demand that Etzel (and Lehi) cease operations against the British until the end of the war. Menahem Begin, the Etzel commander, rejects the demand.
The Cameri Theater is founded in Tel Aviv.
Weizmann meets with the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, who announces his support for the establishment of a Jewish state in a part of Palestine, including the Negev.
Following the murder of Lord Moyne, a senior British statesman in Cairo on November 6th by two young Lehi members, the "season" takes place - a forced break in Etzel activity by Hagana members and the handing over of some of them to the British. Lehi ceases operations. The Etzel commander instructs his men not to respond with force in order to prevent a civil war.
Towards the end of 1944 and the beginning of 1945, the Jewish Brigade, which is concentrated in Italy, trains in preparation for the upcoming battles against the German army.
The Jewish Brigade is deployed on the front line in northern Italy. In the months that follow it participates in active combat
Ben-Gurion meets in London with the British colonial secretary, Oliver Stanley. From his words, it first appears that Britain is planning to leave Palestine.
The war in Europe ends and Germany surrenders to the Allies. The fighting in the Far East, against Japan, continues.
With the end of the war, the terrible extent of the Holocaust becomes apparent: the Jewish nation has lost six million of its people in the war. The Jewish soldiers serving in the British army in Italy and other countries, dedicate a large part of their free time to taking care of Holocaust survivors and Jewish refugees.