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Smuggler Without Borders

Libi Astaire

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.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

“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 WWII 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.

 

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