Should European Jews have fled en masse to Palestine prior to World War II? A major flaw in this claim is that Palestine had its own close brush with the Holo-caust. Had Hitler played his cards differ-ently, German troops may have marched on Yerushalayim. The story begins in September 5701/1940, when Italian forces moved across the Egyptian border and began advancing toward Eretz Yisroel. The British had little to stop them and Jews in Eretz Yisroel became frantic with fear and worry.
THE REACTION OF TZADDIKIM
Rav Aharon Roth, the Shomer Emunim Rebbe, comforted his chassidim: “Man can only harm the body and not the soul,” he said. “If someone knows and believes that the main thing is the soul, he has no reason to be afraid of anything. A person must devote himself completely to doing Hashem’s will.”
The British scraped tanks and artillery from every corner of their empire and, in December, they finally launched a surprise attack. The Italians were overrun and, by February 5701/1941, 13,000 Italians were on their way to British prison camps.
Jews in Eretz Yisroel rejoiced in the streets. But Rav Aharon was not happy at all. “There is no cause to rejoice,” he said.
Before long, people realized what he meant.
On February 6, 5701/1941, General Erwin Rommel, one of Germany’s most-gifted tank commanders, arrived in Africa with a powerful German army. He attacked the British so skillfully that, by July 5702/1942, he was deep inside Egypt, only sixty miles from Alexandria.
Palestine, too, was under threat. German planes bombed the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station while an Italian plane dropped a bomb near Shaarei Tzedek Hospital in Yerushalayim.
Because of the danger to Palestine, people tried to persuade Rav Elozor Man Shach not to utilize his Palestine certificates to flee from Lithuania. Fortunately, he ignored their advice. Jews in Eretz Yisroel thought of fleeing to the hills, and the Jewish Agency began burning sensitive documents and moving other records out of its headquarters. Plans were even made to turn Mount Carmel of Haifa into a Masada-like fortress where Jews could put up a last stand.
At this critical juncture, Rav Yosef Shlomoh Kahaneman, the Ponevezher Rav, decided to found his monumental yeshivah.
“When the lazy Lithuanian peasant sees storm clouds about to destroy his crops,” he explained, “he springs into action and harvests them before the rain damages them. Now that storm clouds hang overhead, it is time to rebuild the Ponevezh Yeshivah in Bnei Brak!”
“But Rommel might be about to invade!” someone protested.
“That is exactly the moment we have to build Torah,” the Rav retorted.
The Ponevezh Yeshivah was founded with five talmidim.
People begged Rav Nachum Mordechai of Chortkov, who had recently arrived from Europe, to achieve with prayer what the Allies were failing to achieve through military might.
“The Rebbe sat listening to the chassidim, his eyes aglow and his heart overflowing with mercy,” Rav David Moshe Spiegel recorded in his memoirs. “After several moments of deep thought, he said, ‘To perform a miracle that is not openly against nature requires no more than a few merits. But in our situation, the enemy is incredibly powerful and has already effortlessly destroyed great and mighty nations. Nothing short of an absolute miracle can stop him, and to perform such a miracle is extremely difficult.
“‘Therefore, another method must be explored. We must daven to Hashem to cause the enemy to make a mistake. This will not be such a miracle because even the most powerful person can make a miscalculation. This may bring about the Nazis’ defeat.’”
HITLER’S FATAL MISTAKE
This indeed happened. On 22 June, Hitler launched his surprise Operation Barbarossa against Russia, boasting that all one had to do was kick in the door and the whole rotten structure would collapse. “The world will hold its breath!” Hitler promised his generals. It would have been far wiser for him to finish Britain off first.
Although he could not attack the British mainland, after losing the Battle of Britain air war, he might have nullified the British Armed Forces by cutting them off from their oil supply in the Middle East. In addition, seizure of the Suez Canal, together with victory in the sub-marine war in the Atlantic, would have strangled Britain’s supply line. Then the Germans could have cut through Egypt, across Syria and into Persia, and attacked Russia from the south.
Instead, Hitler invaded Russia with 145 divisions, allocating only 10 divisions to Rommel’s Afrika Korps. With even a fraction of the forces sent to Russia, Rommel could have easily sliced his way through to the Nile River.
While the Germans were threatening to enter Palestine, Rav Nachum Mordechai of Chortkov traveled to Teveryah and davened for forty consecutive days at the tomb of Rabbi Meir Baal HaNeis and, when he returned to Yerushalayim, he joyfully told his followers, “Have no fear! Soon the Nazi tyrant will fall and never rise again!”
The Rebbe’s cousin, Rav Yisroel of Husiyatin, had predicted the same thing after having been mispallel at the grave of the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh.
On October 23, 5703/1942, the famous Battle of El-Alamein began, lasting until November 3. About 200,000 men and 1,000 tanks under British General Bernard Montgomery’s command set out against Rommel’s approximately 100,000 men and 500 tanks. Rommel’s chief advantage was an extensive minefield, known as the Devil’s Garden, containing about half-a-million mines to protect his lines. On that day, Montgomery issued a special Order of the Day to the Eighth Army: “Let us pray that the L-rd, mighty in battle, will give us the victory!”
HOPELESS BATTLE FOR GERMANS
The Battle of El-Alamein was finished before it started even though the British lost over half their tanks during the fero-cious fighting. Thanks to having invented the “Ultra” computer, which remained top secret until the 5720s/1960s, the Allies managed to crack the Germans’ secret codes and sink most of Rommel’s tankers and supply ships en route to Africa. Thus Rommel had no petrol to execute his famous tank maneuvers.
The British initiated the attack, under a full moon, with a barrage of 125 tons of bombs fired from 882 field and medium guns.
“The 23rd passed just like any other day on the Alamein front until the evening when, at 21:40 hours, a barrage of immense fire opened over the whole line,” Rommel recorded in his papers. “Such drumfire had never been seen before on the African front and it was to continue throughout the whole of the Alamein battle… By 01:00 hours, the British had overrun our outposts and penetrated to our main defense line over a width of six miles.”
Rommel was in Germany at the time, recuperating from liver problems and high blood pressure. He was immediately ordered back to the desert.
“Shortly after midnight (of the 24th), a call came through from the Fuehrer,” Rommel recorded. “In view of developments at Alamein, he found himself obliged to ask me to fly back to Africa and resume my command. I took off next morning. I knew there were no more laurels to be earned in Africa for I had been told, in the reports that I had received from my officers, that supplies had fallen far short of my minimum demands. But just how bad the supply situation really was, I had yet to learn.”
In Rome, Rommel discovered that only three issues of petrol (enough for 300 kilometers per vehicle) remained in the African theatre.
“This was sheer disaster,” he writes, “for with only 300 kilometers worth of petrol per vehicle between Tripoli and the front, and that calculated over good driving country, a prolonged resistance could not be expected… The petrol situation made any major movement impossible and permitted only local counter-attacks by the armor deployed behind the particular sector which was in danger.” By the 25th, the Germans had only enough fuel for three more days and Rommel’s last hopes were blasted when the Royal Navy sank the tanker Proserpina in the Tobruk harbor. Another tanker, the Luisiano was sunk outside the harbor, two days later.
Despite all this, the British attack stalled and Churchill railed, “Is it really impossible to find a general who can win a battle?”
END OF THE BEGINNING
The major concluding battle, “Operation Supercharge,” began on November 1. By the next day, Rommel had only 32 operating tanks on the whole front. By November 3, Rommel had decided to retreat when he received an urgent command from Hitler ordering him to hold fast:
“In the situation in which you find yourself, there can be no other thought but to stand fast, yield not a yard of ground and throw every gun and every man into the battle… As to your troops, you can show them no other road than that of victory or death.”
“The order was impossible,” Rommel writes. “Even the most devoted soldier can be killed by a bomb. In spite of our unvarnished situation reports, it was apparently still not realized at the Fuehrer’s headquarters how matters really stood in Africa. Arms, petrol and air-craft could have helped us but not orders.
“We were completely stunned and, for the first time in the Africa campaign, I did not know what to do. A kind of apathy took hold of us as we issued orders for all remaining positions to be held on instructions from the highest authorities. I forced myself to this action, as I had always demanded unconditional obedience from others and, consequently, wished to apply the same principle to myself.”
By the next day, the Allies had completely cut through the German lines and the Germans and Italians began fleeing west toward Tripoli, ignoring Hitler’s insane orders, from which he backed down only the next day.
On November 10, Churchill announced, “Now this is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Now, at last, Rav Aharon Roth rejoiced. “Outside, they are rejoicing that the British drove out the Germans.” he said, “But when the Mashiach comes, we will see who really defeated the Germans.”
A few months later, on February 2, 5703/1943, Germany suffered its second major defeat when the Soviet government announced, “Our forces have now completed the liquidation of the German Fascist troops encircled in the area of Stalingrad. The last center of enemy resistance in the Stalingrad area has thus been crushed.”
The 300,000 strong German forces in Stalingrad were eradicated, again because of Hitler’s insane philosophy – that where the German soldier puts his foot, he never leaves.
On May 6, 5703/1943, American forces pulverized the remnants of the Afrika Korps in Tunisia. The German front collapsed, finally surrendering on the 13th.
“This was followed in the Fuehrer’s headquarters by an extraordinary collapse of morale,” Rommel writes. “It was complete surprise to them.”
After the defeats of El-Alamein and Stalingrad, the Nazis’ war effort plunged inexorably downhill, and thus Palestine was saved.