The Holocaust that wasn’t How German generals and diplomats, and a future Pope saved the Jews of Pal
As the centenary of World War I grinds its way across the calendar, a relentless anniversary of bloodbaths are being memorialized – Ypres, Gallipoli and Verdun, to mention a few. But one WWI anniversary is not being recalled as it is not part of the general narrative – how German generals and diplomats together with a future pope saved the Jews of Palestine from genocide.
The country’s twin Jewish communities of Zionist pioneers and the Old Yishuv of Orthodox pietists living on charity numbered 85,000 in 1914 on the eve of the global conflagration. When the Treaty of Mudros was signed on October 30, 2021 ending hostilities between the Ottoman Empire and the Allies – and preceding the November 11 armistice on the Western Front by two weeks – less than half of Palestine’s Jews remained. They were on the verge of starvation and ruin. The other 40,000 destitute members of the Yishuv had died of starvation, epidemics or execution, or had been deported as enemy aliens holding Russian, British, French, Greek or American citizenship.
General Erich Georg Anton Sebastian von Falkenhayn (1861-1922) and General Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein (1870-1948) were key figures in the little-known rescue of the Jews of Palestine. So too was Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli (1876-1958) – who became Pope Pius XII in 1939, and whose subsequent role in the Holocaust remains controversial.
Von Falkenhayn was the architect of the Battle of Verdun. His notorious memo to Kaiser Wilhelm II proposing to “bleed the French Army white” led to the February 1916 attack known as Unternehmen Gericht (Operation Judgment). But by that August, it became evident that Germany was losing its war of attrition; almost as much blood of les boches was being spilled into the Rivers Meuse and Somme as was that of die Froschfresser (French frog grub eaters).
The bloody toll of shrapnel led to Germany's replacement in 1916 of the traditional boiled leather Pickelhaube with the iconic Stahlhelm (steel helmet). That same year von Falkenhayn was replaced as Chief of the General Staff by fellow Prussian Paul von Hindenburg. Von Falkenhayn was reassigned to the Palestine Front.
There the Germans were serving as advisers, commanders and bi-plane pilots in the war against the British and their colonial troops based in Egypt. The Central Powers’ Turkish and Austro-Hungarian forces, together with their German officers, had failed in January 1915 and again in August 1916 raids to seize the Suez Canal. Now the British were inching across the northern Sinai coast as they constructed a supply railroad. Von Falkenhayn remained in charge of German forces in WWI Palestine from early 1917 until February 1918.
A master of trench warfare, von Falkenhayn dug in at Gaza, and repulsed the Egyptian Expeditionary Force at the First Battle of Gaza in March 1917. The second battle for the ruined city, whose 40,000 inhabitants had been deported by the Turks, occurred a month later. The Commonwealth War Cemeteries in Gaza and Deir al-Balah remain as testament to those battles.
The Gaza stalemate was broken in November 1917 when the Australian Light Horse outflanked Gaza and overran Beer Sheva’s surprised defenders in the world’s last successful cavalry charge. The front collapsed, and on December 9, 2021 Gen. Edmund Allenby (1861-1936) – who replaced the hapless Gen. Sir Archibald Murray – liberated Jerusalem.
Allenby’s rapid advance toward Damascus was halted in March 1918 when many of his soldiers were rushed to Flanders to stop Germany’s great spring offensive utilizing troops freed from the Eastern Front following the newly-founded Soviet Union’s peace treaty. By September 1918, the troops were returned to Palestine, and Allenby’s offensive resumed, leading to his smashing victory at Megiddo that month.
The Ottoman commander in Syria and Palestine Minister of the Navy Ahmet Cemal Paşa (1872-1922) – also written Jamal Pasha and Djemal Pasha – grew increasingly suspicious of non-Muslim and non-Turkish minorities as the Turkish Empire disintegrated. One of the triumvirate of Young Turks controlling wartime Turkey along with the Grand Vizier Mehmed Talaat Paşa (1874-1921), and Minister of War Ismail Enver Paşa (1881-1922), Cemal Paşa planned severe measures against Palestine’s remaining Jews.
During 1915, the three paşas perpetrated genocide on the Christian Armenian, Greek, and Syriac civilian populations living in eastern Anatolia – whom the Ottomans regarded as disloyal to the Sublime Porte in Constantinople. At least 1.5 million Armenians alone were murdered.
Historian Yair Auron in his book, The Banality of Denial: Israel and the Armenian Genocide, described how the mass murder was perpetrated: “An important component of the annihilation process (in the spring and summer of 1915) was the evacuation and deportation of the Armenian population. Usually, the population was given a period of a few days to prepare to be evacuated, ostensibly dictated by needs of the war. Evacuees were permitted to take a limited amount of baggage, and they were assured that their homes and assets would be preserved. The deportees were concentrated in convoys that began to move toward the Syrian desert.
“Once they left the villages and cities, the men were separated from the women and were murdered nearby. The women, children and aged were then subjected to a slow and prolonged death as they were forced to walk on foot for hundreds of kilometers. Along the way, the convoys were attacked in sporadic ambushes. The hunger, thirst, cold, heat and epidemics raised the number of victims. Very few of those who began the journey succeeded in making it alive to the end.”
The Jews of Palestine feared their mass expulsion and massacre were imminent. In December 1916 Cemal Paşa declared that all means must be used to suppress Zionism. The Zionists were “diligent and practical people, but due to their ideology, Palestine was liable to become a second Armenia,” he said.
The majority of Palestine’s Jews remained loyal Ottoman citizens. But dread for their fate motivated some to treasonously join the Zion Mule Corps and fight the Turks at Gallipoli. A handful of Zionist Jews formed the Nili spy network which provided Britain with invaluable information about Ottoman troop deployments. The name is an acronym for the biblical verse “Netzah Yisrael Lo Yeshaker,” meaning The Eternal One of Israel will not lie (I Samuel 15:29).
Sarah Aaronsohn of Zichron Yaakov was traveling by train and wagon across Turkey to Palestine in November 1915. On her journey she witnessed the Armenian genocide. In 1916 she joined her brother Aharon Aaronsohn, a well-known agronomist, in establishing the Nili underground. Caught by the Turks in October 1917 at her home and tortured, Sarah blew her brains out with a gun secreted in her bathroom before incriminating her fellow spies. Eitan Belkind, who served in the Turkish army on Cemal Paşa’s staff, witnessed the murder of 5,000 Armenians. In December 1917 the Turks hanged his brother Naaman and Nili leader Yosef Lishansky in Damascus for espionage.
Sarah’s brother Aharon wrote in his memoirs, “The Turkish order to confiscate our weapons was a bad sign. Similar measures were taken before the massacre of the Armenians, and we feared that our people would meet the same kind of fate.”
Cemal Paşa’s mass expulsion of some 9,000 foreign Jews from Jaffa and the eight-year-old adjoining town of Tel Aviv on the eve of Passover in April 1917 – on the pretext that his forces had to make preparations to thwart an amphibious landing by Gen. Allenby’s forces – similarly augured ill. The refugees sought shelter in Zionist settlements in the Sharon plain, the Galilee and Jerusalem. But with foreign aid blocked by the Turks and the land ravaged by a locust plague in 1915, many of the expelled Jews died of hunger and disease; 224 of the deportees are buried in Kfar Saba, 321 in Tiberias, 104 in Safed, and 75 in Damascus, In total, some 1,500 are believed to have died. Many were buried without a name. Only after Allenby completed his conquest of Palestine at the end of 1918 were the deportees allowed to return to Jaffa and Tel Aviv.
German journalist Michael Hesemann described the situation: “Jamal Pasha, the Turkish Commander who was responsible for the Armenian genocide... threatened the Jewish-Zionist settlers. In Jaffa, more than 8,000 Jews were forced to leave their homes, which were sacked by the Turks. Two Jews were hanged in front of the town gate, dozens were found dead on the beach. In March, Reuters news agency reported a ‘massive expulsion of Jews who could face a similar fate as the Armenians.’ A report of the Zionist Office in Copenhagen expressed the worry that the Jews of Palestine would face extermination by hunger, thirst and diseases.”
About 10 days after the evacuation of Jaffa, Cemal Pasha announced he was ordering the deportation of Jerusalem’s entire civilian population within 24 hours. They were to be force marched to Transjordan and Syria. Von Kressenstein alerted the German Embassy in Constantinople (today Istanbul) on April 16, 1917. German diplomats halted the plan temporarily.
“The evacuation of Jerusalem could have been a tragic tactical mistake,” von Kressenstein wrote in his memoirs. “The uprooting of such a large population would have been liable to cause inestimable results. The catastrophic events that occurred to the Armenians who were expelled, were liable to be repeated here. Thousands would have died through starvation and disease.”
In the fall of 1917, as Allenby’s army closed in on Jerusalem, Cemal Paşa – citing “military requirements” – revived his deportation order and picked November 5 as the zero hour for the evacuation of Jerusalem’s remaining destitute Jews. Historian Isaiah Friedman’s research in the archives of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Vienna and the German Empire in Berlin revealed von Kressenstein’s intervention against the second deportation. (See Friedman, Isaiah (1971). German Intervention on Behalf of the "Yishuv", 1917, Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 33, pp. 23–43.)
Further details about Cemal Paşa’s murderous intentions are found in Richard Lichtheim’s Die Geschichte des Deutschen Zionismus (The History of German Zionism). Lichtheim was based in Constantinople – then the hub of Zionist political activity – from 1913 to 1917 as the World Zionist Organization’s representative. He was a primary figure in the Ottoman capital in forging contacts between the Yishuv and the Turkish leadership.
In February 1915, he wrote it seemed as if “Jamal Pasha and his friends were plotting to destroy and annihilate the Zionist settlement enterprise in the Land of Israel.” In 1921, a representative from Palestine reported to the 12th Zionist Congress, taking place in Karlsbad, Czechoslovakia on “Palestine during the War.” The report credited foreign consular officials who “during the whole period of their stay in the country showed themselves always ready to help, and performed valuable services for the Jewish Yishuv. Especially deserving of mention are the German vice-consul Schabiner in Haifa... The Jewish population also benefited by the presence of the head of the German military mission, Colonel Kress von Kressenstein, who on several occasions exerted his influence on behalf of the Jews.”
Gen. von Falkenhayn had a stormy relationship with Cemal Paşa. Having witnessed the destruction of Gaza caused by artillery barrages, he refused to send reinforcements to Jerusalem in December 1917 lest the holy city and its shrines become a wasteland. Instead he positioned his forces on the ridges outside the city.
Holger Afflerbach of Britain’s Leeds University, author of Falkenhayn. Politisches Denken und Handeln im Kaiserreich (Falkenhayn, Political Thought and Action Under the Second Empire. München: Oldenbourg, 1994), noted von Falkenhayn’s critical role in avoiding a massacre. “Falkenhayn had to supervise Turkish measures against Jewish settlers who were accused of high treason and collaboration with the English. He prevented harsh Turkish measures - Jamal Pasha was speaking about evacuation of all Jewish settlers in Palestine.”
Afflerbach continued, “The parallels to the beginning of the Armenian genocide are obvious and striking: It started with Turkish accusations of Armenian collaboration with the Russians, and the Ottomans decided to transport all Armenians away from the border to another part of the Empire. This ended in death and annihilation of the Armenians. Given the fact that Palestine was frontline in late 1917, something very similar could have happened there to the Jewish settlers.” “Falkenhayn’s role was crucial,” Afflerbach explained. ”His judgment in November 1917 was as follows: He said that there were single cases of cooperation between the English and a few Jewish radicals, but that it would be unfair to punish entire Jewish communities who had nothing to do with that. Therefore nothing happened to the Jewish settlements. Only Jaffa had been evacuated – by Jamal Pasha.” Hesemann cited Dr. Yaacov Thon, head of the World Zionist Organization’s Jerusalem office, who wrote in 1917, “It was special stroke of good fortune that in the last critical days General von Falkenhayn had the command. Jamal Pasha in this case - as he announced often enough - would have expelled the whole population and turned the country into ruins....” Von Falkenhayn had no particular love for Jews, according to Afflerbach. “He was in many aspects a typical Wilhelmine officer and not even free from some prejudices against Jews, but what counts is that he saved thousands of Jewish lives.”
Hesemann, author of The Pope Who Defied Hitler: The Truth About Pius XII, discovered the German generals and diplomats did not act alone. Five documents he uncovered in the Vatican Secret Archives documents and now available at the Pave the Way Foundation’s website www.ptwf.org, show that in 1917 Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli – the future Pope Pius XII but then the Apostolic Nuncio in Munich – interceded to protect Palestine’s Jews.
The papers, found in the collection of the “Nuntiatura Apostolica Baviera” under the headline “Guerra Europ, Palestina # 1, Pop. Giudaica e delle Cittá Santa delle Palestina” (European War, Palestine # 1, Jewish Population and the Holy City of Palestine), document Pacelli’s demarche. Originally, the Jewish Community of the neutral Switzerland had approached Pope Benedict XV to use his influence to prevent an Ottoman genocide against the Jewish population of Palestine.
Recognizing how little regard the Caliphate would pay to a diplomatic appeal from the Vatican, Benedict XV turned to Turkey’s most powerful ally, the Second Reich. Since the Holy See’s Nuntiature was located in Catholic Munich rather than Lutheran Berlin, the job fell to Pacelli, who had arrived in Bavaria in April 1917. There, for all practical purposes, was the nuncio to the German Empire.
Benedict XV could rely on his Nuncio being receptive towards Jewish affairs. Only a few weeks before his transfer to Munich, when Pacelli was still the Holy See’s Undersecretary of State responsible for Foreign Affairs, Zionist leader Nachum Sokolow came to Rome to learn about the Vatican’s position on a future Jewish state in Palestine. Sokolow was deeply moved by Pacelli’s sympathy towards Zionism.
To his utmost surprise, Pacelli suddenly asked him if he would like to meet the Pontiff. Sokolow never thought this would be possible for a Jew. Thanks to Pacelli, a few days later he had a 45-minute private audience with Benedict XV. The Pope called the Zionist initiative “providential” and “in accordance with God’s will”. His parting words to the Zionist emissary were: “I am sure we will be good neighbors”. Sokolow’s six-page report on these encounters, written on May 10, 1917, can be found in File A 18/25 in the Yad Vashem archives in Jerusalem. Pacelli was aware the German government had already declined to intervene on behalf of Palestine’s Jews. On May 7, 1917, Social Democrat representative Oskar Cohn spoke in the Reichstag about the anti-Jewish violence in Palestine. But the German parliament refused to interfere with its Turkish ally. The deportation of the Jews was termed simply “a security measure”.
“This makes the Vatican initiative even more important”, Hesemann stated, “Another element of pressure had to force the German government to act. This came from the Catholic Church, with its 25 million believers an important power in the Reich.” Immediately after the Papal Secretary of State requested from Pacelli to “act for the protection of the Jewish sites and population of Jerusalem”, the Nuncio sent a letter to the Bavarian Secretary of State, Ritter von Dandl, asking him to urgent intervene in Berlin. Hesemann uncovered Pacelli’s draft and final letter – as well as the surprising reply. Because of the alarm sounded by von Kressenstein, von Falkenhayn and others earlier in 1917, Germany’s foreign ministry sent a diplomatic note to the Ottoman government. On November 27, 1917, according to an internal memorandum, they received the reply from Constantinople that “There is no reason to fear that the Turkish authorities in Palestine order measures against the Jewish population.” Consequently, Ritter von Dendl and through him Pacelli were informed two days later: “According to the available information from the Turkish side, care was already taken for the protection of the holy sites of Jerusalem which are also subject of veneration by the Muslims and also for the population. Of course this includes the Jews, who don’t have to fear any exemptions.” Zionist officials like Jacob Thon were well aware of Pacelli’s initiative. On January 1, 1918, shortly after Jerusalem’s liberation, he wrote to the German Embassy in Constantinople: “It was a special stroke of good fortune that in the last critical days General von Falkenhayn had the command. Cemal Pasha in this case – as he announced often enough – would have expelled the whole population and turned the country into ruins. We and the whole population, Christians as well as Muslims, must remember P.(acelli) with deep gratitude, since he saved the civil population from doom when he prevented the planned evacuation of this area.” (Microfilm K 1800 72/73, Zionist Central Archive, Jerusalem) Pacelli continued to be a friend of Jews and Zionists, even when the Holy See adopted a less supportive policy. In 1922, the Vatican’s official newspaper “L’Osservatore Romano” expressed worries about the socialist ideas circulating among Zionist settlers. But four years later, Pacelli encouraged German Catholics to join and support the newly-established German Committee Pro Palestine to Support the Jewish Settlement in Palestine. Among its board members were not only Albert Einstein, but also Pacelli’s closest friend and adviser, the German politician and Catholic Prelate Dr. Ludwig Kaas.
Afflerbach deserves the final word: “An inhuman excess against the Jews in Palestine was only prevented by Falkenhayn’s conduct, which against the background of the German history of the 20th century has a special meaning, and one that distinguishes Falkenhayn.”
To that list one must add von Kressenstein and Pacelli. Their moral courage adds nuance to the unspeakable slaughter of the Holocaust that followed a generation later.