Following World War II, Jan Masaryk (1886–1948), Czechoslovakia’s foreign minister, provided help to Holocaust survivors. He worked with Gaynor Jacobson, the Prague repre-sentative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJJDC), to provide support for Haganah operations to smuggle Jews into British-controlled Palestine. Jews were transported through Czechoslovakia to displaced persons camps in the United States zones in Germany and Austria. From there they were taken to ships going to Palestine, despite the British naval blockade.

Masaryk’s father, Professor Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, was opposed to anti-Semitism and had defended a poor Jewish peddler, who was falsely accused of the ritual murder of a young Czech girl. In 1918, Tomas Masaryk was involved in the creation of the Republic of Czechoslovakia from the remnants of the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire, and became its first president.2 During the interwar period, anti-fascist refugees from Nazi Germany found a safe haven in Czechoslovakia. It also hosted three Zionist congresses during this period: in 1921, 1923 and 1933.3

With renewed anti-Semitism in Poland, culminating in the 4 July 1946 pogrom in the town of Kielce, thousands of Polish Jews attempting to escape to Czechoslovakia found themselves bottled up at the border. The Czech government was under British pressure to keep the border closed to Jews, but Jan Masaryk, with the support of the prime minister, persuaded his ministerial associates to offer all possible assistance to Jews entering their country.

Border police were instructed that the words, “I’m Jewish”, sufficed for entry into Czechoslovakia. As a result, some 90,000 Jewish refugees flooded into Czechoslovakia from July to November, 1946. Food, housing, and clothing were needed for the destitute Jews, as well as support for their religious and dietary needs.

None of this was viewed with favour by the British or the US State Department, despite the support of President Harry Truman for the plight of the Jews, but Masaryk continued to defy the hostility of British and US bureaucrats. At this time, the Soviet Union unexpectedly came to the aid of the Jews.

In November 1947, the newly formed United Nations met to consider the problem of Palestine. The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) had investigated the issue and recommended the partition of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. When the Russian Ambassador, Andrei Gromyko, spoke before the General Assembly, he supported the UNSCOP recommendation. He argued that partition was “the only workable solution”, and that the Jews had suffered terribly in World War II because Western Europe failed to protect them from persecution by Nazi Germany.4 When the vote was taken on 29 November 1947, Russia and the Eastern European Communist states ensured the two-thirds majority needed for the recommendation to pass.

This is quite remarkable. Gromyko and the Soviet Eastern Bloc were representing the view of the Russian dictator Joseph Stalin, who was known for his fierce anti-Semitism. Stalin even approved the sale of arms by Czechoslovakia to the Zionists as they prepared for the coming war with the Arabs in 1948. Should things go wrong, as Moscow was not directly involved, they could not be blamed. Czechoslovakia also supplied weapons to Syria, but a clever move by the Zionists found these arms redirected to Israel instead.5

With the United Nations’ appeal to avoid inflaming the Palestine situation still further, the United States imposed an arms embargo on the Middle East in December 1947. This move had little impact on the Arab states as they were armed and trained by Britain, but it hurt the Zionist efforts to arm, because any weapons uncovered were confiscated. Nonetheless, on 14 January 1948, the Haganah’s Ehud Avriel and Masaryk signed a USD$750,000 deal for the sale of rifles, light machine guns and ammunition to the Jews. Funds had been raised by Golda Meir in the United States.

But the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in late February 1948, made the supply of arms to the Jews uncertain. Masaryk became the key to resolving the political crisis, as his resignation would have changed the balance in government in favour of the Communists. Masaryk decided to remain in government—but on 10 March 1948, was found dead in the courtyard below the bathroom window of his apartment. The Czech police called it a suicide, but others suspected murder.

Despite Masaryk’s death, Czechoslovakia’s favourable policy toward the Jews not only continued, but expanded. Masaryk was replaced by Vladimir Clementis—who was opposed to British policy in Palestine—and worked closely with General Bedrich (Fritzek) Reicin, the son of a poor Jewish cantor and now head of Czech Defence Intelligence. Reicin was approached by Avriel and Otto Felix (later Uriel Doron), senior Haganah officials, with an appeal for help with the purchase and delivery of arms. In return, they offered to pass on information they had on British SIS operations in Prague.

With the cooperation of Reicin and Clementis, weapons were airlifted from Czechoslovakia to Palestine, using code names like Balak 1 (a reference to Num 22:2 and the Moabite king who failed to defeat Israel), while other arms were transported by ship hidden under a huge heap of onions. The Haganah also bought Czech planes, which were disassembled and smuggled into Palestine in smaller aircraft.

Following the establishment of the state of Israel on 14 May 1948, the United Nations, pressed by Britain, introduced a ban on weapons supplies to the Middle East. Nevertheless, the Czechs continued to provide support for Israel, selling aircraft as well as heavy and light machine guns, rifles and ammunition. Czech support expanded to include training of pilots, mechanics and other military specialists.

It has been suggested that, without Czech arms, the Jewish state may not have survived the onslaught of the Arab armies.6 Perhaps. Israel survived because the “set time” to favour Zion had come (Psa 102:13). The hand of God was, and still is, working amongst the nations to bring about His determined purpose, which is to cause His people “to return to the land that [He] gave to their fathers” (Jer 30:3).

Reference:

  1. Chief source for this article: Jiri Valenta and Leni Friedman Valenta, “The birth of Israel: Prague’s crucial role”, in Middle East Quarterly, winter 2019, online at https://www.meforum.org/articles/2018/prague’s-crucial-role
  2. “Masaryk”, in The world book encyclopedia, Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, 1978, p. 204.
  3. A List: The World Zionist Congresses, online at http://www.zionist-congress.org.il/index.php?dir=site&page=articles&op=item&cs=3250&langpage=heb&category=3040&mode=print
  4. Andrei Gromyko, “Speech by Andrei Gromyko, USSR, before the General Assembly of the United Nations, 26 November 1947”, in T.G. Fraser [editor], The Middle East 1914–1979, (Documents of modern history), London: Edward Arnold, 1980, p. 60.
  5. Christopher Sykes, Crossroads to Israel, London: Nel Mentor, 1967, pp. 352–353.
  6. Christopher Sykes, p. 353.