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The Most Precious Cargo

More than two decades after the end of the Cold War, there can be no question about the significance of the event that crystallized the West’s determination to win the standoff with Communism. The 1948 Berlin Airlift was the West’s first victory on the way to eventual triumph in the long twilight conflict with Moscow. Though the saga of the breaking of the Soviet blockade of the city is familiar, there is one aspect of the story that has not yet been told: while prop-engine C-54s were bringing tons of goods into the besieged city, they were also taking out an even more precious cargo—more than 5,000 homeless survivors of the Holocaust trapped in Berlin.

The airlift was a response to Soviet dictator -Josef Stalin’s crude attempt to increase the extent of his domination of postwar Europe. The victors of World War II had divided Germany into four separate zones of occupation, with each sector controlled by one of the four Allied powers: the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. In the middle of the Soviet sector was the capital, Berlin; in April 1945 the Red Army, which had done the bulk of the fighting against the Nazis, conquered the city in a bloody battle that was followed by an orgy of mass rape and looting. But after the dust had settled, the Russians allowed the -Allies, as previously agreed, to take possession of parts of the city. Three years later, in the early summer of 1948, the -United States, Britain, and France designed a new common currency for postwar Germany that would ultimately serve to unite their three sectors into one country.

The prospect of a unified and free West Germany was unacceptable to the Soviets, who were determined to impose Communist rule in their zone. They saw the new currency as a threat to their security as well as a blow to their desire for a continent dominated by Communist satellite states. On June 23, the day after the announcement of the new currency, Soviet authorities cut off all land traffic to Berlin. With the -German capital isolated in the middle of Soviet-controlled territory, 2 million persons living in the American, British, and French-controlled areas were threatened with starvation. Coming as it did only a few months after the world watched a Soviet coup oust a democratic government in Czechoslovakia, the attempt to squeeze the Allies out of Berlin was regarded as a provocation that, if appeased rather than resisted, might lead to Russian domination of all Germany, if not the -continent.

The West’s options for countering this move were limited, since a strictly military response to the blockade was impossible. The United States had demobilized most of its armed forces after the war. By February 1948, the entire U.S. military establishment was down to just over 1 million personnel, with only 552,000 in the Army. The portion in Europe comprised only 83,000 poorly disciplined troops who lacked up-to-date equipment like tanks. Nor could the Americans look to their allies for support. In all of Germany, the British could muster only 103,000 troops; the French another 75,000.

The situation in the air was not much better. By the middle of 1946, the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) had been reduced to one bomber group, two squadrons of night fighters, one reconnaissance wing, and six groups of fighters. Few of these planes were properly maintained, however, so by 1947 the force capable of taking to the air was down to three B-17 heavy bombers, two A-26 light attack bombers, and 31 P-47 fighters. Years later, in his memoirs, General Lucius Clay, commandant of U.S. forces in occupied Germany, admitted that the “USAFE would [have] be[en] stupid to get mixed up in anything bigger than a cat-fight at a pet show.”

Facing this was a truly formidable force, especially according to the conventional wisdom of the postwar period. Though post-Soviet analysis has dramatically downgraded estimates of the size of the Soviet military after World War II, American commanders at the time believed they were facing a force of 175 divisions totaling 4 million personnel. -Ninety-three divisions of this vast host, roughly 2.1 million men, were marshaled in Europe and available within several days for any confrontation with the West, along with 7,500 aircraft.

Though the situation was dire, surrender was unthinkable, and the United States and its allies soon began to fly in goods to the besieged city. At the time, no one thought an airlift would succeed. “It is absolutely impossible,” Clay stated flatly, “to supply the city by airpower alone,” while Secretary of State George Marshall believed that an airlift was “obviously not a solution.”

At first the effort was valiant but disorganized, what would later be referred to as a “cowboy operation.” However, in July 1948 the Air Force finally assigned General William Tunner to command the Combined Airlift Task Force in Germany. Tunner, who had headed the Burma Hump Operation that supplied American and Chinese forces fighting the Japanese by flying in cargo over the Himalaya Mountains, was the world’s foremost authority on airlift. Tunner turned the Berlin Airlift into a conveyor belt in the sky, delivering goods in a steady drumbeat. By May 1949, Tunner had clearly won the contest; Stalin called off the blockade, and ground traffic to Berlin flowed once again. The airlift allowed the West to begin the Cold War on a high note of triumph over odds and of achieving the impossible. It remains to this day the greatest airlift in history: over 11 months, two- and four-engine prop planes delivered 2,325,937 tons, or close to 5 billion pounds, still the largest aerial delivery ever achieved.

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Not all the traffic was inbound to the besieged city, however. The airlift also carried a fragile cargo in another direction, taking thousands of Jews who had survived the Holocaust out of Berlin and setting them on a path to lives in Israel and the United States.

At the start of 1946, there were approximately 250,000 Jews living in Germany, with the majority in the American zone. Of these, the vast majority were displaced persons (DPs) from other countries. Only about 15,000 of the total were Jews native to Germany, and half of these were in Berlin. Many of the group had survived by living underground and were referred to jokingly a U-boats. Some Jews had persevered as slave laborers in German factories, while others were the beneficiaries of mixed marriages. The first count of Berlin Jews after the war, conducted by the Gemeinde, the local Jewish community council, found 1,321 who had made it by hiding, 1,628 survivors of concentration camps, 2,126 spouses of non-Jews who had had no children, and another 1,995 with out-of-the-faith marriages who were raising their children as Christians.

Their first reactions to liberation were at best mixed. The Joint Distribution Committee (JDC, also referred to as the Joint), the leading American organization aiding Jews in Europe, reported that Jews in Berlin were “deeply disappointed that liberation [had] not fulfilled the hopes which it had raised.” Survivors were troubled by the “indifference showed by the British and American authorities” and felt “that little [had] changed since the Russians entered Berlin, except that food is even shorter.” Severe shortages—many former concentration-camp inmates still wore prison garb in the months after the war—made for living conditions that were difficult at best. Above all, there was overwhelming grief, as Der Weg (“The Way”), the Jewish community’s weekly newspaper, began to carry inquiries for lost ones and death notices for those whose graves had never been honored or marked.

Another fear was that of renewed anti-Semitic outbreaks. A 1946 poll of Germans in the American zone found that one-third still believed that “Nazi treatment of Poles and Jews during the war was justified,” and a majority supported the notion that “the Nazi cause in the war was just, and only badly managed.” Around Germany, hate slogans appeared on crumbling ruins, including “88,” a reference to the eighth letter of the alphabet (H), and thus code for “Heil Hitler.” A Berlin newspaper told the story of a Jew who had returned from the camps with nothing more than his inmate uniform. Given a new suit and some meager funds, he went to a café for his first cup of coffee in years. At a nearby table, one German commented to another, “Look at that dandified Jew. With them, things really never go badly.”

Worse was yet to come. Since the end of the war, anti-Semitism had reared its head once again throughout Eastern Europe and especially in Poland. In the two years following the war, between 1,500 and 2,000 Polish Jews died in anti-Semitic outbreaks. A December 1945 article in the New York Post explained that “Berlin is host today to a new class of displaced persons—Polish Jews who feel it is necessary to flee for their lives from Polish anti-Semites.” By the fall of 1946, 100,000 Jews had left Poland; from August 1 to 6 alone, 10,000 entered Germany looking for refuge in the Western zone. Berlin, the farthest eastern outpost of the U.S. occupation forces, received a substantial share of these refugees. While most only passed through the Berlin camps on their way to other destinations, their sheer number became a matter of concern to the -military.

As Alex Grobman, the author of a book on American Jewish chaplains after the war, put it, “Since the American military was preoccupied with enlarging the scope of German governmental authority and reviving the German and Austrian economies, the army viewed the continued presence of the Jews in Germany as a burden.” Officers who shared that sentiment existed at all levels and were generally not hesitant to voice their opinions. Worst of all had been General George -Patton, who said that the “Jewish type of DP is, in the majority of cases, a sub-human species without any of the cultural or social refinements of our time.” By 1946, Patton was dead from an accident; however, Colonel Frank Howley, head of the U.S. occupation forces in Berlin, wanted to throw a wall around the city to keep the DPs out.

One American general accused the Joint representative in Berlin of organizing a mass movement of Polish Jews into the American zone and reminded him, “Don’t forget you are in the U.S. Army and under Army directives and you can’t do anything to embarrass the U.S. Army.” The most common complaints from these officers grew out of their (mistaken) belief that -Zionism was a branch of Communism and that groups advocating for the newcomers were actually disguised agents of the Russians.

Other Americans in the military, however, lived up to the highest ideals of their country. General Dwight Eisenhower had given orders that Jewish DPs be given top priority for food and housing. When Patton refused to favor displaced persons, asking, “Why should I?” Eisenhower replied, “If for no other reason, because I order you to.”

The most important American officer to display compassion and respect for Jews in Occupied Germany was General Clay. Though born and raised in segregated Georgia, Clay was broad-minded; earlier, he had recognized the worth of African-American soldiers and moved them out of service and supply jobs, forming three infantry battalions from their ranks. Responding to charges that Jews were responsible for most of the black-market activity and crime in Germany, Clay pointed out that no evidence existed to single out Jews for these kinds of crimes, as opposed to other DPs or even resident Germans. Although -official orders were to block the passage of DPs into the American zone at one point, Clay quietly passed word to the troops to “watch the birds fly over” as the trucks rolled through.

The most important step Clay took was to support a property-restitution law that was fair to DPs. Existing law dictated that if one died without heirs or a will, the state inherited the assets. But in postwar Germany, this meant that the successor nation to the Third Reich would gain the assets of many Jews who had perished in the camps. Instead, under Clay, the U.S. zone accepted Military Law #59 in November 1947, which called for the “restoration of identifiable property that had been seized on racial, political or religious grounds,” and also established the precedent that a “successor organization” could claim the assets of someone who had perished and use them to aid survivors.

In time, aid began arriving from a variety of sources. At a November 1943 conference in Washington, 44 participating nations created the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) to assist refugees and provide for their resettlement. Acting under military auspices, UNRRA managed to repatriate millions of DPs once the war had ended. The other major contributor was the Joint. By November 1945, the Joint had bought a house in Berlin and started providing services to the local Jewish community, including starting a mail and package program, as well as a system for tracing former residents. It also obtained the Gestapo deportation list for Berlin, containing the names of 126,000 Jews, which provided some hope for families of determining the fate of their relatives.

With amazing speed, a community began to emerge among the Jews of Berlin. On May 8, 1945, the day the Nazi surrender was signed, Berlin witnessed the first marriage between persons who had been denied that right under the Nuremberg racial laws. By May 12, a religious service was held. Between July 1, 1945 (less than two months after the cessation of hostilities), and March 31, 1946, the Gemeinde listed seven bar mitzvahs, 22 weddings, and 11 circumcisions. The Jewish population had also become unique, courtesy of the abnormal mortality rates created in the death camps. One 1946 study of the Jews in the U.S. Zone of Occupation found that 61 percent were between 19 and 34 years, with only 5.1 percent under the age of 14, and 3.9 percent over 50; neither the old nor the young had made it through the Holocaust. Sixty-one percent were males; females constituted fewer than 4 in 10.

As if in response to all that had happened in the preceding years, there was a surge of marriage and childbirth motivated by a passionate drive to replenish the Jewish community. In the early postwar years, the Jewish birthrate in occupied Germany was the highest in the world, with marriages taking place almost among strangers. Michael Glieberman, who lived in the Schlachtensee DP camp, described it as “an independent enclave . . . a unique creation . . . it was full of life.”

For many of these Jews, their sense of liberation created a strong urge to depart Germany. One Joint report stated, “The Jews unanimously desire to leave the country, a marked preference being shown for Palestine as a permanent home.” Studies done as early as 1945 claimed that about two-thirds wanted to move to the Holy Land, with about one-third preferring the United States. Over the next few years, these ratios would go up and down, largely in response to the raising or easing of restrictive immigration policies in the U.S. As Atina Grossman, one of the foremost historians of postwar Germany, put it, “Most of the DPs . . . viewed the camps as way stations. They wanted nothing more than to escape the ‘cursed soil’ of Germany.” Though the British expended considerable effort trying to prevent Jews from reaching Palestine due to a Middle East policy that sought to appease the Arabs, the Western allies were at the same time keenly interested in reducing the size of the dependent population in the areas under their administration.

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By the time the blockade started in 1948, however, that goal became even more important. Every mouth in Berlin had to be fed by airlift. As the conflict over the city heated up, plans were made to evacuate nonessential personnel, and this set in motion the movement of the last Jewish DPs out of Berlin. As early as May 1947, Colonel William Stinson, head of the Displaced Persons Section of the Military Government in the U.S. zone, recommended that the DP camps be shut down in the capital within a matter of months. There was also the financial cost to consider; expenses for maintaining the local population of Berlin were about to skyrocket beyond comprehension, and even before the airlift, it cost the Army 60 cents a day to care for each German citizen.

At first the Joint managed to obtain special permission from the Soviets to ensure their flow of supplies to the Jews of Berlin. On June 26, 1948, three days after the blockade started, two trucks with 20 tons of food were blocked at the border between West and East Germany. A Joint representative, Irving -Antell, negotiated with Russian officers and obtained not only free passage but also a promise to let other such traffic pass through the blockade. This was not to last. Trucks were soon blocked at the border once again, and by early 1949, the Joint reported, “The Berlin ‘blockade’ is increasingly affecting our operation in that city.” Although a few vehicles had gotten through, “we were not able to organize additional transports because of the objections of one of the powers.” Thus, “the plan now . . . is to ship by air for the American and British sectors.”

The added burden of providing for the DP camps exacerbated the pressure on the Americans to keep the city supplied. The answer to this aspect of their daunting challenge was simple: American military authorities instituted plans to move the entire population of the DP camps out of Berlin. An internal Joint memo reported “the Civil Affairs Division of EUCOM (European Command) was required to initiate the movement of over 5,500 Jewish displaced persons from the U.S. Sector of Berlin . . . by air.”

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The man who would be most responsible for implementing this policy was Harold Fishbein, the UNRRA head of the Berlin DP camps. Fishbein was a large man, physically and emotionally. U.S. Army Chaplain Rabbi Mayer Abramowitz described him as having “a heart of gold, [a] big, fat beautiful person” and claimed that the UNRRA director “knew most of the camp’s residents by name and also knew many of their personal problems (which he helped to solve). His office was an open foyer.” Fortunately for historians, Fishbein left a record of the evacuation of the Jews from Berlin, the only document of its kind. (Fishbein’s account is in his papers in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and is used here for the first time in a published account of the Berlin Airlift.)

Ironically, although the residents of the camps longed for a permanent home elsewhere, according to Fishbein their initial reaction after the start of the blockade was resistance to the notion of flight: “As long as the American Army was in Berlin, and as long as the Allied dependents were not ordered out, the DPs wanted to stay.” The American presence was their symbol of reassurance, a reminder that the U.S. would stay in Berlin and that they would be protected. Nevertheless, a message soon came down from the U.S. military command that changed everything. Fishbein recorded that “on July 10, 1948, word was telephoned from . . . EUCOM headquarters: ‘You will proceed to evacuate all DPs from Berlin by air, beginning on July 12 and ending on July 19 . . . there will be no delays and no extensions.’”

The news was not received well. Fishbein noted that “there had been no prior consultations with the committees of the people, there had been no forewarning.” While many had expressed a desire to emigrate in theory, the idea of being suddenly uprooted once again, when presented to them as an abrupt fact, was frightening. As a result, a quiet resistance formed. Every DP was supposed to register with the military, declaring the date he wanted to depart and his preferred destination. But for three days after the announcement, not one person stepped forward. Instead, protest meetings sprang up, with suggestions for a petition drive aimed at General Clay.

Nevertheless, the camp’s population soon learned that on July 19, all utilities would be stopped, food shipments halted, and the facilities were shut down. That set the stage for a move to the exits, but the actual spark involved the local German police. As word leaked out that the DPs would leave, a black market flourished to get rid of excess goods, and crowds formed around the camps. Inevitably this led to incidents. In one such episode, a minor tussle between a DP and a German police officer turned -violent. The policeman fired his pistol, and the DP was slightly wounded. This led to rumors claiming that several people had died and that the Germans were planning to use violence against the residents of the camps.

Jews began registering for departure in large numbers. But another obstacle awaited them. By 1948 the DP camps had become established communities; families had tried to set up households and had built up businesses. Residents had, as a result, acquired significant physical possessions, both personal and professional, ranging from kitchen appliances to light machinery. Despite this, the Army initially permitted only two suitcases per person, far too little for people hoping to establish new lives. Fishbein negotiated the limit up to 100 kilos per person, and German firms received contracts to transport items to the airports.

Finally, the critical moment came. One thousand people were supposed to leave on the first day, 500 in the morning and a similar number by midafternoon. Residents were supposed to show up at night in preparation for the early flight, but the lack of electricity (it had been shut off by the Russians as part of the blockade) meant luggage would have to be checked in by flashlight and even candlelight.

Trauma abounded. Each plane held exactly 35 passengers. That meant that the initial rosters called for splitting up families, causing terror and tears -until other arrangements could be worked out. Though there were many infants on the flights, no baby -carriages were allowed. Dogs were also prohibited, and one family that tried to sneak on a beloved pet was ordered off. They remained intransigent and said they would rather stay behind than leave without their dog. A U.S. pilot took pity on them and allowed the animal to board. By 5:50 in the morning, all these issues had somehow been resolved, and the first planeload took off.

Their journey, while brief, was exhilarating and frightening. Almost all of them had never been in a plane before, never been off the ground. Michael -Glieberman, one of those who left on these flights, reported that the “seats were canvas . . . and not very comfortable . . . but it was exciting.” More planes showed up that morning; in typical airlift fashion, the process was crisp and orderly: “Every three minutes a plane arrived and every three minutes a plane departed,” Fishbein reported. “In sixty minutes the entire group of 500 DPs was on the way.”

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All reports indicate that the U.S. personnel involved handled themselves with sensitivity. The historian Abraham Hyman wrote that amid the fears of people about to take their first plane ride, “the airmen mingled among the people, and in the few German words they knew they assured the DPs that they were safe and in good hands. They also helped the elderly alight from the planes and helped to carry down the infants and the Torah scrolls the people had brought with them.” The official U.S. military report concluded that the “evacuation of 5,417 Displaced Persons from . . . Berlin . . . was accomplished . . . without major incident and without accident.”

This movement of nonresident Jews out of Berlin was remarkably successful. The effort took place between July 23 and August 1, 1948. Figures in a -confidential Joint memo on the Jewish populations in Berlin showed that the DP count had gone from 5,500 on July 1, 1948, down to a minuscule 150 by September 1.

Even after that, there were still complications. Hundred of Jews returned to Berlin, some of them several times, either to regain private property or in some cases to continue studies at local universities. The last DPs from Berlin flew out on May 11, 1949. Of the 34 passengers on that flight, two were headed for the United States, one for Switzerland, and 31 for Palestine. That was typical. Although the initial destinations were other camps in the American zone of Germany, the eventual goal of those who left the Berlin camps was primarily Palestine, a journey that had been made possible when the state of Israel proclaimed its independence on May 15, 1948. From that day until the end of the year, 25,526 Jewish DPs left the U.S. zone for the Middle East. A Joint report in October of that year stated that “the focal point remained immigration to Israel.”

Other Jews remained in Berlin. The same memo that reported the total evacuation of DPs from Berlin by August 1, 1948, also suggested that the number of native Berlin Jews had remained unchanged, at 8,500. With the blockade still firmly in place, existing supplies from the DP camps were rounded up and redistributed to the remaining Jews.

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The amazing thing about the reverse Berlin Airlift was not the numbers but that this now forgotten episode even happened amid the turmoil of a major world crisis. Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States had contemplated the implications for the Jews in the camps of their actions in the postwar battle for control of Germany. Stalin had wanted to block the unification of West Germany, and U.S. military authorities were primarily concerned with reducing the number of mouths they had to feed in order to save Berlin. Yet while these two great powers dueled in the first major confrontation of the Cold War, one unintended result was that the Berlin camps were eliminated and their Jewish population was sent to help populate the new Jewish state.

 

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