Friday, August 04, 2017

Andrychow and Kocierz or, From Palestine to Poland

This past week, students of the Dekel-Vilnai High School located in Maaleh Adumin are in Poland conducting a heritage tour.  This tour is a bit unique in that it is being sponsored, in part, by the Menachem Begin Heritage Center and elements of the heritage of Jabotinsky, Begin, Betar and other elements of the Revisionist Movement are incorporated in the itinery.

One of the places visited is Kocierz, about 10 kilometers south of the town of Andrychow.

In the mountains there, for almost three months in early 1939, 25 commanders of the Irgun in Eretz-Yisrael were being trained by Polish Army officers in guerrilla warfare (the Hagana's training area [shared by Betar, too] was in Rembertów, now a suburb of Warsaw and was much less intensive):

Here is the ski lodge built, partially, on the remains of a Polish army base which served as the HQ & barracks for the group and was visited by the group, the second group to visit:

The group was lead in singing the song, Chayalim Almonim: (Anonymous Soldiers) written and composed by Avraham Stern - Yair, led by Yossi Suede of the Begin Center:

For those seeking more background and details, here are excerpts from a lecture I found:

The charismatic personality of Ze’ev Jabotinsky drew large crowds of Jews to his talks in Poland...“The style of Jabotinsky’s political Zionism, with the demand for Jewish independence in the Land of Israel and large-scale Aliyah, aroused the interest of groups in the Polish government, which increased and developed into true admiration, firstly for the resistance activities of the IZL against the Arabs during the Arab riots. The Poles, for their limitations, are a romantic people.... who understand and appreciate a revolt against a foreign conqueror. And when they first encountered a similar attitude amongst the Jews, that is from Jabotinsky and his disciples, it touched their heart-strings and inspired their imagination. And they showed their admiration for Jabotinsky himself. Count Lubienski, the Head of the Polish Foreign Office at the time, liked Jabotinsky in particular...

Count Lubienski also expressed his support in practical ways and organised many important meetings between Jabotinsky and the heads of the Polish government. Firstly, he organised a meeting with Count Lubiensky’s boss, the Polish Foreign Minister, Jozef Beck. Jabotinsky presented to Beck the ambitious plan for the “evacuation” from Europe of one and a half million Jews, 750,000 of them from Poland, to the Land of Israel, within ten years. Beck liked the plan and arranged for Jabotinsky to meet the other leaders of Poland.

Jabotinsky’s next meeting was with the Polish Prime Minister, General Felicjan Sławoj Składkowski. At that meeting Jabotisnky asked the Polish government to put pressure on the League of Nations to influence Britain to open the gates of the Land of Israel to mass immigration of Polish Jews. The Poles agreed, and at Poland’s request a discussion was held at the council of the League of Nations on the migration of Jews to the Land of Israel. However, the British, in fear of an Arab reaction, forcefully objected to opening the gates of Palestine for the Jews, and prevented the acceptance of any resolution on the subject.

The Polish attitude to the problem was clarified to the council by Foreign Minister Beck. The newspaper “Davar” reported about it in 21.9.37, as follows: Beck (Poland): …”The special interest of my government in the problem discussed here is a result of the fact that a large percentage of the Jews living now in the Land of Israel came from my country… Historical and sentimental reasons are responsible to the fact that the Jews are showing special interest in the The council of the League of Nations in session. (Photo: UN and LON Archives, Geneva) immigration to the Land of Israel. Moreover, during the lastyears a lot of technical experience accumulated in this field by the Histadrut workers union, who already showed its precious achievements in these matters… …”I am sure that the members of the council, primarily the Mandate Government of Palestine will be good enough to consider my government’s point of view… I must say, though, that my government’s main concern will be to insure that Palestine – whatever its regime – will have the maximum possibility to absorb immigration in the future. “The uncertainty among the Jews today about the future of the country, and the temporary immigration limitations by the Mandatory government are of course disturbing the constructive politics regarding immigration (to Palestine) which prove how much interest the Polish government and the Jews are showing in finding a swift solution to the problem.”

The pinnacle of the meetings that Jabotinsky had in Warsaw was with Field marshal Edward Rydz-Śmigły, then the de facto ruler of Poland. This meeting also ended in full understanding. The positive impression Jabotinsky and his plans made on the Polish rulers soon went from the planning stages to practical endeavours. The Poles began assisting the “Af Al Pi” illegal immigration network, which was organized by Jabotinsky’s New Zionist Organization. The supply of Polish arms to be smuggled to Palestine by the IZL was initiated at this time. Also, training members of the Betar Jewish youth movement and IZL fighters began. The Poles advised Jabotinsky that they were willing to supply the IZL considerable quantities of arms, for the price of 212,000 Zloty (then $40,000), that they will personally loan Jabotinsky in exchange for “an honourable understanding” that the money will be returned once the Jewish State is established. After a time the Poles gave the IZL a grant for an additional 100,000 Zloty. To this amount was added approximately 125,000 Zloty, a private donation from Markovic Klez – a Romanian Jewish millionaire, who was a “groupie” of Jabotinsky and who contributed a great deal to the Revisionist Movement and to the IZL (in 1938 he donated to the IZL an amount sufficient to cover the whole operational budget of the organization for six months). However, the Poles were so generous that the quantities of arms they gave to the IZL far exceeded what they had originally committed to.

Betarim in Ostrowa

While Jabotinsky was conducting high level talks in Warsaw, a new line of communication was opened in Jerusalem between the IZL and the Poles. Avraham (Yair) Stern, a senior commander of the IZL who spoke fluent Polish, made close contact with the Polish Consul in Jerusalem, Witold Hulanicki. and the two became close friends. [Tragically, a Lechi group in Jerusalem was influenced, seemingly by Communist agents, to kill him in 1948] Yair pointed out to the Consul the mutual interests between his organisation and the Polish government and expressed his belief that the more the IZL increased the reprisals against the Arab terror in Palestine the more the Arabs will be weakened, and thus mass Jewish immigration to the country will be possible. Thanks to Yair’s efforts, Hulanicki became an avid supporter of Zionism and of the IZL. The two even wrote a draft agreement between the IZL and the Polish government, according to which the IZL will undertake the tasks of organizing training camps for Jewish youth in Poland and once graduated, move them to Palestine. The Government of Poland, for its part, would provide the IZL arms and training camps and would even try, as much as the political government situation would allow, to put pressure on the British to allow the entrance of Polish Jews to the Land of Israel. For his part, Hulanicki transmitted the IZL’s requests to the Polish Foreign Office in Warsaw. The request was approved. So at the end of 1938, Yair set out to Warsaw, to organize the training camps. In the spring of 1939 the Poles opened a special military course for senior commanders of the IZL while concurrently the supply of Polish arms to the IZL continued.

Yair’s activities in Warsaw were aided a great deal by Dr. Henryk Strassman and his wife, Alicja (pronounced Alitsya). The two came from assimilated Jewish families. Henryk completed his Law studies at Warsaw University with honours. He received a doctorate in law, and in great part due to the strength of his personality, he was appointed to the Warsaw Judiciary – a very senior position, and a level which few Jews were able to reach in the Polish public service at the time. He also taught criminology at the university. In her youth, Alicja studied political science and literature in Paris, where she was drawn to cosmopolitan left-wing activities and drifted away from Judaism. On her return to Poland, she married Henryk. The rising Polish anti-Semitism in the first half of the 1930s did not miss the Strassmans and in reaction to it they became active in the Jewish political arena, preferring the Revisionists. When Yair arrived in Warsaw in 1938, he was invited to speak at a meeting in the home of the couple. The impression he left on those present was so great, that they established a political club named “Yordan” (Jordan), where they met regularly. The high level of the discussions in the club drew many and it became a most desirable place to be for many of the prominent Jews in Warsaw. 

Yair offered Alicja to publish for the IZL a bi-weekly in Polish and she agreed. The magazine, which later became a weekly, was called “Liberated Jerusalem” and contained highly intellectual articles on various Jewish topics, including information of the armed Jewish struggle in the Land of Israel. On the cover of issue 5 of the magazine appeared for the first time the drawing of the hand holding a rifle, with the map of an undivided Land of Israel in the background. Its caption was “Tylko Tak!” (Only Thus!) – the motto of the Polish Legion, which fought in WWI on the German side, for the liberation of Poland from the Russians. The logo was drawn by the magazine’s graphic artist, Dr Bauer, following a suggestion by Alicja. Soon after the IZL adopted it as its official logo and henceforth it appeared on all the publications of the organisation. The weekly had a circulation of 4,000 copies and was in great demand by prominent Jews in Warsaw and even senior Polish officials. The enthusiastic support of his influential readers and followers helped Yair greatly in his activities in Poland. At this time, Yair began drifting away from Jabotinsky, because he thought his policies towards the British were too compromising. He did not even report to him that he had agreed with the Poles on the special military course for the IZL commanders. This caused Jabotinsky a great deal of embarrassment when he was asked by the Poles for his views on the course while he knew nothing of it... 

True to their word to Jabotinsky the Poles started to supply the IZL large quantities of arms. At this time, 24 different types of old rifles were used by the Polish army, and a decision was made to discard all of them and use only a Polish copy of the German “Mauser 98” rifle. As a result, the depots of the army were filled with many thousands of French WWI rifles, which became available immediately to the IZL, together with hundreds of French Hotchkiss machine guns (which were also taken out of military service), millions of bullets and a large quantity of explosives. 

Polish Army training session:

The weapons were stored in a building that was rented by the Strassmans at 8 Ceglana Street, in a distant suburb of Warsaw. Yaacov Meridor, a senior commander of the IZL, dealt with smuggling the weapons to Palestine. In his memoirs, he stated that the weapons in the warehouse would have been sufficient to arm a complete Polish infantry division. However, the exact quantity of arms supplied by the Poles to the IZL is not known, as most of the Polish military archive was lost during WWII. According to Meridor, cached in Ceglana street were 20,000 rifles and about 500 machine guns, of which 200 were the Hotchkiss model. In a somewhat different version, Alicja Strassman relates in her memoirs that the Poles supplied the IZL with a number closer to 8,000 rifles and 1.2 million rounds of ammunition by the end of the summer of 1939. In fact they were both right: the Polish army indeed undertook to supply the IZL 20,000 rifles, but managed to supply only 8,000 before WWII broke out. 

Even if Strassman’s version is the more accurate one, the amount of arms supplied was enough to generate a great deal of excitement. Meridor relates that “when I first entered the warehouse I almost fainted. That narrow building stored hundreds of crates of weapons and ammunition - and I was ready to kiss every one of them”. Alicja Strassman relates in her memoirs, that the Poles supplied the arms in three deliveries. The first of them was in the autumn of 1938, the second in the spring of 1939 and the third, which was the largest, in the summer of the same year. She also relates that at some stage the Poles stopped supplying the old French rifles and instead delivered the new, Polish made version, of the “Mauser 98” rifles that were manufactured in Polish factories for the Polish military. According to her, the name of the factory and the serial number stamped on each rifle were erased before being handed third and final shipment ultimately remained in Warsaw. She also relates that at some stage the Poles the over to the IZL, to prevent the British intelligence from finding out their origin, in case they were seized on their way to Palestine. A Polish army document that survived the war states that one of the deliveries contained 500 rifles “without bayonets or straps and without factory markings, packed in regular boxes at a price of 125 Zloty per rifle” and one million rounds of ammunition, as well as 40 sub-machine guns, and 250,000 rounds of ammunition for them.

On the shoulders of Meridor lay the task of smuggling the Polish arms to Palestine. One way he devised was to hide it inside heavy machinery, such as the drums of industrial dry- cleaning machines (like the one below). The machines were transported overland to the port of Constanza in Romania or the port of Varna in Bulgaria where they were loaded on ships sailing to Haifa. This method turned out to be so efficient that the British did not discover any of the arms smuggled in this way. Alicja Strassman writes about one shipment of 15 Hotchkiss machine guns and 300 rifles, smuggled via Constanza. Of course there were other shipments which for reasons of secrecy, there is no record of them. The last of the “contraband” shipments was a crate containing two Hotchkiss machine guns and 130 French rifles, as well as a few hundred Polish pistols. The crate was sent to Merridor’s residence in Ramat Gan three weeks before the Nazi invasion and it arrived at its destination after the outbreak of war. Merridor hid this crate in his backyard. It should be noted that he Poles also supplied arms to the Haganah, but only as a normal commercial transaction, at full price. In total 2,250 rifles and 225 light machine guns were transferred to the Haganah. However, British intelligence discovered this trnsaction and the British Government demanded that the Poles cease the shipments immediately. The Poles had no choice but to comply – and this source of arms for the Haganah was blocked.

Along with the supply of arms, Polish officers also started training members of Jewish Betar youth movement in the use of guns and explosives. The trainees were members of IZL secret cells, who infiltrated the ranks of Betar in Poland with the encouragement of Yair. A Polish army officer (standing on the right) instructs Betar members how to shoot a rifle. 

Pre-military training was compulsory in all secondary schools in Poland, including Jewish secondary schools. Students who completed this training, and passed their matriculation examinations, were sent to officer’s training courses upon military induction, and were exempted from regular basic training. In the photo above, students of the Jewish secondary school “Klara Ehrlich” in Kovel (today in Ukraine) in a pre-military camp during their summer holidays in the mid 1930’s.

Military drill at a Polish secondary school in the 1930’s For members of Betar who were not part of the IZL secret cells, pre-military courses similar to those at the secondary schools were taught, instructed by Jewish veterans of the Polish army.

The jewel in the crown of the training that the Poles gave to the IZL was the advanced officers’ course, which lasted for four months in the summer of 1939. Twenty five senior IZL commanders attended this course. In order not to arouse suspicion, they left Palestine separately and gathered in Krakow, being warned not to be conspicuous. One of them, Eliahu Lankin, who was later to become the commander of the “Altalena”, related that “one morning we travelled by train to an obscure station, where horse-drawn carts waited for us... After a slow journey in snowy forests we arrived at the peak of a mountain to a three-storied building with a wide yard. All around it was dense forest. Not a living soul to be seen. This was the site of the course.” The mountainous area, where the senior commanders of the IZL passed an advanced officer’s course. 

The site was in the Beskid Mountains, in Southern Poland, about 15km south of Andrychow. This site was chosen for two reasons: the sparse population and the Judea and Galilee like scenery. The course was conducted very strictly by the “second division” (the Intelligence service of the Polish army), and two agents from the Polish Foreign Office: Polonius Zarychta and Viktor Drymmer. The course consisted of two parts: regular military training and guerrilla warfare. The first part included self-defence, individual, unit and divisional field training, lectures on the management of larger groups, military tactics and topography. The second part included explosives, methods of partisan fighting and the building of underground cells. Lenkin and others reported that “Every day we went into the forest for training. The area resounded of loud explosions, automatic gunfire and rifle shots. The program was very elaborate and as time was short, the training was very intensive. “We would set off on long excursions early in the morning and return to the base after nightfall, exhausted, freezing, filthy…but feeling extremely satisfied. Our spirit was lifted and the Polish officers were very surprised by our determination and our great desire to learn.” The Polish officers lectured in Polish, as expected, a language understood by most of the trainees, who then translated for the rest who didn’t understand Polish. 

The course ended In August [I think in April] 1939. Polish General Kazimierz Fabrycy and two colonels from the “second division” – Joseph Smolenski and Thaddeus Pełczyński – came over to watch over the final exam, which was followed by a parade and other festivities. Lankin recalls that “the General and Avraham Stern, who also came for the event, inspected the guard of honour. The General spoke with the cadets and to his surprise discovered that they came from all corners of the earth, from China to South America. (Eliahu Lankin himself was the head of Betar in China before he made Aliyah in 1933).” The exam went extraordinarily well and the Polish officers did not hide their amazement and appreciation for the cadets’ achievements. The head trainer said enthusiastically, that he taught many courses before to his countrymen, but never had he received as much satisfaction from the results, as from this course. “In the end it was Stern’s turn to speak. Beginning in Polish, he expressed appreciation of the course and compared the Jewish struggle in Palestine with the Poles’ war of independence. Turning to Hebrew he told the cadets of the plan to conquer the Land of Israel by armed and well trained Jewish youth… This was the first time the cadets heard about the acquisition of large quantities of arms for the IZL in Poland”.

...In the initial stages of the military operations against the British, the knowledge gained from the course was used to prepare electrically triggered landmines and pressure triggered landmines. Other areas of knowledge gained from the Poles included the preparation of hidden transmitters, delay tactics, and additional techniques related to underground activities.” Most of the cadets returned to Palestine immediately after the course ended. Only four of them remained in Poland to oversee the military courses for Betar members [and close to 1000 Betarim had undergone such training until mid-August]. But a few weeks later war broke out and they all had to escape back home. 

Another version, translated from the Polish:

In the spring of 1939 the Beskid forests in and around Andrychów were once again bursting with explosions and shooting. 25 young men were banned from keeping contact with the surrounding population. For four months, under the guidance of instructors of the Polish Army, they learned techniques of guerrilla and sabotage, trained in terrorist attacks and bomb attacks, and learned the basics of conspiracy. As he recalled one year after taking part in the training: "Poles treated the course of terrorism as a scientific discipline, we learned mathematical formulas to demolish structures of cement, iron, wood, bricks and earth."

The four-month course ended with a party involving the commander of the Carpathians army of General Kazimierz Fabryca and the colonels of Józef Smoleński and Tadeusz Pełczyński, who represented the famous Double, or II Corps General Staff, as pre-war military intelligence. When the officers had been drinking a little, General Fabry asked the commander of the training group where the participants came from. "From all over the world, this one is from China," the commander said, pointing to the young officer who was born in Harbin in Manchuria. "Somehow you do not look Chinese," said the general and they both laughed, because the course participants did not really have anything to do with China. 

The course in Andrychow was designed for the officers of Irgun, an underground army formed by the leader of the Zionist right-wing Vladimir Żabotyński to fight for the Jewish state in Palestine. They secretly entered Poland from Palestine in small groups, LOT aircraft, between Haifa and Warsaw, or Polonia liner, which linked Palestine with the Romanian port of Constanta, and from there by train to Krakow.

The course in Andrychów is the result of a contract concluded in 1936 between Jabotińsky and the Polish authorities. It assumed the help of the Polish army in the training of Jewish fighters fighting for the state of Israel in Palestine. The initial stage was paramilitary camps for Zionist youth organized under the auspices of the Ministry of Military Affairs in the summer of 1936 and 1937. The first group of about 40 Irgun soldiers [actually, members of the National Cells/Ta'im Leumiim] appeared in Poland in the summer of 1938 [in 1937], conducting regular military training in Zofiace in Volhynia and Podębin near Lodz. The course in Andrychów was supposed to be the culmination of cooperation. The training of a staff of experts who later shared their knowledge with hundreds of Jewish soldiers in Palestine was supervised by Abraham Stern, the commander-in-chief of Irgun, born in Suwalki.


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