Israel's forgotten hero: The assassination of Count Bernadotte - and the death of peace
He was charged by the UN with bringing peace to Palestine– but died at the hands of Jewish assassins. Now, 60 years after his death, the memory of the Swedish aristocrat Folke Bernadotte is dividing Israel.
Sitting in the back seat, the blue-blooded Swedish aristocrat and the decorated French hero of two world wars had begun to relax from the tension of the journey as the big Chrysler, the last of a three-car convoy, started its final ascent up the narrow road through the now Jewish-occupied district of Katamon, towards Rehavia and the house of the Jerusalem military governor. No one in the first car, a DeSoto, least of all the Israeli captain assigned to escort the VIPs, showed much concern when a new-looking Israeli army jeep slewed across the road to bring the convoy to a halt: just another temporary checkpoint. As three soldiers in standard Israel Defence Forces khaki shorts, fingers on triggers, approached the DeSoto; the three young Swedes and a Belgian in the passenger seats, groped for their papers. "It's OK boys," the Israeli officer explained. "Let us pass. It's the UN mediator."
At that moment, one of the three men ran to the Chrysler, pushed the barrel of his German-made Schmeisser MP40 sub-machine gun through the open rear window, and pumped six bullets into the chest, throat and left arm of the aristocrat and another 18 into the body of the French colonel sitting on his left. Rushing out of the first car, the Israeli captain, Moshe Hillman, ran back to the Chrysler. Aghast at the sight of the copiously bleeding bodies he kept repeating: "My God, oh my God," before jumping in beside the driver, a UN security man recruited from the FBI, and telling him to head straight for the Hadassah hospital. But Count Folke Bernadotte, the UN mediator officially charged with bringing peace to a Holy Land at war, and his chief UN observer Colonel Andre Serot, who had only swapped places with Hillman at the last minute so that he could personally thank the count for saving his wife from a Nazi concentration camp three years earlier, were dead on arrival.
The assassination of Bernadotte by Jewish militants disguised as regular soldiers on 17 September 1948, was commemorated in a series of Swedish and UN ceremonies in Jerusalem, Stockholm and New York yesterday. But no blue Israeli plaque marks the spot, as it does for so many military and Jewish underground exploits of the period. It is still the same September sunshine as it was that day, and the contours of the land do not change, of course. You can see how the ambush took place, just where the road starts to level out before climbing more steeply to the north west and what is now the Islamic Museum and Rehavia beyond. But the road, now Palmach Street, is wider and what was then a semi-rural suburb is now a busy middle-class West Jerusalem neighbourhood built up with its five-storey apartment blocks, and a row of little shops opposite the junction with Ha'gdud Ha'ivri Street where Bernadotte was shot. Today, only those Israelis with long memories, such as passing local resident Abraham Yinnon, who was a 16-year-old soldier at the time, even know what happened here. "It was madness," he says now. "A political murder. Madness. Maybe it stopped something happening, but...."
Although it would be 30 years before any of its personnel admitted it, the "madness" was perpetrated by the most extreme of the Jewish nationalist underground groups, Lehi, more commonly known to the British as the Stern Gang, ordered by a three-man leadership which included the future Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir. What cost the life of the count who ran the Swedish Red Cross during the Second World War and was the nephew of King Gustav V, was not the two Arab-Jewish truces he had managed to negotiate – the second of which was close to collapse when he was killed. It was the longer-term peace plan which sought, however vainly and perhaps naively, to tackle the very issues which still lie at the heart of the world's most intractable conflict today: borders, Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem. It was on the last point that Bernadotte had most incensed Israeli opinion, by recommending first that the city should be in Arab territory, and then, in a report heavily influenced by Britain and the US and submitted to the UN Security Council the very day before his death, that it should be under international supervision.
Geula Cohen, a former Knesset member on the nationalist far right who in 1948 was a 17-year-old broadcaster on Lehi's clandestine radio, recalls the chilling threats she personally directed at Bernadotte over the airwaves in the weeks before the assassination. "I told him if you are not going to leave Jerusalem and go to your Stockholm, you won't be any more." Did she still think, 60 years later, it was right to kill him? "There is no question about it. We would not have Jerusalem any more."
Few Israelis outside the ranks of Lehi veterans would say that now. But the assassination remains a problematic episode in the country's early history. It was swiftly and almost universally condemned in the Israeli press of the time. David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, used it to crack down on – and effectively eliminate – Lehi and arrest hundreds of its volunteers; if anything, the murder made it easier to integrate most of the Lehi and Irgun forces into the Israeli mainstream. But no one who carried out the killing was ever found or brought to trial; the historian Benny Morris says that Ben-Gurion probably had "internal political reasons" for not wanting them found. The police investigation did not begin until 24 hours later and was at best, according to Bernadotte in Palestine 1948, the authoritative and admirably objective account by Israeli historian Amitsur Ilan, "amateurish" when it did. It was not until 1995 that Shimon Peres officially expressed "regret that he was killed in a terrorist way". And, finally, had the assassination and the motives for it, helped to obstruct the recognition due to Bernadotte for his rescue of large numbers of people held in Nazi concentration camps, including several thousand Jews, in 1945?
The story of the Swedish "White buses", so called because the vehicles were painted white with red crosses to protect them from allied bombing, which between March and May 1945 conducted the largest – if woefully late – rescue operation from Nazi concentration camps in the Second World War, is a complex one. But it brought to Sweden perhaps 21,000 people, and another 10,000 in the month after the end of the war. Of that total, the most recent historical assessment is that around 11,000 were Jews. And it is for ever – including by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem – associated with the name of Bernadotte, who was running the Swedish Red Cross at the time and who negotiated the releases from camps still in Nazi hands with Heinrich Himmler (whose secret, unfulfilled, ulterior motive was to negotiate a separate peace with the Western allies but not with Stalin).
Miriam Akavia, the distinguished Polish-born Israeli writer and her husband Hanan, who would become an Israeli diplomat in both Sweden and his native Hungary, have never wavered in their gratitude to Bernadotte. Both were holocaust survivors, almost all of whose families were killed in the Second World War, and who suffered as teenagers the unimaginable horrors of Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen – neither weighing more than 25 kilos when they left – and who were given the care they desperately needed thanks to the Bernadotte mission.
Unlike the majority of those rescued, Hanan and Miriam Akavia were both separately brought to Sweden (where they met) after the liberation of Bergen Belsen. To realise how significant this still was, it's worth realising that such was the condition of the inmates that 10,000 of them died after the British troops arrived. Miriam, who also survived the death march to Bergen Belsen, has written about that "sad liberation": "I myself was lying on a heap of dead bodies and beside me was my sister Lusia, our mother was there with us, but she was no longer alive. For her, the war ended too late... Sweden chose the weakest and sickest. Nothing was demanded of us. They sanitised us... dressed us, checked us, fed us vitamins and cod liver oil and sent us to pretty localities, most of us to hospitals." Hanan Akavia, who today describes Count Bernadotte as a "saviour", says that he was so thin and ill that: "If I had not been saved by Sweden I cannot imagine how I would have survived. It meant recovery, a new life." And his wife points out of this period: "I did not then know who Ben-Gurion was. But I knew about Count Bernadotte."
But Miriam Akavia also described how her friend Rina Fried, then 16, who was still in Nazi hands, and like the Akavias would later come to start a new life in Israel in 1946, was on a train, "crammed with the barely living skeletons of women" from her concentration camp travelling to seemingly certain death when she was rescued by the mission. As the train stopped, the "emaciated women" were approached by foreigners with food and drink. "Vi aker till Sverige. We are going to Sweden," they said. "Your enslavement is over."
The Akavias would very much like to see the count named by Yad Vashem among the "Righteous among the Nations", a title which has been awarded over the years to 22,000 non-Jews from 44 countries who helped to save Jews from the holocaust. Hanan Akavia, who has kept in touch with the count's relatives over the years, was the first Jewish survivor to write to the family in the Seventies in thanks to the count. While a file was opened on the subject at Yad Vashem, the case has never been formally considered by the independent commission which adjudicates on who should be so honoured – a source of continued frustration to Akavia.
Reaching for a possible explanation, and recalling that in 1995 when a ceremony commemorating the White Buses was held in Tel Aviv, the Israeli press divided over its appropriateness – given the controversy surrounding the 1948 Bernadotte peace plans, he adds: "This is speculation and I have no reason to know, but I think it may be because he was killed." Akavia also speculates that such recognition might prompt the King and Queen of Sweden to do something they have never done, almost certainly because of the murder of their kinsman, and visit Israel. Asked about this, a senior Swedish diplomat did not disagree. And he linked – less tentatively than Akavia – the fact that the count has not been honoured as a Righteous among the Nations with the assassination 60 years ago, saying: "I don't think the recognition will happen while [Yitzhak] Shamir is alive."
Any such link is vigorously denied by Yad Vashem, which notes that Count Bernadotte is not ignored in the museum – indeed, it includes one of the White Buses. It notes, too that the Commission on the Righteous among the Nations is an independent body, chaired by a Supreme Court Justice, which rigorously examines evidence; and perhaps most importantly that Count Bernadotte, who achieved his rescue through negotiations with the Nazi regime, does not fulfil a key criterion, namely that someone so honoured should have risked his or her own life to save Jews.
Bernadotte's mission was not without risk, according to most historians, though very different from the kind most associated with most of the all too few gentiles who protected Jews in the Second World War. Travelling through Germany as it was facing defeat was hazardous enough. Kati Marton notes in her book Death in Jerusalem that Bernadotte, who frequently drove behind the convoys and whose own car was strafed by Allied bombers, took "meagre precautions for his own safety" at a time when allied bombers hit the convoys three times, killing 16 newly freed inmates. He would later insist on exposing himself to the same dangers as his UN observers in Jerusalem. And Ilan says that Bernadotte's repeated travels between Germany, Sweden and Denmark in the spring of 1945 were "sometimes at considerable risk".
Yehuda Bauer, a leading Israeli Holocaust historian, also believes there are "precedents" for Righteous among the Nations who did not necessarily risk execution by the Axis powers. He cites the case of the Japanese consul in Chiune Sugihara, who issued visas to desperate refugees in Soviet-occupied Lithuania and was subsequently promoted to other posts in Prague and Bucharest. Professor Bauer, who has the highest regard for the integrity of the adjudication process at Yad Vashem, points out that Bernadotte did not to set out with the goal of rescuing Jews, but Scandinavian non-Jews. He had then rescued Jews. "I would be in favour [of him becoming Righteous Among the Nations] but I am not sure I could convince others," he says.
More people were involved than Bernadotte credited in his own account of the mission. These included a friend, Hillel Storch, Stockholm representative of the World Jewish Congress, and a probable driving force behind Bernadotte's rescue of Jews, and Felix Kersten, Himmler's quasi-medic who also influenced the 1945 release of Jews. But Kersten's embittered attempt to discredit Bernadotte as having little role in the mission and – by means of a forged document – for being an anti-semite, did not stand the test of time. And despite the attempts of Lehi veterans to use the latter, and now discredited, accusation as a retrospective means of justifying his assassination, more rigorous historical analysis has left his reputation intact on both points.
Bernadotte – "quite a decent fellow" as Professor Bauer put it – was not perfect. Ilan sums up his characteristics after the 1945 mission as "simple, well- meaning, energetic, bold, shallow, capable of leadership but limited in his capacity to orient himself in complex situations without good counsel".
His mission was instrumental in saving several thousand Jews. That is not in doubt. Which is why, among others, Hanan and Miriam Akavia, both 81, travelled yesterday from Tel Aviv to the Jerusalem YMCA, where the mediator's office was, where his and Colonel Serot's bodies lay in state on that September night in 1948, and where, yesterday, there was a small official commemorative ceremony and a lecture on the life of Bernadotte, by Mats Bergquist, the former Swedish ambassador in Tel Aviv and London. They do not intend to bury his memory.
(28 April 1908 – 9 October 1974)
German industrialist Schindler is believed to have saved 1,200 Jews by employing them in his enamelware and ammunition factories in Poland and the Czech Republic. His story was immortalised most famously in Steven Spielberg's 1993 film Schindler's List.
Schindler initially tried to profit from Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939. He acquired an out-of-use factory from a bankruptcy court in Krakow and employed 1,000 Jews to work there. But after watching many of his Jewish employees being rounded up and transported to a concentration camp outside Warsaw in 1942, Schindler began going to great lengths to protect his employees. He convinced the Germans that his staff, as well as their wives, children and the handicapped were necessary to his operations and should be saved. He ended his life in relative poverty, being cared for by Jewish charities until his death.
Archbishop Damaskinos Papandreou
(3 March 1891 – 20 May 1949)
Papandreou was the head of the Greek Orthodox Church from 1941 until his death. After Germany's invasion of Greece in October 1940, the Nazis began persecuting the country's Jews and deporting them to concentration camps. The Archbishop's main act of protest was to write a public letter condemning the act of racial discrimination; such a move is believed to be a unique war-time demonstration by Jewish organisations. "In our national consciousness, all the children of Mother Greece are an inseparable unity," read the plea. "They are equal members of the national body irrespective of religion... Our holy religion does not recognize superior or inferior qualities based on race or religion." He wrote the letter despite the threat of execution from local Nazi commanders, although escaped recrimination. In addition, the churches over which he presided were ordered to distribute Christian baptismal certificates to Jews fleeing the Nazis, thus saving thousands.
(10 September 1901– 28 September 1997)
Known as the "Chinese Schindler", Ho was a high-ranking diplomat in Austria when the country was annexed by the Nazis in 1938. After their mass deportation and murder in that year's Kristallnacht, the country's 200,000 Jews needed to provide a visa from a foreign country in order to cross international borders and escape. Acting against orders, Ho began issuing Austrian Jews visas, allowing them to travel to Shanghai. As a result, many Jews escaped to the Chinese city before moving on to Hong Kong and Australia. Ho continued issuing visas until he was ordered to return to China in May 1940. It is believed he issued close to 2,000 visas during one six-month period, although the total number of those he saved are unknown. He continued to work as a diplomat for the Chinese in Egypt, Colombia, Bolivia and Mexico before settling in the United States until his death.
(15 February, 1910 – 12 May, 2008)
Sendler was a Polish Catholic social worker and prominent activist in Warsaw's anti-Holocaust resistance. As early as 1939, she helped Jews by offering them food and shelter. Working with a team of "helpers", Sendler created about 3,000 false identity documents to help Jewish families. She spent much time visiting ghettoes in the Polish capital, even wearing a Star of David (despite not being Jewish herself) to show solidarity with the people she was trying to save. She additionally helped to smuggle children out of the city's ghettos (in ambulances, and even hiding them in boxes), before placing them with orphanages and convents until the end of the war. In 1943, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo, tortured, and sentenced to death, although her colleagues from the Polish resistance bribed guards for her freedom. She lived in hiding until the end of the war. She was nominated for last year's Nobel Peace Prize, although she did not win.
profiles by Rob Sharp
(4 August, 1912 – 17 July, 1947 [assumed date of death])
Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat posted in Budapest during the Second World War. He is believed to have saved up to 15,000 Jews from concentration camps by issuing them with passports that identified them as Swedish nationals awaiting repatriation. Although the documents were not legally valid, they appeared official enough to fool the German and Hungarian authorities – who at times were also bribed. He also reportedly climbed aboard a train full of Jews bound for Auschwitz, and began distributing passports to its passengers. Although the exact circumstances of his death are not known, it is believed that he was executed by the Soviet Union; it is rumoured they believed him to be a spy for the United States.
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