There’s a point in every Kornmehl family story that I usually dread, the one where I approach the end of their lives. Some family members died of natural causes, of course, and some escaped the Nazis. But even the escapes are generally disturbing, last minute and harrowing.
Things are different with Viktor Kormehl and his brother, Bertschi. I’m not sure of all the details of Viktor’s affiliations yet, but I know that Bertschi was involved with a group that saved many European Jewish lives, not only those of his family.
Betar and the Perl Transports
Bertschi was one of four members of the action committee of Austrian Jews from the Betar movement, which helped organize the transport of many small convoys of several thousand Jews to Palestine before the start of World War Two. Specifically, he is listed on a site devoted to Jewish Rescuers of the Holocaust, 1933-1945 among those who were involved in the Perl Transport, or Af-Al-Pi (Hebrew for “in spite of everything”):
The Aliyah Bet (Organization for Illegal Immigration), founded in 1934, was one of the principal organizations for organizing the transport of Jewish refugees from German occupied territories to Palestine between 1937 and 1942, during the British Mandate. This organization was created jointly by the Jewish Trade Union Federation, the Histadrut, and the Haganah, a Jewish underground defense organization.
Aliyah Bet chose Vienna as its central location because of access to transportation resources and the Danube River.
The Aliyah Bet arranged for papers, documents, funding, and ship’s transportation for tens of thousands of Jews. After the annexation of Austria in 1938, the Aliyah Bet became larger and more organized. Aliyah Bet included groups that evolved into the Perl Transport, or Af-Al-Pi.
Support among non-Zionist Jewish groups was limited; some Jewish organizations were outright hostile. Less surprising:
The illegal immigration operations were vehemently opposed by the British government, especially after the publication of the White Paper, which limited immigration to 75,000 refugees during a period of five years. In addition, the Arabs were against mass immigration to Palestine and lobbied the British government to prevent this.
An Unlikely Ally
But one unlikely group embraced the movement, at least initially: The Nazis. According to a profile of Adolph Eichmann by The History Place:
He visited Palestine in 1937 to discuss the possibility of large scale immigration of Jews to the Middle East with Arab leaders. British authorities, however, ordered him out of the country.
With the Nazi takeover of Austria in March of 1938, Eichmann was sent to Vienna where he established a Central Office for Jewish Emigration. This office had the sole authority to issue permits to Jews desperately wanting to leave Austria and became engaged in extorting wealth in return for safe passage. Nearly a hundred thousand Austrian Jews managed to leave with most turning over all their worldly possessions to Eichmann’s office, a concept so successful that similar offices were established in Prague and Berlin.
A number of Jews were released from concentration camps when they received proof that they had purchased a ship’s ticket on one of the Aliyah Bet’s transports. A memoir of this branch of the Kornmehl family by Bertschi’s uncle notes that there was even a ceremonial speech by Eichmann, who said:
You are all returning home to the country where your fathers were forced to leave by the Romans. You are all leaving Austria voluntarily and not as refugees. You shall look back with respect and with your heads held high at your life in Austria, Austria that used to be your home. Now you must go forward as peacemakers for a proud Jewish future.
I can’t find any source for the words of the speech, but the event itself is noted in a review of The Four Front War: From the Holocaust to the Promised Land by William Perl, who organized the transports.
Perl convinced the author of the Final Solution, before he rose to prominence, that the Betar would assist Germany in ridding-itself of Jews by arranging their departure. This agreement resulted in the bizarre spectacle of Eichmann’s standing at attention in the Vienna railroad station as the Betar members, in military formation, sang Hatikvah (the Israeli national anthem) before boarding the trains which started them on their journey to Palestine.
Self-deportation was not always a concept to be scoffed at.
This is Day 15 of the Family History Writing Challenge. I made it past the halfway point, hoorah!