David Lan

The High Court of Justice in London, 1967. Dr Miklos Yaron, a Hungarian gynaecologist, is suing his former assistant Ruth Kaplan for libel. Kaplan has published a pamphlet accusing Yaron of collaboration with Nazi leaders in 1944. As a member of the Central Jewish Council set up by the Nazis, Yaron had known that millions of Jews had already died in extermination camps. Nonetheless he agreed to assist Eichmann with his plan to destroy the Jews of Hungary.

Is there anyone in Britain interested in the theatre, in civil liberties or in Jews who can’t identify this as a scene from Jim Allen’s play Perdition? The successful lobbying by Jews in Britain to have its production cancelled has made it one of the most famous plays of the decade. I have read it and like it very little, but by forcing its cancellation, modern Jewish leaders, Zionists among them, have given credibility to one of the assertions Allen makes about Zionist leaders of the past. A Jewish joke if ever there was one, but not many people are laughing.

As the play is set entirely in the courtroom, I’ll start with a confession: I am the only Jew in England who is not an expert on Zionist politics 1939-1945. Have you put on your picketing shoes yet? Hold on, there’s more. When I was growing up in South Africa I was totally uninterested in – not to say, embarrassed by – Zionism, or, more accurately, by Zionists. How I felt is captured by Lenni Brenner’s account, in Jews in America Today[*] of the callow youth who are heard to say: ‘I wouldn’t be seen dead with those creeps.’ Reading the correspondence Perdition elicited, it came back to me why I felt as I did.

In the play, Ruth Kaplan charges Yaron with gross self-interest. She claims that Yaron’s reward for keeping silent about the fate he knew awaited the Hungarian Jews in the camps was that he, his family and his associates would be allowed to emigrate to Israel. Yaron’s defence is twofold. If he had not obeyed Eichmann, he would have been executed. Indeed, many other members of the Central Jewish Council had refused and were killed. More important, he had also been a member of the Zionist Rescue Committee which had achieved some success in smuggling Jews out of the country, even in freeing a number from the camps. He believed his duty lay in bargaining with Eichmann for the lives of doomed Jews. To turn his back was to abandon all of them. To collaborate was to give some, however few, a chance of life.

That collaboration such as Yaron’s occurred is not in question. In the course of the play, however, witnesses are wheeled on to bring more complex charges against Zionism and the early Zionist leaders. Allen believes that the roots of Yaron’s collaboration ‘lay in prewar efforts of Zionism to effect an alliance with the Nazis’. It is here that the play’s accuracy and integrity have been challenged.

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[*] Jews in America Today (Al Saqi, 370 pp., £25 and £7.95, 19 February, 0 86356 124 1).