Worker’s Liberty on Perdition

I remember reading Socialist Organiser (which became Workers’ Liberty) on Perdition at the time. It wasn’t long after Socialist Organiser had dropped their position of a single state as the solution to the  Palestine / Israel conflict,  changing to a 2 states position. At the time this was a brave decision for a Trotskyist organisation to take in the U.K., with only The Militant Tendency refusing to support the destruction of Israel. Those of us involved in Engage were at the time students and remember how Socialist Organiser was the only group on the left to support Jewish students when they came under attack at NUS Conferences. This led to the SWP refusing to continue publishing Socialist Organiser’s newspaper and Socialist Organiser suffered a fair amount of abuse for their principled opposition to anti-semitism and to absolute anti-zionism.

From Worker’s Liberty

In early 1987 there was a public controversy about “Perdition”, a play by Jim Allen, a radical writer with a Trotskyist background, which was scheduled to be directed by Ken Loach at the Royal Court Theatre in London.

Critics claimed that the play, representing Zionists as collaborating with the Nazis in the massacre of Jews in Hungary, was anti-Jewish, and designed primarily to “delegitimise” Israel; defenders argued that it was being banned for highlighting awkward truths.

The Royal Court cancelled the production at a late stage. Later, the play, in an amended version, was published, and in 1999 it was performed at the Gate Theatre in London.

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14 Responses to “Worker’s Liberty on Perdition”

  1. No Username Says:

    For more on Perdition, see:

    http://www.paulbogdanor.com/holocaust/perdition/times.pdf

    http://www.paulbogdanor.com/holocaust/perdition/tls.pdf

    I remember my first reading of the published text; there were historical errors and falsehoods on almost every page. Then there were the blatant antisemitic asides, such as the reference to “all-powerful American Jewry.” And the original unpublished version of the play is even worse.

  2. Brian Robinson Says:

    I’m a keen follower of Yehuda Bauer on the Kastner/Hungarian tragedy. In “Rethinking the Holocaust” (2001 & 2002) he opens chap 10 (Rescue attempts) with the question, “Could the Jews murdered in the Holocaust have been rescued? That question has caused and will continue to cause innumerable sleepless nights.” He goes into very considerable detail, especially concerning the document written by Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler following their escape from Auschwitz, and subsequently called the Auschwitz Protocols.

    This is a book that I like to recall (and draw to the attention of others) whenever the Kastner episode is written about — and especially when in relation to the Allen play (I remember how the Letters pages of the Guardian were filled with the controversy for weeks, and writing to the late Hugo Young about it). Bauer goes into even greater depth in his 1994 book, “Jews for Sale”.

    In “Rethinking the Holocaust”, he considers the significance of the Vrba / Wetzler protocols, but emphasises that even before copies of the documents reached Jewish leaders, “To say that Hungarian Jews had no inkling about what was happening in Poland and elsewhere stretches credulity much too far.”

    After some 22 pages discussing the documentary evidence, he writes:

    The first question to ask is whether possession of the protocols could
    have prevented the deportations. Kastner, and presumably others in
    leadership positions as well, had the information that anyone deported
    to Poland was threatened with death. This information, as we have seen,
    was very widespread; those who were ready to accept it as true did not
    need the protocols to convince them; everyone else rejected it. In any
    case, by the end of April most provincial Jews were already detained in
    ghettos, isolated from the surrounding population, and exposed to star-
    vation, humiliation, and robbery. The Hungarian people were indif-
    ferent, and where they were not indifferent, they were hostile — the
    honorable exceptions were pitiably few. The Catholic Church, through
    its head, Cardinal Jusztinian Seredi, expressed extreme antisemitic
    views and during the deportations worried only about the fate of Jewish
    converts to Catholicism. The two non-Catholic churches were slightly
    better, but apart from offering some ineffective expressions of sympathy
    and half-hearted protests, did not act. Had the Jews accepted the [Vrba/Wetzler] infor-
    mation and refused to believe the cock-and-bull stories of the Germans,
    which were offered to ensure a quiet, trouble-free extermination, what
    exactly could they have done? Hide? Among a hostile population? Re-
    sist? Without weapons, without local support? Flee? Where? In fact,
    with the help of orthodox and left-wing Zionist underground groups, a
    few thousand Jews managed to reach Romania, and some Slovak Jews
    made it back to Slovakia. For the hundreds of thousands of provincial
    Jews, fleeing was no solution.

    Vrba, in an understandably embittered and furious essay, argues that
    the Slovak and Hungarian Jewish leaders betrayed their fellow Jews by
    ignoring the protocols and not using them to warn others. We can
    rely on Vrba when he reports what he saw and went through himsel£
    But his interpretations have to be the subject of an analysis, just like
    every document and every testimony. His point of departure is simple:
    he and his three friends passed on the information, and the leaders
    should have acted upon it; they did not, in his view, and therefore hun-
    dreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews died: they would not have en-
    tered the trains, had they known.

    Many survivors share this view, and it is patently wrong. Large
    numbers of Hungarian Jews were aware of the mass murder in Poland.
    even if they did not know the ways the Germans killed Jews in Ausch-
    witz. Even if they had known the details included in the protocols, the
    assumption that they would not have entered the trains is unrealistic —
    they would have been forced onto the trains by the Hungarian gen-
    darmes. After all, large numbers of Polish Jews knew what awaited them
    in Belzec, Treblinka, and Auschwitz, and they saw no choice but to
    board the trains; they were forced to do so by Ukrainian and German
    guards, armed to the teeth, with dogs.

    [Bauer discusses Kastner's attempts (he was never a member of the Judenrat)
    to warn the Jews by then shut up in ghettos through youth emissaries, "but almost
    no one wanted to believe them".]

    Bauer concludes the discussion through another question:

    Why can the case of the [Auschwitz] protocols be presented as a case study in
    rescue efforts during the Holocaust?

    For any rescue efforts, the first precondition was information. The
    information about Auschwitz was essential if anything was to be done
    to facilitate rescue. The second condition was that the information
    should be believed. The previous pieces of information produced by
    Polish sources were not believed in the West — the Soviets had no inter-
    est in the murder of the Jews in any case — but the protocols were
    obviously authentic, and by disseminating them in Switzerland, Man-
    tello and others created a public opinion that could no longer be ig-
    nored. But the rescue efforts had a postwar life as well. In what some
    may call a traditionally Jewish development, postwar commentators,
    judges, politicians, historians and authors of fiction have vied with one
    another to denigrate, attack, and accuse those who tried to help. To be
    sure, Kastner, Weissman, Petö, Krasniansky, and, for that matter,
    Saly Mayer, the JDC representative in Switzerland, were not perfect
    people. Some were ideological fanatics, some were overweening and
    superambitious political types, some were inflexible do-it-by-the-book
    types. But they tried to help, which is considerably more than their
    postwar detractors have done. Ultraorthodox fanatics accuse all but
    Weissmandel, who was an ultraorthodox fanatic himself, of betrayal
    Right-wing commentators attack the left-wing Zionists who tried to
    rescue Jews. Left-wing fanatics see the moderate left-wingers of Holo-
    caust times as collaborators with the Judenräte. Authors like Amos
    Elon and Tom Segev distort historical evidence to prove a point — the
    list is endless.

    The basic reason for the attacks is, I believe, a refusal to recognize the
    condition of the Jewish people in World War II: nearly total helpless-
    ness. American Jews could offer very little assistance, British Jews none
    at all, and Palestinian Jews were a minority numbering half a million in a
    Palestine occupied by large British forces. When visiting a contempo-
    rary Israeli high school, I am likely to be confronted with the question
    Why did the Israeli air force not intervene? The Holocaust has caused
    the development of a massive social trauma affecting the whole Jewish
    world and, within it, the Jews of Israel. It prevents them from looking at
    reality, because the real world of the 1940s is terrible and humiliating
    for a Jew to contemplate. It is better and easier to accuse the Jewish
    generation that is no longer alive of having failed to rescue their fellows.
    It is the social trauma that causes Jews to accuse one another of Nazism,
    that causes people to draw absolutely inappropriate analogies with the
    Weimar or Nazi periods, and so on. The world at large absorbs anti-
    semitic images when critics imply that during the Holocaust, Jews were
    powerful and rich, and if they didn’t help rescue other Jews, it must have
    been because they did not want to, or because they were part of some
    conspiracy. In effect, with these accusations they imply that the Jews
    were responsible for their own murder. Ultraorthodox and quite a few
    orthodox Jews say that God punished the Jews because the Jews sup-
    ported Reform or Conservative or Liberal interpretations of the Jewish
    religion. Some secular commentators and Israeli anti-Zionists argue
    that the wartime Zionist leaders were inept bunglers who are responsi-
    ble for the failure to rescue the Jews of the Holocaust.
    Yet rescue was attempted. Mostly the attempts failed-not because
    those who tried were bunglers but because they lived in dire and desper-
    ate times, times that their detractors have no inner understanding of.
    Here, too, paradoxically, just like during the Holocaust, we see that fatal
    gap between information and understanding. Now, as then, it is not
    information but understanding that is lacking.

    END OF QUOTATION

  3. NIMN Says:

    I recall that on a TV ‘chat show’ discussing the play, one of the writers (Loach?) claimed that the play could not find a theatre because of the who owned the theatres in London. It was a shocking moment, especially in view of what til then I considered a principled author.

    • Michael Ezra (@MichaelEzra) Says:

      NIMN,

      I believe you are referring to the Channel 4 programme, Diverse Reports, broadcast on March 18, 1987. The relevant person was Jim Allen. (Ken Loach was due to direct the play, he was not the author.) Allen stated, “There was one producer who was prepared to consider putting the play on. He then rang up and said he had had a phone call, threatened tone, ‘I own nine theatres, my friend own six theatres – put Perdition on and you will never bring a play into any of our theatres’. He gets a phone call from New York – ‘You will jeopardise your career if you put Perdition on’.” Allen went on to say on that programme, “the representatives of Zionism….will do anything possible to prevent the public seeing Perdition and making up their own minds.”

      • NIMN Says:

        Thanks for this. You could well be right. However, my recollection was that it was a debate with a ‘Jewish’ representative on a magazine programme like Thames’ ‘Today’. But, I could well be wrong!

        • Michael Ezra (@MichaelEzra) Says:

          NIMN,

          I have uploaded a video of the Channel 4 debate to a blog post on my own blog. If you watch that and you recall something different, then let me know. I shall look in my vaults.

          Ken Loach did make such comments. For example together with Andrew Hornung, Loach said (New Statesman February 20,1987): “a political group [Zionists] has used every device to prevent discussion of its own political past…. it appears that a powerful clique has, through its influence and the press and elsewhere, stopped the play from being performed.”

  4. Paul Bogdanor Says:

    In reply to this lengthy quotation from Bauer, the following points need to be made:

    1. Bauer’s claim that information about the Holocaust was “widespread” in Hungary, but the Jews declined to believe it, is baseless. It is contradicted by the overwhelming majority of testimonies from the Holocaust survivors. The evidence Bauer adduces in support of his claim is unsound. For instance, Bauer asserts that Hungarian Jews were informed about the Holocaust by Polish refugees, but the fact is that these refugees did not speak the language and did not mingle with the Hungarian Jewish masses.

    2. Bauer’s claim that the information would not have helped the victims is equally untrue. In the case of North Transylvania, for example, the Jews were not sent to ghettos until early May 1944. Furthermore, some of the ghettos were poorly guarded and were located within a few miles of the Romanian border. Many thousands of Jews could have escaped this way had they been effectively warned.

    3. It is certainly true that the Zionists tried to warn the Jewish masses of what awaited them by sending emissaries to the ghettos. This fact by itself refutes Allen’s “argument.” What Bauer does not mention is that Kasztner did his best to stop these Zionist underground efforts. Note the interview with Zionist youth leader Rafi Benshalom here:

    http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-3840571,00.html

    Why were the Zionist warnings not believed? See the next point.

    4. Bauer refers to “the cock-and-bull stories of the Germans” about the impending fate of the Jews. What he neglects to mention is that these stories were spread through the national and local Judenräte. The Budapest Judenrat, for example, assured the Hungarian Jews that nothing bad would happen to them if they obeyed orders, while in the North Transylvanian capital of Cluj (Kasztner’s home town), the local Judenrat (run by Kasztner’s relatives and friends) encouraged the Jews to board the trains to Auschwitz by spreading the lie that they were being resettled inside Hungary.

    5. As for Kasztner, it is not simply a matter of “postwar commentators, judges, politicians, historians and authors of fiction.” The main accusers are the Holocaust survivors themselves, especially those from Cluj, who were eye-witnesses to the deception of the Jewish masses by Kasztner’s minions and who testified about it at the Kasztner Trial.

    By all means let us oppose the distortion and exploitation of this tragedy by antisemites such as Allen. But let us not join Bauer in discounting as “patently wrong” the eye-witness accounts of the victims.

    • Brian Robinson Says:

      Oh dear, another idol bites the dust — hardly any left, I’m afraid. I became something of a fan of Bauer after seeing him in the discussion after the marathon first Channel 4 programming of Shoah way back. The others were Lanzmann himself, George Steiner, I think Frederick Raphael and a Polish participant whose name I can’t recall. I’m no historian so I’m grateful to Paul Bogdanor for the correction. There’s no suggestion that Bauer is deliberately trying to cover up or whitewash Kastner, so I’m left wondering what his motivation might be, if not directed by a pure scholarly search for the truth.

  5. Michael Ezra (@MichaelEzra) Says:

    When it comes to the Perdition Affair, there were no real winners, only losers. The Royal Court Theatre that was due to show the play pulled the play just before public previews were due to commence and they had been criticised from all sides. The cast, who were not historians, ended up not performing the play for which they rehearsed. The author, Jim Allen, was exposed for writing an ahistorical piece of agitprop. The director, Ken Loach, came across as someone who simply was ranting about organised Zionist conspiracies and even accused the Guardian journalist David Rose of being part of a Zionist lobby. He was made to look foolish when Rose declared that he wasn’t even a Zionist let alone a member of a Zionist lobby. Ithaca Press who published the book ending up cutting pages out of many copies and replacing them due to a legal case. In any event, the vast majority of the print run remained unsold and was pulped. The American Trotskyist author, Lenni Brenner, on whose work Jim Allen relied, gained publicity due to his appearance on a televised debate on the play but didn’t really impress others when he tried to quote Eichmann to justify his point.

    The Jewish community also made a hash of things. It was a play being shown in a small theatre The Royal Court “Upstairs” which is not the main theatre. A proper historical critique could have been published discrediting the play, but a sense of hysteria seemed to grab communal leaders. Dr Stephen Roth who was the Director of the Institute of Jewish Affairs and Chairman of the Zionist Federation was one of the leading opponents of the play. He had written an article for the Jewish Chronicle criticising the play but implied that Kasztner’s negotiations with Eichmann had led to the saving of the majority of 18,000 Jews sent to Strasshof in Austria. This is simply nonsense. Dr. David Cesarani, a historian who had been asked to comment on the play, informed the theatre that Jewish organisations might disrupt performances of the play. It was quite clear that the major representative Jewish body did not want the play to go ahead. Greville Janner, who was reported to have been speaking for the majority at a meeting of the Board of Deputies, said, “I do not like censorship in any form if it is avoidable. In this case it is unavoidable.” The Board of Deputies itself stated, “Artistic freedom does not mean freedom to lie.” Consequently, despite protestations that they were not trying to the censor the play, it seems that they were. The Jewish Chronicle added to the confusion when the play was pulled by stating the theatre had pulled it “under Jewish pressure.” This was inaccurate as the play was pulled because the Artistic Director, Max Stafford Clark, lost confidence in the play.

    It is interesting to compare the attack on the play by Sean Matgamna, writing as John O’Mahony, in Workers’ Liberty in the links above to the attacks from the Jewish Community. Matgamna is not a Holocaust historian and nor does he claim to be, but he fundamentally understood the mindset of Allen and Brenner. Perhaps Matgamna had the advantage of years in the Trotksyist movement to be very familiar with the methods of people such as Allen. He knew what Allen was trying to do and the way he was trying to do it. He was also not fazed by similar ranting methods of Tony Greenstein. This meant that his own polemical attacks on the play were well directed. The intricate history of the behaviour of Kasztner in Hungary in 1944 was not, in the end, what mattered. What did matter was the ideological battle with the type of anti-Zionist argument used by Brenner and Allen. Matgamna, not Jewish, not Zionist, and not a historian, was a better contender for that fight than Roth and Cesarani.

  6. Brian Robinson Says:

    Jim Allen’s Guardian obituary written by Ken Loach is here

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/1999/jun/25/guardianobituaries2

  7. The Perdition Affair « Under the Ocular Tree Says:

    [...] issues there was an exchange between Matgmana and the anti-Zionist activist Tony Greenstein. The Engage web site has linked to this debate and a discussion is under way where both I and my good friend [...]

  8. Brian Robinson Says:

    Under the Ocular Tree: “One of the more important debates on the play was a televised debate on March 18, 1987 for Channel 4′s Diverse Reports. A recording of this programme has been uploaded to the Internet and can be seen below”.

    Here’s my transcript of the last minute or two:
    Dr Steven Roth: I am not questioning for one moment that what Kasztner did or what others did may have been controversial. It was a period, where people had to take decisions at a moment’s notice, where life and death — without any precedent, without any example to go by, and they may have made mistakes. What is dishonest, that Jim Allen says that all the mistakes are due to a Zionist doctrine which sacrifices life for the sake of the state of Israel. That is the dishonesty.

    Robert Kee: Thank you Dr Roth. Rabbi Gryn, as a survivor of Auschwitz, the only one round this table, I think you should have the last word.

    Rabbi Hugo Gryn: Well, I think that Auschwitz, the Holocaust, calls for the resp— I think the only proper response we probably would be silent, but since we have to speak, I think it ought to be something that heals, tries to reconcile. Instead of scratching away at it, and digging up things, half truths, untruths, and maligning people, I mean I sit here with you tonight because I feel that one owes some kind of a debt to the memory of the people who are no longer alive to get that. And that memory has to be desperate situation, desperate man, doing whatever they could to try and save people, and failed. And there is no reason to rejoice over that.


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