Jewish displaced persons waving goodbye to friends and relatives as they leave Germany for France en route to Israel, 1948, under the auspices of Beriḥah, the clandestine, Zionist-organized mass movement. Photograph by Alex Hochhauser. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Alex Hochhauser)

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A clandestine, Zionist-organized mass movement of about 250,000 Jews from Eastern and Central Europe following the Holocaust. The goal of Beriḥah (Heb., flight or escape) was to bring the Jews to Palestine. The term refers to both the migration itself and the organization that assisted it. The immigrants were mainly Polish, though Slovak, Romanian, and other Jews participated. Austria and Czechoslovakia served as transit countries from which Jews moved first either to Germany or Italy.

Several considerations influenced participation in Beriḥah. While some belonged to Zionist youth movements before the war and had long thought of migrating to Palestine, others joined Beriḥah mainly in order to leave their countries of residence. They were motivated by the psychological difficulty of rebuilding their lives amid Jewish graveyards and by hostility encountered after the liberation. Moreover, experiences during the Holocaust and in its aftermath led many Jews to question the future of Jewish existence in Europe. Although Beriḥah published no literature or propaganda of any kind, leaders of the organization were concerned about the appeal of their program and sought to reach out to the community of Jewish survivors through a set of alternative social service institutions. They hoped to convince them of the necessity of leaving the country.

The foundations of Beriḥah were laid in 1944 by groups of Jewish partisan survivors from Rivne (under Eli‘ezer Lidovski) and Vilna (where Abba Kovner emerged as leader). The first coordinating committee of Beriḥah was established in Vilna, incorporating members of Ha-No‘ar ha-Tsiyoni, Betar, and Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir youth movements.

Soon, however, the center of the organization moved to Lublin, where two other groups joined: youth movement members who had survived the war in the Soviet interior, including Mordekhai Rosman and Shelomoh Kless (the so-called “Asiatics”) and veterans of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, led by Yitsḥak Zuckerman and Tsivyah Lubetkin. All shared the conviction that immigration to Palestine was the only hope for the remnants of the Jewish people to rebuild their lives as individuals and as a nation; hence they were determined to help to facilitate their escape.

From summer 1944 until December of that year, the main Beriḥah route out of Poland led through Chernivtsi (Czernowitz) and Romania to the Black Sea. In February 1945, headquarters moved to Kraków, with transit centers in Tarnów and Rzeszów en route to Romania under the command of Rosman. Mosheh Me’iri (Ben) took charge of the operations of the Polish Beriḥah in May 1945. From early summer 1945, Polish Jews were sent via western Slovakia to Budapest and Graz (Austria) on the way to Italy.

Until summer 1945, Beriḥah’s major source of funding was the Jewish Agency Rescue Committee, established in Palestine in 1942. This money was brought from Palestine by couriers. After October 1945, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee covered a substantial part of the expenses, including transport, food, and lodging for the emigrants. Following a pogrom in Kraków in August 1945, Beriḥah headquarters moved to Łódź, where close contact was maintained with Zionist representatives on the official Central Committee of Polish Jews. Throughout, the core of Beriḥah was made up of center and left-wing Zionist parties and youth organizations.

Two bodies whose functions overlapped managed Beriḥah: a political committee composed of party representatives, and a koordinatzya—an operational command center—normally composed of three or four persons. The koordinatzya managed the Jewish exodus from Poland and determined the times and numbers of people crossing the border at any one time. Beriḥah considered caring for Jewish children and taking them out of Poland an especially sacred duty. Jewish groups deposited their money with the Beriḥah apparatus so that they would not have to carry it. They were supplied with forged Red Cross documents showing them to be Greek Jews liberated from German camps returning home. It was because of this that the only language the refugees were allowed to speak was Hebrew, and they pretended they were speaking a local dialect of Greek. This subterfuge was known as “the Greek bluff.” In November 1945, the Greek method collapsed, although forged Greek documents occasionally continued to be used well into 1946.

In the summer of 1945, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Austria served as transit countries for Jews from Eastern Europe coming to Italy, especially for partisan-led groups. The most important of the transit countries was Czechoslovakia; a Beriḥah office in Prague was staffed by Jewish youths who had returned from Terezín. The transfer of refugees was organized between American zones across the border in Plzeň. Beriḥah members opened another transit point at Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad) to take care of people headed for the border.

Following the closing of Balkan escape routes in mid-1945 and David Ben-Gurion’s instructions to concentrate the survivors in Bavaria, Jews headed for the American occupation zone in Germany. There they provided a tool for pressuring world public opinion on the Palestine issue, thus arousing the hostility of the British, who wanted to prevent any further increase in the population of displaced Jews in the West. The British rejected Truman’s suggestion that the immigration of 100,000 Jews to Palestine should be allowed. The Soviets usually permitted the illegal flow, causing tensions in relations with Britain and the United States, although sometimes they arrested the refugees and organizers. Initially, the American military resisted Jewish infiltration into the U.S.-controlled areas in Germany. Following the publication on 24 August 1945 of a report by American jurist Earl Harrison charging U.S. occupation officials with cruel treatment of displaced persons, a decision was made to allow Jews into the American zone.

Britain attempted to pressure the Polish government to stop the refugee flow. Diplomatic efforts proved futile, however, since keeping Jews in the country did not suit political interests of the new regime in Poland. Moreover, continued anti-Jewish violence in postwar Poland persuaded many Jews to leave the country, even illegally. Many Jewish repatriates from the USSR in 1946 stayed in Poland only a short time before joining Beriḥah en route to the displaced persons camps in the U.S. occupation zone. Between July and September 1946, in the wake of the Kielce pogrom, about 95,000 Jews fled Poland at a rate that reached an average of 700 per day.

The radical increase in the number of Jews trying to flee Poland put the Beriḥah organization—unable to cope with the size of the exodus—in a difficult position. It was, however, able to reach an unofficial understanding with the Polish minister of defense, General Marian Spychalski, who was probably motivated by both political and humanitarian reasons. The agreement stipulated that Jews would be allowed to leave Poland without visas or exit permits. Borders remained open for Jewish emigration from 30 July 1946 until the end of February 1947. The escapees passed through various control points at the frontier with Czechoslovakia, moving into Bohemia, then to Prague and Bavaria. Alternate routes at this time led through Bratislava to Vienna or through Szczecin to Berlin, with two additional crossing points at Żary and Zasieki. Beriḥah also established routes via Hungary and Slovakia to either Germany or Italy.

From the end of 1944 until May 1945, some 2,500 Jews left Poland with Beriḥah, and 500–1,000 departed independently. For the months of May–June, the number was 6,500, with independently organized flight of about 2,500–4,000 Jews. From June 1945 until the end of 1945, Beriḥah organized the exodus of 33,275 Jews while 4,500–5,500 left apart from the organization. For all of 1946 the number was 82,717 organized and 4,000–6,000 private emigrants. During the first two months of 1947, according to Beriḥah’s statistics, 2,730 Jews left Poland with its help.

The Beriḥah movement was helped by contacts with Zionist agencies in Palestine and with the soldiers of the Palestinian Jewish Brigade, who set up an organization that cared for Jewish survivors (Merkaz la-Golah, or Diaspora Center, in Italy, where they were stationed). The first emissaries from Palestine—Iser Ben-Tsevi (Shim‘on), Tsevi Netser (Aleksander), and Yoḥanan Cohen—arrived in Poland in October 1945 and became integrated into Beriḥah’s structures. Efrayim Dekel of the Haganah in Palestine became the group’s leader in Europe, connecting the movement to the Aliyah Bet clandestine immigration organization headed by Sha’ul Avigur in Paris. Gradually, the transit points were dismantled, and after the establishment of the State of Israel, immigration became legal. Nevertheless, for countries from which no legal exit was possible, Beriḥah continued to maintain a skeleton framework as late as 1949.

Suggested Reading

Józef Adelson, “W Polsce zwanej ludową,” in Najnowsze dzieje Żydów w Polsce, ed. Jerzy Tomaszewski, pp. 387–477 (Warsaw, 1993); Yehuda Bauer, Flight and Rescue: Brichah (New York, 1970); Yohanan Cohen, ‘Ovrim kol gevul: “Ha-Beriḥah,” Polin, 1945–1946 (Tel Aviv, 1995); Ephraim Dekel, B’riha: Flight to the Homeland, trans. Dina Ettinger, ed. Gertrude Hirschler (New York, [1973]); Lucjan Dobroszycki, Survivors of the Holocaust in Poland: A Portrait Based on Jewish Community Records, 1944–1947 (Armonk, N.Y., 1994); David Engel, Ben shiḥrur li-veriḥah: Nitsole ha-sho’ah be-Polin veha-ma’avak ‘al hanhagatam, 1944–1946 (Tel Aviv, 1996); Shlomi Hana, “Re’shit hit’argenut yehude Polin be-shilhe milhemet ha-‘olam ha-sheniyah,” Gal-Ed 2 (1975): 287–331; Arieh Josef Kochavi, “Britain and the Jewish Exodus from Poland following the Second World War,” Polin 7 (1992): 161–175.