BERIḤAH (Heb. בְּרִיחָה; "flight"), name of an organized underground operation moving Jews out of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia, the Baltic countries, and the U.S.S.R. into Central and Southern Europe between 1944 and 1948 as a step toward their – mostly "illegal" – immigration to Palestine: also name of the spontaneous mass movement of Jewish survivors from Europe toward Ereẓ Israel.
In 1939, Jewish refugees fleeing from the Germans were illegally crossing frontiers into Soviet-occupied Poland and thence to Lithuania or, in the south, to Romania. While this
movement was in the main chaotic, Zionist, Bundist, and Orthodox groups provided some organized nuclei. The same holds true of Jews fleeing from Slovakia to Hungary in 1942, and from Hungary back into Slovakia and into Romania in 1944. At the end of World War II, tens of thousands of Jews found that they could not remain in the countries of Central Europe either because of their memories of
and the destruction of their homes or because of the antisemitic atmosphere that prevailed in these countries. A mass migration of the remnants of the Holocaust began. It was partially spontaneous and partially organized as an attempt to find a way to reach Palestine. The first initiators of the organized Beriḥah came from among the leaders of Jewish resistance groups, partisans, and organizers of Zionist underground groups who already had participated in illegal border crossings in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe during the war years.
In 1944, with the liberation of Rovno in Volhynia and Vilna by the Soviet Army in February and April, respectively, illegal groups of former Jewish partisans were formed independently of each other. Their aim was to take out the remnants of the Jewish population and bring them to Ereẓ Israel. They were joined by Zionist groups returning from Soviet Asia, and met in Lublin in December 1944 under the leadership of
. In January 1945, they were joined by the remnants of the Warsaw ghetto fighters under
, and founded the Beriḥah organization under the leadership of Kovner. The first groups were sent to Romania in the middle of January 1945, in the hope of reaching Ereẓ Israel with the help of emissaries (sheliḥim) of the yishuv staying at the time in Bucharest. During the first months after the war, before the borders of Central European countries were redrawn and closed and when millions of
were returning to their homes, the movement of Jews searching for a way to Palestine also began. An event connected with this mass movement was the "Rescue Train," which, under the auspices of the International Red Cross, set out for Poland to return to Romania Jews who had been deported by the Germans. This project succeeded in returning from Poland to Romania about 5,000 Jews, including many children. But hopes of reaching Palestine from Romania had soon to be discarded, and in May, Kovner had instead established transit points in Hungary and Yugoslavia, moving his people toward Italy, which he himself reached in July. Polish Jews were now coming via Slovakia to Budapest, and thence to Graz in Austria, hoping to cross the Italian border from there. In August, however, the British occupation forces stationed there closed the border and 12,000 people were stranded in the Graz area. They managed to cross the border in small groups only in the winter of 1945/46.
A center (Merkaz la-Golah) for smuggling Jews into Italy from the liberated concentration camps in Germany and Austria was established by Palestinian Jewish soldiers stationed in Europe, both from the
and from other army units. It started its activities in June 1945 and brought in some 15,000 people till August, when British forces sealed the border. Financing in this early period was from
funds. The first attempt to organize the migration of Jewish survivors throughout Europe was made at a meeting of Beriḥah activists in Bratislava in March 1946. A central committee of the Beriḥah was chosen with Mordechai Surkis from the Jewish Brigade and Pinḥas Rashish (d. 1978), head of the Palestine aid delegation to Poland, as its heads. This committee exercised an ill-defined and shadowy control over Beriḥah activities in Europe until the end of 1946.
From August 1945 onward, a movement started out of Poland into the Displaced Persons (DP) camps of Czechoslovakia; the various routes led to the U.S. zone in Austria and into Bavaria. From October onward an alternative route operated via Szczeczyn (Stettin), Berlin, and the British zone (northern Germany) to the U.S. zone in the south. Transit through Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Hungary was controlled by Levi Kopelevich (Argov), a shali'aḥ from Palestine, who from March 1946 headed the Beriḥah secretariat in Bratislava. Movements were coordinated with the Beriḥah in Poland under Isser Ben-Ẓvi, a shali'aḥ who had taken over in October 1945. In the winter of 1945/46, funds began to be received from the
*American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
for food and clothing for stranded refugees. The control over Beriḥah exercised heretofore through Surkis was now acknowledged to be in the hands of the "Mosad le-Aliyah Bet" (or "Mosad," center for "illegal" immigration) in Palestine, whose head,
, moved his office to Paris in 1946.
The movement was largely organized by Zionist youth movements whose representatives in Poland formed the Beriḥah "center," to which the commander was responsible. The movements and Zionist parties formed groups, many of which were influenced by the kibbutz idea and therefore known as "kibbutzim." The groups were directed to border towns where Beriḥah teams accommodated them in "stores" (temporary lodgings). There they were provided with slips of paper containing a code ("parol") and sent to the actual border station ("point") where the local Beriḥah team smuggled them across. Until 1946, forged Red Cross documents were employed to identify people as Greek refugees. In Czechoslovakia, an informal agreement was obtained not to hamper the movement of Jews, and UNRRA and the Czech government paid the train fares from the Polish border to either Bratislava or As on the Czech-German frontier. On the Szczeczyn-Berlin route, Soviet or Polish truck drivers were bribed into smuggling people in, and exit from Berlin to the British zone was effected either through UNRRA officials whose sympathy was obtained or with the help of forged documents. From October 1945 onward, the operation in Austria was under Asher Ben-Nathan, and in Germany under Ephraim Frank, both sheliḥim from Palestine. In Vienna a series of transit camps were clustered around the Rothschild Hospital, receiving refugees passing from Bratislava to the U.S. zone of Austria. From the U.S. zone of Austria transit was effected either to Italy (until
about May 1946), directed by Issachar Haimovich, or to the U.S. zone in Germany.
The U.S. Army did not encourage entry of Jewish refugees into their zones. However, poor conditions in DP camps in these zones had caused an investigation to be made by Earl G. Harrison in August, 1945, and the report that was published on Sept. 30, 1945, reflected badly on the army. To avoid arousing public opinion in the United States the army acquiesced in Jewish refugee movements, provided no very large numbers were involved. Simon H. Rifkind and Philip S. Bernstein, advisers on Jewish affairs to the U.S. command in Germany, played a large part in persuading the army to maintain its tolerant attitude.
The murder of 41 Jews in a pogrom at
(Poland) on July 4, 1946, created a wave of panic among Polish Jews, who now included the 150,000 repatriates from the U.S.S.R. who came out from February 1946 onward (before that there had been only 80,000 Jews in Poland). Pressure was exerted on Beriḥah by panic-stricken Jews to take them out of Poland. In July this was still done by the usual illegal means. But the Polish government, which arrived at the conclusion that it would not be able to restrain the outbursts against the Jews, saw their exodus from Poland as a solution to the problem. In late July, negotiations conducted by Yiẓḥak Cukierman with Polish government agencies led to an oral understanding whereby Jews were allowed to leave Poland without hindrance through the Silesian border into Czechoslovakia. Simultaneously (on July 26) the Czech government, largely through the influence of Jan Masaryk, the foreign minister, decided to open its frontier to Jews fleeing from Poland. In the three months of July, August, and September 1946 more than 70,000 Jews fled through Czechoslovakia. Transport was paid for by the Czechs, against an UNRRA promise to return the money later; food was obtained largely from the JDC and UNRRA. The exodus of those months was joined by 15,000 Hungarian Jews and some 1,000 Romanian and Czech Jews. Despite Polish insistence that only the Silesian route should be used after the July agreement, Beriḥah continued to send also large numbers of Jews via Szczeczyn to Berlin, a route which was controlled by Jewish Brigade soldiers. Others went from Szczeczyn to Luebeck and Hanover in the British zone by train or boat through PUR, the Polish agency expelling Germans from Poland: the Jews posed as Germans and were thus enabled to leave by "being expelled." The total number leaving Poland from July 1945 to October 1946 was estimated at 110,000, excluding PUR and a large number of people who came out not with the organized Beriḥah but with professional smugglers, Jews as well as non-Jews. From the beginnings of the Beriḥah until October 1946 no less than 180,000 people were involved in the migratory movements.
After some hesitation, and due again largely to the intervention of Rabbi Philip Bernstein, the U.S. Army allowed the large scale move into the U.S. zones of Germany and Austria to take place in the summer of 1946. Movements out of Germany into Italy were limited, especially during the second half of 1946, until the route was reestablished in early 1947 through the Valle Aurina. In early 1947 the Polish government terminated the arrangement at the border; movement via Szczeczyn had almost come to a standstill in November 1946. During 1947, less than 10,000 Jews managed to leave Poland via Beriḥah routes. In Germany, Beriḥah cooperated with the committees of Jewish DPs to arrange for social and political absorption of the refugees into the camps. Beriḥah's orientation was clearly Zionist, but there were refugees who declared their preference for migration to countries other than Palestine.
The Beriḥah movement from the Soviet Union was a special case. Many Jews who had lived in prewar Poland left the U.S.S.R. with their families as part of the Polish repatriation program. The position of veteran citizens of the Soviet Union was a more difficult one. Nonetheless, activities of the Beriḥah were organized by a number of bodies, which, inter alia, brought out many Lubavitch Ḥasidim from the Soviet Union. When the new Soviet border was definitely sealed in 1946, the Soviet authorities began to seize the Beriḥah organizers, some of whom were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms. At the end of 1946 a meeting of Beriḥah commanders was held at Basle during the 22nd Zionist Congress. Shaul Avigur, head of the "Mosad," was present. There a new European commander of the Beriḥah, Ephraim Dekel, a former head of
Intelligence in Palestine, was nominated. Under Dekel Beriḥah became more closely linked with the "Mosad," but the numbers coming in from Eastern Europe were falling. In the spring of 1947 economic crisis and fear of antisemitism caused a panic flight of some 15,000 Romanian Jews to Hungary and Austria. On April 21, 1947, the U.S. Army decreed that no more Jews would be accepted into existing DP camps, but Beriḥah poured the refugees into the Viennese transit camps until the American authorities relented and allowed the people entrance into camps in the U.S. zone in contravention of the decree. The tension in Palestine between
and the dissident underground organizations,
*Irgun Ẓeva'i Le'ummi
*Loḥamei Ḥerut Israel
(Leḥi), sometimes influenced the work of the Beriḥah as well, and in September 1947 a Beriḥah man was murdered at a "point" near Innsbruck by IẒL members. In general, however, the
were part of the current of the Beriḥah and the "illegal" immigration to Palestine.
In 1948, Meir Sapir took over from Dekel as Beriḥah commander, and Beriḥah was slowly wound up, though Beriḥah points still operated on certain eastern borders in 1949. In the west, Beriḥah points existed on the German-French and, briefly, on the Belgian, frontier, and the 4,500 Exodus passengers passed through these in June 1947. However, entry into France was regulated by the "Mosad" rather than Beriḥah. The total number of people who left Eastern Europe between 1944 and 1948 can be estimated at about 250,000, and of these about 80% at least came with the organized Beriḥah. The Beriḥah was a prime factor in the struggle for the establishment of the Jewish State from 1945 to 1948. It dramatically underscored
President Truman's demand for a speedy admission of 100,000 Jewish refugees to Palestine (August 1945) and was reflected in the conclusions of the Anglo-American Committee (May 1946). It created a reservoir of people from which came the masses of immigrants that fought together with the yishuv to open the gates of Palestine to Jewish immigration and to establish the State of Israel.