On September 1, 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland, beginning World War II and setting the stage for the Holocaust.
On the very same day, Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, one of the most influential figures of the 20th century and the father of modern India, wrote a short but powerful Rosh Hashanah greeting to A.E. Shohet, the head of the Bombay Zionist Association. The timing of the greeting reflects the extent to which Nazi persecution of Jews was of concern to global citizenry at the time. In hindsight, it also presents a chilling portent of the horrors to come:
You have my good wishes for your new year. How I wish the new year may mean an era of peace for your afflicted people.
The greeting came to light as part of a major National Library of Israel initiative, with support from the Leir Foundation, to review and describe millions of items in its archival collections, which include personal papers, photographs, documents and more from many of the 20th century’s most prominent cultural figures.
A.E. Shohet was an Indian Jew from the Baghdadi community in Bombay. He headed the Bombay Zionist Association (BZA), the city’s Keren Hayesod office, and served as editor of “The Jewish Advocate”, the organ of the Jewish National Fund and the BZA. He believed deeply in the Zionist cause and saw it as a singular path to unifying the diverse Jewish population of Bombay, which included the long-established wealthy Baghdadi Jewish community, the Bene Israel Indian Jewish community, and the local European Jewish community.
Gandhi had been reluctant to declare his views on the Arab-Jewish question in Palestine and the persecution of German Jews. Finally, on November 26, 1938, he published an article entitled “The Jews” in the Harijan, offering “satyagraha” or non-violent resistance as his solution to both problems. Gandhi suggested that the Jews in Mandatory Palestine ought to “offer satyagraha in front of the Arabs and offer themselves to be shot or thrown into the Dead Sea without raising a little finger against them.”
Regarding German Jewry, he implored resisting Nazism solely through non-confrontational means. “My sympathies are all with the Jews… If there ever could be a justifiable war, in the name of and for humanity, war against Germany to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race would be completely justified. But I do not believe in any war…”
The article was harshly criticized by leading intellectuals of the period including Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, who viewed Gandhi’s statements as unfavorable to Zionism and not satisfactory vis-a-vis the situation of German Jewry. Shohet replied in “The Jewish Advocate”, emphasizing one fundamental difference between the Jews in Europe and the Harijans in India – the former had no home. Moreover, he argued that Jews had practiced non-violence for two millennia, yet their persecution persisted. Other statements by Gandhi and the dangers of the Indian National Congress’ neutral attitude regarding the Nazi persecutions disturbed Jews world and pushed Shohet to continue his attempts to influence the Mahatma.
To that end, he enlisted the assistance of Hermann Kallenbach, a wealthy Jewish Zionist architect and carpenter who Gandhi referred to as his “soulmate”. Kallenbach had bankrolled the 1910 establishment of “Tolstoy’s Farm” – the South African prototype for the Gandhian ashram – where he and Gandhi had lived together, sharing a kitchen and seemingly endless conversations about the proper path and meaning of life. Gandhi once wrote to Kallenbach, “Your portrait (the only one) stands on the mantelpiece in my room… even if I wanted to dismiss you from my thoughts, I could not do it.”
In March 1939, Kallenbach arranged for Shohet to interview the Mahatma, which he did over the course of four days at Gandhi’s ashram in Wardha.
According to a letter Shohet wrote to Eliahu Epstein (who later became known as Eliahu Elath and would serve as Israel’s first ambassador to the United States), the interview was discouraging because although Gandhi to a certain extent understood the idealism of the Jews’ wish to return to Palestine, he still saw the Palestine question from the Muslim point of view.
Kallenbach and Shohet never convinced Gandhi to become an active defender of European Jewry nor a Zionist, and he remained steadfast in his belief that non-violence and passivity could solve all problems.
In 1939 and 1940, Gandhi wrote a series of letters to Adolf Hitler, which controversially included elements of both respect and admonishment, “We have no doubt about your bravery or devotion to your fatherland, nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents. But your own writings and pronouncements and those of your friends and admirers leave no room for doubt that many of your acts are monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity…”
Not long before he was assassinated, Gandhi called the Holocaust “the greatest crime of our time,” yet maintained that, “… the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs… It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany… As it is they succumbed anyway in their millions.”
Many thanks to National Library of Israel expert archivist Rachel Misrati for her invaluable assistance.