Ever since Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Jews have had renewed interest in the "what if?": what if Jewish refugees from WWII had been welcomed in some land outside the Middle East? What would Israel be like today if it were not the only Jewish state? Alexander Heldring, former Ambassador of the Netherlands, tells us here about the Jewish quest to settle Surinam–Zeek
From 1946 until the mid-1950s, an American-Jewish organization called the Freeland League negotiated with Dutch and Surinamese authorities about the possible resettlement of 30,000 Jewish displaced persons and refugees from Central and Eastern Europe in Surinam. Hopes were high when the authorities concerned initially reacted positively to the plan. But the project never came to fruition. So what went wrong?
The Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonization had been founded in Great Britain in 1935 by the Jewish lawyer Dr Isaac Nathan Steinberg, who twelve years earlier had fled Russia. As a representative of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, Steinberg had briefly joined Lenin’s first cabinet in the capacity of minister of Justice, but due to his much more liberal views on politics he had soon fallen at loggerheads with the Bolsheviks.
Even before the start of WWII, due to the persecution of Jews in Nazi-Germany, the Freeland League had searched urgently for a thinly populated area (‘Territory’), somewhere in the world, where Jewish colonists could settle and cultivate the land. They would become citizens of the country concerned while simultaneously retaining their own Jewish culture and Yiddish language as much as possible. For the Territorialists, Palestine was not an option, since they, unlike the Zionists, did not aspire towards creating an independent Jewish state. In those days, moreover, Palestine was still ruled by the British mandate, with a limited admission policy.
At first, the Freeland League focused on Australia because on that vast continent there were so many areas still sparsely populated, especially in the Northwest. Isaac Steinberg, chosen as the most convincing representative of the League due to his charismatic personality and brilliant oratory skills, launched an intensive campaign in Australia in favor of Jewish colonization. Initially it seemed that he would succeed in his objective. However, despite the support of several Australian agencies and substantial public opinion, the League failed to obtain consent from the central government in Canberra, which officially rejected the plan in 1944. They did not want a mass influx of Jewish refugees from Europe to settle as a separate group in a remote part of the country.
The Freeland League did not lose heart, and two years later, in 1946, it directed its attempts to find a sanctuary for the survivors of the Holocaust in another sparsely populated area, and that was found in Surinam.
Why did the League select Surinam? Located on the northeast coast of South America between British Guyana and French Guyana, Surinam was still a Dutch colony at the time. Although four times the size of the Netherlands, its population amounted to no more than 180,000. The descendants of African slaves accounted for the largest ethnic section, approximately 75,000 people, followed by around 56,000 people from the Indian sub-continent, and 35,000 Javanese from the Dutch East Indies. Smaller ethnic groups consisted of Chinese, Lebanese, Amerindians and Dutch. There was also a small community of fewer than 800 Jews, who had settled in Surinam as far back as the mid-seventeenth century.
Initially – as had been the case with the Australia project – it appeared as if, during its negotiations with Surinam and the Netherlands, the Freeland League would succeed in its effort to carry out its colonization project. A delegation of the League headed by Isaac Steinberg visited Surinam in April 1947. After negotiations with an advisory commission appointed by the governor, the delegation and the commission signed a Joint Declaration in which both parties agreed to admit a maximum of 30,000 Jewish immigrants into Surinam. The Surinamese negotiators had insisted on this number, such being smaller than that of the Javanese segment of the population. On 27 June 1947, after a heated debate, the Staten (the Surinam parliament) decided thus to admit this maximum number of 30,000 Jews ‘under stipulations to be agreed on at a later stage’[i].
The colonization pursued by the Freeland League was targeted at the Saramacca district, west of Paramaribo, the capital city of Surinam. At the end of 1947 and the beginning of 1948, a group of five American experts commissioned by the League made a thorough survey of the spot and concluded in their report that the area referred to was suitable for the Jewish colonization. The Freeland League would cover the costs of this project (estimated at US$35 million) using funds meant to be made available by Jewish organizations and some American trade unions.
However, a few months after the foundation of the State of Israel (14 May 1948), the new governor of Surinam informed the Freeland League in New York that the Surinamese Staten wished to suspend the discussion on the Jewish immigration until ‘total clarification of the general international situation’[ii]. This was virtually the end of the Jewish colonization scheme in Surinam, although Surinam has never transformed the ‘suspension’ into a formal ‘discontinuance’.
The League did not accept what it considered to be a unilateral decision. Although in the immediate years after the founding of the Jewish state, most of the inmates of the DP camps in Europe emigrated to Israel, there was a substantial number of Jews, especially the non-Zionists, who wanted a safe haven somewhere else in the world. They remained the League’s principal target group and for almost nine years it continued its efforts to reopen the negotiations with the Surinamese government. Once in a while it would appear as if a new government in Surinam, perhaps not entirely aware of the history of the Saramacca Project, might be willing to re-examine the matter. Each time, however, this would fail to be followed up by the Surinamese authorities and eventually the League stopped pursuing its goal of having Jews resettle in Surinam.
After Isaac Steinberg’s death in January 1957, the League gradually dropped the ‘territorialist’ part of its mandate and started to focus more on helping to preserve Yiddish as a living language. This latter goal is still being pursued by the League for Yiddish in New York[iii], which might be regarded as the Freeland League’s successor.
The only publications on the Freeland League and its colonization projects which I have been able to trace so far are the following. In 1948, Isaac Steinberg himself described his efforts to create a Jewish settlement in Australia in his book Australia, the Unpromised Land: In search of a Home[iv]. Copies are almost impossible to find. More recently, in 1993, a book by the Australian journalist Leon Gettler appeared under virtually the same title, Unpromised Land[v]. In 1967, the well-known American expert in Yiddish, Michael Astour, released his extensive study entitled the History of the Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonization (750 p.), but only in Yiddish[vi]. During the negotiations with the Surinamese and Dutch authorities, the two magazines produced by the Freeland League itself, Afn Shvel (Yiddish[vii]) and Freeland (English), also published many articles on the Saramacca Project.
The only in-depth study on the specific topic of the Freeland League and Surinam published in the Netherlands so far was made by Laura Almagor with her Master’s thesis for the University of Utrecht, ‘A Forgotten Alternative’, presented in July 2007 (104 p.)[viii].
Why Surinam is not the Jewish State
In the beginning, there was enthusiasm for this project in both Surinam and the Netherlands. Put briefly, this initial positive reaction to the concept stemmed from the awareness that this could help displaced Jews in Europe; that the population in Surinam and its economy would grow; and that the reputation of Surinam and the Netherlands would be enhanced internationally (something that the Netherlands with its problems in Indonesia certainly needed) and it wouldn’t cost the Netherlands a single penny. From 1946 to 1948 this enthusiasm transformed itself into various concrete arrangements between the Surinamese government and the Freeland League, favorable and recorded statements in the Staten of Surinam, the Dutch Lower House of Parliament, the United Nations General Assembly and affirmative letters from the then governor of Surinam to the League.
However, the colonization plan failed. In Surinam itself the resistance against the plan gradually increased, especially within the Creole National Party of Surinam (NPS). The black population was afraid of possible political and economic dominance by the Jewish immigrants. In its public relations campaign, the NPS even employed discourse which harked back to an era when Jewish slave masters exploited the sugar plantations.
The Zionists, who had their own agenda, also fueled these fears. After all, as long as Palestine was under British mandate and the British obstructed mass immigration of Jews from Europe, Surinam might well serve as an acceptable alternative for a possible sanctuary for Jewish displaced persons. This was a threat to the Zionists’ ambitions and so the Zionists concentrated their lobbying against the colonization project of the Freeland League within Surinam itself. They sent the formidable Mrs. Ida Archibald Silverman, who had already won her spurs in contributing to the failure of the colonization project in Australia, to Paramaribo. The Zionists observed that initially not only the Jewish community, but also other people (including Muslims), the Surinamese government and some political parties showed great sympathy for the idea of a Jewish immigration.
Mrs. Silverman, during a three-day visit to Paramaribo in March 1948, managed to create a divide within the Jewish community of supporters and opponents of the colonization project. She would later remark: ‘I went there to check on and nip in the bud, if possible, Steinberg’s nefarious scheme (via the Freeland League) to bargain with the then Dutch Governor for permission to settle Jewish refugees in the disease-infested jungles along the Surinam river. […] It took very little effort on my part to disillusion the Governor…So that, aside from the thousands of dollars wasted on the experts … nothing good came from this scheme.’[ix]
Within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague, the opinion reigned that the Freeland League would never acquire the necessary funding for the plan. This turned out not to be true at least in terms of financial support, which the League had already enjoyed from some American trade unions and would have continued to enjoy, had the Dutch eventually consented to the plan.
Immediately after the war, there were certainly sympathizers of the colonization project within the Dutch government. The most determined opponents were a couple of officials in the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, later joined by their colleagues from Overseas Territories, who eventually managed to convince their respective bosses to reject the project. There is substantial evidence that in the summer of 1948, the Netherlands government exerted pressure on the Staten of Suriname to ‘suspend the discussion’ regarding the colonization plan, which ultimately led to the failure of the project.
Evidently the Freeland League had been so misled by the initial positive attitude of the Surinamese and Dutch governments that it didn’t actually bother to lobby in the Netherlands. The League’s lobbying campaign focused on Suriname, because it was under the mistaken impression that the entire decision-making process regarding the project would take place in Paramaribo. Only after Isaac Steinberg received a warning from his friends in Surinam about the Dutch pressure on the Staten of Suriname did the League decide to deputize its leader to the Netherlands, but Steinberg was denied access.
If the Freeland League had succeeded in concluding a binding agreement with the Surinamese and Dutch governments on the Jewish colonization, and if some U.S. agencies (such as trade unions) had made sufficient funds available for the implementation of the plan, would the League have been able to attain its desired number of 30,000 Jewish immigrants for a colonization in Suriname?
The answer is yes, if one focuses on the period right after the war. There is ample evidence hereof in the archives I had access to, for example the letters to the Freeland League from inmates of the displaced persons’ camps in the American and British occupation zones in Germany and Austria[x]. However, any likelihood of Eastern European Jews in particular coming to Surinam was precisely one of the severest objections which the Dutch government harbored against the League’s Surinam plan. The government didn’t want a large numbers of Jews from Eastern Europe in Suriname, ‘because they are infiltrators who will turn Suriname into a communist state[xi]‘.
From my research, it seems apparent that neither the Dutch nor the Surinamese government treated the colonization project or the Freeland League itself with particular integrity. Dutch Prime Minister Willem Drees and his immediate entourage themselves have pointed out in various internal memoranda that in the discussion with the Freeland League following the initial negotiations, the Dutch position was very weak and the course of things "not unquestionable"[xii]. In these documents Drees and his colleagues also admit that the commitments which the Netherlands and Surinam had entered into with the Freeland League were in fact firmer than they had initially thought. According to one of Drees’ advisors "this issue has developed and been treated in a very unfortunate fashion"[xiii]. The League’s allegation that the Dutch government had exerted pressure on Suriname to suspend the negotiations has always been publicly denied by the Netherlands, but admitted in private. If on the Dutch side there was an awareness that this matter had not been treated in an entirely just manner, it is all the more striking that the authorities in The Hague and Paramaribo acted in a rather sloppy fashion, to say the least, in their further handling of contacts with the League: in due course, governor (s) and ministers no longer took the trouble to reply to letters of the League, except Prime Minister Drees himself. He was the only one who in his last letter to the Freeland League wrote that he personally regretted that the colonization project had not materialized.
What would have happened if the Jewish colonization project had materialized? This, of course, belongs to the realm of the ‘What if?’ theory in historiography[xiv], or perhaps to Dutch journalist Jeroen Trommelen, who a few years ago wrote that Surinam had missed " a wonderful opportunity to develop into the nuclear weapons, iceberg lettuce producing nation that Israel ultimately has become"[xv]: a deliberately exaggerated and somewhat facetious prophecy.
The immigration of 30,000 Jews would, in my view, undoubtedly have contributed positively to Surinam’s economic welfare, as significant Jewish presence elsewhere has proven.
But what impact would such a large amount of settlers have had on the native population? With the Australia project, the Freeland League unfortunately had overlooked the interests of the native Australians (Aborigines) of the region[xvi]. In the case of Surinam, however, the League had always emphasized its wish that the Jewish colonists be settled in an unpopulated area, thereby avoiding any allegations of dominance altogether.
But even with a large Jewish community, Surinam would never have become an alternative option for Palestine. The Freeland League regarded Australia, Alaska or Surinam as a refuge only complementary to Israel. It remains remarkable that at the time, the Zionists offered so much resistance to the colonization scheme in Surinam, as if indeed that country might have presented a serious alternative for the Zionists’ ambitions. On the contrary: I believe that the Jewish colonization project in Surinam might eventually have served the interests of both the colonists and the Zionists. The colonists could perhaps even have followed the example of the largest Jewish community in South-America (i.e. the 190,000 Jews in Argentina), the majority of which are strong supporters of Israel[xvii].
(c) Alexander Heldring 2009. Alexander Heldring Sr. is former Ambassador of the Netherlands to Burkina Faso, Niger, Ghana, Togo, and Benin. In his thirty-plus years of foreign service to the Netherlands, he has served in Poland, Belgium (NATO), the USA, Switzerland (UN) and Surinam. He is currently writing a dissertation about the Freeland League.
[i] ‘Handelingen van de Staten van Suriname’, July 1947, pag.164 t/m 184. Bijzondere collecties van de Koninklijke Bibiotheek, The Hague, Netherlands.
[ii] Letter from governor W. Huender to the Freeland League dated 14 August 1948. National Archives (NA) in The Hague, file 2.10.54, # 11842.
[iv] V. Gollancz, London, 1948, 172 p.
[v] Fremantle Arts Center, Australia, 174 p.
[vi] Many thanks to Dr Israel Zelitch, Hamden Connecticut, member of the Executive Board of the League for Yiddish in New York. Dr. Zelitch kindly translated for me more than 80 pages from this book from Yiddish to English, so I was able to access the relevant chapters on the Freeland League and Surinam.
[vii] Still published by the League for Yiddish in New York (www.leagueforyiddish.org).
[ix] The Jewish Forum, October 1956. Copy available at the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana, University of Amsterdam, Hans Samson collection.
[x] E.g. YIVO, New York, Isaac Steinberg papers RG 366, files #523-547.
[xi] Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague. Dossier ‘Freeland League’, code 6/1945-1954, 3404 ~12015
[xii] National Archives in The Hague, file 2.03.01, # 4691
[xiv] See for instance What if?, edited by Robert Cowley, Macmillan London, 2000.
[xv] De Volkskrant, 23 September 2000: Een joodse staat in Zuid-Amerika (A Jewish state in South-America).
[xvi] Leon Gettler, Unpromised Land, op.cit. p. 142, 143.
[xvii] Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd edition, volume 2, Thomson Gale, Farmington Hills MI, 2007, p. 430 and 435.
Images from artist Michael Blum’s installation Exodus 2048
- Year 2048. The US no longer play a prominent role in world politics. After the wars of Pakistan and Iran, and the guerilla warfare imposed by Al Qaeda over the years, American leaders have decided to act in the sole interest of the country and not to intervene any longer in the affairs of the world, and consequently withdrew all support to Israel. In addition, the demographic balance has been shifting in the Middle East. Palestinian population has tripled in the last 50 years and is bursting out of the West Bank and the Gaza strip. The pressure of Arabs over Israeli Jews has become so strong that the latter, having lost the support of the US, have no other option than leave the country and emigrate. Some sporadic fights take place but, like the Arabs who hardly fought in 1948 (according to the myth), the majority of Israel’s population leaves without opposing resistance. While an Israeli government in exile tries to rule from Brooklyn, New York, other Israeli representatives successfully negociate the re-location of the state of Israel in Uganda, as proposed by Theodor Herzl in 1903. A majority of Mizrahi, unable to return to the countries of origin of their great-grandparents, accept to relocate in the New State of Israel. Nonetheless, a large number of Ashkenazim, wealthy and educated members of society, refuse to settle in Uganda. Some manage to be granted a visa to the US and join their families. Some others make a new start in Europe, South America or China.
- It’s in this context that the Exodus 2048, a Maltese ferry, is found roaming in the North Sea with about 4 500 Israeli refugees aboard. Rejected from most European ports during a three-month ordeal, the ship is finally allowed to dock in Rotterdam. Initially not allowed to disembark, the refugees are eventually accomodated in a variety of public buildings requisitioned throughout the Netherlands. The Van Abbemuseum being one of the requisitioned buildings, it now hosts a group of 120 Israeli refugees awaiting the result of their asylum application. They hope to receive, with their residence permit, a piece of land to establish a kibboutz. Named Eretz Hoven, it should revive the utopian spirit that led to the creation of the first kibboutzim in pre-Israel Palestine.