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December 29, 1998


Dr. William R. Perl

BY Stephen G. Esrati

Dr. William R. (Willy) Perl, 92, one of the giants of the Jabotinsky movement, died last week at his home in Beltsville, Md., Perl, a lawyer in Vienna and a longtime member of Betar, was involved in the attempt to evacuate the Jews of Europe by sending them down the Danube in the most awful of ships.

The effort began in Palestine when Eri Jabotinsky and David Raziel, commander of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, sent young Yitshaq Ben-Ami to Europe to set it up. It led to meetings with and help from Adolf Eichmann. According to Ben-Ami, not only did the Zionist movement oppose the effort, but Dr. Leo Baeck, the chief rabbi of Berlin, telegraphed the Zionist organization in Vienna to oppose their activities. Also opposing the effort was Norman Bentwich, who represented the Jewish Agency. Bentwich lectured the Irgun people while he was accompanied by a man wearing a Nazi lapel pin.

"Those of you involved in illegal immigration must stop," Bentwish demanded.

"You are committing a major crime." Irgunist Paul Haller answered Bentwich: "Yes, well, we happened to go out on the street and saw Jews being chased like rats, and we jumped to the rash conclusion that perhaps someone ought to do something." According to the account of Ben-Ami, Bentwich replied: "Your crimes are threefold: first, you have no chance to bring these people safely to Palestine; second, Palestine cannot absorb them; third, you are officially acquiescing to the expulsion of the Jews." "And you're a murderer," Perl replied. The Irgunists then walked out of the meeting.

Eventually, after the Nazis had taken over most of Europe, Perl set up his own exodus, rescuing 40,000 Jews in 62 voyages to Palestine, despite the White Paper, despite the Royal Navy, despite the Jewish Agency's insistence on being able to select which Jews could come to Palestine to assure the Labor party there of a majority.

According to the obituary in the New York Times on Tuesday, Dec. 29, "After Hitler had taken over Austria, he [Perl] was summoned by Adolf Eichmann, then a lieutenant in the SS, who stuck a pistol in his back, demanding to know the whereabouts of a fugitive Jew.

Dr. Perl did not give Eichmann any information but instead interested him in a plan to remove Jews from Vienna through sailings to Palestine." The Times said Eichmann ultimately rejected the proposal, but, in fact, Eichmann did provide Ben-Ami and his men with some ships on the theory that it was Eichmann's job to rid Vienna of Jews. [up]


Perl, too had to make selections for his rescue ships, but his were based on health and stamina for the terrible voyage, not on affiliation to Mapai. He told Ralph Blumenthal of The New York Times in 1990 that the most painful part of his work had been selecting the healthiest evacuees for the scarce shipboard space. He said he was still haunted by the image of a sick Hungarian woman and her family whom he had barred from a transport. "I convicted them to death," he said.

Perl was arrested in Greece in 1940. He always charged that the British were behind it. He was put on a train for Berlin on which he cut his wrists and was taken off as he had intended. Eventually, he escaped via Portugal to the United States.

After that, his rescue operation carried out few missions; it ceased entirely in August 1944.

Perl enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army soon after Pearl Harbor. He became a lieutenant colonel in military intelligence with the U.S. prosecutors at the war crime trials in Nuremberg. Perl was the chief interrogator of the SS men who were accused of killing 72 American prisoners during the Battle of the Bulge.

Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.) succeeded in reopening the case during Senate hearings about whether Perl and other "Thirty-Niners" (McCarthy's derisive term for German Jews) had railroaded the SS men by beating them.

The Senate committee upheld the sentences, but all the Nazis escaped the noose because of the intervention of Gen. Lucius Clay, the American military governor of Germany.

True to his Jabotinsky-family past, Perl joined the Jewish Defense League of Rabbi Meir Kahane.

In 1976 he was convicted in U.S. District Court in Baltimore of conspiring to shoot out the windows in the apartments of two Soviet embassy officials in Hyattsville, Md., to protest against the Soviet policy on Jews. The conviction was overturned on appeal.

Perl's own version of his rescue attempts were outlined in his book, "The Four-Front War: From the Holocaust to the Promised Land." The enemies he named were

  • the Nazis,
  • the British, and
  • the Jewish establishment.

He charged in "The Holocaust Conspiracy: An International Policy of Genocide," that the nations of the world conspired to let the Nazis kill off the Jews.

Stephen G. Esrati:
PO Box 20130 Shaker Heights, OH 44120 (216) 561-9393

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