This week we commemorate two extraordinary events that saved our world from destruction: today’s 75 anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe and, on May 10, the 80th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s becoming prime minister of Great Britain. Both events have special significance to people in the United States because, without Churchill’s leadership, America might not have entered the war in time to defeat the Nazis.
Both Churchill and David Ben-Gurion, the dominant Jewish leader at the time who became Israel’s first prime minister, expressed almost prophetic insights about the challenges that lay ahead. They saw themselves as having been chosen by destiny to save their people.
In July 1891, when Churchill was 17 years old, he told his friend, Murland Evans, according to Sir Martin Gilbert’s “In Search of Churchill”: “I can see vast changes coming over a now peaceful world; great upheavals, terrible struggles; wars such as one cannot imagine; and I tell you London will be in danger — London will be attacked and I shall be very prominent in the defence of London. … I see into the future. This country will be subjected somehow, to a tremendous invasion, by what means I do not know, but I tell you I shall be in command of the defences of London and I shall save London and England from disaster. … I repeat — London will be in danger and in the high position I shall occupy, it will fall to me to save the capital and save the Empire.”
A similar premonition occurred to Ben-Gurion when, in 1904, he reportedly wrote a letter to his friend, saying he felt “that either God or nature had selected him to be the alter-ego of Theodor Herzl and to deliver the goods.” Forty-four years later, he did exactly that when he formally declared the creation of the State of Israel.
Remarkably, a similar intuition guided these two leaders with respect to Nazi Germany. In 1933, Churchill warned: “When we read about Germany, when we watch with surprise and distress the tumultuous insurgence of ferocity and war spirit, the pitiless ill treatment of minorities, the denial of normal protections of civilized society to large numbers of individuals, solely on the ground of race, when we see that occurring in one of the most gifted, learned and formidable nations in the world … there is a danger of the odious conditions now ruling in Germany, being extended by conquest to Poland, and another persecution and pogrom of Jews being begun in this new area.”
A year later, in January 1934, Ben-Gurion issued an even more startling prediction: “Hitler’s rule places the entire Jewish people in danger. Hitlerism is at war not only with the Jews of Germany, but with the Jew the world over. Hitler’s rule cannot last long without war, without a war of vengeance against France, Poland, Czechoslovakia and other neighboring countries … or against vast Soviet Russia… . Perhaps only four or five years (if not less) stand between us and that day of wrath.”
In 1936, he added, “We don’t have time to spare. The question of massive immigration is now a question of life and death for the Jewish people and Jewish Palestine.”
At the crucial period following the Nazi occupation of France, Churchill became Britain’s prime minister. Few thought that England could survive. But Ben-Gurion, who was in London during The Blitz, was not among the doubters. At Churchill’s funeral, he said: “What he did in 1940 was a rare feat in history: He lifted an entire nation out of the depths of humiliation and defeat; instilled in them the spiritual strength to hold fast against heavy odds. … If not for Churchill, England would have gone down, with all the implications for the world if that had happened.”
Ben-Gurion also wrote about his experiences with Londoners during the Blitz: “I told myself, ‘I have seen what a people is capable of achieving in the hour of supreme trial. I have seen their spirit touched by nobility. … This is what the Jewish people can do.’ We did it.”
Yes, because of the tenacity of men such as these two leaders, miracles happened. A few weeks after Churchill became prime minister, Allied cryptographers at Bletchley Park broke the Luftwaffe code, and then, in 1941, the Nazi naval and air force codes. Eventually they were able to read the communications sent and received between the German high command and the SS, the Abwehr intelligence reports and even the correspondence of the Führer himself. Without this achievement, many believe the Allies never would have won World War II.
Indeed, perhaps the greatest compliment paid to Churchill came from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander who later became our president: “I have known finer and greater characters, wiser philosophers, more understanding personalities, but no greater man than Winston Churchill.”
Rabbi Marvin Hier is the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a global human rights organization in Los Angeles.