A new take on Holocaust rescue
by Jonathan Rosenblum
August 15, 2003
My eyes almost popped out of my head last week when I noticed Efraim Zuroff’s review in these pages of David Wyman and Rafael Medoff’s Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America, and the Holocaust.This should be good, I thought, given that Race Against Death is a complete refutation of the line taken by Zuroff three years ago to promote sales of his book on the Orthodox Vaad Hahatzala.
Race Against Death consists primarily of two interviews conducted by noted Holocaust historian David Wyman with Hillel Kook (alias Peter Bergson). Kook, a Revisionist Zionist from Palestine, formed the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe and was one of the great unsung heroes of Holocaust rescue work.
The Kook interviews constitute a bitter indictment of mainstream American Jewish leadership during the Holocaust. Sponsors of the Bergsonite pageant "We Will Never Die," featuring leading Hollywood stars, were threatened, forcing cancellation of the pageant, which had until then played in six cities to audiences of over 100,000, including the First Lady, members of Congress, and almost the entire ambassador corps. The Zionist leadership fought tooth-and-nail to scuttle the Bergson-inspired Rescue Resolution in Congress. Pending passage of the Resolution pressured President Roosevelt to create in early 1944 the War Rescue Board (WRB), which ultimately helped save 200,000 Jews. Even after the creation of the WRB, Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Jewish Congress, still tried to have Bergson drafted or deported.
Zuroff fully endorses Kook’s indictment, writing, "[T]he leaders of the major Jewish organizations . . ., and particularly Zionist leaders Stephen Wise and Nahum Goldmann, invested considerable time and resources in undermining [the Emergency Committee’s] activities. For the most part, they behaved as if large-scale rescue operations by the American government were either impossible or doomed to failure." All this, as Zuroff notes, has been well known since the 1984 publication of Wyman’s monumental The Abandonment of the Jews.
Yet three years ago, Zuroff told a different story – one of a Jewish leadership committed to rescue, with only the Orthodox standing apart. In an AP article on Zuroff’s book, Orthodox rabbis were accused of having concerned themselves exclusively with the rescue of "several hundred Polish Talmudic scholars [while] ignoring the suffering of millions of others who were eventually murdered by the Nazis".
In these pages, Marilyn Henry described the Vaad Hahatzala as "bucking the general Jewish communal framework that was equally devoted to rescue." Zuroff told Henry that the Vaad’s activities reflect the typical "haredi focus on its own." (Never mind that the bulk of rank-and-file support for the Vaad came from European-trained rabbis affiliated with Mizrachi.)
Only now does Zuroff admit that the mainstream leadership was worse than apathetic toward rescue. Moreover, as Wyman and Kook make clear, the same rabbis who headed the Vaad were the Bergsonites’ closest allies and the most determined proponents of rescue in the organized Jewish community. The October 6, 1943 march of 400 rabbis on Washington D.C., for instance, was the first public protest of the Roosevelt Administration’s indifference to the fate of European Jewry. The Rabbis March served as the prelude for the introduction in Congress of the Rescue Resolution.
The Orthodox rabbis, explains Kook, were "more courageous. . . . [They] were simply more responsive, more – more Jewish, in a sense. They were more sensitive to the issue, and less affected by the environment." Specifically discussing his close relationship with Vaad Hahatzala, Kook comments, "They operated on the old Jewish theological concept of `He who saves one soul, saves the whole world.’"
From the very beginning of the War, the Orthodox took the lead in all efforts to unite the community behind rescue. Rabbi Leo Jung and the Agudath Israel Youth Council under Mike Tress were pioneers in the tedious and frustrating work of procuring visas for Jews in Europe, saving thousands.
In contrast to the mainstream Jewish leaders, for whom Jewish activities were, in Kook’s words, a form of extracurricular activity, Tress threw himself into full-time rescue work, without even a salary, in 1939. Agudath Israel was the only Jewish organization to defy a British boycott to send food parcels to starving Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland.
When Reform leader Stephen Wise received information from Europe in the late summer of 1942 that the Nazis had already exterminated two million Jews, he remained silent, until Jacob Rosenheim, the president of World Agudath Israel, who had received similar information, forced him to call an emergency meeting of 34 American groups. At the meeting, Wise accused the rabbis of spreading "atrocity tales."
Only at the insistence of Orthodox groups was rescue given even a minor place on the agenda of the American Jewish Conference of major Jewish groups in August 1943, nearly a year after confirmation of the Nazi extermination campaign. All the major resolutions dealt with a post-war state in Palestine. Kook remembered, "I walked out. I was sick at the whole thing, because I had been sure that this was a conference on saving Jews."
Besides the pressure from the Rescue Resolution, the major impetus behind the creation of the WRB was FDR’s fear that Treasury Secretary Henry Morganthau Jr. would go public with a report prepared by Treasury officials entitled "Report to the Secretary on the Acquiscence of this Government in the Murder of Jews," detailing State Department obstruction of all efforts to save Jewish lives.
It was Orthodox rabbis and lay leaders who were responsible to a large degree for arousing Morganthau’s passion on the issue of rescue. Morganthau wrote in his diary how Rabbi Avraham Kalmanowitz "wept and wept and wept" in his office. After one meeting with Orthodox leaders, Morganthau commented, "Gentlemen, I knew I was born a Jew. Now I know I am a Jew. What can I do for you?" The fear that the "rabbis will tear the town apart" was a frequent prod to reluctant bureaucrats.
Even after the WRB was formed, its primary contribution, according to Kook, was facilitating within the government the work of private relief and rescue agencies. The boldest rescue plans were those hatched by Orthodox rescue activists in Europe, like Rabbi Michoel Ber Weismandl in Slovakia and Recha and Isaac Sternbuch in Switzerland, who worked in conjunction with Orthodox activists in America.
The Orthodox employed means eschewed by mainstream Jewish groups in their single-minded determination to save Jews. Orthodox activists used diplomatic pouches of the Polish-government-in-exile to ensure the speediest possible transmission of information and to evade U.S. government censorship; made illegal wire transfers to Jews in Nazi-controlled areas (later they were the first to secure U.S. government permission for such transfers); procured fake South American passports, which saved tens of thousands of lives; and engaged the Nazis in ransom negotiations. (Rabbi Weismandl’s negotiations with the Nazis delayed the deportation of Slovakian Jewry by two years, and his version of the Auschwitz Report, smuggled out of his hiding place, led to a campaign by the Swiss press and the Catholic Church, which finally halted the deportation of Hungarian Jewry in July 1944.)
Neither the indifference of the mainstream American Jewish leadership to general rescue work nor Orthodox activism is news to Zuroff. In the Afterword to his own book, he terms the Vaad Hahatzala’s most lasting legacy to the Jewish people "its dedication to the saving of Jewish lives." And in his endorsement of Race Against Time, he tacitly acknowledges these points.
Too bad that is not the story he orchestrated in promoting his own book.
For a longer version of this article that appeared in Hamodia, entitled "A historian finally acknowledges history", go to our website: www.jewishmediaresources.org.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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