A little more than three years ago, a series of startling accusations concerning ``ultra-Orthodox" Jews appeared in some of the most widely read news outlets in the world. The ultra-Orthodox rabbis of the Vaad Hahatzalah 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" (AP). The Vaad was said to have acted ``with apparent disregard for other endangered Jews" (Jerusalem Post).
Vaad Hatzala was all but accused of responsibility for the deaths of Jews by funneling ``funds to scholars already safely in exile [in Shanghai] so they could maintain full-time Talmud studies, even as other Jews were being killed in death camps" (AP). Its activities were described as having ``hampered efforts to save others" (Baltimore Sun).
The greatest sin laid at the steps of the Vaad Hatzala was that it bucked ``the general Jewish communal framework that was equally devoted to rescue…" (Jerusalem Post). The Vaad’s narrow goals were said to have ``brought it into conflict with mainstream American Jewish groups working to rescue as many Jews as possible and to influence reluctant American politicians to take action." (Baltimore Sun).
Orchestrating this campaign of calumny was Efraim Zuroff, who was then promoting his book ``The Response of Orthodox Jewry in the United States to the Holocaust." According to Zuroff, the Vaad Hahatzalah reflected the typical ``haredi focus on its own" (Jerusalem Post). (Zuroff seems to have been unaware that the rank-and-file supporters of the Vaad were primarily European-trained rabbis affiliated with the Mizrachi movement.)
Given this background, it was with considerable surprise that I read last week Zuroff’s effusively favorable review of Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America, and the Holocaust in the Jerusalem Post. The bulk Race Against Death consists of two interviews with Hillel Kook (alias Peter Bergson) by David Wyman, the foremost historian of the American response to the Holocaust, in which Kook describes the wartime work of the Emergency Committee to Save the Jews of Europe.
Race Against Death completely refutes both parts of the Zuroff thesis enunciated above: (1) the ultra-Orthodox were concerned only with saving Talmudic scholars; and (2) the mainstream Jewish community was committed to saving as many Jews as possible. Yet the contradiction between his headline grabbing accusations and the book under review seems to have completely escaped Zuroff.
Zuroff acknowledges that Hillel Kook was one of the unsung heros of Holocaust rescue, whose efforts were continually undermined by the mainstream Jewish establishment, which fought him at every juncture. Moreover, Kook’s successes constitute a powerful indictment of the mainstream Zionist leadership. As Zuroff sums up the matter in his review: ``[I]nstead of joining forces with the Emergency Committee, the leaders of the major American Jewish organizations . . ., and particularly Zionist leaders such as Stephen Wise and Nahum Goldmann invested considerable energy and resources in undermining its activities. For the most part, they behaved as if large-scale rescue operations by the American government were either impossible or doomed to failure.
So much for the ``mainstream American Jewish groups working to rescue as many Jews as possible." Moreover, Zuroff admits that the inaction of mainstream Jewish groups and their determined efforts to undermine the successes of the Bergsonites were already all detailed in Wyman’s monument study The Abandonment of the Jew (1984). So Zuroff can hardly claim to have revised his views in light of new information.
Race Against Death details, as does Wyman’s book, the painful inaction of mainstream American Jewry. Reform leader Stephen Wise, the most powerful Jewish leader in America, could not overcome his adulation of President Roosevelt to challenge the Administration’s consistent position that nothing could be done to save European Jewry other than to win the war as quickly as possible. After the April 1943 Bermuda Conference, at which the Americans and British allies failed to come forward with any concrete plans for the rescue of trapped Jews, mainstream American Jewry lapsed into total ``quiescence," according to Wyman.
At the American Jewish Conference at the end of August 1943, nearly a year after Wise had received a telegram from Gerhard Riegner of the World Jewish Congress confirming the extermination of two million Jews to date by the Nazis, all the major resolutions dealt with a post-war state in Palestine. Rescue was barely on the screen. 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."
Meanwhile, from the moment that Kook learned of the extermination of European Jewry, his group, which was affiliated with the Revisionist wing of Zionism, dropped everything to focus on rescue. The Emergency Committee took out a series of hard-hitting full-page ads in the New York Times, demanding to know what was being done to save desperate Jews from death. The Committee also mounted a pageant called ``We Will Never Die," starring leading Hollywood stars, to dramatize the plight of European Jewry. It drew an audience of 40,000 in New York City and 60,000 in five other cities. In Washington D.C., the audience included First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, 4 Supreme Court justices, many members of Congress, and most of the ambassadors to the capital.
In November 1943, a Bergsonite-crafted Rescue Resolution was introduced in both the Senate and House. As a result of mounting pressure, President Roosevelt was forced to announce the creation of the War Refugee Board (WRB), with the specific mandate of rescuing Jews. Despite continued State Department obstructionism, the WRB played an important role in saving 200,000 Jews before the end of the War.
At every step of the way, the mainstream Jewish leadership opposed the activities of the Bergsonites. Pressure on sponsors of ``We Will Never Die" prevented it from being mounted across the country. Mainstream Zionist groups even opposed the Rescue Resolution. Senator Guy Gillette, the Senate sponsor, reported, ``I could not get inside the committee room without being buttonholed out here in the corridor by representatives who said that the Jewish people of America do not want passage of this resolution." Stephen Wise tried to add to the Resolution a call for a post-War Jewish state in Palestine, knowing full well that the addition would scuttle the Resolution.
Even after the Bergsonites succeeded in bringing about the creation of the War Refugee Board, Nachum Goldmann, the president of the World Jewish Congress, still requested the Administration to have him deported or drafted.
The only consistent allies of the Bergsonites within the Jewish community were the Orthodox – point emphasized by Wyman in his interview of Kook. Four hundred Orthodox rabbis marched on Washington on October 6 1943 just before Yom Kippur. (Wise advised FDR against receiving the delegation.) The Rabbis’ March was orchestrated with the Bergsonites in order to publicize the soon to be introduced Rescue Resolution in Congress.
In his interview, Kook explains why his primary allies were found among the Orthodox. He calls the Orthodox rabbis ``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 Hahatzalah, Kook comments, ``They operated on the old Jewish theological concept of `He who saves one soul, saves the whole world."
In short, Race Against Death, establishes that contrary to Zuroff’s earlier charges, the Orthodox community and the leaders of Vaad Hahatzalah were those most devoted to the general rescue of European Jewry. Unlike the mainstream Jewish leaders, who, in Kook’s words, treated their Jewish activities as a form of extracurricular activity, Mike Tress of Zeirei Agudath Israel gave up all his business activities in 1939 to work full-time securing visas for Jews in Europe. In 1941, Agudath Israel was the only Jewish group prepared to defy a British boycott to ship food to starving Jews in Polish ghettos.
Orthodox rabbis and leaders played a major role in bringing about the WRB and in facilitating the subsequent work of the WRB. One of the great fears pushing FDR to announce the creation of the WRB was that Treasury Secretary Henry Morganthau Jr. would go public with a report produced by Treasury Department officials entitled ``Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of Jews," detailing State Department obstruction of all efforts to save Jewish lives.
It was Orthodox rabbis 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?" WRB officials commented that the fear that the ``rabbis will tear the town apart" was frequently an important spur to action.
Even after the creation of the WRB, the agency served primarily to run interference within the government for the initiatives of private groups. And the boldest of these initiatives were those hatched by Orthodox rescue activists in Europe, like Rav Michoel Ber Weismandl and Isaac and Recha Sternbuch. They included negotiating with the Nazis to ransom Jews, securing fake Latin American passports that saved tens of thousands of lives, and providing elaborate plans for bombing the tracks to Auschwitz. It was the Orthodox who first secured Treasury permission for money transfers to Occupied Europe which were crucial to the ransom efforts.
Zuroff, of course, always knew all this. In the afterword to his own book, he terms the ``dedication to saving Jewish lives" the greatest legacy of the Orthodox to the Jewish people.
It is nevertheless satisfying to have him now acknowledge – albeit only tacitly through his endorsement of Race Against Death -- that the Orthodox were the element of American Jewry most devoted to general rescue, while the mainstream community remained largely apathetic and unable to put aside its own internecine battles to concentrate on rescue. Unfortunately, it is too late to correct the damage that he has done.
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