Dr. Efraim Zuroff accuses me of being obsessed with his statements about the chareidi world and the Holocaust (see Letters). He's right: Massive Chilul Hashem upsets me.
Let me explain. During the more than three years I worked on the biography of Mike Tress, I immersed myself in the subject of America-based Holocaust rescue efforts, which constitute the spine of the book. The story of the central role played by a numerically small and largely poor American Orthodox community in rescue work thrilled me. And following the late historian Dr. David Kranzler, I found that a comparison of the actions of the American Orthodox community in that period and those of the mainstream and Zionist leadership places in sharp relief the two groups differing feelings of responsibility for fellow Jews.
To distort that record and sully the names of the rabbinic leaders and lay activists who led American-based rescue efforts constitutes, in my mind, a great Chillul Hashem. So in 2000, when headlines began to appear in media outlets reaching tens of millions of Jews and non-Jews, that WWII rabbis were interested only in rescuing Torah scholars and indifferent to the suffering of millions of other Jews eventually murdered by the Nazis, I was shocked, hurt, and outraged. The articles invariably quoted historian Efraim Zuroff and cited his just released book The Response of Orthodox Jewry in the United States to the Holocaust: The Activities of the Vaad ha-Hatzala Rescue Committee 1939-1945.
In an interview with the Jerusalem Post's Marilyn Henry, for instance, Zuroff used the alleged misdeeds of the leaders of the Vaad ha-Hatzala as a launching pad for a harangue against "this sectarianism and particularism that infects everything [the chareidim] do." He contrasted that attitude with that of the Zionists during the war, who "did not leave or undermine the communal framework."
I did a double take when I read that last claim. Here is the summary of American Zionism's wartime record by David Wyman, author of The Abandonment of the Jews and the foremost authority on American rescue efforts or the lack thereof: "[D]uring the Holocaust, the leadership of American Zionism (the best organized segment of American Jewry) concentrated its major force on the drive for a future Jewish state in Palestine. It consigned rescue to a distinctly secondary position."
At the American Jewish Conference in August 1943 – more than a year after FDR had confirmed the Riegner cable describing the mass extermination of European Jewry – all the major resolutions dealt with Reform leader Abba Hillel Silver"s call for the creation of a Jewish state. Rescue was mentioned in only the most general terms.
Mainstream Zionists devoted their energies to stymieing the Revisionist Zionists (the Bergsonites), the most effective group pushing rescue in America, and almost sunk in Congress a Rescue Resolution, which led to the creation of the War Refugee Board, due to their insistence on a plank calling for a post-war Jewish state in Palestine.
Zuroff now acknowledges that many of the claims in the spate of articles on his book "were undoubtedly exaggerations." Not once, however, did he ever attempt to correct those sensationalist claims about the indifference of the rabbinic leaders of the Torah world to the fate of other Jews – claims which no doubt boosted the sales of his book.
THE TRUTH IS THAT THOSE CLAIMS were always based on a cheap debater's trick – to wit, treating the work of Vaad ha-Hatzala from 1939-1941, as if it represented the totality of Orthodox rescue efforts. True, Vaad haHatzala was initially formed at the request of Rabbi Chaim Grodzinski, the gadol hador, to try to save 3,000 yeshiva students and rabbonim who had taken refuge at the outset of the War in Vilna. Zuroff admits in his 2008 review of Rebbetzin Esther Farbstein's Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Halachah, and Leadership During the Holocaust that "a theoretical case could be made for granting Torah scholars priority if they are among a group of Jews all facing the same degree of physical danger."
And he acknowledges that without a separate organization to save yeshivaleit, they would have been a low priority for the Joint Distribution Committee and other mainstream groups, who did not share the Vaad's view that the future of the Jewish people depended on the rescue of Torah scholars. Stephen Wise, the leader of mainstream American Jewry, reacted with horror to the suggestion to try to rescue en masse the 3,000 yeshiva students, on the grounds that the presence in America of a large number of such foreign-looking Jews would increase anti-Semitism. Of the 70,000 Palestine certificates in control of the Jewish Agency not a single one went to one of the 3,000 Torah scholars stranded in Vilna.
Even Zuroff's statement in his letter to Mishpacha that the saving of Torah scholars inevitably had to come at the expense of some other Jew is not true. The 40 or so great Torah scholars for whom the Vaad successfully procured visas and brought to America came on Special Emergency Visitors Visas. To be eligible for those "special" visas required a demonstration of exceptional distinction and those visas could not have been used by others. Further one wonders why Zuroff views the use of 40 Special Emergency Visitors Visas for roshei yeshiva as a cause celebre, but is silent about the 2000 such visas acquired for artists, intellectuals, and labor leaders by secular Jewish groups.
Nor can the focus of Vaad ha-Hatzala tell us anything about attitudes of the Orthodox community towards the rescue of every Jew, scholar or am ha'aretz, religious or non-religious. Agudath Israel was the only Jewish group to break the British blockade to get food parcels to starving, typhus-ridden Jews in Nazi-held Poland in 1939. And its services were available to every Jew wishing to send a package.
Similarly, the services of Zeirei Agudath Israel's visa office were available to every Jew. That office provided advice and assistance to 7,500 Jews in Europe. Unpaid volunteers filled out the four feet long affidavit forms in sextuplet, and other Zeirei volunteers gathered affidavits of financial support. Mike Tress traveled weekly to Washington D.C. to argue appeals of Jews whose requests for visas had been turned down, and was successful about 25% of the time in gaining a reversal of the U.S. consular decisions.
In November 1943, when a telegram from Rabbi Michoel Ber Weissmandl reached New York on a Shabbos morning saying that it was possible to bring Jews over the border from Hungary to Polish forests for $250, the yeshivos of New York City were closed down for three days so students could collect. No other Jewish groups showed a similar sense of urgency.
According to Hillel Kook (alias Peter Bergson) the major allies he found for his rescue efforts in the American Jewish community were the Orthodox rabbis, including those who participated in Bergsonite-sponsored march of 400 rabbis in Washington D.C. on October 6 1943 to present a rescue petition to FDR. Treasury Secretary Henry Morganthau credited the tears of Rabbi Avraham Kalmonowitz with turning him into the great champion of rescue in the Roosevelt administration.
The rabbinic leaders and leading activists behind these activities – Rabbi Eliezer Silver, Rabbi Avraham Kalmonowitz, Rabbi Aharon Kotler, and Mike Tress – were the very same as those of the Vaad ha-Hatzala. Rabbi Kotler captured the ethos of those rescue efforts, when he responded to criticism in the Swiss Jewish press of Recha and Isaac Sternbuch's efforts to ransom 1,200 Jews from Theresienstadt on the grounds that those being ransomed were "meshumadim." "A Jew is a Jew is a Jew," answered Reb Aharon.
IN RECENT YEARS, both in a private communication to me and in his review of Rebbetzin Farbstein's book, Zuroff has shifted the gravamen of his criticism of Vaad ha-Hatzala to the monies sent to starving yeshiva students in Shanghai and Soviet Central Asia in 1944 and 1945. "Why didn't they just close their Gemaros?" he fairly shouted in a public debate with me. In his review of Hidden in Thunder, he argues that the Vaad should have sent all its money to supply Jews trapped in Europe with false documentation or with ransom money to move them to less dangerous areas.
First, the activities he describes – false Latin American passports, ransom schemes, moving Jews to safer places – were all pioneered by Orthodox rescue activists in Europe – Rabbi Weissmandl, the Sternbuchs, and George Mantello. And it was due in large part to the work of Mike Tress and other activists in the United States that the Latin American passports proved of any use at all.
Second, the Joint Distribution Committee raised $16 million in 1944. Saly Mayer, the JDC's representative in Switzerland, had access to millions dollars. But he steadfastly refused to use any of that money on the ransom schemes hatched by the Sternbuchs or Rabbi Weissmandl or to purchase Latin American passports, on the grounds that they were illegal. If there was a shortage of money, it was due only to his petty legalism. That is the true scandal.
That same year, the Vaad raised the second largest total of any group, a remarkable achievement for the still small Orthodox community. And over 60% of that money went for precisely the kinds of rescue schemes that Zuroff advocates, and which the Vaad was virtually the only American Jewish organization supporting.
The Vaad sent $265,000 to yeshiva students in Shanghai and Central Asia in 1944. That year the UJA sent $10,000,000 to agricultural settlements in Palestine, the Jewish Labor Committee spent $500,000 on combatting anti-Semitism in America, and the World Jewish Congress a similar amount to work for passage for a congressional resolution for a post-War Jewish state in Palestine in 1944.
In 1944, Jews in Palestine and America were in no danger of physical annihilation and in far less hardship that those in Shanghai. Why do these vastly larger sums not draw Zuroff's wrath? Why his concern and scathing critique of the only group doing what he argues should have been done?
And what should the yeshiva students in Shanghai, most of whom had lost their entire families, have done after closing their Gemaros? Become rickshaw drivers? Stared at the walls and gone mad? Their 14-18 hour a day learning, despite the oppressive heat, the rampant disease, and periodic Japanese bombing is heroic beyond our comprehension.
And it was precisely those students aided by the Vaad who played such a pivotal role in the re-creation of the world of Torah learning after the War. Is that Zuroff's real problem?