by Jonathan Rosenblum
August 29, 2003
In the three years since Efraim Zuroff first peddled his academic study of the Vaad Hahatzala (the Vaad) as an expose of Orthodox Jewry’s single-minded focus on saving a few hundred Talmudic scholars, while ignoring millions of fellow Jews in imminent peril, we have confronted him in forum after forum with overwhelming evidence that the Orthodox were the most group most committed to general rescue. Each time he has studiously ignored that evidence. His response last week to my (Rosenblum’s) piece, "A New Take on Holocaust Rescue," is but the most recent example.
Zuroff’s response fails to address virtually every point made: the pioneering work of Orthodox activits in procuring visas and affidavits for Jews in Europe saved thousands; Agudath Israel was the only Jewish group to defy a British boycott and send food packages to starving Jews in Polish ghettos in 1940-41; Jacob Rosenheim, head of Agudath Israel World Organization and Rabbi Avraham Kalmanowitz of the Vaad forced Reform leader Stephen Wise, against his will, to call a meeting of all major Jewish organizations after confirmation reached America in late 1942 of the Nazi extermination campaign.
Both Louis Rapoport and David Wyman, the preeminent historian of American responses to the Holocaust, conclude in their studies of Peter Bergson that the only allies the Bergsonites found for the October 1943 Rabbis March on Washington and later for a congressional Rescue Resolution, committing the U.S. government to wartime rescue, were the European-trained rabbis and Chassidic rebbes of Agudath Yisrael and Agudos Harabbonim (the two groups most closely connected to the Vaad).
Through their alliance with the Bergsonites and influence over Treasury Secretary Henry Morganthau Jr., Orthodox rabbis played a crucial role in the eventual creation of the War Refugee Board, which helped save some 200,000 Jewish lives. The most important contributions of the WRB were in response to Orthodox rescue initiatives and pressure. In their single-minded commitment to rescue, Orthodox activists were willing to employ means eschewed by mainstream groups, including illegal wire transfers of money into Axis-occupied areas, use of foreign diplomatic pouches to convey information, the purchase of tens of thousands of fake South American passports, and ransom negotiations with the Nazis themselves.
About each of these points, Zuroff is silent.
FAR FROM BEING OBJECTIVE HISTORY, Zuroff’s account is consistently marred by his animus towards Torah scholars, whom, for polemical purposes, he mislabels haredim. (Most of the European-trained rabbis who formed the rank and file of the Vaad belonged to Mizrachi.) His bias leads him to repeatedly rip events out of context.
For instance, Zuroff concedes that the Orthodox pushed for rescue to be placed on the agenda of the 1943 American Jewish Conference of major Jewish groups, after it was omitted from the planning agenda. But he wonders why, if the Orthodox were so committed to rescue, they sent no money to Europe in 1943. He either ignores or does not know that there was no American rescue work in 1943, except for the Bergsonite/Orthodox political pressure on the Roosevelt administration. Lack of money was not the problem, but rather Allied indifference and the "total paralysis", in Raul Hilberg’s words, of mainstream Jewish and Zionist leaders.
The Joint Distribution Committee, the major American-based relief organization, refused to send any money into Axis-controlled territory. Only when Mike Tress of the Agudath Israel Youth Council and Rabbi Kalmanowitz secured Treasury permission for such money transfers in November 1943 did the Joint start sending money.
When information reached New York in November 1943 that thousands of Polish Jews could be smuggled to relative safety for $250 each, the Orthodox schools closed for three days so the students could hit the streets collecting money. No other group ever acted with a comparable sense of urgency during the Holocaust.
Zuroff’s exclusive focus on the Vaad amounts to little more than a debater’s trick. The same rabbis who headed the Vaad, which was founded in 1939 to rescue the European yeshivos, also led the vast array of Orthodox rescue efforts described above.
The principal early activity of the Vaad was the effort to procure above quota Special Emergency Visitors Visas for some of the leading European Torah scholars. Every Jewish group exploited this program to save leaders of "special distinction." The World Jewish Congress saved 100 top Zionist leaders; another 2,000 visas went to Jewish artists, labor leaders, and academics. But oddly only the 40 Torah scholars saved under the program bother Zuroff, or reflect, in his eyes, the particularistic bent of their sponsors.
Orthodox leaders were fully justified in setting up a separate organization to save the yeshivos. Of the 3,000 yeshiva students stranded in Vilna at the outset of the War, not one received a Palestinian certificate from the Jewish Agency, which had 70,000 to distribute. The Joint Distribution Committee contributed $5,000 for the sea passage of Mirrer yeshiva students from Vladivostock to Japan, but had Orthodox activists and rabbis not collected the remaining $45,000 on Shabbat, most of those students would have been stranded without a penny.
Zuroff brandishes the Vaad’s contribution in 1944 of $265,000 to yeshiva students in Shanghai and Central Asia, as his most damning fact. The same year, UJA sent $10 million dollars to agricultural settlements in Palestine, the Jewish Labor Committee spent $500,000 on combating anti-Semitism in America, and the World Jewish Congress an equal amount vainly trying to secure a congressional resolution in favor of a post-war Jewish state in Palestine. Neither Jews in America or Palestine were in immediate physical danger in 1944, yet somehow these much larger sums do not raise Zuroff’s ire.
The Vaad raised $1,135,000 in 1944, more than any organization besides the Joint, and the vast majority of those funds were spent on the type of rescue efforts in Europe, with which mainstream organizations, like the Joint, refused to sully their hands.
Moreover, Zuroff’s bland description of the yeshiva students as "out of physical danger" is grossly misleading. Those in Central Asia and Siberia were in forced labor camps, not hunched over their Talmuds, and the support they received was crucial to their survival. The situation in Shanghai was not much better. The refugees were herded into a ghetto. Avitamnosis and dysentery were rampant, and the rations were near starvation. Allied bombing and the possibility that the Japanese would adopt the policies of their Nazi allies were constant threats.
Even with the Vaad monies, the Polish yeshiva students received no more than other refugees, according to Laura Margolies, the Joint representative in Shanghai,. And their financial situation was far worse. Unlike German and Austrian refugees who managed to bring some of their possessions, the yeshiva students escaped with only the shirts on their backs.
It is beyond us how any Jew who wears a yarmulke can fail to be inspired by the story of how these Torah scholars, most of whom had lost their entire families, continued learning 14 hours a day, in over 100 degree heat and 100% humidity. Especially given the critical role these dedicated scholars played in the entire post-War flowering of Torah learning in both America and Israel.
Zuroff is left at the end hurling insults and asking us to rely on his authority as a Historian. Not since the Wizard of Oz has anyone believed to quite the same degree that a PhD. can substitute for a brain – or a heart.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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