In early May 2000, shocking headlines appeared in some of the most widely read media outlets in the world: "Book Blasts WWII Rabbis" (Associated Press); "New Book Slams US Orthodox WWII Rescue Efforts" (Jerusalem Post). Those blaring headlines were followed in each case by an almost identical lead paragraph.
The leader in the AP story sent to thousands of media outlets worldwide captures the flavor: "During the Holocaust, ultra-Orthodox American rabbis focused on saving several hundred Talmudic scholars, ignoring the suffering of millions of other Jews who were eventually murdered by the Nazis, a new book charges" (emphasis added).
The rabbinic founders of the Vaad ha-Hatzala (the Vaad) were further accused of "bucking the general Jewish communal framework that was equally devoted to rescue" and hurting the efforts of mainstream American groups "working to rescue as many Jews as possible and to influence reluctant American politicians to take action" (AP).
No more damning accusation has ever been hurled against Torah Judaism than that leaders of the Vaad – such towering figures as Rabbi Aharon Kotler, Rabbi Eliezer Silver, and Rabbi Avrohom Kalmanowitz – acted with "disregard for other endangered Jews" (Jerusalem Post).
The instigator of these charges has consistently refused to correct the huge damage done by the quoted news stories. It is clear from his own book, and by implication from his own public statements, that he knows the quoted statements to be gross distortions. And yet, his consistent response, including as recently as last year, to all efforts to gain a retraction of the vile claim that great rabbinic figures were indifferent to the fate of the vast mass of European Jewry has been to renew his invective and to sneer at the efforts of chareidi hagiographers to whitewash the record.
I. The Accuser
The book referred to in the above-quoted news stories is The Response of Orthodox Jewry in the United States to the Holocaust: The Activities of the Vaad ha-Hatzala Rescue Committee 1939-1945, by Dr. Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel. The fact that Zuroff wears a yarmulke and his book was published by Yeshiva University’s KTAV Publishing House gave added credibility to his charges.
The nearly identical language in the lead paragraphs of the most prominent news stories points to an orchestrated campaign to market Zuroff’s book. And, indeed, quotes from Zuroff were laced throughout the stories.
It is questionable whether the writers of the news stories had even read Zuroff’s book, which does not support the charge of Orthodox indifference. In his Afterward, for instance, Zuroff describes the Vaad’s most lasting legacy to the Jewish people as its "dedication to the saving of Jewish lives," and credits a group of foreign-born, non-English speaking rabbis with having led the efforts to unite American Jewry around rescue work. The rabbis referred to were, of course, the same ones accused in the sensational news stories.1
Zuroff showed a considerable animus towards the chareidi community to complement his flair for dramatic accusations. (He has consistently refused to acknowledge that most of the rabbinic members, if not the leadership, of the Vaad were identified with Mizrachi.) Extrapolating from his alleged "findings," Zuroff offered the Jerusalem Post’s Marilyn Henry a blistering critique of today’s chareidi world and rabbinic leadership. "[The chareidim] are plagued by this sectarianism and particularism that infects everything they do," he said. He contrasted that approach with that of the Zionists, who "did not leave or undermine the communal framework."
In addition, Zuroff accused European roshei yeshiva of having passed up opportunities to get visas for their students and of having been literally dragged by their students to safety in Lithuania. He speculated that chareidim in Israel today refuse to observe Yom Hashoah because it is "difficult for them [to admit] the historical mistakes that were made by Orthodox leaders, people who are deferred to in almost godly fashion."
As a marketing ploy, if not as history, these condemnations of chareidim were doubtless a success.
II. The Counteroffensive
The Orthodox world did not take the chillul Hashem lying down. Dr. David Kranzler, Joseph Friedenson, and I responded to the charges being used to sell Zuroff’s book in a wide variety of venues, and he and I debated publicly.
The responses focused on Zuroff’s two main points: (1) ) the Orthodox were indifferent to the fate of the mass of European Jewry; and (2) the Orthodox departed from a communal framework dedicated to rescuing as many Jews as possible.2
Orthodox Indifference Rebutted
The attitude of the Orthodox leadership towards the rescue of European Jewry was expressed by Rabbi Aharon Kotler, one of the driving forces behind the Vaad. Those who met Reb Aharon shortly after his arrival in America found him with a map of Europe in front of him. His constant refrain was, "Mir darfen ratevven Yidden – We must save Jews." When he was challenged for his readiness to join forces with Reform leader Stephen Wise for rescue, Reb Aharon replied, "I would work with the Pope if it would save even the fingernail of one Jewish child." And when the Swiss Jewish press criticized Isaac and Recha Sternbuch for negotiating through fascist intermediaries for the release of 1200 prisoners from Theresienstadt, and dismissed those released as "meshumadim," Reb Aharon said, "A Jew is a Jew is a Jew."
That attitude to the rescue of Jews was manifested in the actions of the Orthodox community throughout the war. One example would be the reaction to a telegram from Rabbi Michoel Ber Weissmandl in Slovakia that reached New York on a Shabbos morning in November, 1943. Rabbi Weissmandl wrote that it was possible to bring Jews hiding in Polish forests over the border into Hungary for $250 a person. In response, the yeshivos and seminaries were closed for three days as young boys and girls fanned out across New York City collecting. There is no example of any other Jewish group showing a comparable sense of urgency. On more than one occasion, leading Orthodox Jews, including prominent rabbis, publicly violated Shabbos to collect money for urgent ransom schemes.
A Devious Debater’s Trick
The lie that Orthodox rabbis and laymen alike focused exclusively on the rescue of yeshiva students and roshei yeshiva is based on a cheap debater’s trick: the equation of the activity of the Vaad between 1939 and 1941 with all Orthodox rescue work. True, the Vaad was initially formed in 1939 for the purpose of rescuing 3,000 yeshiva students trapped in Vilna. But the efforts of the Vaad were only one small part of the panoply of Orthodox relief and rescue efforts, a fact which Zuroff has repeatedly refused to acknowledge. Many of those other efforts were led by the same rabbis who headed the Vaad.
After the German occupation of Poland, Agudah-affiliated groups were the only ones to defy a British embargo on sending food parcels to trapped Jews. The services of Agudah were available to any Jew who wished to send a food package.
Moreover, between 1939 and 1941, the same years the Vaad was involved in the rescue of roshei yeshiva and yeshiva students, Zeirei Agudath Israel was busy almost around the clock procuring visas for Jews in Europe. Again, Zeirei’s services were available to all Jews. In that period, Zeirei’s visa office provided advice and assistance to 7,500 people. Between 50 and 60 cables reached the office per day. Unpaid young volunteers laboriously filled out visa forms that were four feet long and had to be filled out manually in sextuplet. Louis Septimus and other Zeirei members gathered hundreds of affidavits of financial support from clients, friends, and even complete strangers. Mike Tress, the head of Zeirei, traveled to Washington, D.C. weekly to argue appeals of those whose visa requests had been turned down. He succeeded in reversing the consular decisions in about 25% of the cases.
Most important, the Vaad’s efforts to procure visas for the leading European rabbis were not at the expense of efforts to save other Jews. The Vaad sought to bring those rabbis and roshei yeshiva into the United States on Special Emergency Visitors Visas, an initiative pioneered by the Jewish Labor Committee. Since these visas were above quota, and reserved only for persons of exceptional distinction, they did not take away from visas available to other Jews.
Moreover, only a very small percentage of the Special Emergency Visitors Visas went to roshei yeshiva. Eventually, 2,000 artists and intellectuals entered the country on such visas compared to no more than 40 Torah scholars. Why, one wonders, does Zuroff only condemn Orthodox particularism when every Jewish group was availing itself of the program in the same way and trying to save those most closely affiliated with it?3
III. An Apathetic and Divided Mainstream Leadership
Far from being dedicated to rescue, as the news stories surrounding publication of Zuroff’s book claimed, the mainstream Jewish organizations were characterized by "complete paralysis," in the words of Raul Hilberg, author of the classic The Destruction of Europe’s Jews. Mainstream leaders were unable to break out of their business-as-usual approach, according to David Wyman, the foremost authority on American responses to the Holocaust.
On August 28, 1942, Stephen Wise, the most prominent American Jewish leader of the time, received a telegram from Gerhart Riegner of the World Jewish Congress describing Hitler’s plan to wipe out all European Jewry. Wise had previously received similar information of the extermination of Polish Jewry from Bundist sources. He did nothing other than send the cables to the State Department for confirmation.
Only when Jacob Rosenheim, head of World Agudath Israel, received a similar cable from Isaac Sternbuch in Switzerland (through the Polish government-in-exile diplomatic pouches, which only the Orthodox were willing to use to evade State Department censorship), did things begin to move. Rosenheim and Rabbi Avrohom Kalmanowitz pressured Wise to call a meeting of all Jewish groups. At that September 6 meeting, Wise accused the Orthodox of spreading "atrocity tales" and made all participants swear secrecy so as not to embarrass the president.
The September 6 meeting eventually led to the creation of the Jewish Emergency Committee, but after a December meeting with FDR, in which the president regaled the Jewish leaders for most of the time and not one concrete rescue proposal was advanced, Wise disbanded the JEC. By the time the Pittsburgh Conference of Jewish Organizations took place the next month, rescue was again on the backburner. The original invitation spoke only of "the post-War status of Jews and the building of a Jewish Palestine." Only Orthodox protests succeeded in placing rescue on the agenda at all.
At the American Jewish Conference at the end of August, 1943, nearly a year after Roosevelt had confirmed the substance of the Riegner and Sternbuch cables, the major resolutions passed all 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.
Not only did the leading figures of American Jewry respond apathetically to all rescue efforts, the internecine fighting between various Zionist groups significantly undermined whatever efforts were made. In March, 1943, the Revisionist Zionists mounted a pageant, entitled "We Will Never Die," to dramatize the plight of European Jewry. Starring Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni, it drew a record crowd of 40,000 to Madison Square Garden, and subsequent productions drew 60,000 viewers in another five cities. Mainstream Jewish organizations, however, pressured local sponsors to withdraw support, and the pageant was not performed again.
In the Fall of 1943, Congress began debating a Revisionist-sponsored Rescue Resolution calling for the United States government to establish a body charged with saving the remaining Jews of Europe. Again, mainstream Zionist groups, fearful of Revisionist influence, worked behind the scenes to scuttle the Rescue Resolution.
Contrary to Zuroff’s description to the Jerusalem Post’s Marilyn Henry of Zionist unity around the cause of rescue, then, there is no gainsaying David Wyman’s conclusion: "[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."
The only allies the Revisionists found in their battle to arouse the American public and push the Rescue Resolution were the Orthodox rabbis. Four hundred Orthodox rabbis marched in Washington, D.C. on October 6, 1943, as a dramatic prelude to the introduction of the Rescue Resolution. To avert passage of the Rescue Resolution, FDR agreed to create the War Refugee Board (WRB). Wyman estimates that the WRB saved between 100,000 and 200,000 Jewish lives.
Those same rabbis who headed the Vaad played a major role in continually pushing the WRB to act more forcefully in the face of State Department obstructionism. Rabbi Avrohom Kalmanowitz (the "old rabbi in the white beard") was credited with turning Treasury Secretary Morgenthau into the most ardent supporter of rescue in the Roosevelt administration. Morgenthau wrote in his diary how Rabbi Kalmanowitz "wept and wept and wept" in his office. And it was Treasury Department officials who had worked under Morgenthau who took the lead role in the WRB.
Did the Roshei Yeshiva Err?
In his interviews and to some extent in his book, Zuroff criticized some of the major Lithuanian roshei yeshiva for not having taken greater advantage of the "end" visas to Dutch-held Curacao issued by the honorary Dutch consul in Kovno, which played a crucial role in the flight of the Mirrer Yeshiva to Shanghai. (The potential of the "end" visas was discovered by Nathan Gutwirth, a Telshe Yeshiva student from Holland.) But the Curacao "end" visas were only of use in conjunction with Japanese transit visas issued by the temporary Japanese consul in Kovno against explicit orders. As Zuroff notes in his book, it did not take long for the Japanese to discover that the Curacao "end" visas were invalid, and to stop honoring them. In the end, only 2,000 of the 3,500 Curacao "end" visas issued were ever utilized. Thus, there is no reason to believe that this route could have been exploited further.
Nor is the hesitancy of the roshei yeshiva hard to fathom, even with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. They knew of the brutal suppression of religion under Stalin and were afraid of being caught in his web. At the outset of the war, thousands of Jews in Lemberg opted to return to Nazi-occupied territory, rather than remain under Russian control, so intense were the fears of Stalin. Further, the roshei yeshiva were afraid that they would be treated as enemies of the Soviet state and possibly executed for seeking to leave the Soviet Union. They knew, as Zuroff mentions in his book, that the NKVD had been busy photographing those applying for visas in Kovno.
Finally, Zuroff confuses daas Torah with prophecy, something no one has ever claimed for gedolei Torah. At the beginning of the war, a young man asked Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman d"yh which of two courses of action he should take. Reb Elchonon was not embarrassed to reply that he had no clarity on the matter.
IV. The Public Exchange
The debate over Zuroff’s charges lay relatively dormant until 2002, when Jewish Action published a lengthy refutation by Dr. David Kranzler, the leading expert on Orthodox rescue work during the Holocaust. Dr. Kranzler raised ten specific points.
Most of those points dealt with ways in which the Orthodox had departed from the petty legalisms of other Jewish groups, including the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and, unlike these other groups, elevated the imperative of pikuach nefesh (saving lives) above all else. One example given by Dr. Kranzler was the purchase of false Latin American passports for Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. The utility of these passports was discovered by Recha and Isaac Sternbuch in Switzerland, and these passports eventually saved tens of thousands of lives. As a matter of high principle, Saly Mayer, the JDC representative in Switzerland, refused to provide money for these fake passports.4
In his lengthy response to Dr. Kranzler, Zuroff did not so much as mention one of Kranzler’s ten points about Orthodox rescue efforts. Rather, he largely confined himself to a recitation of the history of the founding of the Vaad in 1939, and the dismay of the JDC with the Vaad’s insistence on running separate fundraising campaigns.
Yet, as Zuroff makes clear in his book, the amount of money raised by the Vaad from non-Orthodox sources, including the Federations, was a miniscule $22,000. From the outset, he has been challenged repeatedly to show how lives were lost because of lack of funds, especially in the first period of Vaad activity from 1939-1941, which constitutes the primary focus of his book. He has never picked up the gauntlet.
V. New Evidence
An Implicit Concession
The overwhelming evidence refuting the negative portrayal of Orthodox rescue activities that Zuroff offered gullible reporters has been well-known for decades. Recent developments – in particular, tacit, if unacknowledged, admissions by Zuroff himself – have discredited his charges.
The first of these developments was the publication in 2003 of Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America, and the Holocaust. The bulk of the book consists of two interviews with Hillel Kook (alias Peter Bergson) conducted by non-Jewish scholar David Wyman. Kook, a Revisionist Zionist from Palestine and the nephew of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, organized the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, and was one of the great unsung heroes of Holocaust rescue.
Zuroff reviewed the book effusively in The Jerusalem Post, and fully concurred with Kook’s bitter indictment of the mainstream and Zionist leadership of American Jewry.
"[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 noted in his review, has been well known since the 1984 publication of Wyman’s monumental work, The Abandonment of the Jews.
So much for the description of an American Jewish leadership united around rescue and pressuring recalcitrant politicians.
Of course, there was more in Race Against Death. As Kook makes 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 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 ha-Hatzala, Kook comments, "They operated on the old Jewish theological concept of ‘He who saves one soul, saves the whole world.’"
Needless to say, Zuroff made no mention in his review of Kook’s Orthodox allies.
Another Major Retreat
An even more astounding concession from Zuroff was yet to come. In a letter to me after one of our many duels in print, Zuroff writes, "My major criticism of the activities of the Vaad ha-Hatzala relates not to the efforts to rescue the leading roshei yeshiva, which took place primarily during the years 1939-1941, but rather to their decision to continue funding the educational activities of rabbis and yeshiva students in Shanghai and Central Asia (who were not in danger of imminent murder by the Nazis and were simultaneously receiving help from other Jewish relief organizations) after the news of the Final Solution became public and they themselves had devised a means of sending funds into Nazi-occupied Europe where money was being used to save lives" (emphasis added).
Zuroff’s statement that his primary objection to the Vaad has little to do with its initial efforts to save roshei yeshiva and yeshiva students is truly shocking5. Each of the news stories generated by his book focused on the formation of the Vaad in 1939 to rescue roshei yeshiva and yeshiva students, and those efforts were cited as the primary proof of rabbinic indifference to the fate of other Jews. And in his lengthy response to Dr. Kranzler in Jewish Action, Zuroff again concentrated almost exclusively on the efforts of the Vaad between 1939 and 1941 to rescue yeshiva students from Vilna, following his usual modus operandi of equating the Vaad’s efforts with the totality of Orthodox rescue efforts and then criticizing those efforts for their particularism. Only towards the very end of his response does he mention Vaad monies sent to Shanghai and Central Asia in 1944.
Why Didn’t They Close Their Gemaros?
In our public debate, Zuroff fairly shouted, "Why didn’t they close their Gemaros in Shanghai?" And that, it now appears, is what it all comes down to, as far as he is concerned.
In 1944, the Vaad sent $265,000 to yeshiva students in Shanghai and Central Asia. That same year, the UJA sent $10,000,000 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 Palestine nor Jews in America were in immediate physical danger in 1944, yet these vast sums of money do not bother Zuroff one whit. Just the money sent to Torah scholars. Why?
Nor was the problem in Europe primarily one of a lack of funds. The JDC raised approximately $16 million dollars in 1944. Saly Mayer, the JDC representative in Switzerland, had access to far more money than the Vaad spent in Shanghai. He continually stymied a host of ransom initiatives and rescue schemes hatched by Orthodox activists, like the Sternbuchs and Rabbi Michoel Ber Weismandl. The timidity and the petty legalism of those controlling the money, not the lack of money itself, was the primary problem. Moreover, the tiny Orthodox community, through the Vaad, raised more money in 1944 for rescue and relief than any group besides the JDC. The vast majority of that money was spent on Orthodox-generated rescue schemes in Europe.
Finally, let us consider the situation of those Torah scholars. Their story is one of unparalleled spiritual heroism. The refugees in Shanghai were herded into a ghetto. Avitaminosis and dysentery were rampant, and the rations were near starvation levels. Allied bombing and the possibility that the Japanese would adopt the policies of their Nazi allies were constant threats. Most of the Torah scholars had lost their entire families. And their financial situation was far worse than that of most of the refugees. Unlike the German and Austrian refugees who had fled with some of their possessions, the yeshiva students escaped with only the shirts on their backs. And despite all this, they continued to learn 14 to 18 hours a day.
And what would they have done if they had closed their Gemaros? Stared at the walls and gone insane? These scholars, as Zuroff admits in his book, played an indispensable role in the rebuilding of the entire world of Torah learning in the post-War period. Anything the Vaad did to ensure their survival and ability to continue to learn Torah should be a point of pride to every Torah Jew.6
The Final Piece of the Puzzle
The appearance of Dr. Alex Grobman’s Battling for Souls: The Vaad Hatzala Rescue Committee in Post-War Europe served to fill in some further details of the story. Grobman chronicles the vast differences in outlook between the Vaad activists and the leadership of the JDC, both during the wartime period and in the post-war period. From his account, it is clear that, but for the formation of the Vaad, few of the 3,000 yeshiva students who fled to Vilna at the outset of the war would have ever been saved. They were simply not a high enough priority in the eyes of the primarily secular leadership of the JDC. Zuroff also concedes this point in his book.
In the post-war period as well, the spiritual resuscitation of the survivors was well down on the Joint’s list of priorities. The cry of a Jew: "It is not enough to remain alive – I want to remain a Jew!" was not one easily comprehended by the leaders of the Joint. Kosher food was in often in short supply for the survivors. Joint employees were required to work on Shabbos, and many cultural events in the Displaced Persons camps were scheduled on Shabbos.
Dr. Koppel Pinson, the JDC educational director in Germany and Austria, sought to make the JDC an active force "in making Jewish life richer, broader, and more tolerant." He viewed traditional Jewish education as "harping on the gruesome experience of the past years, on ideas of revenge, on fanatical contempt for the rest of the world, and an unrealistic feeling of complete self-sufficiency against the rest of the world." And he was far more concerned with "every poet, painter, musician, scholar or scientist salvaged from the wrecks of European Jewry" than with the potential talmidei chachamim.
This is not so much a criticism of the JDC as an acknowledgment of the different perspectives of the JDC and the leaders of the Vaad. The Joint saw itself as serving all the survivors, and religious rehabilitation was only one of many items on its agenda, and by no means the top priority. In time, the JDC would provide the primary financial support for most of the yeshivos and seminaries in the Allied Occupied Zones. A number of the representatives sent by the Joint to Europe to attend to the needs of religious survivors were men of exceptionally high caliber, including Rabbi Alexander Rosenberg, Dr. Samuel Schmidt, and Rabbi Michael Munk. These emissaries were hampered, however, by a lack of staff caused by the Joint’s preference for using social workers with years of experience, even though they might have little knowledge of European Jewish history and culture, and little ability to communicate with the survivors.
Rabbi Aharon Kotler summarized the difference between the perspective of the Joint and the Vaad:
"Yiddishkeit and ministering to religious needs is only one phase and a rather small one in a large and extensive program [of the Joint]… The JDC will not initiate the establishment of yeshivos, kosher kitchens, mikvaos, and other religious needs. It will only answer a specific request and only within the realms of their budget and other considerations. Not so with the Vaad haHatzala. The Vaad haHatzala was created to answer the specific religious needs of our people."
All that remains to be answered is the question: Why? Why has Zuroff persisted in portraying the work of the Vaad from 1939-41 as if it were the totality of American Orthodoxy’s response to events in Europe, while ignoring the other Orthodox efforts on behalf of the masses of European Jewry? Why does he condemn the Vaad’s success in procuring 40 Special Visitors Visas for roshei yeshiva as proof of chareidi particularism, but not the use of the same Special Visitors Visas by secular Jewish groups to save 2,000 artists and intellectuals? Why is he obsessed with $265,000 sent to starving yeshiva students in Shanghai and Central Asia in 1944, but not with the millions wasted by mainstream groups on futile congressional resolutions or sent to farmers in Palestine? Surely, the desire to sell more books cannot have been his sole motivation.
Ultimately, the only one who can answer these questions is Efraim Zuroff himself.7
As for us, we must never lose sight of the vast gulf between the response of Orthodox Jews, raised on the imperative of pikuach nefesh, to the news of the annihilation of their fellow Jews in Europe and that of the secular Jewish leadership.
Rabbi Rosenblum, who lives in Jerusalem, is a contributing editor to The Jewish Observer. He is also Director of the Israeli division of Am Echad, the Agudath Israel-inspired educational outreach effort and media resource. The author would like to express his appreciation to Dr. David Kranzler, who has dedicated his life to chronicling Orthodox rescue work during the Holocaust, for much of the information and insights on which this article is based.
1The Response of Orthodox Jewry further undercuts Zuroff’s public accusations in a number of ways. He shows, for instance, why an independent organization like the Vaad was necessary for any effort to rescue roshei yeshiva and yeshiva students. Though the Joint Distribution Committee provided assistance to the yeshiva students who found temporary refuge in Vilna, and subsequently contributed part of their transportation costs to Shanghai (the bulk of the monies were collected by Orthodox activists like Irving Bunim on Shabbos), the leaders of the JDC were primarily drawn from the German-Jewish aristocracy, and as such, had little feeling for yeshiva students or their needs. The leaders of the JDC and other mainstream organizations were very concerned with anti-Semitism in America, and feared an influx of Eastern European Orthodox Jews incapable of being assimilated.
2Only as the debate was about to begin was I informed by the sponsor, Emunah Women, that Zuroff would speak twice while I would be limited to one speech. I need not have worried. In his final speech, the most telling point Zuroff raised was to correct my pronunciation of Curacao (second "c" is soft).
3No faction was more guilty of particularism than the Zionists. With nearly 70,000 Palestine certificates in its control, the Jewish Agency did not issue a single one to the 3,000 Torah scholars stranded in Vilna.
4Mayer’s legalism knew no bounds. At the beginning of the war, he even informed Swiss gendarmes of illegal Jewish refugees, leading to their deportation.
5Zuroff’s letter to me contains another crucial admission. He acknowledges that it was Orthodox rescue activists in the United States and Europe who "devised" means for getting crucial funds to Europe. And it was Orthodox activists in Europe who were behind almost every major ransom and rescue scheme. So the Orthodox are condemned for not doing more of what mainstream groups refused to do because of their concern with legal niceties and refusal to negotiate with the Nazis.
6Moreover, Zuroff omits a crucial point: It was only due to the Vaad that the JDC was able to transfer any money at all to Shanghai in 1944. After Pearl Harbor, the JDC stopped all money transfers to Shanghai and Central Asia. Even when the Treasury Department broadly hinted to JDC representatives that they would not object to money transfers, the excessively legalistic JDC would not do so. By late 1943, Laura Margolies, the JDC representative in Shanghai, could no longer even borrow locally against the promise of future payments.
Meanwhile, the Vaad never stopped transferring monies to Shanghai. And it was Orthodox activists who eventually secured the explicit permission to transfer funds to Shanghai that the JDC required, and who showed the JDC how monies could be gotten to refugees in Central Asia.
7Here, too, Dr. Grobman’s book may offer at least a partial clue. The last two chapters of his book are devoted to the Central Orthodox Committee (COC), brought into existence in 1947 by the JDC, at least in part to destroy the Vaad. Using its massive financial clout, the Joint prevailed upon other Orthodox groups to join together to form the COC, which would serve as an advisory committee to the JDC on the needs of religious survivors.
The COC representative in Europe from March, 1948 was Samuel Sar, a dean at Yeshiva University. Sar was a bitter critic of the Vaad. Though he left for Europe filled with enthusiasm for the task of helping religious survivors, his experience was not a happy one on two accounts. First, he was not very successful in persuading the JDC to devote larger resources to the religious needs of survivors, even though a COC rabbinic fact-finding committee at the end of 1947 found that the kosher kitchens in almost every DP camp were inadequate to service the demand.
And secondly, as Dr. Grobman noted, he had difficulty establishing relationships with the survivors. Three years after the end of the war, they were not interested in hearing from an American, newly arrived on the scene, what they should do. On one occasion, Sar convened a conference of all Talmud Torah teachers, at which 100 rabbis were expected to attend. But in the end, the conference was boycotted because of Sar’s failure to consult in advance with the local Agudath Harabbonim. At a June meeting with the rabbis in Munich, the rabbis "stressed that it was undesirable under the existing setup of the COC to turn over any of the work of the Vaad Hatzala to the COC…." Sar returned to the States shortly thereafter, his health severely impaired and broken in spirit.
As a professional historian, Zuroff should have mentioned that Samuel Sar was his grandfather, and how that fact may have colored his attitude towards the Vaad.
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