Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

3 Shevat 5766 - February 1, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Chareidim Led the Hatzoloh Network in Europe

by S. Goldfinger

The attempts to distort history, when it comes to anything connected to the central role of chareidi Judaism in rescue operations during the destruction of the Jews in Europe, continue unceasingly. A few weeks ago, the University of Tel Aviv hosted an event entitled, "Chareidi Judaism and the Holocaust." Among the list of speakers at the event, which was of a so-called academic nature, there was not a single chareidi Jew. This article, a discussion by chareidim of those issues, will probably talk about things that were left out of that academic conference.

It is 62 years since the passing of Rabbi Chaim Yisroel Eiss- - the man at the center of the chareidi hatzoloh network. At a time when the Jews of Europe were being tortured by the brutal Nazi soldiers, Rabbi Chaim Yisroel Eiss was spinning the threads for the manufacture of a hatzoloh network that would include embassy diplomats, Red Cross delegates and Church personnel. Members of the hatzoloh delegation of the Jewish Agency in Turkey consulted with Rabbi Eiss and received a great deal of help from him. Representatives of the Zionist hatzoloh offices in Geneva were aided by his connections. These fascinating cases and documents from the archives of Rabbi Chaim Yisroel Eiss make it clear that the chareidim constituted the locomotive that paved the way for rescue, such as it was.

Men of Agudas Yisroel who Led the Hatzoloh Locomotive

The stormy public controversy over the part that chareidi Jewry played in the rescue of Jews in Europe has been going on for quite some time already. Historians from other circles accuse chareidi activists of sitting with their arms folded and not lifting a finger to save the millions of non- religious European Jews being cruelly slaughtered. According to them, the chareidim worked to rescue just the Chassidic Rebbes, rabbis and yeshiva students, while leaving the rest of the people to their deaths.

Conversely, many historians, among them Professor David Kranzler, claim that the people at the forefront of the attempts to rescue all the Jews in Europe were precisely the rabbis and Agudas Yisroel members in Switzerland, Agudas Yisroel delegates in Istanbul, and the underground operated by Rabbi Weissmandel in Czechoslovakia.

Professor Kranzler writes in an article 2002 (5762): "The Orthodox (Agudas Yisroel activists) served as a catalyzing and central element in the rescue of the Jews in Europe. They were impelled by Torah values of saving lives and redeeming prisoners, and they did everything in their power to save the Jews of Europe, even if this involved transgressing the law."

Documents newly uncovered from the Agudas Yisroel archives in Switzerland reveal that Kranzler's claims are way too modest. The archives contain numerous applications and requests for aid and advice sent by the Zionists to Rabbi Chaim Yisroel Eiss. The letters reveal that, once the Zionists understood, albeit late in the day, that they were supposed to join the rescue operation, they played down their dependence on the chareidim to their Jewish Agency colleagues. They kept quiet about their being assisted by their connections, and about their adopting their methods of operation.

Our Torah—The Torah of Life

Beyond the controversy among the historians, there has been a continuing debate in recent years among philosophers and academics following up on trends in the writings and research on the Holocaust. They point to a tendency to minimize the descriptions of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis, and to depict the Nazis as running a "death machine," highlighting its sort of mechanical and bureaucratic nature.

Christopher Browning, in his book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, examines the behavior of Unit 101 who were not fanatical Nazis by nature and describes how, step by step, they overcame their initial recoiling, and became accustomed to "Jew killing." Men of that unit ended up shooting or deporting to Treblinka about 80,000 Jews. Browning ends his book on a note of surprise, "If men of the Reserve Battalion 101 of the police could turn into murderers under such circumstances, what group of people would not end up behaving in the same way?"

Professor Langer of Simmons College in Boston, entirely rejects all the sterile descriptions of mass murder perpetrated by the Nazis and calls on us to focus on the eyewitness reports which describe the horrific acts of atrocity of tearing children out of their parent's arms and murdering them in front of their eyes, so that we do not avoid seeing the wickedness of these unspeakable horrors.

Placing the murderers and their victims on a common axis, in which universal man is presented as being trapped in extreme plights, and their behavior is a product of "habituation" to a given situation, is unacceptable to thinkers and researchers like Professor Langer.

How much more so is it important for us, as believing Jews, to have clarity and realize that the actions of the people from the chareidi hatzoloh derived from a clear hashkofoh of the absoluteness of good and evil. Many of the secular activists at the time also remained in a gray area of formalistic arguments that they used perhaps to fool themselves, blinded by their perception of the "sanctity" of the law and being careful not to upset the Gentiles.

The saying from Chazal, Kol hamekayem nefesh achas meiYisroel ke'ilu kiyeim olom molei (one who saves one Jew is as if he saved an entire world), was the force that drove the Torah faithful Jews, and planted them at a distinct distance beyond that awesome wall separating good and evil.

Delegates of the Israeli Gedolim

Rabbi Chaim Yisroel Eiss was a confidant of the gedolei Yisroel and earned their esteem and admiration. He was the person who pulled the strings behind the large assemblies, and directed all the charity funds of Agudas Yisroel: the Yeshiva fund, the Fund for Orphans, the Fund for Eretz Yisroel, and others.

After the German forces wiped out the Jewish communities in the East, Rabbi Chaim Yisroel became the sole address for thousands of applications from the Jewish people, and for the gedolei hador too, who knew well his dedication from the time of the founding of Agudas Yisroel a few decades earlier.

Among those refugees who escaped the advancing Nazi troops and who arrived stripped of all worldly possessions, desperately in need of refuge in the major cities, were the yeshiva students from Vilna. The principal figure in charge of the yeshiva students and Chassidic Rebbes assembled in Vilna was HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, and in Rabbi Chaim Yisroel's archives there are a number of letters attesting to the ongoing relationship between them.

"Yes, I did receive the sum of fourteen hundred francs for the yeshiva refugees, which were changed into lit and yielded 1,848 lit altogether. Yes, received from his father- in-law the amount of 250 lit. In regard to the chaluka, I will follow the rov's instructions to give the yeshiva of Kletzk a third of above sum."

In this letter, HaRav Chaim Ozer further requests Rabbi Chaim Yisroel Eiss' help in regard to the certificates of immigration to Eretz Yisroel, an area in which HaRav Meir Karelitz, who resided in Eretz Yisroel, was working with him. "In accordance with what HaRav Meir Karelitz wrote in Eretz Yisroel . . . it is clear that the yeshivas have applied to Chief Rabbi Herzog with regard to the certificates, and they feel that he has an influence on this matter. I have also written to him and to the Aguda many times, because when it comes to saving lives, all politics must be put aside."

HaRav Shlomo Wolbe, who managed to escape at the beginning of the war to Stockholm in Sweden, wrote to Rabbi Chaim Yisroel Eiss from there, at the request of HaRav Aharon Kotler, asking that he apply to the Red Cross about the rebbeim and the gedolim: "His honor has most probably received information from HaRav Kotler about this list. If not, I assume that HaRav Kotler has asked him to try the Red Cross, to get them to make inquiries and track down the rabbis noted on the list."

We discovered that, in his response to HaRav Wolbe, Rabbi Chaim Yisroel Eiss said that he had applied to the "Lithuanian Consulate" which, since he was a Jew, had given him assistance. Further letters attest to his exerting tremendous efforts to trace the whereabouts of the yeshiva students, aided by his connections with the consular representatives and the Red Cross.

Members of the Network

In Switzerland, Rabbi Chaim Yisroel Eiss was joined by HaRav Shaul Weingart, rosh yeshiva in Montreux, attorney Mr. Meir Miller from France, HaRav Tuvya Levenstein, and others. In addition, Rabbi Chaim Yisroel Eiss kept up an extensive correspondence with his friends, who were active in the network worldwide: Rabbi Yaakov Griffel in Turkey, Rabbi Yitzchok Meir Levin and Rabbi Binyomin Mintz in Eretz Yisroel, Rabbi Aharon Goodman in England, Rabbi Yaakov Rosenheim and others in America.

From the wealth of correspondence in our archives, a fascinating picture is painted of a whole system of intricate connections between collaborators, couriers and key people in the higher echelons. For example, Rabbi Chaim Yisroel had known Schwartzenberg from the Red Cross from the time of the First World War, while Heigelei—from the Portuguese Consulate in Bern—was a crucial source for South American passports. Kohl, a chareidi Jew, secretary at the Polish consulate in Bern, enabled Agudas Yisroel people to utilize the diplomatic mail, and thereby evade the censorship. Additional connections reached all the way up to the Church.

Dispatching Food Parcels and Passports

"Food we don't have, clothes we don't have, and yet we were overcome with joy because we were able to keep the mitzvah of blowing the shofar." — This letter is one of many that were received by R' Chaim Yisroel, which showed how great was the spirit of those Jews who found happiness and spiritual elevation in their opportunity to keep mitzvos even in the valley of death.

HaRav Menachem Ziemba sent R' Chaim Yisroel a telegram verifying that he had received the food consignments: "I am happy to inform you that we received the packages that you sent. Please do keep on sending more packages. Try very hard to send us clothes and shoes . . . " This is one of many such telegrams.

The chareidi hatzoloh network worked tirelessly during this period, initially by dispatching food parcels and money to the ghettos and camps and, later on, when the Nazi's Final Solution plan leaked out, by opening channels for the "acquiring" of South American citizenship documentation for threatened Jews from Eastern Europe.

The passports were transferred via mail or via a representative of the Red Cross in Geneva and, in more complex cases, via special couriers. Additionally, attempts were made to attain immigration certificates to Eretz Yisroel.

The Zionist Offices—A Lot of Talk and Little Action

In Geneva, there were four different offices in operation, representing various streams in the Zionist movement.

The Office for Palestinian Certificates was run by Dr. Chaim Pozner and Dr. Sheps. They set up a system of cooperation with the chareidim.

Another was the Jewish Agency offices—in which the Sochnut representative was Richard Lichtheim. When he was not there, Dr. Kahane took his place.

The World Jewish Congress office was run by Dr. Yarblum and Dr. Ringer (famous for the "Ringer telegram," in which he gave over the information to America about the existence of the Final Solution), who were not particularly effective, nor did they make any meaningful contribution to the rescue operation.

The World Jewish Congress in Switzerland was headed by Dr. Abraham Silberschein, whom Rabbi Chaim Yisroel Eiss introduced as his partner in the rescue work, emphasizing his dedication.

Sally Mayer was the president of the SIG (Schweizerischer Israelitischer Gemeindebund — United Jewish Communities in Switzerland) and the Joint representative. Many said that he hindered, and even prevented, a number of operations.

Numerous offices were supposed to act to save the Jews of Europe. Where were they? Why did they not succeed in saving more Jews? What happened to the money that was intended for that purpose? And in what way did those Zionists show any manifestation of a Jewish heart?

" . . . Honor Takes a Person from this World"

In numerous letters, R' Chaim Yisroel bewailed the fact that so much energy was being wasted on futile arguments between the Jewish Agency staff and the Palestinian Office staff and that, owing to trivial matters involving people's dignity, there were delays in the handing over of certificates and pictures.

In one of the letters he sent to R' Aharon Goodman, R' Chaim Yisroel wrote of the tension between various offices and the bad impression that he had of their activities. "Everything is so cold, as if thousands of Jews are not being brought to slaughter every minute." He further noted: "That is how all the offices are there, no one knows what they are supposed to do, neither do they show any interest in the rescue work . . . "

Apparently, as a result of issues of personal prestige, and the concern that every office had for its name and honor, much friction had arisen between the various offices, causing many hatzoloh operations to be held up and others to be halted altogether.

As an example of the lack of coordination and concealing of facts between the various Jewish Agency offices, we have the following story from R' Chaim Yisroel Eiss' letter to R' Yaakov Griffel: " . . . Chaim Berliss dispatched pictures of a group of women to Mr. Sheps from the Palestinian Office, instead of to Dr. Kahane in the Jewish Agency offices, and therefore Kahane did not wish to get involved in this affair. Dr. Kahane was most aggravated about the pictures being sent to Sheps and not to him. He therefore said that Sheps should complete the business, and washed his hands of the matter."

Worries about the Legitimacy of the Operations

The minimal intervention of the Zionists in rescue operations was explained by them as due to their being unable to transgress the laws of the land and, therefore, to do anything that was officially forbidden.

Lichtheim, a Jewish Agency delegate, maintained that there was to be no playing with fire in the hatzoloh work, and that they had to be careful not to break the law. As R' Chaim Yisroel Eiss wrote to Griffel: "Mr. Lichtheim told me that there is no rescue work, i.e., means of rescue, which is entirely legitimate, and there always has to be some sidestepping, therefore he, as director of the Agency, could not . . . participate in the hatzoloh operations."

Another person who was not particular about the observance of Jewish religious laws, but who insisted on religiously following state laws in the rescue work, was Sally Mayer. Dr. Kranzler, in his book Thy Brothers' Blood: The Orthodox Jewish Response During the Holocaust, tells of Mayer's part in the sabotage of negotiations for the rescue of Jews through ransom money, as in the Himmler-Musy deal.

"If the Jews who arrived in Switzerland from the German camps did not number in the tens of thousands, you may thank Sally Mayer." This ironic and devastating sentence was written by Mr. Musy, a former president of Switzerland, to R' Yitzchok Sternbuch, a key hatzoloh activist in Switzerland.

HaRav Weissmandel, son-in-law of the Nitra Rebbe, whose cry for help stirred the hearts of Jewish communities in the West, bitterly bewailed Mayer's refusal to transfer money to Czechoslovakia due to "legal" niceties. HaRav Weissmandel, in his book, Min Hameitzar, brings up the claims of Mayer, the delegate from the Joint, that the law concerning occupied lands did not permit money to be transferred into Nazi occupied territory: "For it is prohibited . . . to hand over money to the treasuries, to that evil man, and this prohibition has been fortified recently by the publication of the Allied Powers."

It is very hard to read this, or even to believe that the ban on handing over money to enemy country could be top priority in the eyes of Sally Mayer at a time when his brothers' blood was being spilled like water throughout Europe.

The Rescue of Jews is Not a Zionist Priority

HaRav Weissmandel lamented bitterly the tens of thousands of Jews who could have been rescued, while Zionist leaders, like Sally Mayer from the Joint, remained blinded by their prejudices about Jews from Eastern Europe who, according to them, "exaggerate their plight in order to extract money from Jews in the West."

However, it would be more accurate to say that they did not want to believe it. Instead they preferred to dedicate most of their energies and funds to construct a national Jewish homeland in Israel.

In contrast to the skimping in funds mentioned above, chareidi Jews in Switzerland, Israel and America opened their hearts and their pockets, and donated money for consignments sent to their oppressed brethren. And when the money was late in coming, R' Chaim Yisroel funded the consignments out of his own pocket. What a contrast . . .

Silberschein—Jewish Congress Delegate, Cooperates with Chareidim

It is notable that, contrary to the majority of Zionist directors, Dr. Silberschein, World Jewish Congress delegate in Switzerland, worked hand in hand with R' Chaim Yisroel. In a number of letters that R' Chaim Yisroel Eiss sent Rabbi Yaakov Griffel, he expressed his admiration of him: "One person who works and knows how to work is Dr. Silberschein."

In a letter to R' Yaakov Griffel of September 1943, R' Chaim Yisroel wrote that: "In the meantime there was a crisis in the whole rescue effort here because Dr. Silberschein was caught and jailed in Geneva." R' Chaim Yisroel wrote that in his opinion, "he made a few mistakes, owing to his lack of awareness of Swiss tactics." After some effort, they managed to bring about the release of Silberschein and to silence the investigation, and Silberschein continued with his vigorous campaign.

Kellerman, Revisionist Representative in Turkey, Applies to R' Chaim Yisroel Eiss for Aid

"Since his honor has experience, could he please let me know his opinion of what I am supposed to be doing."

With these words, Joseph Kellerman, Revisionist delegate of the Palestinian rescue mission in Turkey, applied to Rabbi C. Y. Eiss. The letter shows that the Zionists who joined the rescue operation at a later stage had no alternative but to consult with veterans who were familiar with the intricacies of the operations. It is interesting to see that Kellerman preferred that his appeals for help be kept confidential, and he emphasized this point in one of his letters to R' Chaim Yisroel: "It is obvious that the Jewish Agency people do not need to know that I handed over my list to his honor."

When Kellerman heard that Rabbi C. Y. Eiss was planning to resign due to difficulties in the funding of the operation, he wrote to Rabbi Binyomin Mintz: "If, Heaven forbid, you cause Mr. Eiss to halt his operation, then you are sending our poor, afflicted brethren to their doom . . . Remember: lo harbei Eissim icko beshuko haSchveitzari (There are not many Eisses in the Swiss market).

Kellerman was one of the members of the hatzoloh mission in Turkey in which there were representatives of various streams of the Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisroel. Turkey, like Switzerland, served as an important center because of its neutrality. Its geographical location made it well suited for the transfer of funds, passports and information, and made it into an excellent transit route for refugees with certificates who were escaping from Nazi occupied lands on their way to Eretz Yisroel.

Kellerman worked in full cooperation with R' Yaakov Griffel, the Agudas Yisroel delegate on the mission. Their forceful and independent efforts often annoyed Chaim Berliss, head of the mission. In a report that Berliss wrote about his activities in Turkey, he said: "The differences of opinion between us was based on the fact that their representative, Herr Griffel, saw fit . . . to found, together with Herr Kellerman . . . a branch of the emergency Vaad Hatzoloh of America . . . Such a double collaboration could be harmful to the rescue operation as a whole." Kellerman and R' Yaakov Griffel were from different parties, had different interests, but they rose above all personal and party considerations and did everything in their power to save every single Jew that they could.

Berliss—Head of Turkish Delegation

It is interesting to consider that even Chaim Berliss, head of the Istanbul delegation was assisted by R' Chaim Yisroel Eiss' connections. When he sent a representative to Geneva, he asked Eiss to help him in any way he could: "We are sending a person from here, a Swiss citizen . . . he was given orders to make contact with you, and for his attention to be directed to you in particular. He is supposed to consult with you about everything."

Berliss did not attempt to operate in a variety of ways, and sometimes even interfered with hatzoloh efforts, claiming that either it was not realistic, or the budget was not appropriate, or various other things. Berliss was not interested in extending credit to Agudas Yisroel for hatzoloh activities performed through their organization, and even refused to accept funds urgently needed for operations that could have been supplied through the chareidi representatives. The extent to which he was affected by considerations of personal prestige can be seen from the book, The Mark of Cain: "Agudas Yisroel in the U.S.A. managed to get a permit from the American government to transfer large sums of money . . . Chaim Berliss rejected the offer . . . taking funds from Orthodox institutions, and especially when the Revisionists (Kellerman) are involved, would harm the Jewish Agency's `prestige.' "

Leder—Jewish Agency Representative in Turkey— Find the Son of the Jewish Agency Chairman

"Do you know anything about the whereabouts of Greenbaum's son? I would be grateful if his honor would be able to inform me, by return mail, what has been done, and what are his chances in this connection"—wrote Eliezer Leder, Jewish Agency representative in the Istanbul delegation, in a letter asking Eiss to help locate the son of the Jewish Agency chairman, Isaac Greenbaum.

Leder had some interesting work contacts with R' Chaim Yisroel. He too was helped by the chareidi hatzoloh network, and asked R' Chaim Yisroel to help them attain foreign passports, and also to continue with his aid despite the delays in transferring the funds. It is notable that Leder's work was very much admired by leaders of Agudas Yisroel in Eretz Yisroel.

The Sochnut Applies to the Satmar Rebbe

One of R' Chaim Yisroel Eiss' most interesting contacts was with the Satmar Rebbe, who was extremely active in the area of hatzoloh in Hungary, despite the disconnection that had occurred between Agudas Yisroel and Satmar Chassidim before the War.

A painstaking study of Eiss' correspondence led to the uncovering of a story that, in normal times, would be inconceivable.

The Jewish Agency, by means of its agents in Istanbul, requested to sign an agreement with the Satmar Rebbe, who would transfer funds to their people in Hungary.

"Regarding the land for Hagar (Hungary), I have unfortunately not yet received a clear answer from the Gaon Rebbe Yoelish . . . but to speak of some kind of contract with him is inconceivable, especially a contract with the Sochnut. I can only extract from him a promise that he will hand out the money according to the instructions he is given from here . . . "

The Jewish Agency wanted to exploit the network of connections and delegates of R' Chaim Yisroel Eiss and his colleagues who by then had a name for being trustworthy and not having `leaks,' and sought to solidify the connections between them and the Satmar Rebbe. According to the agreement, the Rebbe was supposed to be responsible for distributing the funds which would be sent via the Jewish Agency to Hungary. R' Chaim Yisroel explained that they should not expect the Satmar Rebbe to sign a contract with them, but it was to be understood that the Zionists would be allowed to get assistance from the network of agents operated by the chareidim.

To Save a Jewish Life

"He clung to the middos of HaKodosh Boruch Hu. Just like He is Podeh uMatzil — so did he redeem and save. And in these middos he was unique. Unique in the generation . . . he was entirely aflame with sorrow, pain, and torment over the unspeakable tragedy. Over the loss of the Jews in Poland and Lithuania" wrote Rabbi Binyomin Mintz in the Agudas Yisroel newspaper, in a eulogy for his friend and partner, R' Chaim Yisroel Eiss, adding that "the time has not yet come to tell all."

But today there is no doubt that this is indeed the call of the hour—the time has come to learn, to research, to tell— so that our children will know, so that they will know what to answer.

For the Torah is a Torah of Life, and those who followed its light even in times of great darkness, were the only ones worthy of illuminating, at least slightly, the darkness of despair and the valley of death. Not the enlightened politicians who tried to fit in with the European "cultural" norms. No, they could not see the truth behind the false presentation and illusions that the Nazis presented to the world.

And when the terrible truth slapped them on the face, they were forced to turn for help to their brethren who had preceded them in their ability to take in the unspeakable horrors, and understand that these were troubled times for the Jewish people and that the principles of Western civilization had been cast into the rubbish pile of history.

It is clear from R' Chaim Yisroel's letters that the chareidi hatzoloh activists anticipated the terrible realities, and realized very early on that they were facing a life- threatening situation. They therefore set about creating a system of contacts and methods of operation.

When the Zionists joined in, they were assisted by the chareidi networks. They did not have enough time to erect their own independent systems, and they received all the help and assistance, which was given generously. As R' Chaim Yisroel wrote, when he explained the ways of a Jew faithful to Torah, that, "whenever the issue is to save a Jewish life, I deplore with full force any discrimination between the children of Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov."

Rabbi Chaim Yisroel Eiss—A Tree with Deep Roots

R' Chaim Yisroel's son relates that his father was one of the followers of the Sadigora Rebbe, and was even the chavrusa of the Admor's son. He was part of the group which originally set up Agudas Yisroel, and was a confidant of many rebbeim and Admorim.

After his marriage to Adele Holles, he emigrated from Galicia to Switzerland. For the purposes of making a living, he opened a clothing business and became quite well-to-do. At the outbreak of World War II, he was one of the first to begin right away galvanizing connections to aid Jews who resided in the occupied lands. He neglected his business to dedicate his life to rescuing Jews. He gave away his whole property, which he had amassed during his working years, for the food and money shipments to the Nazi occupied countries.


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