From Yad Vashem
One Against One
The letter, at any rate, is not in our hands at the present time. It is however, quoted from memory by Rav Weissmandel in his book. This leaves us with the conflicting testimonies of Schwalb and Rav Weissmandel. We first have to consider whether it is possible that Rav Weissmandel invented the letter and attributed it to Schwalb. We will therefore quote several testimonies about Rav Weissmandel's sterling character to show that this suggestion is preposterous.
In Dr. Fuch's The Unheeded Cry (ArtScroll, 1984) we find the following sketch of Rav Weissmandel's youth.
Rabbi Chaim Michael Dov Weissmandel, known as Reb Michoel Ber, was born in Debrecen, Hungary on the fourth of MarCheshvan 5664 (1903) and was the oldest son of his father, Reb Yosef. When he was still a child, the family moved to Tyrnau.
At the age of twelve, Rav Weissmandel wrote an original drosho to deliver at his bar mitzva. However, his grandfather, Rabbi Menachem Meir Berthauer of Pressburg, offered him ten crowns as a bar mitzva gift if he would forgo delivering his drosho in public. The grandfather, a humble man, was fully aware of his grandson's brilliance. He was apprehensive lest the public delivery of the drosho cause the young boy's head to turn and make him proud. Rav Weissmandel acceded to his grandfather's request.
Thirty-six years later, the drosho was delivered to the pupils of his yeshiva. He spoke for an hour, amazing all the listeners with his brilliance. At the end of the drosho he remarked offhandedly that this lecture was to have been his bar mitzva drosho that he had written himself as a boy but had not repeated at the time, at his grandfather's request.
He received the bulk of his Torah education from HaRav Shmuel Dovid Ungar, the rav of Tyrnau, who later became rav of Nitra. While still a bochur, Rav Weissmandel achieved proficiency in Shas and poskim. He had a particularly good grasp of Hilchos Mikvo'os including the necessary complicated mathematical calculations for constructing a kosher mikva.
As a seventeen year old yeshiva bochur in Tyrnau, Rav Weissmandel published three booklets containing chidushei Torah that he had heard from his teacher, HaRav Ungar. He was also an expert at deciphering old manuscripts and would sometimes engage in comparing handwritten seforim with later, printed versions.
He travelled to Oxford, England on three occasions, visiting the famous Bodlean Library where he spent hours poring over various ancient manuscripts which contained the writings of chachmei Yisroel of earlier generations. Once, the author of a certain manuscript was wrongly identified by the scholars who had examined it. After Rav Weissmandel revealed the true identity of the author, he was treated with particular honor by the librarian. He was allowed to use the library whenever he wanted, even at times when it was closed to the public.
Rav Weissmandel put special efforts into preparing a new edition of Kikayon DeYonah, a sefer that was popular amongst the bochurim of the Nitra Yeshiva. The supporters of the yeshiva provided financial aid for the project. Rav Weissmandel added his own notes and glosses to the work. At the back, he included some glosses to Shulchan Oruch, Even Haezer which he had found in a manuscript in Oxford.
Also credited to Rav Weissmandel are several observations that are now seen as forerunners of the search for words hidden in the Torah text that are revealed by counting regular intervals of letters. This research, greatly aided by the computer, is now used in Arachim seminars and referred to as "Bible codes."
Rav Weissmandel married Bracha Rachel, the daughter of his teacher HaRav Ungar, on the fourteenth of Shvat, 5697. At the engagement, he delivered a two-and-a-half hour long drosho. The subject of his discourse was "sivlonos," the gifts which a man makes to his bride to be. HaRav Dovid Meisels of Satoraljaujhely was present at the engagement. He listened in amazement to Rav Weissmandel's drosho.
When it was over, he told the bochurim who were there that anyone who could repeat the drosho would be granted semichoh on the spot, enabling him to serve as a rov anywhere in the world. HaRav Meisels' gift to the groom was also semichoh, together with additional praises of his greatness in Torah learning.
HaRav Ungar said that he had nothing to add to all the praises that had already been showered on the bridegroom except to say that, "The groom is thoroughly imbued with yiras shomayim—durch und durch!"
Rav Weissmandel was active on behalf of the Nitra Yeshiva both before and after his wedding and acted as his father-in-law's right hand man. At times, he delivered one of the regular shiurim in the yeshiva. In 5696 he delivered the simple shiur (the "nieben shiur") on Maseches Shevi'is. While the aim of this shiur was to impart fluency in different areas of Torah, it nevertheless delved deeply into the subject matter and was intended for the yeshiva's top students. Rav Weissmandel would quote from dozens of different sources. Amongst these were some of the manuscripts he had studied in Oxford. (The significance of his ability to remember and to quote from a number of different sources will become apparent later on.)
Here are some of Dr. Fuchs' own conclusions about Rav Weissmandel's character: "It became clear to me that no study could do justice to his towering personality, his courage and dedication to Klal Yisroel. Rav Weissmandel became a legend during his own lifetime.
He was a Jewish hero but, as will become clear, his heroism was not of the sort admired in today's world. He was active in Slovakia, in the framework of an underground group which called itself, "The Working Group," which conducted negotiations with the S.S. between 1942 and 1944. The group's aim was to use bribery to bring an end to the destruction of the last remnant of European Jewry. "
Rav Weissmandel was the life force of the Working Group. As a chareidi Jew, he was motivated purely by religious and ethical considerations. The unity of purpose which was shared by the members of the Working Group in Slovakia was largely due to Rav Weissmandel's presence. All his colleagues who survived the War were unanimous in conferring the highest praises upon him."
Gentiles also respected Rav Weissmandel's integrity as will be seen from the following episode. After the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany in March, 1938, the first Jews to be plundered and expelled were those living in Burgenland. They were expelled to Vienna without any money or possessions. Rav Weissmandel risked his life in travelling to Vienna to see what could be done to help these refugees.
A group of rabbonim was then gathered from this area and sent by the Nazis to Czechoslovakia, where they were refused entry. The Austrians also refused to allow them to return. Rav Weissmandel flew to England where he managed to hold an audience with the Archbishop of Canterbury. He also appealed to the Foreign Office and as a result of his efforts, the rabbonim were granted asylum in England.
Later in that year, the Munich Agreement in September and the Vienna Award in November, surrendered parts of Slovakia to Hungary and a considerable number of Jews were declared "stateless" and expelled into open country along the Slovakian border. In a telegram dated the twenty-third of November, 1938, Rav Weissmandel appealed to the British Foreign Minister, Sir Samuel Hoare, and to the Archbishop of Canterbury, seeking their intervention on behalf of these exiles. The Archbishop referred the telegram to the Foreign Office on the very same day that he received it. He added his own note to the telegram saying that he had met Rav Weissmandel in the past and that he was to be believed. ("He is worthy of credence.")
In The Words Of His Colleagues
From time to time, Rav Weissmandel, representing the Orthodox community, visited the labor camp where Jews were interred together with the Neologue (Reform) rabbi Armin Frieder. In the following lines, Ondrej (Andrei) Steiner [an important member of the Working Party, who continued the negotiations with Wisliceny after the arrest of Wisliceny's Jewish employee Karol Hochberg] describes his first meeting with Rav Weissmandel when the latter was on one of his visits to the labor camp. [Steiner gave this account in 1964, in a taped interview with Yeshaya Yellinek of the Hebrew University's Department of Oral History.]
"My first contacts with the Orthodox concerned the operation of a kosher kitchen in the labor camp. I think that Greenhut was the first to approach me about this. At first, I found the whole idea laughable. I had no wish to become involved in any arrangements because of the difficulty in obtaining anything of this nature. Moreover, I personally attached no importance whatsoever to kashrus.
"Later on, Rav Weissmandel came to me and told me that he was approaching me because he did not believe that I would refuse to tackle the authorities on this matter.
"I will never forget how he tried to persuade me. He placed his hand on my shoulder and said, "Ondrej, I am convinced that you will do it and that you will be successful." His tender eyes—like the eyes of a holy man—influenced me to alter my position. I decided to go at once to see Koso [Dr. Izidor Koso was a senior official in the Slovakian government] and Petcuk [Dr. Julius Petcuk was the official in charge of the prison camps] to put my request to them. I told Rav Weissmandel that the arrangements would cost money and his response was that he would try to raise any sum that would be needed.
"About a week later, we received permission to open kosher kitchens in the labor camps. From then on, Rav Weissmandel would drop into my office just to talk with me.
"I started to admire him and even to love him on account of his wonderful personality, despite the fact that his external appearance was unkempt, with a torn kapote and an ugly face. [Dr. Fuchs notes here that, `To Steiner, who was irreligious, a Jew with a beard and payos appeared "ugly."']
"I immediately saw that an extraordinary person was standing before me and I must admit that if I subsequently executed daring schemes, from which I had initially retreated, it was because I was under the influence of Rav Weissmandel. I was unable to refuse him and tell him, "No."
"I don't know quite how to put it—it was a sort of magic spell. Yes, it was actually his enchantment that worked on me. Now I remember one of the most special occasions. Once, when he was very pleased with one of my achievements, he turned to me and said, "Ondrej, you have just one shortcoming, which is that you are not an Orthodox Jew. If you would be an Orthodox Jew, it would be just wonderful." For me, it was a great compliment that he was prepared to forgive me and accept me as I was."
Further testimony to Rav Weissmandel's character comes from another member of the Working Group, a Slovakian Zionist leader named Oscar Neumann.
"However, one of the most interesting and important phenomena for those involved in rescue was the son-in-law of the aged Chief Rabbi, the Torah scholar Rav Michoel Dov Weissmandel. He shouldered the burden of managing the affairs of the Orthodox. It is impossible for anyone to imagine what nobility of character this man had within himself. The fact that he would walk through a Nazi occupied city wearing beard and payos, testifies to his great courage.
"He was burdened with a young wife and children and he lived all the time in dire poverty yet he never saw fit to take assistance from anyone else. With his shrewdness, his modesty and especially with his human dimension, he quickly captured the hearts of everyone thanks to his ingenious projects and his fighting spirit. He was appointed as the "Rabbi of the Partisans." He could be relied upon for his never ending supply of energy, initiative, rescue and assistance."
HaRav Eliezer Silver zt'l of Cincinnati was head of the Agudas HaRabbonim Vaad Hatzala. He expressed his regard for Rav Weissmandel in the following lines:
"If we would have been wise enough to pay more heed, to be more audacious, take greater risks and endanger ourselves more, in responding to the calls and the demands of that great man—great in Torah and mighty in his rescue work, HaRav Michoel Dov Weissmandel... who was the greatest planner, bold and daring, who demanded great and sensational achievements. Alas! If only! If only! If only!"
Dr. Yehuda Rabbes of Haifa worked as an official in the Legal Department of the Jewish Council in Slovakia during the war. I asked him to tell me his impressions of Rav Weissmandel, whom he had known personally. This is what he had to say.
"I respected him deeply and admired him tremendously. He was an upright and righteous man. He examined a situation with a realistic and practical eye. He was active, clever and shrewd. He reacted swiftly, was very honest and taught me a lesson in how to behave—I obtained a permit for him which enabled him to travel freely around the country.
"He told me that I had to pay the man who had arranged the permit, despite the fact that he was a school friend of mine. "If you pay him, he will be obliged to you. It's more desirable that he be under an obligation to you than you to him." I learned a lesson from this and conducted myself accordingly throughout the war. It was possible to achieve many things with money and bribery. I'll never forget Rav Weissmandel and the wisdom with which he behaved and which he taught me."
Towards the end of his book, Dr. Fuchs adds the following remarks.
"Rav Weissmandel's entire life was devoted to Klal Yisroel, for whom he gave up his private life. Side by side with his devotion to the Klal, we see the figure of a man who delivered public reproof, sparing no one. Rav Weissmandel favored nobody. Truth was his beacon.
"Throughout his life, he warned his pupils to keep their distance from any falsehood. When he was planning the founding of HaYishuv VeHayeshiva [Rav Weissmandel's project to found a yeshiva together with an agricultural settlement, in America, after the War] he made a regulation that anyone who would be caught in an untruth three times, would be dismissed from both the Yeshiva and the settlement.
"In one of his talks, he mentioned that a friend of his had visited Yemen and had later described his impressions to Rav Weissmandel. He reported having gone into a beis haknesses on Succos and seeing a table at the entrance laden with lulavim and esrogim. Each mispallel would take a lulav and esrog at random. The visitor was disappointed to see that the members of this community were not particular about hiddur mitzva. When prayers started however, he noticed that the shaliach tsibur had been sent away from the amud. This was because the day before, the man had been caught in an untruth.
"By way of observation, Rav Weissmandel asked me where there was more truth? When it comes to choosing a lulav and esrog, we are careful about hiddur mitzva but we are not so particular about truth and falsehood. The Yemenite Jews, on the other hand, are not careful about hiddur mitzva but they do guard the truth."
The Verdict Of The Researchers
In her thesis, The Working Party and the Zionist Leadership in Slovakia, 1941-44, Ne'ima Barzel writes,
"One of the central figures amongst the Jews, albeit holding no official position, was Rav Michoel Dov Weissmandel, the son-in-law and emissary of the Nitra Rav, who was a model leader, admired and praised during his lifetime.
"The cooperation between the members of the Working Party had its origins in the sense of shared destiny, which was brought into sharper focus with the arrival of the news from Poland [about the murder camps] and in the common acknowledgement of the acting leadership of the two key figures, Rav Weissmandel and Gisi Fleischmann. The trust placed in them was unanimous.
"At the very outset, Rav Weissmandel established the legitimacy of the various attempts to employ bribery, fraud and deceit for the sake of saving lives. He gave the people who surrounded him, as well as the members of the various movements, the feeling that they should engage in these activities quite knowingly and that they should [even] feel superior and appreciative. Testimonies about Rav Weissmandel reveal love and amazement towards him, on the part of those who were very far from his inner world."
Professor Bauer [of the Hebrew University, the author of a number of works on Jewish responses during the Holocaust] wrote in Ha'aretz, May 24th 1984, "Rav Weissmandel is one of the few true heroes of the period. Imbued with the love of Jews, he was a man of unusual courage."
Professor David Kranzler ends his wonderful book Thy Brother's Blood, with a chapter on Rav Weissmandel.
"It is only fitting that this volume... should conclude with several personal vignettes of Rabbi Michoel Ber Weissmandel, the genius of rescue and the very embodiment of Jewish diplomacy in action. An extraordinary personality, he was the peerless rescue activist who personified to the ultimate the Torah perspectives of rescue. While a most devout Jew, a true tzaddik, his name was mentioned with awe by all those he came in touch with, Orthodox and freethinker alike...
"...as Yaakov Griffel [Agudas Yisroel's member on the Palestine Rescue Committee which was based in Istanbul] put it, "His name was always mentioned with awe—even by the leftists—both in internal meetings and public assemblies in Palestine."
"He was the first to apply the age old Jewish practice of pidyon shevuyim on a grand scale and his efforts, despite the failures, remained the basis for any of the other ransom plans attempted... This great Torah scholar was able to conceive, within the narrow confines of occupied Slovakia, plans that amazed the outside world with their different approach... part of his genius was his great Jewish heart, his sense of humility and the total disregard for material things and an even greater disinterest in matters of personal vanity or honor."
"...At a certain stage in the negotiations with the Nazis, Ondrej Steiner had taken the key role in serving as the intermediary with Dieter Wisliceny, Eichmann's assistant for Jewish affairs, in negotiating for Weissmandel's ransom plans. "At every stage," Steiner recalled, "Weissmandel would feed all the arguments to me and even present the counter arguments that Wisliceny could bring forth. It is incredible," Steiner remarks, "how cogent and brilliant were his arguments and how well he understood the mind of Wisliceny as well as those of his chief, Eichmann and the S.S. chief and arch-murderer, Heinrich Himmler."
Professor Kranzler ends the chapter on Rav Weissmandel with a personal comment from Rabbi Asher Forst, a close friend of Rav Weissmandel's. "There was once a great light which emerged on the sky, like a meteor consuming itself in its vehement rapidity. On its way it warmed and unforgettably inspired many Jewish hearts."
Here again, is Rav Weissmandel's testimony about the letter he received from Nathan Schwalb, from his memoir, Min HaMeitzar.
"There was another letter in the envelope, written in a strange, mysterious language. At first, I couldn't make out what language it was until, upon closer inspection I saw that it was composed of Hebrew words written in Latin characters. It was written to a group of Schwalb's friends in Pressburg. The letter was a page and a half long and to this day I can see it in front of me, as though I had read it over a hundred and one times. This was what it contained."
"I can see it in front of me, as though I had read it a hundred and one times..." Rav Weissmandel then goes on to quote the letter. Schwalb, on the other hand claims that, "I never wrote such a letter."
In answer to my question, "If so, did Rav Weissmandel invent the letter?" Schwalb's reply was, "Yes." We have seen something of what Rav Weissmandel was. Just who is Nathan Schwalb?
Some Background On Nathan Schwalb
Nathan Schwalb was a member of Kibbutz Chulda, in which capacity he was sent to Europe as representative of Hechalutz. As a young man, he was afire with faith in Zionism and was devoted to his leaders. He was ready to carry out his mission according to the spirit in which he had been educated.
He spent all the war years in Switzerland and today, as far as I know, Schwalb divides his time between his apartment in North Tel Aviv and the town of Saint Galen in Switzerland.
What made this seventy-eight year old man make a statement under oath at the British Embassy, thus launching a libel suit and embarking on a process over whose outcome he had no control? Do Schwalb's history and his present occupation have any connection with the statement he made?
When I called him on the Friday after our meeting to hear his reaction to the refutations of his story, he burst out, "Leave me in peace! I don't want to hear about it any more. And anyway, they forced me to sign the statement."
During the war at any rate, Schwalb was a young man full of faith in the Zionist ideal, believing that the movement he represented was on the right path. He was faithful to his movement and more particularly to the specific faction, Dror, which had sent him.
The following paragraphs provide some background information about the inter-party intrigues in which Schwalb was involved in his capacity as the Hechalutz representative in Switzerland. Schwalb's devotion to the members of his own movement, in contrast with Rav Weissmandel's absolute dedication to the cause of all Jews, no matter what their political or religious affiliations which is mentioned by many of the colleagues and scholars whose comments we have just quoted, speaks volumes about the outlooks and the agendas of the two men.
Ariel Horowitz writes in his article, "Menachem Bader's Mission to Istanbul and the Contacts Between Hashomer Hatzair and Occupied Europe," Moreshet #35, 1985,
"In Switzerland, on the eve of the Second World War, the World Center of the Hechalutz Movement was established. It was headed by Nathan Schwalb a Gordonia man. Heini Bornstein, who worked together with him, describes him as being active and dedicated but also a devoted party man.
"Mordechai Oren was appointed by Hashomer Hatzair as their representative in the office but... Oren returned to Eretz Yisroel after a short time and the connection with the Hechalutz office passed to the young graduates of Hashomer Hatzair who were in Switzerland. While Bader [the Hashomer Hatzair delegate to the Istanbul Rescue Committee] could not place too much blame on his movement for the oversight of quitting the Swiss office, he declared at the same time that "the principle blame lies with those who could have established communication (with the youth in occupied Europe) but who made only unilateral communications (i.e. Schwalb)."
"In letters to Schwalb, Heini and the institutions in Eretz Yisroel, Bader leveled a long list of accusations against Schwalb on account of discrimination against Hashomer Hatzair. He even goes so far as to blame him for taking a cynical attitude towards those shomrim [i.e. members of Hashomer Hatzair] who were in mortal danger. In a letter to Dr. Posner, the head of the Eretz Yisroel office in Geneva, Bader blamed Schwalb for not maintaining contact with members of Hashomer Hatzair in Poland, with the result that no papers had been arranged for them which could perhaps have saved them from the Nazis.
"In order to defend himself, Schwalb argued that the Polish members of Hashomer Hatzair had, it seemed [already] been liquidated and the surviving youth belonged to the Maccabi Hatzair and Gordonia movements—that was why contact had been maintained only with them. Bader [however,] detected a note of cynicism in this response and regarded it as one of the intrigues carried out by members of Mapai, who would even exploit the tragedy of the nation as a whole in order to strengthen their own power over the youth. Bader wrote to Heini that, `Schwalb is being directed by somebody who is taking pains to prove that only Maccabi Hatzair and Gordonia will survive in the Diaspora.'
"One gets the impression that Bader, for his part, may possibly have been considering the unification of all the various youth movements that were in danger of extermination but that the actions of Schwalb and others made him wary of such a move. He concluded that such a step would result in the exposure of the members of Hashomer Hatzair to the narrow party interests of the Mapai members.
"`Actually,' he [Bader] wrote, `in light of our general position in the Diaspora and the fearful slaughter, if everyone were working with pure motives, then a united Diaspora youth would remain alive and we would not have to try to get them out of the Nazi slaughterhouse. Since people's motives are not honest however, we must concern ourselves with our own members.' Bader had no faith left in Schwalb and he warned Heini that `If you need Nathan's help, he will deceive, as he has done until now.'"
Looking again at the letter Schwalb sent to his friends in Slovakia in the light of the above accusations, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Schwalb, the faithful emissary of his movement, felt no greater obligation towards Diaspora Jewry, the vast majority of whom were not Zionists, than he did towards the members of Hashomer Hatzair.