December 14, 2000
Rescuing the Spiritual Elite
A Nazi-hunter writes about the dilemmas faced by American Orthodox during World War II.
The Response of Orthodox Jewry in the United States to the Holocaust: The Activities of Vaad-Ha-Hatzala Rescue Committee, 1933-1945, Efraim Zuroff, Yeshiva University Press, 316 pages, $39.50
Efraim Zuroff is Israel's preeminent Nazi-hunter, the best of the younger generation. Less of a detective or clandestine operative than his predecessors, he uses his considerable skills as a scholar and his diligence as a researcher to identify the perpetrators. He will be the last of the great Nazi hunters, because time is taking its toll on his potential targets, the youngest of which are now in their late 70s.
Those familiar with Zuroff's work know that he has another passion: in articles and conference papers, he has chronicled the efforts of Orthodox Jews in the United States to rescue their brethren during the Shoah. More scholarly, less polemical and less reticent to consider discordant evidence than other researchers in the field, Zuroff writes with the precision of a seasoned scholar, carefully differentiating evidence from opinion and letting the documents tell the story.
It's a little-known but important story of American Orthodox efforts to rescue yeshiva students and their teachers, facilitate their transport to Shanghai, and sustain them throughout World War II so that they could continue their studies even in the worst of times.
When the Germans invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, several prominent heads of Polish yeshivas quickly evacuated themselves and their students to independent Lithuania in the hopes of escaping the Nazi onslaught. Penniless and almost without resources, they gradually reconstituted their institutions to continue their Torah studies. Their safety was short-lived; on June 15, 1940, the Soviet Union ended Lithuanian independence. German domination endangered the physical lives of the students, while Soviet domination doomed their religious life and the institutional survival of the yeshivot.
Due to the efforts of the honorary Dutch consul Jan Zwartendijk and of the Japanese consul Chiune Sugihara, transit visas via Japan were secured toward the eventual settlement of these scholars in Curacao, which technically required no visa.
Nevertheless, Zwartendijk helped create a document that was both authentic and official and secured the passage of these students through the Soviet Union. Visas were issued until the very moment these counselor officials were forced to depart Lithuania. They were expelled by the Soviet Union at the end of August, and thereafter visas could be secured only in Moscow. Each visa became a lifeline, the difference between a difficult journey and almost certain death. Zuroff captures the drama of their efforts.
Most Orthodox rabbis in the United States were immigrants, many of whom had studied or even taught in the Polish yeshivas. In response to pleas from their friends and mentors, they founded an committee known as Vaad HaHatzala ("the Rescue Committee") designed to raise funds and to secure the safety of the scholars forced into exile.
Their goal was to save a population that they considered as essential to Jewish survival as soldiers or Zionist pioneers. They believed in a hierarchy of values in which Torah study stood supreme. Their faith had stood the test of time and would be severely tested during this most awful of Jewish tragedies.
Zuroff, whose own sympathy for these values and these rabbis is apparent, narrates the ongoing tension that existed between the efforts of the Vaad HaHatzalah to raise funds and the general campaign efforts of the Federations. Orthodox rabbinical pleas for special treatment for the yeshiva elite fell on deaf ears. Most Jewish organizations, their resources stretched to the breaking point, were guided by other important values to save all Jews; officials desperate to feed everyone in the community were not quite sensitive to the plea for special treatment.
Zuroff also treads into uncomfortable territory for some Orthodox Jews by exposing the fallibility of these holy men. Some of the roshei yeshiva misjudged their circumstances. They refused to move, they stayed put too long, they refused to let their institutions be broken apart, mirroring many other European Jews who misperceived their plight.
Because he challenges the doctrine of the infallibility of "da'at Torah," a doctrine now accepted as revealed truth by many in the charedi community, Zuroff has been reviled by the very community whose work he so competently examined. Perhaps I may be reading too much into the tensions between centrist Orthodoxy and its right-wing religious rival, the charedim, but Zuroff will be honored this week by Yeshiva University with the Samuel Belkin Literary Prize for outstanding work by a Yeshiva University alumnus.
In their zeal to save the Jewish future, the rabbis of the Vaad threatened and cajoled, lobbied and circumvented established processes of Jewish organizations from the Federation to the Joint. Some institutional leaders attempted to limit their fundraising opportunities; others tried to pacify the rabbis by offering them some modest support. Still others sought to restrict their efforts to Jews who were not giving to the general campaign, or to times in the year when the broader fundraising campaign was not in full swing.
As the war progressed, Orthodox leaders worked against and with the same organizations. They countered the call of the World Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee for "quiet diplomacy" rather than direct confrontation, but they supported the World Jewish Congress' efforts to place a bill of particulars on the Jewish question to President Roosevelt and sided with the American Jewish Committee against public demonstrations.
How are we to know when Jewish officials truly grasped the urgency of what was happening? For secular officials, with such knowledge came a willingness to pull out all the stops, even to contemplate the violation of American law to engage in the politics of confrontation. For Orthodox Jews, with such knowledge came the willingness even to violate the Sabbath, for saving lives overrides the Sabbath. One is startled by how early some rabbis understood the plight of those they left behind.
Zuroff describes the clash of values accurately and fairly, his scholarship respectful yet penetrating. He does not debunk or dismiss but challenges and explains. Time and again he demonstrates that despite claims to the contrary and a lack of cooperation with the Orthodox rabbis, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee was responsible for the bulk of the funds used to rescue the yeshiva students. The Vaad supplemented the resources of the JDC and other organizations, and often there was resentment on the part of the rest of the Shanghai community of the additional resources that were devoted to this elite.
Lawrence Langer once described the plight of the victims as one of choiceless choices, "where crucial decisions did not reflect options between life and death but between one form of abnormal response and another both imposed by a situation that was in no way of the victim's own choosing." Those who attempted to save them also faced choiceless choices. Should the limited resources for sustenance and rescue be distributed evenly among all the Jews who could be reached, or unevenly, helping those who could make the greatest contribution to the Jewish future? These are unenviable choices, but they had to be made.
Zuroff has written the first of what must surely be two books. The bulk of his work concentrates on the years 1939-43, treating only in passing the pivotal year 1944 and the deep clashes within American Jewry over ransoming Jews.
He suggests how important the yield of future research may be and how permanent the changes in American Orthodoxy that the trauma of the war triggered, not only in the Americanization of European rabbis and the increasing cooperation of lay and rabbinical authorities, but also in the uneasy cooperation between the Jewish establishment and the sectarian communities.
He concludes with a critique of that very sectarianism. "Had the Vaad joined forces with the Joint, the overall results would probably have been more beneficial to the Jewish people than those achieved individually by each organization. And this too is a lesson that should be learned from the Holocaust." It is a lesson that is yet to be learned.