June 23, 2024
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‘A Fire in His Soul’: Irving Bunim

Part II

A Call for Unity

Given the tremendous needs of the survivors not being met and the absence of a concentrated effort by the American Orthodox community to help observant European Jewry, the Vaad insisted there be unity among Orthodox Jews or the mission of saving the Torah community in Europe would be doomed. Historian Jonathan Helfand reports that at a meeting in New York on March 6, 1946, Irving Bunim warned that the Vaad could not tolerate other Orthodox organizations conducting the Vaad’s work. He suggested the election of an executive board from all segments of the Orthodox community. Without this cooperation, he felt the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, (JDC or Joint) would become responsible for the fate of Orthodox Jews in Europe—an unacceptable condition, given the JDC’s lack of understanding of the religious and spiritual needs of observant Jews.

Rabbi Jacob Rosenheim, president of the World Organization of Agudath Israel, asked that older organizations be permitted to continue their work while cooperating with the Vaad. He felt it was unrealistic for the Vaad to be an umbrella fundraiser for relief work. He cited a request from 500 Agudah-affiliated Jews in the Landsberg DP camp. The Agudah felt obligated to respond directly because their members had made the request to them, and it was paramount that the Agudah “retain its identity and prestige.” The Vaad also could not ask the Agudah to refrain from touting its own accomplishments. The “function[s] belong to [the Agudah] and they have the right to publicize it.” Rosenheim claimed the same was true regarding the packages Agudah sent overseas.

Leon Gellman, head of the Mizrachi, defended the JDC, and indicated that the Vaad had come under significant criticism in Europe. But since every Orthodox Jew in Europe was either affiliated with Mizrachi or Agudah, he agreed that the Vaad, under the leadership of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, should be the only organization to help religious Jews in Europe. He concurred that only one agency should raise funds. As such, Mizrachi would not conduct its own campaign unless the Agudath Harabonim left the Vaad.

Rabbi Hoffman of the Hungarian Jewish Federation disagreed. Not all Orthodox European Jews were partisan. He challenged the notion that the Vaad was capable of taking care of all the religious Jews in Europe. He believed the JDC did good work, but that they did not understand the needs of the Orthodox as well “as we do.” That’s why the Hungarian Federation cooperated with the JDC to care for Orthodox Jews. Hoffman also opposed the single-agency fundraising campaign, because the Hungarian Federation could raise more money among its own people than the Vaad could by approaching the same individuals.

Bunim said he understood the criticism and replied that Helfand said “an organization as small as ours…would fall short” of people’s expectations. “The Joint, with its $10 million program,” is criticized for its shortcomings so “we must expect” that “with only a million-dollar budget,” we will be criticized as well. But when individuals “in the audience direct criticism against the Vaad Hatzalah, they are directing it at themselves, since they are the Vaad Hatzalah.”

Helfand added that after representatives from the Orthodox Jewish community met to discuss this issue, Rabbi Rosenheim informed Bunim that the Agudah would not put “its longstanding activities of relief and immigration into a new organization. To show its good will, the Agudah would not hold mass meetings. Agudah speakers would cooperate with the Vaad, and no campaigns would be run when the Vaad conducted its annual fundraising activities.

In return, Rabbi Rosenheim wanted a guarantee that when delegations were sent to Washington or elsewhere, they would include at least one member of the Agudah and Mizrachi. When necessary, the Agudah would explain the relationship between the Agudah and the Vaad to prevent the “erroneous impression” that the Agudah had abdicated its position in favor of the Vaad. “On the basis of such legal agreements, unity and active cooperation should and could be achieved,” declared Rabbi Rosenheim.

While Vaad activities continued in Europe, Bunim tried to find a way to resolve differences back home. In a letter to Rabbi Rosenheim on July 2, 1946, he warned, “Unless something is done immediately by you and your colleagues at Agudah, as well as by the leaders in the Mizrachi and others, the result will be tragic. And the price will be paid not by those who are responsible for the results, here, but by our unfortunate brethren who have every right and reason to demand from us more than help and deeper sympathy and understanding.” He ended by pleading for his colleagues to “resume your active participation in the Vaad Hatzalah.”

The Sternbuchs

When Recha and Yitzchok Sternbuch, Swiss representatives of the Vaad from St. Gallen, who founded the Relief Organization for Jewish Refugees Abroad to assist rabbis and yeshiva students who had escaped to Shanghai (China), heard about the organizational disunity in America, they wondered whether the Vaad would be dissolved in the near future, noted historian David Kranzler. Bunim assured them the Vaad was not being “liquidated” because the Jews in Europe were looking to the Vaad “to be rescued and rehabilitated …. We have no intention of selling these people down the river.”

Bunim’s criticism intensified in November when he could not explain why dissension continued among all segments of the Orthodox community, Helfand wrote. The constant bickering took its toll on him, and he lashed out at those criticizing the Vaad. Vaad work, he declared, came before wedding anniversaries, wives’ birthdays or visits from friends. “ We never got a call to go to Washington that we did not go [sic]. We have been on trips constantly, flying all over the country, carrying the word of the V[aad] H[atzala]. We paid our bills—we owe you nothing.”


Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society, a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and on the advisory board of the National Christian Leadership Conference of Israel (NCLCI). He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

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