June 6, 2024
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‘A Fire in His Soul’: Irving Bunim

Part I

The Vaad Hatzala had been established in November 1939. At the urging of Rabbi Hayyim Ozer Grodzinski, the leading rabbinical authority in Lithuania and world Jewry, Rabbi Eliezer Silver established the Orthodox Rabbis’ Rescue Committee/ Vaad Hatzala in response to the overwhelming number of refugees from yeshivas inundating Vilna and other cities in Lithuania.

According to a resolution of the Agudath Harabonim (an Orthodox rabbinical association founded in 1902), members of the Vaad were required to follow Jewish law, which meant they were bound to rescue the spiritual leaders, teachers and students who ensured the continuity of the Jewish people—even if it meant violating American law. Primarily, the issue was a matter of pikuach nefesh (a matter of life and death).

Historian Hillel Ben Sasson explained that in this case they followed an example in the Talmud. When Jerusalem lay under siege before the destruction of the Second Temple, Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai asked that he be given the academy of Yavneh and its wise men so he could rebuild Jewish life (Talmud Tractate Gittin, 56a-b). Ben Zakkai understood that the future of the Jewish people would be endangered if this leadership disappeared.

The Vaad and members of the Orthodox Jewish community saw parallels in the history of Ben Zakkai and the threat facing the Jewish community in Europe. Few other American Jewish organizations appreciated the urgency of saving the spiritual leadership of the Jewish people. Their priority remained the rescue of labor and Zionist leaders, artists, writers, and other intellectuals. If the Vaad had not attempted to rescue the rabbis and yeshiva students, no one else would have done so.

The American Jewish community charged the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) with saving the “masses” of the Jewish people. The members of the Vaad understood this, but they had to ensure that as long as the rabbis were at risk, their interests would also be addressed. Established in November 1914, its primary role was the rescue, relief and rehabilitation of world Jewry.

 

The Above Quota
Emergency Visitors’ Visas

The US created the Above Quota Emergency Visitors’ Visas which granted visas to provide sanctuary in the U.S. to qualified, endangered European refugees on an emergency basis. Included in this group were Jewish and non-Jewish artists, writers and union leaders. The Jews simply attempted to use the opportunity to benefit their brethren in Europe. The US, not any of the Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, determined the elitist nature of this program.

Orthodox Jews did not take any space reserved for any other Jew. Historian David Kranzler wrote that the Agudath Israel (the Agudah) and the Vaad Hatzala coordinated their efforts to secure the above quotas for approximately 2,600 to 2,800 Torah scholars from 30 yeshivos, the elite of the Polish yeshiva world, between 3,500-45,00 Jews.

Founded in 1922, the American Agudah represented most, but not all, of the haredi Jews in the US and the vast majority of members of the yeshiva community.

At the end of the war, members of the Vaad recognized the urgent need to establish a relief and spiritual rehabilitation program for observant Jews in Europe. A number of American laymen in the Vaad Hatzala were involved in developing this post-war program. One of them was Irving Bunim, a key leader and builder of the Young Israel movement. In 1935, when Rav Aharon Kotler, a giant Torah scholar from Europe came to the US to lecture and meet with the America Orthodox Jewish community, he befriended Bunim, a noted philanthropist, businessman and activist.

In 1940, when the rabbi fled to neutral Lithuania to escape the Nazis, Bunim alerted American Jews of the crisis, and he had Young Israel fund the rabbi’s escape to America. Subsequently, he became the rabbi’s right hand man as Rav Aharon founded Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, New Jersey and then became a founder of the Chinuch Atzmai, an independent Torah school network for haredim in Israel in 1953. Bunim was the key layman to deal with rabbanim and roshei yeshivot during and after the war.

Rabbi Nathan Baruch, who had been newly ordained from Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, was sent to Germany with the financial support of William I. Alpert, to direct Vaad activities. Baruch often turned to Bunim for help. With weather forecasters predicting that the winter of 1946/1947 would be extremely cold, Baruch asked Bunim for winter clothes for the tens of thousands of Polish and Russian Jews in the American zone of occupation who had barely any clothing.

At Landshut, a town near Munich, Baruch said the American army had a transit camp for newly arrived Jews where they were kept under [the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration’s [UNRRA] jurisdiction until they could be transferred to more permanent housing: “Five thousand Jews were housed in Army tents and slept on Army cots or [on] the bare ground. Hundreds of children walked around barefoot on wet ground, wearing only pants and shirts.” When Baruch visited the camp, hundreds of people flocked around him “mother with babies in their arms, little Jewish orphans standing and looking at the representative of the Vaad Hatzala.” Fortunately, Lester Udell, a clothier in New York, who was close to Rav Aharon and later became a member of the board of the Directors of Beth Medrash Govoha, sent men’s winter coats in time for the season. Another shipment of good clothing came from Hapoel Hamizrachi Overseas Relief Committee.

 

The Need for Quality Clothing

The need for quality clothing and other supplies became very clear to Baruch after visiting an UNRRA warehouse where they were earmarked for the Orthodox. Whenever he went to the warehouse to observe how the clothes were being sorted, he “felt ashamed” and shocked by “what American Jews had the nerve and audacity to send to these people. Every conceivable rag you could think of, items that dated back from one to 50 years, every piece of old, torn, discarded junk was sent here. What did the people back home think of their brethren? To see the Jews of Europe being treated in this was most aggravating and shameful.”

Baruch was quite concerned that the youth who “were particularly vulnerable to the secular Zionists and others who tried to entice them into joining their clubs and social groups. After years of living in concentration camps without any religious educational training and having had the most minimal, if any, opportunity to observe Judaism during this time, they were probably indifferent or maybe even antagonistic toward Jewish religious life. Some might have even forgotten about their religious experience prior to the war altogether. Others might be questioning the existence of God. Under the poor and demoralizing conditions in which the Jews were forced to live after being liberated, it was understandable how these young people could be tempted to abandon their traditions.”

 

Chaplain Abraham Klausner

Abraham Klausner, a Reform rabbi, shared Baruch’s disgust with the items American Jews sent to the survivors. In late August 1945, he met with seven or eight American Jewish chaplains stationed in Germany to urge them to establish a package program with the assistance of American Jewish soldiers. In addition to adequate housing, the survivors desperately needed basic necessities such as shoes and clothing. The chaplains agreed to create a package program and decided to make the appeals during the High Holidays, because the maximum number of soldiers could be reached at that time.

The tons of material that began arriving each day provided only one percent of the survivors’ needs, Klausner said. Many people sent old clothing, discarded eyeglasses and worn out shoes. Klausner stood “aghast” as he watched this spectacle of the American Jewish community “ignominiously dumping its closet rags on our proud people. Aside from the uselessness of the object,” it created “an animosity on the part of our people for those people in whom they deposited that bit of hope which the concentration camps could not destroy.” To be sure, there were people who sent new and usable clothing, and Klausner graciously thanked them.


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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