May 20, 2024
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An American Unsung Hero of the Shoah: Stephen Klein

Part II

Stephen Klein In Europe

After six weeks in Europe, Stephen Klein wrote to his friend Benjamin Pechman, founder and president of the Willmark Sales Company, president of the Rabbinical Seminary of America and vice president of the Crown Heights Yeshiva, that he was working an average of 18 to 20 hours a day. To save time, he worked during the day and traveled by train or car at night. He visited embassies and consulates to determine how to facilitate the immigration process. “You cannot imagine the sort of condition[s] that these unfortunate people are in, especially those that have arrived in Germany during the last few months. They are mainly [O]rthodox Jews. I cannot understand how I can remain sane after seeing all the terrible tragedy that is happening to our people. How big the Zores [suffering] Israel is[sic] cannot possibly be described on paper.”

If Pechman could understand how a person worries about not earning a good living for his family, then he could “…imagine what it is like to worry about tens of thousands of people who are looking to you as a Messiach [Messiah], and you are only able to give them so little. Not once have I cried for the pain I have seen among our people.” People who once had large families and were quite comfortable economically “are today happy if they are able to get the delicacy of a piece of potato or soup, such as we couldn’t eat or even stand the smell of it, being served in cans.”

Klein had not written to anyone previously, because he felt there was no point in “talking about it for nobody does anything, so it is much better to save the words,” but he could no longer remain silent. With Vaad funds, Klein was able to open 20 kosher kitchens with food he purchased in Switzerland and France. He lauded Recha and Isaac Sternbuch for providing food on a steady basis to the Jews in Germany. They worked with “inhuman strength and long hours….With little [money] he received, [Isaac] Sternbuch performed miracles.

The couple, who were from St. Gallen, Switzerland, served as Swiss representatives of the Vaad. According to Yad Vashem, in 1941 they founded the Relief Organization for Jewish Refugees Abroad to assist rabbis and yeshiva students who had escaped to Shanghai. They sent aid packages to Jews in Poland and Czechoslovakia; attempted to rescue Jews by securing Latin American passports for them; maintained close communication with Jewish leaders in occupied Hungary and Slovakia; and monitored what was transpiring throughout Europe.


Sternbuch Cable

Historian David Kranzler noted that on Sept. 3, 1942, the Sternbuchs sent a cable to Jacob Rosenheim, president of the Agudath Israel World Organization in New York, alerting American Jews about the mass slaughter of Jews in Europe. The cable arrived via the Polish Consulate in New York addressed to Dr. Isaac Lewin. Lewin delivered the cable to Rosenheim one day after he received it. The cable, which was delivered to Stephen S. Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress, read: “According to recently received authentic information, the German authorities have evacuated the last Ghetto in Warsaw, bestially murdering about one hundred thousand Jews. Mass murders continue. From the corpses of the murdered soap and artificial fertilizers are produced. The deportees from other occupied countries will meet the same fate. It must be supposed that only energetic reprisals on the part of America could halt these persecutions. Do whatever you can to produce such a reaction, stirring up statesmen, the press, and the community….”

The couple participated in negotiations with the Nazis that ultimately led to the transfer of 1,200 Jews from the Theresienstadt “camp-ghetto” to Switzerland in February 1945. After the war, Recha Sternbuch devoted herself to rescuing surviving Jewish children from non-Jewish orphanages, convents and private homes.


Urgent Need for Funds

Although they were friends, Klein had never previously asked Pechman for help, but after seeing the desperate situation with the survivors, he requested food packages, each weighing 70 pounds, to Vaad offices in Munich and Frankfurt. He asked that each package contain flour, vegetable fats, oil in cans, condensed milk, cocoa, tinned fruit, raisins for making wine, cigarettes, tuna fish, a chumash with Rashi commentary, tzitzit, and a Nusach Sephard Siddur.

In December 1946, Klein sent a number of telegrams to prominent Orthodox Jews in the U.S asking for their immediate help. In separate telegrams to Arthur Belfer and Emanuel and Josef Berger, he wrote: “Some of European Famous Leading Balabatim [successful businessmen] Who Lived Siberia During War Are Now In Danger In Their Lives [sic]Poland. Need 1000 Dollars From You Immediately To Rescue Them Our Tragedy of 1943 Too Little Too Late.”

To Joseph Shapiro he wrote: “Group of Nine Mothers and Four Fathers Who Survived Siberia For Four Years Have Now Opportunity Of Taking Their Children Out of Goyish Homes Where There[sic] Lived For Five Years. Special Emissary Available To Do The Job. Need 1500 dollars.”

In separate telegrams to William I. Alpert and Jack and Israel Kestenbaum, he wrote “8 Great Scholars With Tuberculosis Must Leave France For Switzerland At Once. Winter Here Hard Brutal. Safe[sic] Them from Death After All They Have Been Through. Deposit 1000 With [Irving Bunim] For Stephen Klein Account Apply Hotel Moderne Paris.”

To Vaad Hatzala New York he wrote: “Mrs. [Recha] Sternbuch Returned from Poland. There Are Possibilities To Rescue 1000 Outstanding Families. Polish Government Gave Definite Promise To Give Passports. I Could Get Belgian and French Visas But Cannot Start That Movement Until At Least 50000 Dollars For Transportation Only Are Secured…” Other telegrams were sent to Max Eisenberg, Abraham Mazer and Leon Fruchthandler.

*These are excerpts from Alex Grobman’s “Battling For Souls: The Vaad Hatzala Rescue Committee in Post-War Europe” (KTAV, 2004).

Dr. Alex Grobman is senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society; member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

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