May 25, 2024
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An American Unsung Hero of the Shoah: Stephen Klein

Part V*

Education

Since the Vaad was responsible for the education of the children in France, Stephen Klein warned that a proper educational infrastructure was required, or the children would be lost to Torah-true Judaism. He urged that a knowledgeable educator, familiar with European educational systems and culture, should be sent from the U.S. to prepare the children for life in Palestine, where most of them wanted to go.

Irving Bunim, a key leader of the Vaad and builder of the Young Israel movement, shared this information with Rabbi Aharon Kotler. Rav Aharon participated in Vaad meetings, including those with State Department officials in Washington D.C.

During his two trips to Germany, Klein visited the Vaad offices in Frankfurt and Munich, the yeshivos in Windsheim, Zeilsheim, Bergen-Belsen in the British Zone of occupation and a yeshiva in Ulm. After the war ended, Germany was divided into Soviet, American, British and French zones of occupation. The British were in the northwest, France in the southwest, the U.S. in the south, and the Soviet Union in the east. Berlin, the capital city situated in Soviet territory, was also divided into four occupied zones.

“Nobody can imagine how wonderful spirits they yeshivos are [sic],” Klein reported, especially at the yeshiva in Zeilsheim, where at least 200 boys had been brought from Poland by Recha Sternbuch. As already noted, she and her husband Yitzchok, who served as Swiss representatives of the Vaad, founded the Relief Organization for Jewish Refugees Abroad, to assist rabbis and yeshiva students who had escaped to Shanghai, China. The school was run along religious party lines, but since the children were very young, Klein was not concerned about their indoctrination. He gave the yeshivos money, but they need a regular subsidy of $2.00 per yeshiva student a week. Allocating $750 per week, Klein believed, would meet the needs of the yeshivos at that point.

Visit to Germany

On his first visit to Germany, Klein saw an immediate need to establish yeshivos katanos (elementary schools) in the camps with large numbers of Orthodox Jews, especially those with Polish DPs. Klein asked Rabbis Nathan Baruch and Shmuel Schechter of the Mir Yeshiva, who was very active in Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin, to open yeshivos in DP camps, which they did with funds he provided. Altogether, the Vaad established almost 20 yeshivos. Each yeshiva had a board of education under the leadership of a rabbi or the man most knowledgeable of Judaism in the camp.

The Vaad subsidized large numbers of kosher kitchens in the camps, as well as mikvahs and Agudath Israel and Mizrachi kibbutzim. The Vaad supported two mohalim (persons who perform the Jewish rite of circumcision), who were called to various camps almost every day to perform circumcisions. He noted that during the previous year, 20,000 children had been born.

In the meantime, the Vaad offices developed a reputation throughout Germany as a place where DPs could obtain religious items. Camp committees constantly visited Vaad offices to collect these religious objects and discuss their other religious needs. Klein concluded that if the Vaad Hatzalah did not exist, there would be a need for such an organization. He was proud that the Vaad as “practically the only [O]rthodox organization recognized by almost every government in Europe.” It was the only Orthodox institution with official status in Germany and Austria. But at the same time, he was heartbroken because so much “could be accomplished if [O]rthodoxy were united,” especially considering “the amount that we have accomplished with so little” thus far. This was the time with the Agudah, Mizrachi, Hungarian Jews, Bobover Hasidim and the Klausenberger Rebbe “should get together and form a strong fund to give the help” they need.

In a letter of August 8, 1946 to Rabbi Alexander Rosenberg, director of the JDC religious activities for the American zone, Dean Samuel L. Sar of Yeshiva University criticized what appeared to be parochial interest and concerns. Klein hoped that another prominent lay person would follow his lead and come to Europe to continue the work he started. Sar would later play a role in the rescue and rehabilitation activities for the DPs.

Throughout Klein’s stay in Europe, Pincus Schoen, executive director of the Vaad in New York, sent him requests to transfer funds and to aid specific individuals. Schoen also wired instructions from the Federal Reserve Bank on how to transfer Swiss francs to Switzerland and provide him with documents necessary to facilitate the immigration of people being detained by the French relief organization.

*These are excerpts from Alex Grobman, “Battling for Souls: The Vaad Hatzala Rescue Committee in Post-War Europe” (Jersey City, New Jersey: 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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