Monday, June 05, 2023

Part I

Against the background of turmoil in post-war Europe, 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.

After the war, the Vaad, with the financial backing of William I. Alpert, sent Rabbi Nathan Baruch, a newly ordained rabbi from Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, to direct their relief and spiritual rehabilitation program for observant Jews in Germany. As 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 US 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.

The American military expected the Jews, like the millions of non-Jewish Displaced Persons (DPs) in post-war Europe, would be eager to return to their native lands. Many Jews were loath to do so, especially those from eastern Europe, who comprised a significant share of the Jewish survivors. Some returned home to search for loved ones and friends. Once they finished their quest, they returned to Germany. In their former homelands, they encountered scorn, and were often harassed. Some were arrested on the trumped up charge off allegedly collaborating with the Germans. Many Jews found themselves without homes, since their residences had been appropriated by former friends and neighbors.

A number of laymen in the Vaad were involved in the process of selecting the schlichim (emissaries) and developing the post-war program. One of them was Stephen Klein, CEO and founder of the Barton’s Bonbonniere, a chocolate factory in Brooklyn (the first Shabbos-observant retail chain store in America—that grew into the leading maker of kosher candy). Klein was the chairman of the Vaad Hatzalah’s immigration committee, a former refugee who fled Vienna after the Anschluss in March, 1938. Klein, who was very close to Rabbi Aharon Kotler,(a Torah giant, who escaped Europe, and founded Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, NJ), was a founder of the Chinuch Atzmai, an independent Torah school network for Charedim in Israel in 1953.

Klein was one of those who selected the Vaad schlichim (emissaries)to go overseas, and instructed them how to perform their duties there. Their training was cursory at best. Baruch observed “We were such amateurs. We weren’t trained, we didn’t have academic degrees, but we did have heartfelt dedication.”


Klein’s Fact-Finding Mission to Europe

The leadership of the Vaad in the US had a hard time understanding the chaotic situation in Europe, prompting Stephen Klein to initiate his own fact-finding mission on behalf of the Vaad at his own expense. He arrived in Europe on October 26, 1946 and returned to the US on February 3, 1947. During that time, he visited England, France, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany. Before he left the States, he shipped clothing, shoes, underwear, candles and religious texts to the Vaad Hatzala Committee in Paris through American Aid to France, Inc., which sent relief supplies to France for free for the Vaad and other relief organizations—as long as each shipment weighted 200 or more pounds. Klein brought chocolates from his own factory, a luxury in post—war Europe, and used them to thank officials who helped him.

Before Klein left, Irving Bunim, a key leader of the Vaad and builder of the Young Israel movement, arranged a “little social send-off party” on September 23, to let Vaad supporters know that Klein’s mission was to strengthen the Vaad and expand its activities. Together with Rabbi Simcha Wasserman, who had a yeshiva in Paris and Rabbi Mordecai (Motche) Londinski, he established committees to oversee Vaad operations. Each committee had to have a t least one member from the Agudath Israel (Agudah) and one from Mizrachi. When there was more than one rabbi in the community, the rabbinical council would assign one or more of their colleagues to serve on the committee,

The money Klein brought, and the funds he received while he was there from the US, were given to the local communities who controlled their distribution. Half was to be used to educate their children. The rest was to help rabbis function as the heads of their communities—and maintain kosher kitchens, mikvehs(ritual baths), Talmud Torahs and other institutions.

Assisting Jews fleeing from Poland, Russia and Slovakia was another priority. The Vaad wanted to reorganize committees in Lodz, review the status of the committee in Katowice, Poland and assist yeshiva students and rabbis to emigrate as soon as possible, Until the children could leave Poland, the Vaad wanted to provide religious education and relief to them. And everywhere he went, Klein was asked to find a way to us the non-quota vias to get rabbis and yeshiva students to the US.

Though the US would not increase the immigration quota, historian David Kranzler said the Jewish Labor Committee, with the aid of the American Federation of Labor, succeeded in pressuring the Roosevelt Administration to provide sanctuary to in the US to qualified, endangered European refugees. Included in this group were Jewish and non-Jewish artists, writers and union leaders. Among the group were Hannah Arendt, the German-born American philosopher and political theorist; Jacques Lipchitz, a Cubist sculptor; Franz Viktor Werfel, an Austrian-Bohemian novelist, playwright, and poet; Thomas Mann, a German novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist, essayist, and the 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate; Lion Feuchtwanger, a German-Jewish novelist, playwright, and a leading figure in the literary world of Weimar Germany; and the Jewish artist Marc Chagall. Ostensibly, Roosevelt granted visas on an emergency basis to visitors who came for the 1939-1940 World’s Fair in New York. More than 2,500 visas were issued on that occasion with the Jewish Labor Committee receiving half of them.

Kranzler wrote that the Agudath Israel of America 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. Founded in 1922, the American Agudah Israel of America represented, most, but not all, of the Haredi Jews in the US and the vast majority of members of the yeshiva community.

Scholars in France were housed in unfitting and “unsuitable” accommodations, so Klein found them places to stay until final arrangements could be made for their final departure to the US or Eretz Israel. If the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) offered them appropriate solutions to these problems, Klein would consider its offer to help.

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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