Before Stephen Klein Left Europe
Before Stephen Klein returned to the U.S., Rabbi Jacob Karlinsky, executive secretary of the Vaad in New York, asked Klein to secure the release of a 10- year-old Jewish girl being cared for by a Polish Christian family by having Recha Sternbuch bring the child from Poland to France or Germany. He also advised Klein that the Vaad had secured documents to bring approximately 600 Jews that the Vaad had supported since 1940, from Shanghai to the U.S.. Two hundred fifty were already in the U.S., and the rest were scheduled to arrive on the next two ships from Shanghai.
Pincus Schoen, executive director of the Vaad in New York, asked Klein for “documentary proof” that the Vaad was assisting Mizrachi in Germany and in other parts of Europe. The leaders of Mizrachi alleged that its institutions were not receiving their fair share of aid and as a result the Vaad was having “extreme difficulties with them.” Klein investigated and found that “most of the money” was being distributed to “the Mizrachi and Agudah.”
In turn, Klein asked Schoen to send him siddurim (prayer books) tefillin (phylacteries) Chumashim (bibles) and mezuzos (placed on doorposts) and other religious items that were desperately needed. He cabled Herbert Tenzer (Klein’s partner and later Congressman from New York) to send $1,600 for Rescue Children, Inc., $10,000 to Yitzchok Sternbuch and $4,000 for the yeshivos in Paris.
Klein also received a number of letters from Irving Bunim asking him for help. In December 1946, Bunim informed Klein that Rabbi Eliezer Silver, who established the Vaad at the urging of Rabbi Hayyim Ozer Grodzinski, the leading rabbinical authority in Lithuania and world Jewry, wanted three of the Vaad representatives to return to the U.S. immediately. Perhaps this was Rabbi Silver’s attempt to exercise greater control of events. He was under extreme pressure to raise funds for the Vaad, which it so desperately needed. Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff said that Rabbi Silver’s dedication and commitment were such that when he could not secure funds for a particular cause, he would borrow money from his own bank and use his life insurance as collateral.
By ordering the three rabbis home back home, Rabbi Silver may have reasoned that Vaad expenses would be decreased and thus demands upon him lessened. Bunim said “it took a lot … of diplomacy” to convince Rabbi Silver to take a more moderate stance, which meant delaying their departure for at least a month.
Dr. Samuel Schmidt
In subsequent correspondence, Bunim informed Klein that Rabbi Silver had not mentioned anything further about the return of the rabbis, so that the matter had been allowed to die. Bunim informed him that Dr. Samuel Schmidt would be going to Europe at the “request and insistence of Rabbi Silver.” In 1945, Schmidt had opened the European office of the Vaad in Paris. Rabbi Rakeffet-Rothkoff pointed out that Schmidt was a seasoned public health expert, with a degree from MIT in public health and biology, who served with the Zionist Medical Unit in Palestine in 1918, and as a member of the JDC’s public relief unit in Poland in December 1919. From 1920-1923, he directed the JDC’s public health work in Poland. In 1927, he became the editor of Every Friday, Cincinnati Ohio’s English-language Jewish weekly. Born in Kovno, Lithuania, Schmidt spoke a fluent Yiddish.
Rakeffet-Rothkoff added that in February 1940, Rabbi Silver and the Vaad Hatzala sent Schmidt to Vilna to meet with the great Torah leaders, including Rabbi Hayyim Ozer Grodzinski, to determine the best course of action for relief and rescue and perhaps bring the yeshivos to America or Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel). Rabbi Grodzinski implored the Vaad and the American rabbis to redouble their efforts. At the yeshivos of Mir, Slobodka and Kletzk, Schmidt distributed funds given to him by Rabbi Silver. The meeting with Rabbi Grodzinski inspired Schmidt to become an observant Jew.
After the Germans surrendered on May 8, 1945, Schmidt, at the urging of Rabbis Aharon Kotler and Silver, contacted volunteers to join him in spreading out across Europe as Vaad representatives. After establishing the Vaad’s European headquarters, he stayed for a few months until returning to the US in October 1946.
Rabbi Nathan Baruch, director of Vaad Hatzala in Germany, was so impressed with Klein’s accomplishments, that he wrote to his benefactor William I. Albert in late January 1947 that Klein “did a fine job and accomplished a great deal while in Europe, worked really hard, never sparing himself. He certainly went all out in his work, which was indeed appreciated by all of us.”
Back in New York, Stephen Klein continued his work on immigration and other areas. He sent funds to Europe, developed a fundraising campaign strategy with Irving Bunim, and focused on public relations and publicity for the Vaad.
Klein discussed the Vaad’s work in Europe on WEVD, a Jewish radio program in New York, where he urged the audience to provide help to their fellow Jews. He described how the Jews in Europe received dry rations of 1,200 calories a day and asked his listeners to compare this amount with the number of calories they consumed daily. He asked that 11-pound packages be sent to a relative in the DP camps. If people had no one in particular to send a package to, the Vaad office in New York would provide a name and an address. He stressed that there was no need to be concerned about sending items that could not be used.
Everything, especially canned food, was in demand. They needed prunes, raisins, chocolate, fats, sugar and fruit. If the recipients could not use whatever was sent, they could always be exchanged. Throughout Germany there were exchange centers with a point system for different items. For instance, a pound of coffee was worth 80 points, a pound of Spry (a brand of vegetable shortening) was worth 40 points, and a single pack of cigarettes, among the most desirable items, was worth 45 points. Money had little value in Germany. Food, cigarettes and clothing had a greater value because they could be bartered.
Klein also described how in Germany, a woman walked a great distance to see him, carrying a child on her back because the child had no shoes to wear. “It’s all very nice for the Vaad to make schools, but how is my child going to school if he has no shoes?” she asked. They found a pair of shoes for the child.
Large numbers of marriages were taking place, Klein reported, sometimes as many as five a week. The Vaad gave many newlyweds a dowry of $25 and two bed sheets. “There is probably no greater present you can give anyone in Europe … than a bed sheet,” he observed.
William I. Alpert was one donor who Nathan Baruch used to help rabbis when they got married. Albert specifically focused on helping individuals. He resolutely avoided recognition for his work, although when he died, his casket was placed in the beis medrash (study hall) of yeshiva Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem. This extremely rare honor accorded to only two other lay leaders, indicated the high esteem, respect and gratitude Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the Rosh Yeshiva, had toward this man
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.