April 17, 2024
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The Wartime Activities of R. Barukh Rabinowicz

Recently, I came across a startling paragraph in Yeshayahu Jelinek’s The Carpathian Diaspora: The Jews of Subcarpathian Rus’ and Mukachevo, a book chiefly dealing with the history of the Holocaust in the Carpathian Mountains. In the midst of a paragraph describing his general impression that “most Jews who saved themselves [from the clutches of the Nazis] were from the various streams of the Zionist movement,” Jelinek lodges the following severe accusation in a footnote:

Dinur rails against the idea that the Jews of Subcarpathian Rus’ served as a model of passive acceptance [of their fates in the Holocaust]. But…[I]n my view, rabbis and admorim [of Subcarpathian Rus’] like Rabbi [Chaim Elazar] Shapira exercised a terribly destructive influence. Even though Rabbi Shapira died in 1937, his teachings lived on and his son-in-law and successor, Rabbi Barukh Joshua Rabinowitz tried mightily to follow in his path. In my judgment, the rabbis and admorim were divorced from reality, and their influence was particularly harmful.

Jelinek thus launches a serious attack on the legacy of R. Barukh Rabinowicz. He alleges not only that the religious Jews of Munkacs served as a model of passive acceptance, choosing to accept death rather than resist or even attempt to save themselves, but also that this was mostly a result of their leadership, which at the time of the war was R. Barukh, the Hasidic Rebbe of the Munkacser Hasidim and Chief Rabbi of Munkacs. If not for R. Barukh’s “particularly harmful” influence, more Jews would have, in the manner of the Zionists, stopped relying on their Creator and saved themselves, and all the more so if R. Barukh had actively encouraged escape, which Jelinek implies he did not. Essentially, Jelinek holds R. Barukh culpable for the deaths of all those under his leadership.

But beneath the accusation’s gravity, Jelinek provides no basis for his claim other than an article about R. Barukh’s predecessor and the attendant assumption that R. Barukh “tried mightily to follow in his path.” However, a wealth of material contradicts his accusation and shows that R. Barukh “tried mightily” to save as many Jews as he possibly could, quite unlike the model of passive acceptance described by Jelinek. This mistaken assumption cannot even be charitably blamed on a lack of available sources. R. Barukh wrote about his experiences in the Holocaust in his book Binat Nevonim and gave two testimonies on the same subject: first to the Jewish Agency soon after his arrival in Israel in 1944, and then to Yad Vashem in August 1968. [ed. note: He also did an interview with the Speilberg’s Shoah Foundation.] In addition, his sister, Peska Friedman, tells of her brother’s experiences in her memoirs. These sources, supported by other primary and secondary sources, paint a different picture of R. Barukh’s wartime activities than Jelinek’s.

Some background on the history of the Holocaust in Hungary is helpful here. Until June 1941, Hungary was not involved in World War II and its Jews were in comparatively little danger, unlike many of their European counterparts. With Hungary’s entry into the war, the Axis-aligned government enacted anti-Semitic race laws. Still, most of Hungary’s Jews remained out of harm’s way, as there were neither concentration camps in Hungary nor deportations to concentration camps outside of Hungary until Germany invaded in 1944. However, Jews who did not present ample proof of Hungarian citizenship, among them refugees from other parts of Europe, Jewish residents of Hungary born in other countries, and genuine Jewish Hungarian citizens who could not provide their papers quickly enough, were deported to the Polish border in the summer of 1941. They were then transferred across the Soviet border and handed over to the SS, who took them to the Ukrainian town of Kamenetz-Podolsk. There, they were forced to dig their own graves before they were machine gunned en masse. Upwards of 18,000 people were killed over the course of two days.

R. Barukh Rabinowicz and his son Tsevi Natan David, as Polish citizens, were among those deported. At the Ukrainian border, however, R. Barukh saw the small town of Jagielnica, and realized it as the burial place of his ancestor, R. Shmuel Shmelke of Sassov. They stayed there for a few weeks, and R. Barukh spoke publicly to the town, with great emotion, about his hope that the merit of his ancestors who were buried there would protect him during this trying time. Soon he traveled to the larger town of Kolomyja and learned of the tragic fate of those who continued on to Kamenetz-Podolsk. He managed to send word to his family back in Munkacs that he was alive, and, through various contacts he and his son were themselves smuggled back to Munkacs. There, he tearfully told of the destruction he had seen beyond the border. Soon, however, anti-Semitic factions in Munkacs grew suspicious of how the deported Rabbi of Munkacs managed to return, and R. Barukh was forced to move to the capital Budapest, where it was easier to hide.

After about a year and a half of staying incognito, R’ Barukh was informed by government contacts that it was safe to start appearing in public again. He soon came in contact with other Polish refugees living in Budapest. With the Nazi death machine working overtime in Poland, many had fled to safety in Hungary. Some of these illegal refugees would come over to R. Barukh, a fellow illegal, after shacharit and plead with him for help. R. Barukh would write down their specific requests, go to a nearby store that had a telephone, and spend the day raising funds for these refugees from the Budapest community. By the afternoon, the necessary funds would be in his hands, and he would distribute them at minhah.

Because of their illegal status, these Jewish refugees were in danger of being deported at any time, and a more permanent solution was needed. Dozens of refugees lived in totally inadequate conditions, contracting serious illnesses, and could not go outside or be treated by doctors for fear of deportations, which meant probable death. R. Barukh turned to the Jewish community of Budapest, but help was not forthcoming, as they did not want to involve themselves in illegal activity. Only R. Barukh, himself an illegal, was willing and able to help the refugees.

This illegal refugee status, however, only applied to Jews. Owing to an understood alliance between Poland and Hungary, Christian Polish refugees were not to be deported. On the contrary, a committee was organized to accommodate these refugees, and each one of them received special identification papers and a monthly allowance of 150 pengo. At the head of this committee was Countess Erzsebet (Elizabeth) Szapary, a member of the Hungarian aristocracy with Polish roots. R. Barukh was informed of her activities by his Hungarian government connections, and decided boldly to ask for her help with the Jewish refugees. He describes the meeting:

I turned to her and I said to her, “I came to you with a request. After you listen to me, you will have a choice: to hand me over to the authorities, which would mean my death, or to fulfill my request. Know that I am supporting tens of illegal refugees, who have no one to turn to. I have to do this, and if you ask me, you have to do this as well. I am supporting them with the full awareness that they are illegal. But now I cannot continue, because we have reached the following situation…” And I described to her the situation of the refugees, their living conditions and their illnesses. I said to her that she was able to send me and the other Jews like me to death, or she could help us get licenses. The noblewoman was affected by my speech. She looked at me and said, “Come tomorrow.”

Soon after, with the help of Countess Szapary, the decision was made to give Jews the same certificates that the Polish Christians were receiving. At first, R. Barukh had misgivings. The certificates would identify these Jews as Roman Catholic, and while most transgressions are nullified by the preservation of life, the Shulhan Arukh rules that one may not claim to be a Gentile in order to escape being killed. Based on that, accepting one of these certificates would be problematic. However, Rema ad loc. contends that one is permitted to use language that can be understood in multiple ways in order to make the non-Jew believe that the Jew is one of them, even though the Jew means something completely different. R. Barukh therefore decided that the use of these certificates was permissible, as a Jew can say he believes in the Messiah, and have a different Messiah in mind; or he can say that he is “catholic,” and have in mind the Greek word meaning “universal.” Nevertheless, there apparently were some who refused to use these certificates, and, as a result, they perished.

Emboldened by his success with the refugees already in Budapest, R. Barukh turned his attention to those still in Poland. At this time, only one ghetto remained in Poland that had not been liquidated, that of Bochnia, located near the Slovakian border. Working with R. Michael Dov Weissmandl, R. Barukh arranged for the transfer of thousands of Jews to Hungary by way of Slovakia. Once they arrived in Hungary, they would receive their identification papers and be free to stay in Hungary or eventually make their way out of Europe.

The sudden influx of refugees did not go unnoticed by Hungarian authorities, and many must have wondered how Yiddish-speaking men with long peyos were allowed to pass themselves off as Roman Catholics. Still, others viewed the Jews’ dire straits as a prime opportunity for extortion. R. Barukh found himself needing to raise more and more money to keep his life-saving scheme afloat with bribes and hush money for Hungarian officials, on top of the money needed to support the refugees’ needs in Hungary. He begged and pleaded with the Jewish Hungarian community to contribute to the cause, tearfully recounting the horrible destruction that had come upon the rest of European Jewry.

While money did indeed trickle in, R. Barukh found himself frustrated by the complacency and lack of foresight exhibited by Hungarian Jewry. The Jews there often did not believe the tales of horror R. Barukh told of the Nazi Final Solution. He recounts that, on one occasion, he was appealing to a community for money to help save Jews still in Poland, when one person rose and accused him of trying to extort money from the community by throwing them into a false panic. R. Barukh was left speechless by the community’s inability to recognize reality. In his 1944 testimony, with the ruins of Hungary still smoldering, R. Barukh bemoaned the fact that with more money he could have saved ten or even a hundred times more people than he already had.

Even more egregious in R. Barukh’s eyes was the idea that what had befallen the rest of Europe would not befall Hungary. R. Barukh recounts how he drew up a plan for physical resistance in the event of a Nazi invasion. Knowing that the Nazis would usually gather the Jews into a central location before loading them onto the trains to concentration camps, R. Barukh wanted to give every Jewish family a weapon, in order that when the Nazis called them to assemble, they would be prepared to refuse the order. Because each building housed both Jews and non-Jews, an SS officer would need to be dispatched to take in each Jewish family, rather than merely blow up the building, and the Jews could shoot the SS officer once he approached the apartment. In such a manner, the advantages of the SS would be neutralized. This plan, however, fell on deaf ears, not for any practical reason, but because the Jews did not believe and could not comprehend human beings were capable of the atrocities the Nazis perpetrated, and thus did not see the necessity of physical resistance.

Sensing the oncoming German onslaught and frustrated by the limitations placed upon his rescue work, R. Barukh resolved to leave Hungary and make his way to Palestine. It was then that he first encountered opposition from his own followers. R. Barukh recounted that his hasidim and members of his family insisted that no harm could befall them, recalling how, during the First World War, the Minhas Elazar, R. Barukh’s predecessor, promised that the war would not reach Munkacs. The Minhas Elazar’s promise was fulfilled, and the Munkacser hasidim evidently saw this as a guarantee that war would never harm them. R. Barukh was under no such illusion and resolved to leave anyway. R. Barukh recalls that some of his followers went so far as to steal his books in order to make him stay.

R. Barukh’s mother-in-law, Rachel Perel, the widow of the Minhas Elazar, was particularly opposed to his leaving, even though R. Barukh wanted to take her with them. Peska Friedman, R. Barukh’s sister, recounts how Rachel Perel wanted her to convince R. Barukh not to leave, knowing the influence she had on him. Peska’s response was unequivocal: “…I have come from gehennom. Six souls are at stake, and I will do everything in my power to try and save them.” R. Barukh eventually decided to leave even without his mother-in-law, a move that necessitated secret preparations so as not to raise her ire. R. Barukh left for Palestine in the spring of 1944, very shortly before the Nazi invasion of Hungary. Rachel Perel left Budapest for the town of Nierethauz over Peska’s objections, preferring to be back with friends rather than alone in the big city. The last postcard Peska received from Rachel Perel before her death told of the Germans coming to Nierethauz and concluded, “Now I realize what a special son-in-law I have. He saw what was coming and was able to save his own family and so many other people. You did not listen to me, and now I want to say ‘yasher koakh.’”

With that, let us return to Jelinek’s accusations. It should now be relatively clear that R. Barukh was no model of passive acceptance. He did not encourage anyone to stay passive during the Holocaust, neither for religious reasons nor out of complacency. He worked tirelessly to save the remnants of European Jewry, even seeking loopholes in religious law to do so. Beyond that, R. Barukh, no divorcé from reality, warned everyone he could find about the coming catastrophe of Nazi rule and did his utmost to get people out of harm’s way. He went so far as to propose active physical resistance, rather than passively accept death at the hands of the Nazis. It is also abundantly clear that R. Barukh did not “try mightily” to follow in the path of his illustrious predecessor. On the contrary, he diverged from that path in a stark and courageous manner, in a way that his followers vehemently rejected. Jelinek’s statement, in its clear ignorance of the details of R. Barukh’s life, is not just shoddy scholarship; it is slander, plain and simple.

Yet there remains a kernel of truth to Jelinek’s statement. As much as R. Barukh tried mightily to veer from the path before him, Minhas Elazar’s teachings did indeed live on. Rachel Perel died because she believed that the promise of her late husband would come to pass, as did many Munkacser hasidim. Furthermore, not all admorim saw the German threat as clearly as did R. Barukh, and some continued to insist to their followers that they would be miraculously saved, with disastrous results. R. Barukh was acutely aware of this failure of leadership, and he writes in Binat Nevonim:

Those who recognized their rebbeim as masters of divine inspiration, those for whom “the paths of heaven were as clear to them as the paths of earth,” those who would do nothing without first asking their rebbe, those who would not close any business deal, make any match, would not allow surgery on themselves or on members of their family without the assent of their rebbe—they were left dumbfounded. How was it possible that their rebbeim, for whom asking them, was as if, in their eyes, they were asking the mouth of God, did not know what was about to occur, and did not warn the nation?

This is a truly remarkable paragraph, written by a man who used to occupy the role described, asking legitimate questions about the nature of Hasidic leadership. If we assign such wide-ranging importance to the admor, and we know that the examples he quotes are true because he likely lived them, what happens when the admor is wrong and when being wrong leads to the deaths of his own followers?

R. Barukh concludes that the lack of leadership is part and parcel of the divine punishment that constituted the Holocaust, but that leaves an essential question: that of the wisdom of having human leaders who are presumed to be all-powerful and all-knowing, unanswered. Indeed, his view in this piece seems quite negative. We know that R. Barukh eventually left the Hasidic leadership, although whether it was truly his choice to do so is debatable. It is possible that his experiences in the Holocaust led R. Barukh to critically re-evaluate what the role of the Hasidic leader should be. At any rate, the leader that R. Baruch was during the trying years of the Holocaust, a leader imbued with courage, foresight, ingenuity, a sense of the pragmatic as well as a sense of responsibility towards the Jewish people as a whole, should be enough of a model of leadership for anyone.

Akiva Weisinger is a junior in YC majoring in Jewish Studies, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser. He previously wrote about R. Barukh Rabinowicz in the fall of 2012. (Footnotes and citations available upon request to editors_jewishlinkbc.com)

By Akiva Weisinger

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