JERUSALEM -- American Orthodox rabbis went to strenuous lengths to support and rescue Jewish sages, rabbis and religious scholars in Eastern Europe during World War II, but their success hampered efforts to save others, according to a newly published book.
Exclusively geared to helping Jews who would keep Orthodox Judaism alive, the rabbis got into bitter disputes over fund raising and tactics with mainstream American Jewish leaders that undermined the overall struggle to protect European Jews from the Nazi killing machine, the book argues.
The book, by historian and Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff, has intensified debate about the role of American Jewry during the Holocaust. At the same time, it focuses a new spotlight on the deep divide between Zionists and ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel and elsewhere.
Book released today
Titled "The Response of Orthodox Jewry in the United States to the Holocaust," the book is being released today on the day set aside by Israel to remember the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis. Many ultra-Orthodox refuse to observe the nationwide moment of silence at 10 a.m. because they reject political Zionism as the answer to the Holocaust.
The book recounts the history of the Emergency Committee for War-Torn Yeshivot, which became known by its Hebrew name, Vaad ha-Hatzala.
The group was created to protect the leaders and students of scholarly Jewish academies who fled Poland in 1939. At the time, Nazi Germany occupied much of Poland, but the Soviet Union, which was also hostile to Jewish religious institutions, had invaded the eastern part of the country.
The Vaad raised money to support the Yeshivas in their temporary haven of Vilna, Lithuania. Then, as the war continued, they raised money to pay for transit visas that would allow many of their members to reach Shanghai, China, and later Palestine and the Americas. They rescued about 625 rabbis and students from Lithuania and helped hundreds more stay alive in Central Asia and Japanese-occuped Shanghai.
Praising the Vaad's rescue efforts, Zuroff asks in his book, "To what extent was it necessary to break ranks with the entire American Jewish community to save a small elite from one segment of Jewry?"
Zuroff, who is Orthodox, writes at the end that "While we acknowledge its importance, we should never lose sight of its pitfalls and the heavy price paid by others for its success."
The book opens a window on a rarefied but isolated world of intense Jewish scholarship. After the Nazis invaded Poland, students almost literally had to drag the Yeshiva leaders to short-lived safety in Lithuania. There and later in Shanghai, the Yeshivas labored to maintain diligent centers of learning as hungry refugees, sleeping on hard benches in unheated synagogues.
These scholars inspired their American Orthodox brethren, who believed that in keeping the Yeshivas intact they were preserving Judaism.
Campaigning for money that would let the scholars flee Europe, they issued appeals that said, "The greats of our people are drowning at sea, are in captivity. The brilliant scholars of our generation and Jewish communal figures are fighting against the waves of annihilation ... "
But their aggressive fund-raising efforts put them into conflict with national and international groups such as the Joint Distribution Committee and the United Jewish Appeal that were trying to mobilize support for Nazi victims throughout Europe. These groups also funded the Torah scholars in Eastern Europe and Shanghai.
Zuroff acknowledges there is no way of knowing how many Jews might have been saved had the Vaad joined forces with the JDC instead of competing for money and support.
"Perhaps people could have been saved that weren't saved because funds were sent to enable Torah scholars, who were out of physical harm, to sit and learn Torah, for example, rather than that money being sent to Europe to finance schemes that could have saved the lives of Jews under Nazi occupation," Zuroff said in an interview.
Zuroff, who is Israel director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, goes on: "The question is why money should be sent to these people at a time when Jews are being mass-murdered in Auschwitz and places like that. Now, there was no scheme that could have gotten Jews out of Auschwitz, but there were certain things that were being done that could have reduced the number of Jews perhaps taken to Auschwitz."
The Vaad wasn't alone in seeking to protect its own, other historians say. For instance, certain seminaries and members of the Bund, the Eastern European Socialist movement, tried to save their own colleagues.
"Decisions on whom to save were made by all kinds of groups in the Jewish world," says Kimmy Caplan, who lectures at Hebrew University and Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
Defending the choice
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a board member of the Orthodox Union, the large American Orthodox organization, defends the Vaad's choice.
"Most Jews were doing nothing. I don't think a group that tried to save a particular community should have its efforts disparaged. American Jews were so disengaged from the tragedy of European Jewry during the Holocaust that any group that did anything should be given credit," Lookstein says.
In 1944, as the Nazi slaughter of millions in the concentration camps was in full swing, the Vaad changed its policy to rescue any Jews it could, outpacing mainstream groups in demonstrating publicly in Washington and negotiating with and bribing Nazi leaders. Zuroff credits the group with the release of 1,210 Jews from the Theresienstadt camp and rescuing several hundred Slovak Jews.