Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

24 Cheshvan 5761 - November 22, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Hidden and Concealed: The Story of the Secret "Working Group"

By Yisroel Friedman

They never met again, at least not in an organized fashion. Some were unable to escape the transports; those surviving went their separate ways. Each one carried in his heart a scar that refused to heal. As each one began his life anew, the fine thread that bound them together in adversity was severed.

Only once, after many years, did a number of them meet again. HaRav Michoel Dov Weissmandel zt"l came on a visit to Eretz Yisroel and delivered a speech at the Yavneh shul in Tel Aviv. They too attended, and thus ensued the impromptu reunion between a few representatives of that incredible group and the man who guided their activities during those stormy days.

"Do you remember their names?" I asked Reb Yehuda Waltz.

"There's nobody left anymore to remind you of the names. As time goes by you tend to forget," he replied despondently. Suddenly he recalls. "There was a Grossberg from London."

R' Yehuda Waltz goes on to describe his impressions of Rav Weissmandel after the war: "He looked downcast. His mood was somber. The silence of the world in the face of his outcries, the failure and the powerlessness of the Hatzolah operations would not give him peace. He appeared to have aged all of a sudden and was embittered. The terrible pain that gripped his entire being since then clung to him like a shadow."

After the droshoh the group of young men crowded around their revered rov. There was a long, meaningful silence suddenly broken by one of those present. "Rebbe! Your book Min HaMeitzar discusses all the failures and the indifference. The dreadful shriek that emanates from its pages does not cease to echo. But there were also some rays of light in the darkness. There were good people who put themselves in danger for the sake of their brethren; influential Jews who spared no effort for hatzolah. Why Rebbe, did you not single them out for their good deeds? Why is there no mention of their names?"

There was a tense silence. Rav Michoel Dov Weissmandel looked pointedly at all those present. His eyes were pools of profound sadness. His voice was almost inaudible as he replied, "Be'ezras Hashem I am planning to write another book -- a book about all those good neshomos. Soon, I will write this book."

"R' Michoel Ber," as he is affectionately referred to by R' Yehuda Waltz, "did not write that book. He was not zoche!

R' Yehuda Waltz is not one to indulge in reminiscent longing. No tears cloud his vision at this point in the conversation. The picture is sharp and clear. His words are free of nostalgia. His aim is solely to clarify the message, describe the unbelievable, and create a symbol. Symbols remain forever, and they are what make up the following article: a fragment of life.

The Business Helped Save Lives

R' Yehuda Waltz's parents lived in the town of Satmar, Romania. His father was a citizen of Czechoslovakia and as such was obligated to leave Romania every year to pay his taxes to the Czechs. His relatives lived in Banska- Bistriza, a beautiful Slovakian village. His grandfather, a noted talmid chochom who learned day and night, lived in a village near Kashoi. After marrying off his children, he too moved to Banska-Bistriza. The family was well to do, and they all dwelt together in a spacious home. Together they managed a thriving metals firm. Yehuda, then about 16, was sent to his relatives in Slovakia for fear of being drafted into the Romanian army.

When the Munich Pact, which effectively condoned Germany's annexation of Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland, was signed in 1938, the war drums could be heard quite loudly. The skies of Europe were blackened by clouds of war and the smell of gunpowder filled everyone's nostrils. Studies were interrupted and R' Yehuda had no alternative but to join the family business.

Over 2000 Jewish factories and businesses were nationalized by the Slovakian government. More than 10,000 small businesses were closed down altogether.

The changes were felt also in R' Yehuda's family's business. A government supervisor was sent to every factory that still functioned. His job was to make sure to collect the government's share in the "partnership." Because of this, a lot of business transactions were "off the record" and unavailable to the government's prying eyes and greedy hands.

The task of managing the clandestine operations was assigned to young Yehuda. He traveled the length and breadth of the country, located manufacturing and marketing channels and directed the entire process. Till today, he finds it difficult to explain how he managed to shoulder such a responsibility.

The skills he acquired in this role, however, all served him as faithful tools in saving lives and surviving himself.

R' Yehuda begins his story: "Little by little, the noose began to tighten. As throughout Europe, here too, the Jews were forced to wear a yellow patch. There were two kinds of patches. The first was the regular one with which we are all painfully familiar. The second kind was imprinted with the letters V.V.Y. signifying that the bearer was a Jew whose services were necessary for commerce. This was the patch that I wore and it enabled me to come and go freely, relatively speaking. But then the Parliament decided to send all young unmarried men to labor camps; i.e. to deport them to occupied Poland. We had no choice but to go underground.

"The offices of the family firm were located on the ground floor. In the center of the building was a large yard. All of a sudden we heard the heavy footfalls of approaching soldiers. Two gendarmes burst in and snarled, `Where's Waltz?' I jumped out the window. Nearby was a shul and next to it a huge, dilapidated warehouse which was an excellent hideout.

"After two days in hiding I saw that the coast was clear and I quickly made my way to the shul. I asked the shochet, the only person there at the time, to notify my relatives of my whereabouts, and that same night I escaped to Pressburg."

In Pressburg lived a Jew by the name of Nechemias. (R' Yehuda cannot recall his first name.) This man would later assume a central role in the widespread Hatzolah operations. Nechemias' connections with the local police provided a seemingly inexhaustible supply of information. He was securely positioned in the government elite and served as an undercover intelligence agent.

Nechemias succeeded in getting a train and bus travel permit, good for one year, for R' Yehuda and others. This was an official document with a picture, and it granted the bearer unlimited use of transportation. R' Yehuda continues: "We only had to be wary of the local detective because he knew that the document was a phony. Nechemias kept an eye on him and gave us a green light when it was safe to go. We worked together with this man for quite a long time."

A Haven

R' Yehuda finds it difficult to discuss this period in spite of the fact that he remembers everything in great detail. R' Yehuda tries to keep track of the series of events and cannot help but relive his anguish.

"I could not check into a hotel because you had to register at the reception desk and it was too dangerous to use my forged certificate. I ended up sleeping in Nechemias' warehouse. There I met a group of young men who, together with myself later became known as the `Hidden and Concealed Group.' . . . Our fellow Jews were in great need. By law, we were all designated for Auschwitz. . . . Something inside of us did not give us any peace. We began to act."

This point marks the beginning of their role in Hatzolah. They began to make history -- events hitherto unrecorded!

"I decided to travel to Nitra to HaRav Shmuel Dovid HaLevi Unger, Rav Michoel Ber's father-in-law. By the end of the war, 58,000 Jews were deported from Slovakia to Auschwitz. Most were killed. At this time deportation was imminent. But the yeshiva received `Vatican' status, thanks to connections with the heads of the Christian clergy. (That is how the Christian establishment described it.) The Bishop, who took the yeshiva under his patronage, declared it exempt from deportation. We knew that even here we were living on borrowed time, and that action needed to be taken quickly.

"Aside from the yeshiva bochurim others found a haven there too. The number of bochurim from outside the yeshiva had to be limited, though, so as not to arouse suspicion. For this reason, they made it a point to take in only those who had no papers, and for whom this was their one and only shelter. We would go there, stay a few hours and then receive instructions. When they began deporting entire families we brought Rav Michoel Ber into the picture."

Halting the Deportations

When R' Yehuda recalls HaRav Michoel Dov Weissmandel his eyes begin to shine: "He was an extraordinary talmid chochom, an extremely wise man and fearless. He had uncommon courage. He had incredible foresight and always tried to be one step ahead. His mind was analytical. He had a rare talent for rhetoric and persuasion. His presence gave us a feeling of serenity. When families began to be deported, Rav Weissmandel turned to the head of the Judenrat.

"I think his name was Hochberg, an assimilated Jew who, as a rule, estranged himself from his people. He was the right- hand man of Nazi officer Dieter Wisliceny. Some claim that he even cooperated with him. HaRav Unger, overcome by rage and loathing, refused to approach the man. But there was no other choice but for his son-in-law, R' Michoel Ber, to make contact with him.

"The Jews who were to be deported were concentrated in three or four temporary camps, an intermediate stop until they would reach their final destination. Rav Weissmandel spared no effort to stop or at least delay these transports.

"Each transport consisted of exactly 3000 people -- another example of the Nazis' cruel precision. It was necessary to provide them with food, clothing, medicine, and forged papers which would enable them to leave the camp. At times a doctor had to be brought to ensure a certain degree of hygiene and prevent the outbreak of an epidemic. Forged papers had to be obtained in order to be able to smuggle Jews out of the country. For these and other important missions, the "Hidden and Concealed Group" was enlisted.

"About two or three liaison men were posted at each of these camps. Most of the time we worked through them. They would pass on information to R' Michoel Ber and bring him up to date on the latest news. We operated mainly at the Sered camp."

Through the Candy Shop

"The command center was in Pressburg. In the heart of the Jewish quarter was a store owned by a Jew called Goldberg. Two detectives were permanently posted at this site. However, there was a candy shop close by which had a back exit facing Goldberg's backyard. This is how we got in, in spite of the great danger. All the important information arrived here. For example, which non-Jew smuggled people across the border, who could be trusted, what supplies were needed where, etc. From here the information was communicated to Rav Weissmandel's liaison man.

"It was necessary to travel in order to transfer information. The journey from Pressburg to towns such as Michlovazia, Barnov, Hominah, and Nitra took nine dangerous hours. It was also very costly. Huge amounts of money were also needed for purchasing forged papers, food, and medicine.

"Where did the money come from? R' Michoel Ber was busy trying to raise the funds he needed to save the camp inmates. Via the Judenrat, he established contact with Wisliceny and with Hochberg's help was able to bribe him. `If he is willing to take a bribe for an individual Jew, why shouldn't he take for many Jews?' wrote Rav Weissmandel in Min HaMeitzar. He promised 50,000 dollars, of which 25,000 he obtained on loan from a friend of his, Shlomo Stern. He assured the Nazis that he would deliver the balance as soon as possible.

"With his charisma and charm he succeeded in winning the trust of the enemy. The Nazi trusted him to the point where he even requested of him: `Don't bring the money from sources across the border, only from within.' He feared someone would get wind of the deal. Meanwhile, the transports were indeed delayed, and the fate of the camp inmates was as yet unsealed. However, the rest of the sum was unattainable.

"A great deal of money was needed just to bribe the Slovaks. The ministers in the antisemitic government of Tiso were insatiable. As a result, Rav Weissmandel sent a letter to Hungarian Jewry, and in the course of his activities, even to American Jewry, the Joint, the Jewish Agency, and the World Jewish Congress. He begged for assistance but the funds did not arrive. In the end a wealthy Hungarian Jew of Slovakian descent called Diolah Link succeeded in getting the money. This was enough to stop the transports for an extended period of time, two years, I think. `Only' one transport was sent to Auschwitz; this was Wisliceny's demonic way of showing what he would do if the money did not arrive.

"But the burden of funding our daily expenses fell on our shoulders. My experience in the metal business came in handy, not to mention the fact that I was in possession of a transit pass.

"How did it work? I'll give you one example that comes to mind at the moment: In the course of one of my journeys I passed by an industrial area and saw many barrels lying around, obviously not in use. When I asked the watchman about the barrels he told me that they were used tar containers that the Germans used to pave the highway in preparation for further conquest. The empty barrels were going to be sent back to Germany for recycling."

R' Yehuda's face lit up. He saw the economic potential of these barrels. He immediately bought two barrels as samples and contacted a Jewish engineer who worked in a large firm. He sent the two samples to him by train. The metal hoops, he explained, could be recycled. Due to the shortage of metals in wartime, the firm was very interested in them. The Germans also were willing to save themselves the trouble of sending the empty barrels back to Germany. All they asked for was the price of the wood -- plus a hefty bribe. They began to argue, claims and counterclaims. The Czech firm, on the other hand, was willing to pay an exorbitant sum due to the scarcity of materials.

"My uncle agreed to issue a delivery receipt from his firm in order to legalize the venture." R' Yehuda concludes. A large sum of money thus fell into the hands of the "Hidden and Concealed Group."

With this money, and more similarly obtained, they bought medicines, forged papers, and other necessities for the Jews in the camps of Rav Weissmandel. "We constantly felt the sword at our necks."

They operated mainly at night. Europe of World War II was a kingdom of darkness. Travel meant risking one's life. "Sometimes we had to make the trip to Pressburg three times a week, back and forth."

The Sneeze Was the Sign

R' Yehuda's memoirs are bittersweet: gentle longing combined with a feeling of elation. Many of his friends are not around to tell the story, and he, may he live long and in good health, wants to be their mouthpiece:

"Travel was dangerous. So, how did we go about it? The express train left Pressburg at 10:30. According to our plan, we were to be at the train station, next to the boarding gate, at 10:00. One of our men who recognized the detectives would comb the area. A few minutes before departure, if the coast was clear, he would signal to us to jump on the car.

"Occasionally the train would stop in another town on its way to pick up more passengers. Here it was arranged for a certain non- Jew, who had previously worked for our firm, to be waiting for us. As soon as the train stopped we would make eye contact. If all was well and we could safely continue, he would sneeze. That was the signal. Silence was a sign that we must immediately get off the train, run away, and find a place to hide until the danger passed. In such cases we had to wait for the next train."

Did you also meet Rav Weissmandel in Pressburg?

"Certainly. Rav Weissmandel had an agent in every city. A Jew by the name of Mousekop was his man in Nitra. My uncle, R' Alexander Zushia Kintzlicher, was one of his closest friends. They, together with a few other Jewish leaders whose names I cannot remember, served as his `Parliament.'

"All the meetings were held in Pressburg and R' Michoel Ber would travel there, sometimes even several times in one week. He had no fear of being in the vicinity of government buildings in spite of the great danger involved. Simply put, he was a Jew of mesirus nefesh. I have no idea from where he drew his tremendous strength of character. We were always informed beforehand of his upcoming arrival.

"The distance between the train station and our destination - - the Ministry of the Interior -- was not great. For fear of being caught Rav Weissmandel would not ride on the streetcar, but would make his way on foot. We would watch him from afar from the Central Hotel. He had to cross a very large field. He walked unhurriedly and confidently. As soon as we could see him we would go out to meet him.

"When he reached the built-up area he would be pelted with stones and other objects. He never reacted; it was as if nothing had happened. We could not take the chance of being noticed; this would also put him in danger, so we would walk next to him, talking among ourselves as if we had never met him before. Our intent was to be able to physically protect him if the need arose. We tried to take the brunt of the stones thrown, but he too got injured on more than one occasion.

"R' Michoel Ber walked casually toward the street leading to the Ministry of the Interior. He knew to keep his eyes glued to the ground at this last turn across from the hotel. If we needed to transfer a message we would hide a note inside of a matchbox, which we would leave at a prearranged spot. As he walked he would nonchalantly bend down and pick it up in such a way as not to arouse suspicion. His face would remain expressionless. Afterwards he would continue on his way as if nothing had happened. We were very careful not to be noticed. We would accompany him on his way back in the same manner."

Were you, the bochurim privy to the exact details of Rav Weissmandel's activities?

"R' Michoel Ber was very closed, an introvert. He was never a man of many words, and especially not regarding that which demanded discretion. He was also extremely troubled by the dearth of finances and the silence of the world which hampered his activities. He became very withdrawn as a result. And yet, we did have quite a lot of information. Often one of our group would point at someone going on the train and whisper: `That man is now taking a letter from R' Michoel Ber.' Still, as a rule, no extra information would reach the ears of those who did not need to know. We would quote the folk saying yednah pnaya pavdala meaning, one woman spoke an unnecessary word and that is not good. This was our slogan.

"Discretion was absolutely vital for the success of our operations. Even among the ranks of our group not everybody knew everybody. This was done for safety's sake. If one of us were to get caught, he might break down under interrogation and release information that might incriminate the others."

The Siege Tightens

With every word he utters R' Yehuda must skip over a profusion of painful memories that pull him like a magnet. Word photos: Pressburg. A huge coal warehouse, the size of two buildings. A few young boys seen running towards the building. At the same time, the hotel nearby is swarming with police officers.

"As a rule we were able to sleep at the hotel because we bribed the guard. When we received warning of Chitshke -- a search -- we ran under the fence straight to the warehouse. There we hid in old coal containers, sometimes even for a few days. The security forces were aware of the group's existence. They slowly began to close in on us, thus limiting our activity, so we moved to Nitra. There we boarded at the Hotel Lafraire, a small establishment. We used the same methods here as well. When the Slovaks and the Germans began to hunt for our group, we fled into the forests that covered the mountain.

"The information usually came from Nechemias. At night we would sneak into the villages in order to get food. Sometimes we would be forced to enter a storeroom or a chicken coop. Among the bochurim was a shochet who had smicha from HaRav Wesseley, rosh beis din of Pressburg. It was of course, none other than R' Michoel Ber who saw to it that we had a shochet on hand. This bochur had also been a shochet in the army. Since young men were conscripted against their will, it was necessary to make sure that they could get kosher meat.

"Many times, when we felt the noose tightening around our necks, we would flee straight into the lion's mouth. We infiltrated the military bases and mixed in with the Jewish soldiers. Needless to say, we could not stay for long, but still this served our purpose as a temporary hiding place.

"The escape route to the mountains could only be utilized in the summer months. In the winter it was not feasible because the footprints in the snow would give us away. In time HaRav Unger, R' Michoel Ber's father-in-law, hid in a bunker that we used as a hideout. This was at the time of the partisan revolt against the Germans in Banska-Bistriza. All the Slovakian Jews took part. The uprising lasted about a month until the Germans invaded the country. It was at this point that Rav Unger fled to the mountain with hundreds of other people.

"Two relatives of mine who were among this group noticed that Rav Unger did not have a blanket or a coat. They gave him a coat (which I got back after the war). Then they hurried back to the city to bring a few things for others. By then however, it was impossible to leave. They were caught with one thousand other Jews.

"Nearby is a mountain called `Rodwin.' All that's left is a small plaque inscribed with the word `Yizkor'."

The "dam" created by the years is insufficient to hold back the flood of tears that bursts forth. All of a sudden a person discovers that the old grief has not really departed.

When you were actively involved in Hatzolah: the train rides, the fundraising transactions, smuggling people, medicine, and clothing, did you ever have moments of despair?

"We were shattered. After all we were only teenage boys. By the time we neared the end of a project, the tension of operating right under their noses took its toll on us. But the most difficult of all was living under these abnormal circumstances and hearing the rumors. This broke our spirit more than anything else.

Which rumors?

What worried and concerned us most during the entire period was the goings on in Auschwitz. R' Michoel Ber waited for any scrap of new information, mainly in writing, that came from there. Although messengers were sent to trail the deportees and the dreadful secret was well known, he constantly made it clear to us that any letter from Auschwitz could help. With this written testimony, he hoped, it would be possible to alert the world that had thus far refused to believe.

"And the letters came. I remember the first one. It came three or four months later: `Each morning 120 of us go to work, and only 40 return.' This was even before the official implementation of the Final Solution.

"I remember clearly how we received this letter. One of the train workers passed it on to us. It was horrifying. Afterwards more letters arrived. They wrote that Auschwitz was really not a labor camp but a genocide machine. The first testimony that came from the inferno left us devastated and speechless. We already knew the truth, but here it was written in black and white.

"How did the letters reach us from Auschwitz, you ask? I haven't the slightest idea. R' Michoel Ber refused to release even the tiniest fragment of information on this subject. He was afraid of putting the people or the smuggling routes in danger of being discovered. Only at the end of the war did we hear the story of a German guard who was put on trial, and a Jewish woman who was hanged because they smuggled letters in and out of the camps.

And when you broke down, did you discuss it with Rav Weissmandel?

[A resounding]"No! We did not want to bother him. He was grieved enough as it was. He had always been one who took other people's sorrows very much to heart and now all the more so. Also we were careful not to waste even a second of his precious time. He never stopped working. Whenever we saw him he was occupied with Hatzolah. If we were to disturb him it could be at the expense of Jewish lives. So we would speak to his father-in-law, Rav Unger. By now we could barely move around freely anymore. The detectives were able to identify us and were waiting for the moment they could get their hands on us.

"We were looking for comfort, encouragement. Five of us, broken in body and spirit from being ceaselessly pursued, went to Rav Unger and poured out our hearts to him. The Rav took pen in hand and wrote a letter on our behalf to the community head of Budapest. He requested that we be taken to Debrecen and added: `My son-in-law, R' Michoel Ber is in agreement with the above. Beware! Do not put your trust in the promises of Horti that it will not happen to you. It is liable to end bitterly. Raise the alarm! Awaken the world from its inactivity.' These were his words.

"The most difficult of all was parting from Rav Weissmandel. He gazed at us sadly, shook our hands and said nothing. Later, he spoke only five words: `Yidden, shake up the world.' "

Why did he himself not leave?

"He never left anybody. Years later, his brother-in-law said to me that perhaps this had been a mistake. `Maybe, from outside of Slovakia, he would have been able to shake the world out of its cruel indifference.' Rav Weissmandel was eventually sent to Auschwitz. I heard that on the way there he succeeded in sawing his way through the train car and escaped."

The Trial Never Took Place

R' Yehuda too succeeded in escaping. He reached Satmar, but here as well Jews were beginning to be deported. He tried running away but was caught with a forged German passport in his possession. The young Yehuda, who until then had been active with Hatzolah under the auspices of Rav Weissmandel, was on the very last train that left for Auschwitz. Once there, he was to be put on trial for holding a German passport. The trial never materialized. The Russians came first. All that remains of his ordeal in Auschwitz is a tattoo on his arm with the number A- 13152, and a brand on his heart marking a bloody chapter in the history of the nation.

Rav Weissmandel's image never leaves R' Yehuda. And the voice of the Rav, which continues to echo from the depths, can be heard through the mouth of one of the unsung heroes of that time!


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