Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

22 Av 5764 - August 9, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Reb Chaim Yisroel Eiss, the Man at the Center of Orthodoxy's World War II Rescue Activities

by Shoshanna Goldfinger, a Great-Granddaughter

Earlier this year marked sixty years since Reb Chaim Yisroel Eiss zt"l passed away in Switzerland. He was one of religious Jewry's leading activists and he died in 1943 while at the height of his efforts to rescue European Jewry. He dedicated his life to helping his fellow Jews and thousands of people owed their lives to him. Documents in the possession of his descendants show how incredibly hard he worked on behalf of the Jews who were under Nazi rule. The gedolei Yisroel of the time trusted him entirely. The full story of the man who was at the center of wartime Orthodox rescue efforts.

During World War II, Germany carried out a series of lightning strikes against its neighboring countries and managed to take over almost all of Europe. Wherever there was a Nazi presence, it was the Jews who suffered most. Thousands of Jews lost everything that was dear to them, their families, their communities, their homes and all their possessions. They became destitute wanderers, people who had nowhere to lay their heads, with nothing but rags for clothing and no shoes. They were incarcerated in ghettos, in work camps and in death camps, were humiliated and demeaned and underwent unbelievable torment.

It often happened that no food crossed their lips for days on end and their bodies reacted accordingly. There was one ray of hope at this terrible time. People told each other: "In Switzerland, there is a Jew who wants to help. Reb Chaim Yisroel Eiss helps everyone who asks." And person after person wrote to him for help.

Reb Chaim Eiss received hundreds of letters, from when the War broke out until his sudden death in 5704/1943. He died when the War was at its height and when his work was more needed than ever. He received letters from starving and suffering fellow-Jews asking him for food, money or the foreign identification documents that would provide them with the preferential treatment that was extended to foreign nationals.

But he also received many letters that requested help of another kind, incredibly moving letters begging for Chumashim, tefillin and arba minim. One especially heart-rending letter sent from a Nazi labor camp read: "You cannot imagine the joy when we received the esrog and lulav and the hadassim. You made our yom tov into a true `season of our rejoicing,' and our rejoicing knows no bounds. Please send us more mussar books, Chumashim with the commentary of the holy Ohr HaChaim and similar seforim."

We cannot but be inspired when learning that the first concerns of a Jew trapped in this living hell were for arba minim and Torah learning.

Rescue Activities

During the early years, of the War the free world knew very little of what was happening in the countries under German rule. The little that was known was based on the stories told by refugees who managed miraculously to escape from the clutches of the Nazis.

When they were lucky, their stories were met with disbelief. When they were less lucky -- as often happened -- they were met with derision. No one could believe that a cultured nation like the Germans, the residents of the cradle of European culture, could behave in the terrible fashion that the refugees described.

Reb Chaim Yisroel Eiss was one of the first to be informed of what was happening in the Nazi-occupied countries. He had been well-known already before the War and he received hundreds of letters from the ghettos and the labor camps. These gave a true picture of the Nazi atrocities.

Although most countries found themselves involved in the War, some willingly and some unwillingly, Switzerland where he lived managed to remain an island of neutrality, one tranquil spot in the center of the inferno that was Europe. We now know, however, that the Nazis used Swiss banks to finance their war machine. For example the Nazis used the Swiss banks as depositories for the assets they had stolen from the Jews, and the Swiss banks then used these funds to help finance the war machine. Nonetheless, Switzerland's official neutrality enabled Reb Chaim Yisroel to operate as a vital link between the occupied countries and the free world.

He transmitted the important information that was included in many of the letters that were sent to him, to the Agudas Israel offices in Jerusalem, London, New York and Istanbul. The Zurich office also served as a conduit for letters sent in the opposite direction. These contained money, passport photographs and requests to locate family members and help them.

The Germans restricted the transfer of information from the ghettos under their control to the outside world and the letter-writers were careful to phrase their information in a manner that the censors would understand one way and the recipients another.

For example, according to a letter that Reb Chaim Yisroel wrote to Agudas Israel leaders in the U.S. shortly after the War began: "Our friend, Rabbi Alexander Zusha Friedman wrote me a letter of thanks on behalf of Mr. Mekayem Nefesh [lifesaver] that Mr. Chalelei Raav [dying of hunger] visits our friends' homes frequently."

Reb Chaim Yisroel set up an entire communication network that included trusted "pure Aryans" who were willing to take on the task in spite of the tremendous risks involved. Many people were delivered from certain death by the heroic efforts of Reb Chaim Yisroel Eiss, but beyond those he saved directly his activities offered thousands of Jews trapped in occupied Europe a ray of hope that saved them from sinking into despondency and despair.

Agudas Israel Led the Way in its Rescue Efforts

A stormy debate is currently taking place regarding the extent and the significance of Orthodox Jewry's contribution to rescue activities. However, according to many historians, especially Professor David Krantzler of the U.S., it was the Orthodox leaders who pioneered the rescue efforts, working through Swiss Agudas Israel personnel, Agudas Israel emissaries based in Istanbul and underground movements such as the one set up in Czechoslovakia by Rabbi Weissmandel, the son-in-law of the Nitra Rov.

Many of the letters in Reb Chaim Yisroel's files give credence to this assertion. They give details of the intricate communications network that he set up, manned by Red Cross personnel and intermediaries who were stationed inside various Bern-based foreign embassies. These activities were operated by Orthodox activists who were living in Switzerland at the time. These included Reb Chaim Yisroel Eiss, Rabbi Dr. Shaul Weingort, Attorney Meir Miller and the Sternbuch family.

The manner in which the Orthodox activists operated was different from the way in which the other Jewish leaders functioned. The approach of the President of the Federation of Swiss Jewish Communities, Mr. Saly Meir, was to function only within the dictates of the letter of the law, in order not to antagonize the gentiles. This resulted in their doing very little.

The Orthodox activists, on the other hand, had only one aim: to save as many Jews as possible. They ignored the cold, unfeeling letter of the law, and in this way they were able to distribute thousands of foreign identification documents to the people entrapped in the ghettos and to also transfer large sums of money and food packages to them. People like the Swiss representative of the World Jewish Congress, Dr. Silberschein, and Jewish Agency representative Richard Lichtheim eventually adopted the methods pioneered by the Orthodox group, and then utilized their contacts and work methods to further ease the plight of the Jews in Nazi countries.

Representing the Gedolim

Reb Chaim Yisroel was never a person who was concerned only with his own affairs. He always devoted all his spare time and his tremendous energy to his wide-ranging communal activities and set up a large number of charitable and mutual aid funds.

One of his most important prewar contributions however, was his involvement in founding Agudas Israel. He served as the central conduit for money raised in Jewish communities in different parts of the world and transferring these funds to the various yeshiva heads, and this enabled hundreds of yeshiva students to concentrate on their learning without having to worry about their physical requirements. The students knew that the yeshiva heads would worry about their material needs, and the yeshiva heads, in turn, could sleep at night in the secure knowledge that Reb Chaim Yisroel was shouldering this responsibility on their behalf.

"My dear and esteemed G-d-fearing friend, Rabbi Yisroel Chaim Eiss of Zurich," read a warm letter that Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, of blessed memory, sent to Reb Chaim Yisroel thanking him for the two hundred zloty order he had sent his yeshiva. "Please thank the donors and supporters, in my name."

But the support extended to the yeshiva was not the only subject of their correspondence. Rabbi Chaim Ozer and Reb Chaim Yisroel corresponded frequently and at length on many matters of then current concern.

One of the many funds that Reb Chaim Yisroel directed was the Zurich-based "Orphan Fund." This fund helped pay for the tuition of orphan girls who were studying at Cracow's Bais Yaakov Teacher Training Seminary that was founded by Sarah Schenirer. Reb Chaim Yisroel received many letters from gedolei Yisroel from different parts of Europe in connection with this fund, recommending that it help girls from their communities. One letter that was typical of many read: "I am writing in connection with a motherless young girl from here who is called Zlata Zanstchoviska, who has completed her studies at the local Bais Yaakov school and now should continue in Cracow, to the seminary there. Her father is unable to pay her fees. The young lady is continuing along the right path, and is worthy of support." The sender went on to send his warmest wishes to Reb Chaim Yisroel and to everyone associated with him. This particular letter came from HaRav Elchonon Bunim Wasserman, may G-d avenge his blood.

In addition to contacting Reb Chaim Yisroel with reference to his communal work, many rabbonim consulted him in connection with their own private affairs, for example regarding a proposed shidduch with someone from Switzerland. They know that they could trust him implicitly. The Chofetz Chaim wrote to him: "I am writing to inform you that I have left a large proportion of my books here in Radin in the care of my good friend, the son-in-law of the wife of the important rov, Hillel Ginsburg, who spent several years learning at our yeshiva and with whom I have remained in contact for about fifty years and know well. He took care of administrative matters in connection with my books in the past, printing, sales and the like, and he will continue to take care of them in the same way in the future. I ask all my friends and acquaintances to continue to help him the way they did before because, with G-d's help, these seforim are of eternal value to the Jewish people. This applies both to the books on halocho and to those on mussar, which guide people as to the best path to take. And in this merit, may the G-d of the Heavens bless you with all that is good." The letter was dated Erev Succos 5686/1925.

The family archives contain hundreds of other letters from rabbonim, yeshiva heads and leaders of the Jewish people. These include letters from HaRav Dovid Budnik, the rosh yeshiva of Warsaw's Novardok Yeshiva, from HaRav Yosef Yehuda Bloch, rabbinical court head and maggid shiur in Telz, from HaRav Zvi Dovid Halevi Glicksohn, the son-in-law of HaRav Soloveitchik and the rosh yeshiva of Warsaw's Toras Chaim Yeshiva, and from the Nitra Gaon, HaRav Shmuel Dovid Ungar.

Supporting Exiled Yeshivas

In the early stages of the War, when the Nazis were making huge strides in their bid to conquer all of Europe, thousands of Jews became homeless. Fear of the Nazis, the restrictive laws imposed by the Germans, and worry about the future, led thousands of families to abandon their homes and most of their belongings and flee for their lives. The larger towns were swamped with refugees from the smaller towns and villages, and the more established communities suddenly found themselves having to cope with thousands of penniless refugees. Families whose children were hungry, in a state of shock, and tired from their long journeys needed somewhere to lay their heads, and they stayed in the shuls and other public buildings.

These refugees comprised not only families but also entire yeshivas that had found themselves obliged to take their students to locations where the War situation was felt relatively less. These yeshivas included Rav Aharon Kotler's Eitz Chaim Yeshiva that was forced to move away from Kletsk. This yeshiva found itself in a particularly difficult situation, as HaRav Kotler wrote in a letter to Reb Chaim Yisroel. "The monthly expenditures involved in running the yeshiva are a tremendous burden for us. In spite of our doing all we can to reduce the costs, the huge sums involved have reached unimaginable proportions. First, all the yeshiva students are eating at the yeshiva's expense because they are parted from their parents . . ."

Reb Chaim Yisroel -- as was his wont -- responded quickly to this request for help as well as to the many other similar requests.

Rabbi Aharon Kotler managed subsequently to escape to the U.S. where he heard reports about what was happening in Europe. He was brokenhearted at this news and did all he could to find out the details of the situation of the Jews who were still in Europe and to aid them. He made special efforts to save Europe's rabbonim and roshei yeshivas from the clutches of the Nazis. He wrote repeatedly to Reb Chaim Yisroel, asking whether he had any news of the rabbonim and asking him to inquire from the Red Cross about their welfare. He was particularly anxious to find out about HaRav Elchonon Wasserman, Hy'd. No one knew yet at that time that HaRav Wasserman had been martyred al kiddush Hashem.

Reb Chaim Yisroel did all he could to obtain news about HaRav Wasserman, mobilizing his entire communications network for the purpose. He summed up the results of his efforts in a letter he wrote to at that time U.S. Agudas Israel president Rabbi Jacob Rosenheim: " . . . Just now, when I was in the middle of writing this letter, I received a telegram from HaRav Simcha Wasserman, the son of the Gaon, the Tzaddik, HaRav Elchonon Wasserman shlita, asking me to make inquiries regarding his father. Even without this telegram, my mind is constantly occupied with the question of HaRav Elchonon's whereabouts. I have written to a number of places, but no one is able to help. Our friends in Poland are also trying to investigate what has happened to him, and ask everyone they can. I shall perhaps be able to find out more when I hear from our Lithuanian brethren.

"The current situation is that Jews are unable to enter or leave Lithuanian locations like Lapland and Ostland and we have no idea what is happening there . . ."

The correspondence between HaRav Kotler and Reb Chaim Yisroel continued to flow throughout this entire period. HaRav Kotler was regarded as the supreme halachic authority on many matters and Reb Chaim Yisroel forwarded important queries to him regarding burning halachic issues of the time.

Food Parcels to the Ghettos and to the Camps

When Reb Chaim Yisroel first heard the terrible news about what was happening in Nazi-occupied Europe, everything else was suddenly of minor importance. He worked day and night doing all he could to help, forgetting about mealtimes and neglecting his business.

He utilized his contacts with a Lisbon associate in order to buy cocoa, coffee, sugar, tea and sardines and have them sent to the starving Jews, often funding the purchases out of his own pocket. These items were very scarce at the time and recipients were able to exchange them for large quantities of flour and potatoes.

One way in which commodities could be transferred to Poland was through the Red Cross. Reb Chaim Yisroel had good relations with the head of the Red Cross in Geneva and the foodstuffs were sent to Geneva from where Red Cross personnel transferred the parcels to the eventual recipients via their German offices.

Reb Chaim Yisroel did not forget to provide food for the soul. He made a special effort to help the Jews in the ghettos to observe the mitzvas and managed to find roundabout ways in which to send them arba minim, matzos and raisins (to make wine for the "four cups").

Many Jews visited HaRav Menachem Zemba's succah during the last Succos in the Warsaw ghetto, in 5703/1942, in order to observe the mitzva of arba minim. The esrog -- probably the only esrog to be found in the entire ghetto that year -- had been sent to HaRav Zemba by Reb Chaim Yisroel. Many people expressed their doubts as to whether the food parcels would reach their destinations, but survivors confirmed after the War that the parcels had indeed arrived.

When the parcels from Reb Chaim Yisroel Eiss got to the camp in Auschwitz they were taken to Mrs. Tzilla Orlean (Mrs. Orlean was the sister-in-law of Reb Yehuda Leib Orlean, the principal of Cracow's Bais Yaakov seminary), it was reported by one woman who managed to survive Auschwitz: "They contained almonds and other dry foods. I don't know how they arrived. It was a real miracle."

These parcels contained more than food for the body. They were a balm for the suffering souls, and helped the inmates feel that on the other side of the barbed wire there was someone who cared about their welfare.

Foreign Papers -- a Passport to Life

Sending money and food parcels was obviously not enough. Reports were coming through of the systematic murder of the Jews who were captured by the Nazis and although these reports were originally met with disbelief, as time passed people began to accept that, incredible as they were, the rumors were true. It then became obvious that everything possible must be done to extricate the Jews from the clutches of the Nazis.

This was done in various ways, including by furnishing the Jews with identification papers indicating that they were nationals of neutral countries. The hope was that the Germans would allow these "foreign nationals" to leave or at least not harm them.

Reb Chaim Yisroel was one of the first to adopt this method. He contacted the Paraguayan consul, Mr. Huegly, and purchased Paraguayan identity papers and passports from him. Reb Chaim Yisroel then sent these certificates to Poland. He did not send them in his own name, but in that of a relative of the recipient, so as not to draw the censor's attention to himself. He had the passports photographed and arranged for them to be notarized.

The stories of the Japanese consul who was stationed in Kovno and that of Raoul Wallenberg, who issued thousands of visas to Jews during the War, thereby helping them to escape from the Nazis are well known. The public is less familiar with the story of George Mantello, or Yosef Mendel -- to use his Hebrew name -- the first secretary at the El Salvador consulate in Geneva.

Reb Chaim Yisroel introduced Attorney Meir Miller, an Agudas Israel activist who had been living in Paris and then fled to Switzerland with his family, to Mr. Mantello in the spring of 5703/1943. This meeting resulted in a radical change in the situation regarding South American identification documents. Prior to that, Peruvian or Paraguayan documents could be obtained only at the cost of hundreds or even thousands of Francs. As a result of George Mantello's help the bottom now fell out of this market.

Attorney Miller was working without charge and the consul was also not asking to be paid, so the documents were now obtainable for free. Tens of thousands of documents were distributed in this way.

During the early years of the War, Jews holding foreign passports were sent to the Vittel Detention Camp in France, which was a camp for people of foreign nationalities. The Gerrer Rebbe's family was one of the families sent to this camp. When Reb Chaim Yisroel passed away on the 15th Marcheshvon 5704/1943, he thought that the Jews who were sent to the Vittel camp had been saved. However, almost all the Jews there were sent to Auschwitz a few months later, shortly after Pesach, and were subsequently murdered.

The few who survived included Reb Hillel Seidman, the author of The Warsaw Ghetto Diary. We now know that the network that Reb Chaim Yisroel set up proved itself later, when tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews were granted South American identification papers and were saved. Historians think that the reason the Nazis allowed this system to exist was because they wanted to prepare the way for their own eventual escape to South America at the end of the War.

A Man of Word and Action

Reb Chaim Yisroel Eiss was one of the founders of the worldwide movement of Agudas Israel and one of its central figures. Hardly a day passed after its inauguration meeting at Kattowitz when he was not busy with Agudas Israel affairs. He was a successful businessman, but did not let that get in his way. He did not go in for public speaking, but operated mainly behind the scenes. He was involved in every important decision that was brought to the presidium for ratification.

During the First World War, many Jews lost their homes and had to wander from place to place, suffering poverty, starvation and disease, and Reb Chaim Yisroel did all he could to help them. He set up a huge aid system that located the refugees, investigated their needs and raised the required funds.

Reb Chaim Yisroel was entrusted by the Gedolim of the time with the directorship of all Switzerland-based Agudas Israel funds. These included the Orphan Aid Fund, the Land of Israel Yeshiva Fund and the Polish and Lithuanian Yeshiva Fund. He received contributions from all over the world, and transferred the money to the recipients.

He published Haderech -- the Zurich-based Agudas Israel mouthpiece that was really a one-man publication. He wrote all the articles himself and was personally responsible for printing and distributing the paper. Although he was based in distant Switzerland, he battled from there on behalf of the difficulties that Eretz Yisroel's Orthodox community and its leader, HaRav Chaim Sonnenfeld, were facing at the time. He discussed all issues that were on the public agenda at the time, expressing himself lucidly and forcefully in a clear, correct Loshon Hakodesh.

He was a regular contributor to the then Agudas Yisroel mouthpiece, Kol Yisroel, which was published in Jerusalem, and used it to make his opinions known to the population of Eretz Israel.

He was particularly critical of the Mizrachi movement, regarding it as muktza machmas mi'us, and attacked it repeatedly in almost every article he wrote. He railed against the Zionist leaders and their wish to educate the new generation in such a way that they would not feel obligated to the Torah and the mitzvas. "I am not certain what presents a greater danger to traditional Judaism, the Zionist schools in the Holy Land or the missionary schools . . ."

His barbs were largely aimed at the Mizrachi movement and he attacked it repeatedly in his distinctive sardonic style. He wrote that he feared that the way of the Mizrachi rabbonim, which were Zionistic on the one hand and tried to continue to observe the Torah laws, on the other, could result in a decline in the Jewish people's spiritual state. He wrote that there was reason to fear that where the Torah should go forth from Zion it could instead go away from Zion.

The World Lost a Righteous Man

Reb Chaim Yisroel Eiss was a passionate Agudist, who attended all its major gatherings, and a prolific writer. He fought ardently for the glory of Heaven, but loved peace and pursued peace. When lives were at stake nothing else mattered. Whatever he did, he did in the best way possible, and when it came to his rescue activities he worked indefatigably and without respite.

In his eulogy, HaRav Zalman Sorotzkin said: "His name was Chaim Yisroel and this was the way he lived his life. His Chaim, his life, was for Yisroel, for the Jewish people. Within the sea of tears, within the darkness and the gloom, there was one gleam of light, the country where the departed lived, and one address, the address of the departed." His self-sacrifice on behalf of the Jewish people obligates us too to dedicate ourselves to helping the Jewish people because: "Whoever saves one Jewish life is deemed to have saved an entire world."

Short History of his Life

Reb Chaim Yisroel was born in 5636/1879 in Istrik, Galicia and was originally named only Yisroel. According to family tradition he was the only one of the ten children in his family to survive a plague of diphtheria, an illness for which there was no cure at that time.

After the death of his other children his father, Reb Moshe Nisan Eiss, took his surviving son to the Sadigora Rebbe. The Rebbe blessed the young child and told the Reb Moshe Nisan to add the name Chaim (meaning life) to his son's name. The Rebbe's blessing was fulfilled to an even greater extent than had been anticipated.

Reb Chaim Yisroel was not only granted life and the opportunity to found a wonderful family in which all his descendants -- by now great-grandchildren and great-great- grandchildren -- are involved in Torah learning, but was also enabled to save the lives of tens of thousands of his Jewish brethren.

Reb Chaim Yisroel left Galicia many years before the War began and moved to Zurich, where he became a successful businessman. Then, when he began to hear reports of the atrocities that were taking place in the Nazi-occupied countries, he left off attending to his business activities in order to devote all his time to his rescue efforts.

He spent all his savings on the food parcels he sent to his starving brethren, did not take the time to eat properly and slept only in snatches. He felt that it was for this purpose that his life had been saved when he was a small child. Even when he was sick and he had to be hospitalized, he typed letters from his hospital room and issued directions to his aides.

However, when he died, it was not of the illness from which he was suffering, but of a broken heart. His heart could no longer bear his anguish at the terrible suffering his fellow Jews were experiencing and the realization that, in spite of all his tremendous efforts, he was unable to help them all.

Writer Shoshanna Goldfinger is a great-granddaughter of Reb Chaim Yisroel Eiss. This article is dedicated to the memory of the writer's mother, Mrs. Malka Ruth Schwab, daughter of Reb Yaakov Eiss and granddaughter of Reb Chaim Yisroel Eiss. Written with the help of T. R. Rosin, translated from the Hebrew by Judith Weil.


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