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7 Adar I 5765 - February 16, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Battling For Souls: The Vaad Hatzala Orthodox Rescue Committee in Post-War Europe

by Dr. Alex Grobman


The Holocaust had taken its toll on the survivors. Though some gave up on G-d, many others sought the sustenance of their religion to nourish them after all their losses. To keep the spark of Jewish spirit alive in the hearts of the refugees, to make it glow and burst into flame, the men and women of the Vaad Hatzala Rescue Committee worked against tremendous odds to fulfill their goal of physically and spiritually revitalizing the she'arith hapleitah.

These were a special breed who dedicated themselves to a thankless task at the request of the greatest rabbinical leaders of the 20th century, and prevailed in their mission despite the lack of funds, the lack of people, the hostility of local populations and other Jewish organizations, and the chaos in Europe at the end of the war. Their battle for Jewish souls presents a story only now being told.

A recently published book by Dr. Alex Grobman tells much of the story, with a special emphasis on Rabbi Nathan Baruch, z'l. The following is a lightly-edited excerpt from the book (Chapter 4 — Jersey City, NJ : KTAV Publishers, 2004) that focuses on a trip by Stephen Klein, founder of Barton's Candy and a prominent religious activist, as a personal initiative to help the survivors. Klein worked very closely with the Vaad Hatzala. Irving Bunim was the head of the Vaad Hatzala at that time and Rabbi Nathan Baruch was one of its representatives in Europe.

Stephen Klein's Mission to Europe

Stephen Klein, owner of the Barton's Candy chain, went on a fact-finding mission to Europe, at his own expense, on behalf of the Vaad Hatzala. He was there from October 26, 1946 and visited England, France, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany before returning to the U. S. on February 3, 1947. Before he left the States, he shipped clothing, shoes, underwear, candles and religious books to the Vaad Hatzala Committee in Paris through American Aid To France, Inc., which sent relief supplies to France for free for the Vaad and other relief organizations: "as long as each shipment weighed 200 or more pounds." Klein brought chocolates from his own factory, a luxury in post-war Europe, and used them to thank officials who helped him.

Before Klein left, Irving Bunim arranged a `little social send-off party' on September 23 to let Vaad supporters know that Klein's mission was to strengthen the Vaad and expand its activities. Together with Rabbi Simcha Wasserman, who had a yeshiva in Paris, and Rabbi Motche Londinski, he established committees to oversee Vaad operations. Each committee had to have at least one member from the Agudah, one from Mizrachi, one nonpartisan member and the local rabbi. When there was more than one rabbi in the community, the rabbinical council would assign one or more of their colleagues to serve on the committee.

The money Klein brought with him, and the funds he received while he was there, were given to the local communities who controlled their distribution. Half was to be used to educate the children. The other half was to help rabbis function as the heads of their communities, "and maintain kosher kitchens, mikvehs, Talmud Torahs and other institutions."

The other priority was to assist Jews fleeing from Poland, Russia and Slovakia. The Vaad wanted to reorganize committees in Lodz, review the status of the committee in Katowice and assist yeshiva students and rabbis to emigrate as soon as possible. Until the children could leave Poland, the Vaad wanted to provide religious education and relief for them. And everywhere he went, Klein was asked to find a way to use the nonquota visas to get rabbis and yeshiva students to the U.S.

Scholars in France were housed in inappropriate and `unsuitable' accommodations, so Klein found them places to stay until final arrangements could be made for their departure to the U.S. or Eretz Israel. If the JDC offered him appropriate solutions to these problems, Klein would consider its offer.

After six weeks in Europe, Klein wrote to his friend Benjamin Pechman that he was working an average of 18 to 20 hours a day. To save time, he worked during the day and traveled by train or car at night. He visited embassies and consulates to determine how to facilitate the immigration process. `You cannot imagine the sort of condition[s] that these unfortunate people are in, especially those that have arrived in Germany during the last few months. They are mainly [O]rthodox Jews. I cannot understand how I can remain sane after seeing all the terrible tragedy that is happening to our people. How big the zores Israel is [sic] cannot possibly be described on paper.'

If Pechman could understand how a person worries about not earning a good living for his family, then he could `imagine what it is like to worry about tens of thousands of people who are looking to you as a Messiach [Messiah], and you are only able to give them so little. Not once have I cried for the pain I have seen among our people.' People who once had large families and were quite comfortable economically `are today happy if they are able to get the delicacy of a piece of potato or soup, such as we couldn't eat or even stand the smell of it, being served in tin cans.'

Klein had not written to anyone previously because he felt there was no point in `talking about it for nobody does anything, so it is much better to save the words,' but he could no longer keep silent.

With Vaad funds, Klein was able to open 20 kosher kitchens with food he purchased in Switzerland and France. He lauded Recha and Isaac Sternbuch for providing food on a steady basis to the Jews in Germany. They worked with `superhuman strength and long hours.' . . . `With the little [money] he received, [Isaac] Sternbuch performed miracles.'

Although they were friends, Klein had never previously asked Pechman for help, but after seeing the desperate situation of the survivors, he requested that he send food packages, each weighing up to 70 pounds, to Vaad offices in Munich and Frankfurt. He asked that each package should contain flour, vegetable fats, oil in cans, condensed milk, coffee, cocoa, tinned fruit, raisins for making wine, cigarettes, tuna fish, a Chumash with Rashi commentary, tzitzis and a Nusach Sephard Siddur.

In December 1946, Klein sent a number of telegrams to prominent Orthodox Jews in the U.S. asking for their immediate help. In separate telegrams to Arthur Belfer and Emanuel and Josef Berger he wrote: `Some of European Famous Leading Balabatim Who Lived in Siberia During War Are Now In Danger In Their Lives [sic] In Poland. Need 1000 Dollars From You Immediately To Rescue Them...Remember Our Tragedy of 1943 Too Little Too Late.'

To Joseph Shapiro he wrote: `Group of Nine Mothers and Four Fathers Who Survived Siberia For Four Years Have Now Opportunity Of Taking Their Children Out Of Goyish Homes Where There [sic] Lived For Five Years. Special Emissary Available To Do The Job. Need 1500 dollars....'

In separate telegrams sent to William Alpert and Jack and Israel Kestenbaum, he wrote: `8 Great Scholars With Tuberculosis Must Leave France For Switzerland At Once. Winter Here Hard Brutal. Safe [sic] Them From Death After All They Have Been Through. Deposit 1000 Dollars With [Irving] Bunim For Stephen Klein Account Apply Hotel Moderne Paris.'

To Vaad Hatzala New York he wrote: `Mrs. [Recha] Sternbuch Returned From Poland. There Are Possibilities To Rescue 1000 Outstanding Families. Polish Government Gave Definite Promise To Give Passports. I Could Get Belgian and French Visas But Cannot Start That Movement Until At Least 50000 Dollars For Transportation Only Are Secured...Other telegrams were sent to Max Eisenberg, Abraham Mazer and Leon Fruchthandler.'

Immigration and Visas

The Hotel Moderne housed the Vaad offices in Paris. There they worked on immigration and transportation with a staff of five, three women and two men. Rabbi Wasserman temporarily ran the office. A man from a local yeshiva was also at the office to lobby for the needs of his institution. During a four-week span, 40 people were sent from Paris to the U.S., and the Vaad paid most of the costs. At first, Klein secured 500 French visas for Polish Jews, and ultimately obtained more than 1060 visas, "allowing the Vaad to legally bring people out of Poland."

Because the American Consul was short of staff, he allowed the Vaad to process its visas at the Vaad office. Applicants visited the Consulate to receive medical examinations and have their fingerprints taken. Before Klein arrived in Paris, only eight visas were issued. After his arrival, he expected the number would increase to 50 per week.

Klein also met with the Polish Consul to obtain the documents for American visa applications. When a group of students did not have valid passports, Klein secured them, enabling the Consul to issue visas. To expedite the visa procedure, Klein also arranged for a member of the Consul staff to be assigned to the Vaad Hatzala.

It wasn't long before Klein ran into the roadblocks erected by the State Department to keep Jews out of the United States. Visa applications had to state where the people had been during the past 10 years. As Klein noted, this was `a little difficult because they were in four or five countries `and if [the American Consul] had to ask each Consulate in each of these countries if the people applied for visas or [if he had to ask for] any other information it would take a lot of time and lot of expense, since all these cables had to be paid for by the Vaad Hatzala.' Klein suggested that State Department officials be assured that the Vaad knew these people personally and that they were morally upstanding individuals. Klein hoped that Bunim would be able to obtain a `general ruling' for Vaad Hatzala cases so that this obstacle would be eliminated. In the meantime, Klein worked with yeshiva students and rabbis who were in one or two countries during the war, and so was able to get visas quickly. Among other things, applicants had to offer officials proof of future employment in America.

Bunim and other members of the Vaad met with officials from the State Department on November 16, 1946. They were promised that the American Consul in France would receive a cable informing them that the Department had investigated the authenticity of the employment contracts from synagogues and yeshivos, as well as the rabbinical status of the applicants and were satisfied with the documents. They would ask the Consul to authorize visas, unless he found evidence to the contrary. Bunim asked Klein for a list of the rabbis who had difficulty in obtaining visas, so the State Department could refer these cases to the Consul for clarification.

Bunim and his group also met with Ugo Carusi, the Commissioner of Immigration, and his advisor about student visas. For 24 years there had been a rule in force: A temporary visitor or student had to provide documentation where he would go after completing his studies or at the end of his visit. Carusi and members of his staff were satisfied with the Vaad's guarantee, but the legal department said that the American Consul would have to follow the regulations unless the ruling could be changed or amended. A meeting with the Attorney General and the State Department needed to be arranged and this required time. The Vaad was also told that if an individual had a Polish passport for only a short time, they would recommend that the Consul provide the person with a temporary visa for the U.S. for as long as the passport was valid. The Polish Consul would then extend the passport in the U.S.

In the meantime, American consuls in Germany were giving visas to rabbis, but not to students. Bunim suggested that Klein approach the Inter-Governmental Committee on Refugees (IGC) to obtain its support so that stateless students and their wives could enter Germany or some other country once their visas expired in the U.S. Bunim urged him to get documents from the consulates of Morocco, Luxembourg, Costa Rica or other South American countries because the State Department did not care where Jews went after their American visas expired. Klein turned to the IGC, established in 1938 to find homes for refugees, because its post-war responsibilities included coordinating DP affairs and easing administrative transitions.

When Klein went to London to meet with the IGC, he found that they only wanted the JDC and the Jewish Agency for Palestine to represent the Jews in Europe. Klein explained that the Vaad had a different mission than other relief organizations and questioned whether the IGC had the authority to make such arrangements. When he informed them that he did not want to go to Washington to discuss the exclusion of the Vaad, he sensed that they were very concerned that he `might complain to the Five Powers, Especially Washington.'

In response to a claim by the JDC that the Vaad was duplicating its work, Klein observed that `it is not we who are duplicating, but it is the Joint who is trying to imitate and duplicate us.' At another point he remarked that, `It is unbelievable how little relief work is done by the JDC in Europe, especially in Germany. They depend entirely on UNRRA and the Military.'

Klein realized that the only way to overcome the slow process of getting people out of Germany was to increase the number of Jews coming to the U.S. on a non-quota basis. He made some initial attempts to so, but he turned the work over to Rabbi Sol Rosenberg before leaving the country.

Finding transportation for DPs immigrating to the U.S. also consumed a great deal of Klein's time. U.S. Lines and the Chief Consul in Germany promised him some ships from Bremen that would stop in Le Havre, France to pick up yeshiva students. To ensure that other additional avenues of transportation would be available, Klein urged Pincus Schoen, executive director of the Vaad in New York, to arrange reservations for sick DPs on the Queen Elizabeth from Southampton, England to the U.S. Klein also tried to gain permission from the Palestine Colonial Minister for students from Germany and France to study in Palestine. The American Embassy's Special Emissary for the Middle East was close to Klein and worked hard to convince the minister to implement this policy.

Financial Assistance

Wherever Klein went in Europe people asked him for financial help. The JDC supplied the yeshiva in Paris with a home, and gave each student 125 francs a day for food. The Vaad Hatzala provided an extra 200 francs per day for their other needs, which was still not enough. Klein also found a group of 35 rabbis with their families, "about 200 altogether," mostly from Poland, Galicia and Hungary who wanted $3,000 a month. He gave them $1,700, which included $1,000 from the Vaad, $500 from his own funds and $200 from Rabbi Abramsky of London. The JDC provided each with 180 francs per day and 90 francs per day, per child. Klein asked the Vaad board to allocate money for them, and suggested they leave France as soon as possible. Since there was no hope of going to Palestine at that point, they wanted to go to the U.S. He urged that they write to the Agudath Harabonim and the Vaad for additional help.

Pockets of Orthodox Jews living in very bad financial straits were found in St. Germain, Henneville and other areas. The JDC was able to provide them with only 125 francs per day. Klein gave them some money, but he was quite limited in what he could offer. He felt that they, too, had to immigrate.

Klein also founded five children's homes under the auspices of the Vaad: Aix-les-Bains had 450 children including two yeshivos; at Strasbourg and Schirmeck there were 250 children; at Barbizon there were 40 children and 75 at Fublaines. All the homes were maintained and supported by Rescue Children Inc., which paid an average of 5,000 francs per child each month. It also paid for their clothing and other necessities, and salaries for the teachers and administrators. Jewish education at the homes was inadequate because they lacked teachers and the strong leadership needed to develop a curriculum and administration. The homes were run along political party lines, which only exacerbated the problems.

Since the Vaad was responsible for the education of these children, Klein warned that a proper educational infrastructure was needed or the children would be lost to Torah-true Judaism. A knowledgeable educator, familiar with European educational systems and culture, he wrote, should be sent from the U.S. to prepare the children for life in Palestine, where most of them wanted to go.

Irving Bunim shared this information with Rabbi Kotler. Rav Aharon participated in Vaad meetings, including those with State Department officials in Washington, D.C.

During his two trips to Germany, Klein visited the Vaad offices in Frankfurt and Munich, the yeshivos in Windsheim, Zeilsheim, Bergen-Belsen in the British Zone and a yeshiva in Ulm.

`Nobody can imagine in how wonderful spirits these yeshivos are [sic],' he reported, especially at the yeshiva in Zeilsheim where at least 200 boys had been brought from Poland by Recha Sternbuch. The school was run along religious party lines, but since the children were very young Klein was not concerned about their indoctrination. He gave the yeshivos some money, but they needed a regular subsidy of $2 per yeshiva student a week. Allocating $750 per week, Klein believed, would meet the needs of the yeshivos at that point.

Visit to Germany

On his first visit to Germany, Klein saw an immediate need to establish yeshivos ketanos (elementary schools) in camps with large numbers of Orthodox Jews, especially those with Polish DPs. Klein asked Rabbis Baruch and Schechter to open yeshivos in the camps, which they did with funds he provided. Altogether, the Vaad established almost 20 yeshivos. Each yeshiva had a board of education under the leadership of a rabbi or under the man with the most knowledge of Judaism in the camp.

The Vaad subsidized large numbers of kosher kitchens in the camps, as well as mikvehs and Agudah and Mizrachi kibbutzim. The Vaad supported two mohalim, who were called to various camps almost every day to perform circumcisions. He noted that during the previous year 20,000 children had been born.

In the meantime, the Vaad offices developed a reputation throughout Germany as a place where DPs could obtain religious items. Camp committees constantly visited Vaad offices to collect these religious objects and discuss other religious needs. Klein concluded that if the Vaad Hatzala did not exist, there would be a need for such an organization. He was proud that the Vaad was `practically the only [O]rthodox organization recognized by almost every government in Europe.' It was the only Orthodox institution with official status in Germany and Austria. But at the same time, he was heartbroken because so much more `could be accomplished if [O]rthodoxy were united,' especially considering `the amount that we have accomplished with so little' thus far. This was the time when the Agudah, Mizrachi, Hungarian Jews, Bobover Hasidim and the Klausenberger Rebbe `should get together and form a strong fund to give the people the help' they need.

Dean Samuel L. Sar of Yeshiva University, who would later play a role in the rescue and rehabilitation activities for the DPs, was also critical of what appeared to be parochial interests and concerns. Finally, Klein hoped that another layperson would follow his lead and come to Europe to continue the work he started.

Klein was especially disturbed to hear from people who had recently come to Europe from the U.S. that `not everything is going smoothly' at the Vaad headquarters in New York. He hoped the rumors were `not true,' since he had been `killing' himself `to do everything in the world possible to get visas from various countries, only to find that there was no harmony in New York.'

Throughout Klein's stay in Europe, Schoen sent him requests to transfer funds and to aid specific individuals. Schoen also wired instructions from the Federal Reserve Bank on how to transfer Swiss francs to Switzerland and provided him with documents necessary to facilitate the immigration of people being detained by the French relief organization.

Rabbi Jacob Karlinsky, executive secretary of the Vaad in New York, asked him 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 to arrive on the next two ships from Shanghai.

Before Klein left Europe, Schoen asked him for `documentary proof' that the Vaad was assisting Mizrachi in Germany and other parts of Europe. The 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, tefillin, Chumashim, mezuzos and other religious items that were desperately needed. He cabled Herbert Tenzer (Klein's partner and later a Congressman from New York) to send $1,600 for Rescue Children, Inc., $10,000 to Isaac 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, a delegation of American Jews attended a Zionist convention in Basel, Switzerland. Many were from Mizrachi. Klein thought it would be a good opportunity for them to come to Paris to see the work the Vaad was doing, especially since some members of the group were `not too friendly' to the Vaad. Pincus Schoen concurred and suggested that the delegates visit Vaad Hatzala homes in Switzerland and meet with key Vaad representatives in Europe.

In mid-December 1946, Bunim informed Klein that Rabbi Eliezer Silver was demanding that Rabbis Schechter, Londinski and Rosenberg return to the U.S. immediately. Perhaps this was an attempt to exercise greater control of events by Rabbi Silver, who was a main fundraiser for the Vaad and under extreme pressure to raise the monies so desperately needed. Silver's dedication and commitment were such that when he could not secure funds for a particular cause, he would borrow money from his bank and use his life insurance as collateral.

By ordering the three rabbis back home, Rabbi Silver may have reasoned that Vaad expenses would be decreased and thus the demands upon him lessened. Bunim said that, `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.

In subsequent correspondence, Bunim informed Klein that Rabbi Silver had mentioned nothing further about the return of the rabbis, so that the matter would be allowed to die. Bunim informed him that Samuel Schmidt would be going to Europe at the `request and insistence of Rabbi Silver,' and that several meetings had been arranged with the Agudah, Zeirei Agudah and World Agudah in the hopes of coming to an understanding with them about the Vaad. In addition, Rabbis Pinchas Teitz, Joseph Baumel and Bezalel Cohen of the Mizrachi made an appeal for the Vaad in the name of all the organizations.

Klein urged Bunim to be careful that Rabbi Silver did not make `any agreement with the JDC about changing the role of the Vaad.' Klein believed that Rabbi Silver could not make any changes concerning the Vaad by limiting its role or through an agreement with the JDC without their consent. `I do not think he can do it without you and me,' Klein told Bunim, but he was wrong. He asked Bunim to avoid meeting with the JDC `under any circumstances' and said that he should not ask them for any funds. He stopped the yeshiva students from requesting transportation from the JDC, and purposely avoided meeting any of their staff, except for a low level official. He asked that Bunim do his `utmost to keep Vaad Hatzala alive, as it is important for my work with the Inter- Governmental Committee.' Rav Aharon had insisted that Bunim do all he could to maintain the viability of the Vaad.

Baruch was so impressed with Klein's accomplishments, that in late January 1947 he wrote to William Alpert that Klein `did a fine job and accomplished a great deal while in Europe, worked real hard, never sparing himself. He certainly went all out in his work, which was indeed appreciated by all of us.'

Klein's Return to the U.S.

Back in New York, Klein continued his work on immigration and other areas. He sent funds to Europe, worked out fundraising campaign strategy with Irving Bunim and concentrated on public relations and publicity.

Klein talked about the Vaad's work in Europe on WEVD, a Jewish radio program in New York, and urged the audience to provide help to their fellow Jews. He described how the Jews in Europe received dry rations of 1200 calories a day and asked the audience to compare this amount with the number of calories they consumed daily. He asked that 11-pound packages be sent to supplement this meager daily ration. The packages were to be sent to a relative in the 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 things that could not be used. Everything, especially canned food, was in demand. They needed prunes, raisins, chocolate, fats, sugar and fruits. If the recipients could not use the items, they could 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 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 greater value because they could be bartered.

Klein also described how in Germany a woman walked a great distance to see him while 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 also 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.

The book may be ordered through or KTAV Publishing at 201-963-9524. $29.50+S&H


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