This work illustrates something of both the best and worst of recent Holocaust scholarship. It is a pioneering study of the attempts by strictly Orthodox Jews, especially in America, to rescue Orthodox Jews in Europe during the Second World War. In particular, this work is a study of the Vaad–ha–Hatzalah (Rescue Committee) established by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada to save as many Jews as possible. No scholarly work has ever been written on this subject before. Indeed, the fate of Europe’s Orthodox Jews during the Second World War remains distinctly underexplored, despite the vast and ever–growing literature on the Holocaust. In many respects, as a work of historical scholarship Zuroff’s book is admirable, comprehensively using a plethora of little–known sources. Despite the emotionally sensitive nature of the subject, Zuroff maintains a cool head and a scholarly style. His tone, it should be noted, is in welcome contrast to the writings on this subject emanating from ultra–Orthodox publishing houses in the United States, works that have too often been self–congratulatory, extravagant, and jejune.
The Response, however, is marred by two fundamental flaws. While this purports to be a book about the Holocaust, in reality it is not. The first three–quarters of the book do not concern attempts to rescue Jews from the Nazi Holocaust but from Stalinist Russia. Thus the title of the work is misleading. In 1939, Hitler and Stalin divided Poland between them, with the Soviet regime annexing the eastern half of the country, home to perhaps 1.5 million Jews, containing nearly all of the well–known Orthodox yeshivot. In June 1940, the Soviet Union annexed the three Baltic republics, including Lithuania, traditionally one of the main centers of Orthodox Jewry. The Stalinist regime deported an estimated 1.25 million Jews and non–Jews to Siberia; one historian has claimed that 100,000 Jews were killed in this period. Stalin imposed a grim and rapid sovietization of Polish society in the two years of his rule there. For the Jews this meant the destruction of traditional religious life, as well as all manifestations of Jewish identity that didn’t fit the Stalinist mold. On the other hand, unlike Hitler, Stalin was not genocidal, and did not kill Jews as such; indeed, historians acknowledge that right–wing Polish anti–Semitism disappeared during this period, while for the very poorest Jews, living standards actually rose.
It is thus towards the Stalinist rather than the Nazi regime that the Vaad’s original “rescue” attempts were directed. Since traditional Judaism could not exist in the Soviet Union, the Vaad’s efforts were directed at securing visas for Orthodox Jews to places of safety, especially for the rabbis of the famous yeshivot and their students. Given the enormous obstacles that existed, it did fairly well, with Shanghai, America, and Palestine receiving small but not insignificant numbers.
Nazi Germany was, of course, another matter. After 1940, the Nazis permitted no exceptions whatever to their policies of genocide, and refused (except in the rarest of cases) to allow Jews to emigrate to safety. Although Zuroff obviously understands this, he rather perversely fails to take it into account in assessing the response of the Vaad. For instance, he presents a series of reasons why it did so little to rescue Jews, beginning with its alleged failure to “internalize” news of the Holocaust, but omits the single most important and all–encompassing factor—there was absolutely nothing it could do.
In fact, the proposals the Vaad did make for “rescue” were absurd and useless. For instance, it proposed in early 1944 that the newly–created War Refugee Board (not mentioned by Zuroff) “send mercy ships to ghettos”; its other proposals were similarly unrealistic. Not that any of America’s other Jewish groups had better ideas. Europe’s Jews were prisoners of Hitler, who was engaged in killing all of them, and apart from winning the war as quickly as possible, virtually nothing could be done to save them.
As Zuroff emphasizes, the Vaad pursued an independent line in attempting to secure the rescue of Jews from the Nazis. It represented strictly Orthodox Jews, at the time little known and virtually unrepresented among America’s Jewish leadership. When the mainstream of American Jewry was publicly quiescent, the Vaad repeatedly “made trouble” over the fate of Europe’s Jews, even, in October 1943, leading four hundred Orthodox rabbis in a high–profile march on Washington, one of the very few public demonstrations carried out at this time by American Jewry. It pursued unusual avenues in its rescue attempts wherever possible.
Yet in practical terms the Vaad accomplished virtually nothing. It managed to rescue at most 1,500 Jews from the Nazis, chiefly by bribery and negotiation, and even the accuracy of this claim is not entirely clear, despite Zuroff’s claims. His further assertion that it would have been possible to rescue large numbers of Hungarian Jews through the infamous “blood for goods” deal proposed by Himmler and Eichmann is very dubious, given that Himmler was working behind Hitler’s back and keeping him in the dark. Hitler responded to other proposals of this kind with blind fury, and it is virtually inconceivable that he would have agreed to allow the release of large numbers of Hungarian Jews, even assuming that Himmler and Eichmann were serious in their proposal—which is also doubtful. Similarly, Zuroff’s claim that the Vaad’s “negotiations with the Nazis . . . may have in some way favorably affected the fate of hundreds of thousands of concentration camp inmates” seems to me to border on fiction.
Zuroff’s book has been read by some as accusing the Vaad, during the early part of the war, of being interested in rescuing only Orthodox Jews and not other Jews. Zuroff in fact rightly defends the Vaad against this charge, although arguably for the wrong reasons. In interwar Poland, all Jewish parties and groupings, among which the ultra–Orthodox party Agudat Yisrael was quite important, were closed “way of life” movements, eschewing cooperation with other Jewish (let alone non–Jewish) parties. Orthodox Jews expected this situation to persist under the Soviet regime and they continued to look after their own. Ultra–Orthodox Judaism has, as well, viewed post–biblical Jewish history as consisting of a series of catastrophes from which the Jewish people reemerged because a small “remnant” of Torah–true Jews were, for inscrutable reasons, preserved and allowed to build again. They viewed both the Soviet and Nazi regimes simply as continuations of that history; given the current importance of strict Orthodoxy in the Jewish world, perhaps they were, in a sense, right. Zuroff’s account of the near–contempt with which both non–Orthodox Jewish leaders like Rabbi Stephen Wise and political leaders like Franklin Roosevelt treated the Union of Orthodox Rabbis is indeed shocking, but that treatment finally made no difference to the fate of Europe’s Jews, which was, alas, being decided in Berlin.
William D. Rubinstein is Professor of Modern History at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.