RABBI SCHNEERSOHN ESCAPED WARSAW ONLY WITH AID OF GERMANS
The story of how the leader of Chabad was saved from the Nazis began just about 73 years ago. It was October 1939; during the previous month, Nazi Germany threw the globe into World War II with a blitzkrieg as ruthless as it was effective.
The Nazis’ first target, Poland, lasted less than a month before it folded, and on Oct. 5, 1939 Hitler triumphantly reviewed his troops in Warsaw. It was that day that the fate of more than 3 million Jews in Poland was largely sealed.
Among those trapped in Warsaw was the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, and his extended family. As the rebbe celebrated the closing days of Succoth that year, leaders of Chabad in the United States set about the difficult process of rescuing their beloved leader from the Nazis; what they developed was an extraordinary plan to bring him to the U.S. in the months following the German military victory.
It was an audacious operation that depended on international diplomacy, secret intelligence work and cooperation from the highest levels of the Roosevelt administration. Of course, as crucial as the President’s support was, the many maneuvers almost certainly would not have succeeded if it did not have the support of some of the most prominent Nazis in Berlin.
There’s no mention of this in Chabad’s official bio of the Rebbe. However, one can find the story of Rabbi Schneersohn’s rescue in 1939 by Nazi soldiers acting on behalf of the head of the Nazi’s military intelligence based in Berlin (the Abwehr) in the fascinating book entitled “Rescued From the Reich – How One of Hitler’s Soldiers Saved The Lubavitcher Rebbe” by Southern Methodist University historian Brian Mark Rigg.
Chabad had been in America since the mid-1920s, and the Rebbe had visited in 1929 and met President Herbert Hoover at the White House. At the start of World War II, though, the Lubavitchers were a mere shadow of the rich and politically influential worldwide movement it has become in recent decades.
Still, leaders of Chabad were able to find the support of prominent Americans including Sol Bloom, the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives; Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis; and Secretary of State Cordell Hull, whose wife had a Jewish father – early in their campaign to save the Rebbe.
The United States was officially neutral in 1939, and thus high-ranking State Department official Robert Pell – who had good contacts in Berlin – was able to convince Helmuth Wolthat, the head of Germany’s Four Year national economic plan, to help. Wolthat found a sympathetic ear in Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, a career military officer, who led the aforementioned Abwehr.
Exactly why Nazi intelligence was willing to help is not entirely clear, but apparently there were a few followers of Hitler who did not want to destroy every Jew they found. Though he himself was dedicated to his party, Admiral Canaris had a number of trusted officers under his command who were part-Jewish; they were what the Nazis described as Mishlings, meaning they had been “aryanized” under Germany’s racial laws.
Canaris chose three of them – including Major Ernst Bloch, who had a Jewish father – to work with the Abwehr office in Warsaw. The trio’s task was to find and safely rescue the Rebbe and his family before the Nazi SS or the Gestapo murdered them.
It would take them nearly two months in their quiet search through the rubble of Warsaw to finally locate the Chabad leader. Meanwhile in the U.S., Chabad officials and their lawyer Max Rhoade began the difficult process of securing visas for the Rebbe.
It was a quest that was complicated by often anti-Semitic officers of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and hostile American diplomats in Europe and the United States. What’s more, the Chabad officials also needed the cooperation of a reluctant Latvian government, as the Rebbe was a citizen of that still independent Baltic nation.
In what could only be described as an extraordinary – even miraculous – accomplishment, the Rebbe, his family and several of his followers finally left Warsaw under Major Bloch’s and the Nazi government’s Abwehr protection on Dec. 22, 1939. They traveled by train through Poland to Berlin, passed through hostile document checks by the SS, stayed the night in Berlin’s Jewish Federation offices and then journeyed to Latvia and ultimately to neutral Sweden.
Their visas were finally granted in early January 1940. Ironically, it took longer to get the visas from the American government than to rescue the Rebbe from the Nazis, but on March 19, 1940, the Rebbe, his wife, several family members and a few other Lubavitcher Hasids finally set foot in America and began their work to rebuild the Chabad movement in its new home. Rabbi Schneersohn’s beloved library of 135 crates of books was saved, too, and arrived from Warsaw a few months later.
Despite a severe heart condition and multiple sclerosis, the Rebbe continued to work tirelessly to lay the ground work for a vibrant post-war Chabad. He died in 1950 at the age of 70 and was succeeded by his son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whom he had helped rescue from Vichy France.
In a short span of years that saw most of the great Hasidic dynasties of Eastern Europe end in the Nazi concentration camps, the Chabad Rebbe’s survival came against all odds and all logic. That he survived to continue to create what is arguably one of the biggest Jewish success stories in modern times is the stuff of great Hollywood movies.
Sometimes, our stories astonish even us.
Editor’s note: Bob Bahr is President of Shema Yisrael – The Open Synagogue and leads High Holiday services there.
By Bob Bahr
For the Atlanta Jewish Times