The Rab­bi Saved by Hitler’s Soldiers

  • Review
By – October 26, 2016

The Rab­bi Saved by Hitler’s Sol­diers was first pub­lished ten years ago by Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press as Res­cued from the Reich: How One of Hitler’s Sol­diers Saved the Lubav­itch­er Rebbe. The new ver­sion is dra­mat­i­cal­ly expand­ed with addi­tion­al pri­ma­ry source mate­r­i­al and the most recent schol­ar­ship. It is a riv­et­ing account of the com­bined efforts of a num­ber of sec­u­lar Amer­i­can Jews close to the White House and a Mis­chling Wehrma­cht offi­cer who worked togeth­er with Nazi diplo­mats to res­cue the Rebbe from Nazi occu­pied Poland. Bryan Mark Rigg rais­es the ques­tion as to why so many worked so hard to bend Amer­i­can immi­gra­tion laws in behalf of the Rebbe and his fam­i­ly; why did Ernst Bloch, the Wehrma­cht offi­cer, risk his life to bring Rebbe Joseph Isaac Schneer­sohn, the sixth Lubav­itch­er Rebbe, to the Unit­ed States?

One answer Rigg sug­gests is that the Chabad lead­er­ship in the Unit­ed States was able to con­vince unin­formed res­cuers that the Rebbe was the lead­ing Torah schol­ar in the world and held the same posi­tion among the world of Ortho­dox Judaism as did the pope among Catholics. Among the most effec­tive of those work­ing for the res­cue of the Rebbe, was Joseph Rhoade, a sec­u­lar Jew­ish lawyer who was enlist­ed by the Chabad to lob­by for the Rebbe’s res­cue. Rigg describes his efforts on behalf of the Rebbe as tire­less, even at the cost of his oth­er clients, yet the Chabad orga­ni­za­tion, nev­er remu­ner­at­ed him, despite many promis­es to do so. In fact, after the Rebbe was res­cued, Rhoade, among oth­ers who worked to bring him to safe­ty, were nev­er thanked by the Rebbe, nor pub­licly acknowl­edged for their efforts.

Rigg’s sting­ing rebuke of the Rebbe — who, accord­ing to the author, was more con­cerned about bring­ing his library to the Unit­ed States than engag­ing with oth­er Jew­ish groups to save Jew­ish lives — is doubtless­ly con­tro­ver­sial. Of the many crit­i­cisms lobbed against the Rebbe and Chabad through­out the book, Rigg’s indict­ment of the Rebbe’s fail­ure to protest the mur­der of Euro­pean Jew­ry is his fiercest accu­sa­tion: America’s screen­ing process in 1940 was flawed, as shown by how the Rebbe and his fol­low­ers were able to deceive the sys­tem. He was saved because gov­ern­ment thought his stature among Ortho­dox Jews was sim­i­lar to that of the pope[…] which may have been true of his suc­ces­sor but not of him.”

The Rebbe’s orga­ni­za­tion claimed in Sep­tem­ber 1941 that if the Jews were bet­ter edu­cat­ed and lived accord­ing to the pre­cepts of the Torah, the cat­a­stroph­ic sit­u­a­tion would not have devel­oped,’” Rigg writes. In oth­er words, he believed the Holo­caust was God’s pun­ish­ment for the Jews’ aban­don­ment of their faith. Only renewed obe­di­ence to God would end their pun­ish­ment[…] polit­i­cal action to end the Holo­caust or save lives was futile as long as the Jews failed to fol­low the com­mand­ments.” Rigg notes that giv­en this atti­tude, it was obvi­ous that the Rebbe would find it dif­fi­cult to coop­er­ate with those involved in the effort to save the Jews of Europe. In short, Rigg argues that there were many things Chabad could have done to help the Jews in Europe oth­er than pray­ing and study­ing Torah, and Joseph Isaac Schneersohn’s fail­ure to spur the orga­ni­za­tion to do so remains a black mark on his record as the head of the Chabad dur­ing the Holocaust.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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