Rescued from the Reich: How One of Hitler's Soldiers Saved the Lubavitcher Rebbeby Bryan Mark Rigg
When Hitler invaded Warsaw in the fall of 1939, hundreds of thousands of civiliansmany of them Jewishwere trapped in the besieged city. The Rebbe Joseph Schneersohn, the leader of the ultra-orthodox Lubavitcher Jews, was among them. Followers throughout the world were filled with anguish, unable to confirm whether he was alive or dead. Working with
When Hitler invaded Warsaw in the fall of 1939, hundreds of thousands of civiliansmany of them Jewishwere trapped in the besieged city. The Rebbe Joseph Schneersohn, the leader of the ultra-orthodox Lubavitcher Jews, was among them. Followers throughout the world were filled with anguish, unable to confirm whether he was alive or dead. Working with officials in the United States government, a group of American Jews initiated what would ultimately become one of the strangestand most miraculousrescues of World War II.
The escape of Rebbe Schneersohn from Warsaw has been the subject of speculation for decades. Historian Bryan Mark Rigg has now uncovered the true story of the rescue, which was propelled by a secret collaboration between American officials and leaders of German military intelligence. Amid the fog of war, a small group of dedicated German soldiers located the Rebbe and protected him from suspicious Nazis as they fled the city together. During the course of the mission, the Rebbe learned the shocking truth about the leader of the rescue operation, the decorated Wehrmacht soldier Ernst Bloch: he was himself half-Jewish, and a victim of the rising tide of German antisemitism.
A harrowing story about identity and moral responsibility, Rescued from the Reich is also a riveting narrative history of one of the most extraordinary rescue missions of World War II.
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Rescued from the ReichHOW ONE OF HITLER'S SOLDIERS SAVED THE LUBAVITCHER REBBE
By Bryan Mark Rigg
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2004 Yale University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Invasion
Hitler launched his campaign of military conquests by attacking Poland. In August 1939 he told his generals that he would concoct a "propaganda reason" for the invasion, the plausibility of which should not concern them in the least. Declaring that the victors write the history books, he encouraged the commanders to close their "hearts to pity" and to "act brutally." Eighty million people, he explained, needed their Lebensraum. He had written in Mein Kampf, "The Reich must again set itself along the road of the Teutonic Knights of old.... And so we National Socialists ... take up where we broke off six hundred years ago. We stop the endless German movement to the south and west, and turn our gaze towards the land in the East."
In late August, Hitler ordered SS General Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Gestapo, to stage an attack on German units stationed on the border with Poland, a mission requiring disguise and subterfuge. To create a provocation, Heydrich and Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, obtained 150 Polish uniforms from Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the Abwehr (military counterintelligence agency).Dressed in these uniforms, SS soldiers assaulted the broadcasting station at Gleiwitz on 31 August. Heydrich then ordered several concentration camp inmates from Sachsenhausen murdered and dressed in the stolen Polish uniforms. The SS offered the bodies at the Gleiwitz station as proof for foreign journalists that Poland had attacked Germany. Consequently, Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland without declaring war. He knew he had to have a reason to attack other than imperialism, and this provided him with an excuse. "Actual proof of Polish attacks is essential," Heydrich said, "both for the foreign press and for German propaganda."
On 1 September, as his legions swarmed across the border, Hitler announced on the radio: "The Polish state has refused the peaceful settlement of relations which I desired and has appealed to arms. Germans in Poland are persecuted with bloody terror. A series of violations of the frontier, intolerable to a great power, prove that Poland is no longer willing to respect the frontier of the Reich. In order to put an end to this lunacy I have no choice other than to meet force with force; the German Army will fight for the honor and rights of a new-born Germany." He mentioned fourteen border incidents by the Poles that had left the Germans no recourse but to return fire.
That day, Karin Tiche, a twenty-year-old unmarried Pole and the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Christian father, walked onto her balcony in Warsaw. Observing two airplanes performing strange acrobatic turns in the air, she yelled for her mother to come see how their men were training for war. Then the aircraft fired their guns, and suddenly one fell from the sky engulfed in flames. The victorious plane, she now saw, had Nazi markings. The Polish government immediately announced on the radio that the Germans had started a border conflict that the Poles would readily win. "They told us this while they moved our government to the south of Poland, away from Warsaw," Tiche says, "and we would soon find out that it was not just a border dispute but a full-scale invasion and that we were losing everywhere." Hitler's anti-Polish rhetoric and military maneuvers on their border had led many Poles to expect war, but when it came it surprised everyone.
To many Germans the attack seemed wholly justified. The Versailles Treaty had forced Germany to give up territory to Poland, a country created, in part, as a result of Germany's defeat in World War I. The Allies appropriated other German territory as well and parceled it out to neighboring countries. Germans were shocked that the Allies separated East Prussia from Germany proper by the Polish Corridor, which led to the Baltic Sea at the free city of Danzig. They were enraged at Poland for accepting territories that it had no apparent historical claim to and that it had not conquered militarily. Writing in 1920, General Hans von Seeckt, head of the Reichswehr, declared Poland "Germany's mortal enemy," one that had to be destroyed. In the mid-1920s, 90 percent of Germans felt similarly. By the 1930s, the "overwhelming majority" of the Wehrmacht's officer corps supported launching an attack on Poland.
Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939 also met with the enthusiastic approbation of the German population. The Evangelical Church in Germany issued an official appeal a day after the attack "for Germans to support the invasion to 'recover German blood' for the fatherland," and the Catholic hierarchy encouraged and admonished "Catholic soldiers, in obedience to the führer, to do their duty and to be ready to sacrifice their lives." Many religious newspapers claimed that Germans were simply fighting for essential Lebensraum. As the American journalist William Shirer wrote on 20 September while living in Berlin, "I have still to find a German, even among those who don't like the regime, who sees anything wrong in the German destruction of Poland."
Hitler used overwhelming force to conquer Poland. On 1 September, one and a half million German troops crossed into the country, backed by two thousand planes. Wehrmacht soldiers sliced through the widening gaps of an unprepared and poorly equipped Polish army stationed along the border with Germany. Poland had two million men under arms, but they were outmatched by the motorized, highly trained, and disciplined Germans. Despite their passionate defense, the Poles would not last long.
As Germany swallowed up Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland in 1938 and 1939, thousands of Jews tried to escape the Nazi juggernaut. Many sold their belongings to purchase passage out of Europe, and some abandoned their families altogether. Few of them reached freedom. After Germany crossed Poland's border, the U.S. government received pleas from its own citizens to help relatives trapped in Europe, thousands of whom flooded American embassies and consulates in Europe with petitions for visas. Most cries for help went unanswered. The American government was too busy with social issues, such as the massive unemployment resulting from the Great Depression, and too intent on maintaining diplomatic neutrality to involve itself with refugee problems. Anti-Jewish sentiment in the United States, moreover, peaked in the late thirties, worsening an already difficult situation for Jews suffering under Hitler.
In 1938, one poll claimed that 58 percent of Americans believed that the Jews were partly if not fully responsible for Nazi persecution. Many Americans simply did not see the Jews' plight as their own. As the "arch foe of immigration liberalization," Senator Robert Reynolds of North Carolina said, "Why should we give up those blessings to those not so fortunate? ... Let Europe take care of its own people."
When President Roosevelt heard of the Nazi invasion, he exclaimed, "It has come at last. God help us all." In his fireside chat on 3 September 1939, he said that he wanted to keep America neutral but that he could not ask his fellow Americans to remain neutral in thought: "Even a neutral cannot be asked to close its mind or conscience." Roosevelt knew he would have to aid the Allies in order to defeat Germany but would need to determine when and how to do so. American military intervention would ultimately be triggered not by human rights violations but by the threat posed to democracy and the Western world.
Many in Poland, as well as in the United States, looked to the Allies to take quick action against Hitler. Chaim Kaplan, a distinguished Hebrew school principal in Warsaw, wrote that he hoped the Allies would stick to their word and not leave Poland to the mercy of the Germans as they had left Czechoslovakia. But it seemed that a timorous world would indeed let Germany roll over the helpless Polish nation. Although France and Britain mobilized and deployed their forces in the West, they did not invade Germany. Would they ever act? The only country that could help Poland in the East was the Soviet Union, but the USSR was bound to Hitler by the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact signed in August 1939. In fact, Stalin was also bent on Poland's destruction and hoped to gain vast amounts of land after its imminent defeat.
With the blitzkrieg preventing most Polish Jews from fleeing, worried family members in the United States wrote the American government for help in getting their relatives out from under Hitler. They had good reason for concern, because Hitler did not waste time starting his killing of "inferior people." Almost immediately after the invasion, the SS began to liquidate undesirable elements of the population, including Jews, Communists, Polish nobility, clergy, and intelligentsia.
Most of the 3.3 million Jews in Poland in 1939, one-third of them in poverty, would perish in the Holocaust. Having as yet no organized plan of genocide, the Germans initially killed Polish Gentiles with the same frequency as they did Jews, focusing especially on the Polish elite. "There was no way of knowing in 1939 that Hitler would be murdering us by the millions in a few years. No one would ever have thought this back then," observes Tiche. "The nation of Beethoven, Bach, and Goethe murdering people like they did was unthinkable." Historian Nora Levin writes that even in the summer of 1940, no one, not even Polish Jews, could have foreseen the full extent of atrocity under the Nazis. Many observed acts of persecution and isolated murders, but the systematic gassing of millions lay beyond the human imagination.
Hitler had given ample indication of his intentions, but few had taken him seriously. En route to Poland, German troops traveled in railcars emblazoned with large-nosed caricatures captioned "We're off to Poland-to thrash the Jews." Moreover, Hitler had proclaimed in a major address in January 1939 that "if international monied Jewry within Europe and beyond again succeeds in casting the peoples into a world war, the result will not be the Bolshevization of the globe and a victory for Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe." Hitler aimed not only to reclaim lost territory and pride but also to begin his eradication of inferior people, including Slavs and Jews. He had written about such racial discrimination and world conquest in Mein Kampf, but few who read the volume took him seriously. William Shirer notes, "Whatever other accusations can be made against Adolf Hitler, no one can accuse him of not putting down in writing exactly the kind of Germany he intended to make if ever he came to power, and the kind of world he meant to create by armed German conquest." Shirer observes correctly that although Hitler mentioned his plans, only when he started to put them in action did people begin to realize his true intentions, and even then, many of the crimes he committed were still unbelievable in 1939.
A tiny minority saw the coming storm. Chaim Kaplan, who had heard Hitler speak on the radio in January 1939, wrote in his diary on 1 September that no Jew under Hitler's rule had any hope. "Hitler, may his name be blotted out," Kaplan recorded, "threatened in one of his speeches that if war comes the Jews of Europe will be exterminated.... Our hearts tremble at the future.... What will be our destiny?" On 10 September, Kaplan again referred to the speech and questioned why God had allowed Hitler to subject the Jews to such cruelty. Wondering if they had sinned more than others to warrant this punishment, he concluded that they were "more disgraced than any people!"
Poland in 1939 was a strange land for the German invaders, especially with its large Hasidic Jewish communities. In Eastern Europe, many religious Jews spent their days in yeshivas, advanced academies for Talmud study, or shtiblekh, small houses of prayer. Many Polish Jews lived in shtetls or small ghetto enclaves that were often no more than clusters of dilapidated shacks and the requisite synagogue and house of study. Since most Wehrmacht soldiers enjoyed relative prosperity and led secular lives, they were shocked at how tens of thousands of ultrareligious Hasidic Ostjuden, as Eastern European Jews were pejoratively called, lived. The Ostjuden appeared strange with their long beards and peyes (side locks), and the skullcaps, gartlekh (fancy silk belts), and long dark coats reminiscent of seventeenth-century Polish aristocracy and intelligentsia. The Germans, unable to understand how these Jews earned a living since they prayed and studied all day, regarded them as lazy. Even German Jewish soldiers stationed in the East during World War I had expressed disgust at the appearance, habits, and living conditions of the Ostjuden.
For decades before Hitler, many German Jews felt that the poor, culturally backward, and "dirty" Ostjuden gave the typically well-educated and cultured German Jews a bad name. A few German Jews helped the Ostjuden philanthropically, but by and large they rejected any feelings of kinship. The Ostjuden lived in anachronistic ghettos and learned only "Polish Talmudic barbarism," as contrasted with refined German Bildung (education). To self-regarding German Jews, they observed an irrational, mystical, and superstitious religion that no longer had a place in a world based on reason and scientific knowledge. The Ostjuden, in turn, felt that their heretical German brothers had abandoned Yiddishkeit (Jewishness) by shaving off their beards, adopting modern ways, and not keeping the Sabbath holy.
Many assimilated German Jews regarded Hitler's antisemitism as a reaction to the culture of the Ostjuden. Perhaps some German Jews felt as they did because the Ostjuden represented a part of themselves they wanted to deny. They knew that at one time their ancestors resembled the Ostjuden they condemned. That painful fact prompted many to reject their Ostjuden brethren with disdain and arrogance. Ostjuden simply represented all that they had fought to distance themselves from in their secularized, modern lifestyles. It is hardly surprising that most German Christians, too, perceived them as primitive. As a result, German Jews were even more concerned that they not be associated with such an unpopular group.
In the first days after the invasion, the Germans randomly destroyed hundreds of synagogues and murdered hundreds of Jews. At Czestochowa alone, they shot 180 Jews. In the village of Widawa, they burned Rabbi Abraham Mordechai Morocco alive when he refused to destroy the sacred writings. On 8 September, they herded 200 Jews into Widawa's synagogue, locked the doors, and set the building on fire. Other German soldiers took pleasure in hanging Jews from street lamps and watching them struggle with the rope as they suffocated. During the first two months of the occupation, the Germans killed at least 7,000 Polish Jews and forced the living into harsh labor and sudden "resettlement." Although there was as yet no organized plan of genocide, it became obvious that the Jews did not have a future under the Nazis.
Many Polish Jews felt helpless. Hasidic Jews, in particular, had dedicated their whole lives to learning Torah, the five books of Moses, and did not know how to use weapons or to fight. Germans often expressed shock at how passively these Jews accepted persecution, but they also grudgingly admired their dedication to God. When the Nazis torched a synagogue, it was not uncommon for Jews to run through gunfire into burning buildings to rescue the holy scrolls. Many willingly died doing so because they considered life meaningless without the Torah.
Excerpted from Rescued from the Reich by Bryan Mark Rigg Copyright © 2004 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Bryan Mark Rigg teaches history at American Military University and Southern Methodist University. His previous book, Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers: The Untold Story of Nazi Racial Laws and Men of Jewish Descent in the German Military won the prestigious Colby Award from the William E. Colby Military Writers’ Symposium. His work has been featured on programs including NBC Dateline and Fox News. Rigg served as a volunteer in the Israeli Army and as an officer in the U. S. Marine Corps, and he currently lives in Dallas, Texas.
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Mr. Rigg has done a lot of research on this matter. He has put in much time, energy, and even suffered some personal physical injury during a biking accident during his trip to Germany to interview Jewish veterans of the 3rd Reich. He deserves much credit for his book, indeed. However much of this knowledge was quite well known already amongst Lubavitchers, especially with the publication of 'Out of the Inferno', by a Lubavitcher historian. No offense to Mr. Rigg, but just as a person who does not know a specific language can not just talk to a few people who know that language or even people who only know people that speak that language and then go ahead and attempt to translate that language or write about it, so too if one doesn't know the entire details of a particular story nor the meaning of a Rebbe, how can he present such a book? Therefore some simple stories were incorrectly recorded in his book due to a lack of knowledge of basic hebrew and the terms of Jewish prayer. It also seems that some information that could have shed more light on this story, in particular with the efforts of the Rebbe after he arrived in America was purposely witheld by some Lubavitchers for some unexpilicable reasons, thereby resulting in some misunderstandings of the story.
A unique event in the horrendous tale of the Shoah comes to light in this story by a brilliant young historian. A chain of intervention passing from concerned Americans through the U.S.State Department(preceding American entrance into WWII),then to the Nazi Admiral Canaris (later another of Hitler's victims), and finally to its enacting by a half-Jewish German military officer,- leads to the improbable rescue of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Schneersohn from the Warsaw ghetto.This is narrated in scholarly detail,with much material from primary sources. It also provides useful background information on Hasidism as well as on the political situation of the period. Additionally it reminds us of the antisemitism in the U.S. immigration authority then, and it raises questions why this display of sympathy was shown toward a man who had little concern for his fellow-Jews outside the sect of which he was the spiritual leader.
The idea of one of Hitler's soldiers rescuing a Jewish rabbi and his family seems preposterous, yet Bryan Mark Rigg has uncovered this remarkable story. This well-documented book carefully takes the reader through each step of the rescue as high-ranking U.S. officials and Nazis (soldiers and officials) worked together to achieve the impossible. A riveting Holocaust rescue story by an excellent writer!
This book intrigued me by its name as well as by it s author, since I have read his other book Hitler's Jewish Soldiers. At first this book fascinated me, the tough research that went in to writing this great piece of History, what disappointed me however, was the way the author says that he is a historian and yet he writes his own analysis and understanding of what was taking place. I was also surprised to see how ignorant a man can be. When one writes the history of a person or people one needs to understand where those people are coming from, and Rigg just does not get it. That might be why he has such a hard time understanding what went on once the Lubavitcher Rebbe came to America. The author also seems to ignore many details of the history of the orthodox Jews in America, and although I am happy that he left it out, since there are things better off not said, he does that at the expense of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I do believe that the Lubavitcher Rebbe would rather have his name tainted then have something bad said about another Jew, however, it surprises me that a "history" book should be so full of slanted information. The end of the book, is not at all history related, all the author is trying to do is paint the Lubavitcher Rebbe as a hot headed Right wing figure, who does not care about the Jews being saved from Hitler, on the contrary he is just blaming the Jews for the holocaust. And he goes on to contrast His words with that of his son-in-law the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I would like to shed some light here. Rigg points out that the Lubavitcher Rebbe did try to get a meeting with the President but was denied. Rigg also says clearly that there were other organizations that worked on behalf of the Jewish community. (here is where he left out all the important details) so he went to work on the spiritual side of defending the Jews and saving them from harm. You see, from a Jewish perspective, there is nothing in this world that exist on only the physical realm. There is always the spiritual as well. So when fighting injustice, and working on saving Jewish lives, we can't just fight in the physical realm, we have to also fight in the spiritual realm. Therefore he was trying to persuade Jews to enhance their commitment to Torah and Mitzvot and by doing so the holocaust will end. So if you reverse this statement you can say that if Jews don't change then that will "in essence" encourage the Germans to succeed. This is NOT what he was saying and that is why the Lubavitcher Rebbe, his son-in-law had to clarify. In conclusion, the ignorant will say that they are arguing while the educated in spiritual matters will see clearly the difference.
This is an excellent book. It is evident the author did a great deal of research to properly portray the events concerning the rescue of Rabbi Schneersohn from the Nazi's. Intruiging elements are shown, including the help provided by a half Jewish Wermact officer who assisted in the rabbi's escape to America. Also noted are the problems that surfaced because of the obstinence of Rabbi Schneersohn and his followers while the drama was enfolding. It all makes for very good reading.
Drawing from countless primary and secondary sources and many interviews (including one with the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe's only living descendant, his grandson Barry Gourary), this book sheds much new light into the rescue of the previous Rebbe, especially the role of at least three Nazis, Helmut Wohlthat, William Canaris, and Ernst Bloch, commissioned by the American government in the rescue of the previous Rebbe. Lest one therefore draw the mistaken conclusion that America was highly sympathetic to the plight of the persecuted European Jewry, this was hardly --to my own personal shock and sadness-- the case at all. In the chapter The Search Begins, the reader is introduced to Breckinridge Long of the US State Department, overseer of America's refugee policy and a fierce anti-Semite whose immigration policies were disastrous for European Jewish refugees. Another impediment was the Immigration Act of 1924, something I recently learned about in my US Immigration and Ethnicity class this semester. The book raises many complicated moral questions on countries and individuals. Much of it might make Lubavitcher chassidim themselves uncomfortable, although they should be no less indebted than an outsider like myself (if not more so) to Bryan Mark Rigg for the painstaking work and research he has discovered and published about their beloved sixth Rebbe. For the Lubavitcher reading this book with footnotes, he will undoubtedly be made very uneasy at reading Barry Gourary's account of the complicated relationship between his father, Rabbi Shmaryahu Gourary (the Rashag) and his uncle (the Rashag's brother-in-law), Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson (the Rebbe, known prior to 1951 as the Ramash). The Lubavitcher will also be bothered by Barry Gourary's take on his uncle's time at university and his contention that his grandfather, the previous Rebbe, disapproved of the university studies. Still, I, for one, found it refreshing to read a 'non-censored' truthful non-revisionist account on Chabad history. Indeed, when one reads about the previous Rebbe's life from official Chabad publications, one would be forgiven for not knowing that he had a daughter named Chana Gourary and a grandson, both of whom are wholly and conspicuously omitted (no doubt due to their joint role in the court case over the previous Rebbe's books in the late 1980's) from publications like Days of Chabad and others. Rigg further tackles the negligence of President Roosevelt and the United States to help European Jewry through many angles and perspectives. The painful episode of the May 1939 St. Louis refugee ship is mentioned and Rigg also notes that many question Jewish leaders of the time 'for not fighting harder against Roosevelt's apparent indifference' and that they could and should have done more on behalf of their European co-religionists. Rigg also explores moral questions involving the Nazis, and half-Jewish Bloch in particular, in saving the previous Rebbe. In great understatement, Rigg writes, 'The story of Bloch and the Rebbe shows some of the moral complexity of the war.' In her approbation of the book, Sue Fishkoff (whom I was delighted to meet again at the Kinnus HaShluchim last week at the Brooklyn Marriot Hotel for the Lay Leadership Conference) writes of how Rigg masterfully exposes 'the cracks in the Nazi military machine that permitted men of conscience to act righteously, albeit at great personal risk.' Well put. Indeed, it is an intellectual and emotional roller coaster for the reader in attempting to understand men like Bloch and Canaris, the latter whose tragic fate is recounted. Inasmuch as Judaism teaches that deeds are of primary importance, the motivations behind them should be secondary if not altogether irrelevant. Whatever one thinks of their motivations, the fact is these men saved a Jewish leader, who, largely through his successor, is responsible for the absolute greatest and arguably singularly most effective outreac
'Rescued From The Reich' is a fascinating account of a less considered aspect of the holocaust: how members of the Nazi military actually helped Jews escape Hitler's extermination program. Bryan M. Rigg offers a well researched and documented account of the amazing rescue of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his entourage, by certain Nazi soldiers (mischling). He presents a clear picture of the circumstances in Europe for Jews and how they responded to the coming threat of genocide. Rigg also describes Hitler's Aryanization process of some Jews who were of mixed blood, which is a little known topic and one worth learning and considering within the history of WW II and the holocaust. Although most Ameircans are aware that Jews were not welcomed with open arms in the 30s and 40s, the author does an excellent job of revealing the depth of anti-semitism in American society and government. This is an important book that is worth reading for its contribution to a comprehensive WW II history.
In Rescued from the Reich historian Bryan Mark Rigg has unearthed one of the most remarkable untold stories of World War Two. It not only is a suspensful, vivid and well told tale, but a work that challenges long and dearly held assumptions about the Holocaust and raises crucial questions about religious identity and moral responsibility. I highly recommend this enjoyable and thought provoking book.