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… See more details below
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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