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Jewish World Review
Jan. 26, 2005
/ 16 Shevat, 5765
Real fighting spirit
Philip Sieradski, Ph.D.
After 60 years of ignoring the Holocaust, this week, the United Nations officially acknowledged that it did, in fact, take place, along with liberation of Jewish people from concentration camps. There was a special session at the UN, with two exhibits about the liberation of Auschwitz -- one from the International Auschwitz Committee and another from Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem-based Holocaust museum.
What few people ever know about or read about is what happened immediately afterward, in the Displaced Persons Camps -- places like Bergen-Belsen, Fehrenwald, Landsberg and others -- where Jews struggled to remain Jews and had to fight to maintain their religious practice. "Battling for Souls", by Alex Grobman, tells the story of the Vaad Hatzolah as it fought for hearts and minds of those who came back from "there" to rebuild and renew Judaism, especially in America and Israel.
"Battling for Souls" is an unusually revealing book about how the Jewish community works. What he finds is not pretty, but he doesn't judge. And because his book is not a polemic, it has been endorsed by his main subjects -- two major international Jewish organizations who have been at each other's throats for decades. That is because, until now, no one has really examined the post-Holocaust period in Europe and looked at how Jewish organizations interact (or don't!) in time of crisis. Grobman does so, by describing the situation through the eyes of a man with a single agenda -- to bring Judaism back to the Jews devastated by the war. The man's name was Rabbi Nathan Baruch, and he was there, in Germany, trying to make it all "come together." This is a behind the scenes story of what happened in the DP camps of Europe.
For decades, a cacophony of confusion created hostility between members of the organized Orthodox Jewish community under the umbrella organization of the Agudath Israel, and the more secular movements like the Joint Distribution Committee. Both of these organizations happened to have been instrumental in providing DPs with the tools and necessities they needed to begin new lives. But no one has ever described the relationships, the power politics and the facts on the ground before. Among other things, there was the fight for basic survival, something American Jews found difficult to grasp. The following excerpt from Grobman's book is just one example of the kind of internecine battles that were being fought. (The footnotes here have been eliminated, but everything is documented.)
In mid-1941, Jewish organizations and individuals came under pressure from the United States Department of State to stop sending food to Poland because they feared the Germans would benefit from the these shipments. From 1936, the Joint Boycott Council, established by the American Jewish Congress and the Jewish Labor Committee worked to ban German goods from the United States and prevent material from being sent to Germany and its occupied territories. When...the British ambassador called the State Department to ask that the package program be terminated immediately, the Council applied pressure on the Jewish community to end the practice.
Every American Jewish organization complied with this request, except for the Agudath Israel ...Providing food to the starving Jews of Poland was "far more important and authoritative," they believed, than the dictates of the Boycott Council. Dr. Joseph Tenenbaum, the Chairman of the Council and president of the Federation of Polish Jews, saw it differently. ...
...The Agudah had little support for its position outside the Orthodox community. Editorials in the Jewish press criticized its stance, but when the Agudah asked that an impartial board resolve the conflict, the Council refused to participate. ...
...Tenenbaum became so angry at the Agudah's refusal to comply with the boycott that he picketed their offices for weeks. He wrote..." Everything that is against the interests of the British is "against the interest of the Jews." Tenenbaum was particularly concerned that the Jews do nothing to "awaken those slightly stilled cries that we are only for ourselves."
...The dispute with the Boycott Council soon descended to personal attacks. The Council "deplored" that the Agudah, "a sickly weed transplanted from foreign soil to the liberal American environment, should continue to poison the atmosphere without regard for the consequences to the entire Jewish people." The rabbinic scholars who had recently come to the United States were called "Jewish-Polish refugees, recent arrivals in this land of freedom and opportunity, who though they speak of Torah and prayer with pious glances, yet [to them] a dollar is a dollar." The Union of Orthodox Rabbis countered throughout this controversy that, "it sees no crime in the work of saving Jewish lives from hunger." Furthermore, they were only following the Talmudic dictum that "He who saves one life is considered to have saved the whole world."
For Tenenbaum, ending the boycott became an issue of self-sacrifice, selfishness and universal ideals: "There are times when bringing sacrifices are more important than even our own lives. Now we are living in a period such as that. Are the Jewish people different from other nations? Is the Jewish Sacrifice to be of lesser importance than the Gentile Sacrifice?"
...Not long before the United States entered World War II on December 7, 1941 the Agudah stopped sending packages to the Jews in Poland. A report by the Boycott Council had spurred Lord Halifax, the British ambassador to the United States, to intervene by implicitly threatening to arrest Jewish refugees in Britain. The Agudah had no choice but to stop.
Four years later, after the Liberation, a mere sixty years ago, the shape the survivors' lives were supposed to take often depended on an American or Israeli "social worker's" point of view. And most of the relief agencies used "social workers" as their liaisons in the DP Camps.
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The Orthodox Jewish community wanted to offer survivors tools for Jewish observance. The story in Grobman's book hinges on Nathan Baruch's travails with the military, with local police forces, with UNNRA, and yes, even with the Joint Distribution Committee. Baruch was a man who grew up in the crucible of the pre-war Orthodox community in Brooklyn, where he met the great rabbis of the generation, the gedolei hador, who pleaded with American Jews to help rescue the Jews of Europe, a plea that was ignored.
But the organization that was created by Orthodox leadership to deal with those issues, the Vaad Hatzoloh, never gave up, and did indeed succeed in rescuing many from the flames and providing them with tools to rebuild traditional lives.
We all know that isn't going to happen anytime soon, unless people who read this book tell them to do so! Grobman's observation of the results of Jewish infighting could not be clearer than when he describes the results of those intramural Jewish wars:
Among those who benefited from this disunity among American Jews and the indifference of the Roosevelt Administration was Breckinridge Long, Assistant Secretary of State for Special Problems from 1940 to 1944. …
…Long soon learned that the lack of common cause among American Jews would be an asset in his work. On January 11, 1944, shortly before he left his job at the State, he wrote in his diary, "The Jewish organizations are all divided amid controversies. There is no cohesion nor any sympathetic collaboration-rather rivalry, jealousy and antagonism."
In the final analysis, American Jews, under the best of circumstances, were quite limited in what they could do on behalf of the Jews of Europe: "Exercise of ethnic power has limits which are set not only from without, by government representing the national interest and by the contending subcultures, but also from within the community, by problems of coherence, cohesiveness, and leadership. Both restrict the ability to advocate."
American Jews were still in the process of developing into a "highly organized voluntaristic [sic] community," but that would only occur after the war. Until they reached that point they could not articulate a single message "to the American political leadership and then compel it to act on it." But even if they had been able to, "the history of American foreign policy notes few instances where ethnic pressure prevailed and none where opponents of that interest would demonstrate that what was being advocated did not serve the American national interest."
The Vaad was instrumental in recreating an observant Jewish community in the Diaspora, and did whatever it deemed necessary to meet those goals. "Battling for Souls" is a case history of how the Jewish community reacts to itself in times of crises. And while many survivors went on to lead wonderful lives, this book is a sad story that today's Jewish leaders, the professionals and the laypeople, need to read. This is a lesson the American Jewish community must never forget.
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Philip Sieradski, Ph.D. is a freelance editor of many books and magazines, including Lifestyles. He was born in a DP camp in Landsberg, Germany, attended Brooklyn College, Case-Western Reserve and New York University. He lives in New Milford, NJ. To comment, please click here.
© 2005, Philip Sieradski