The Continuing Mystery of Friedrich Weinreb

The controversial story of this Polish-born Dutch Jew and his famous `list' is still not resolved after 60 years, despite a post-war trial and a Dutch investigation.

In Israel, the name Friedrich Weinreb doesn't mean much to anyone, except for some Dutch people and a handful of historians. But in Holland itself his name has been causing a furor that started at the end of World War II, and continues even today. Books and newspaper articles are still being written about him, and the debate surrounding his activity in the Holocaust has not ended - a debate very reminiscent of the "Kastner Affair" in Israel.

His accusers claim that he was a treasonous Jew who tricked thousands of his fellow Jews in order to take money from them, and later even handed over more than 100 others in order to save his own life. His defenders claim that thousands of Jews owe their lives to his talent for tricking the Germans.

Who was Dr. Friedrich Weinreb? He was born in 1910 in Lvov, Galicia (at the time part of Poland, and today in the Ukraine). His family migrated westward as a result of World War I, and settled in Holland when he was six years old.

His parents came from a Hasidic background, but they themselves were already modern Orthodox. He was attracted to literature and philosophy, but in order to make a living he studied economics, and beginning in 1932 he served as a professor and a researcher at the Netherlands Economics Institute in Rotterdam.

In addition he studied philosophy, Talmud and Kabbala independently. In the context of his work he often traveled to Eastern Europe, and he took advantage of his visits in order to deepen his ties with the Hasidim. He became very friendly with Dr. Nathan Birnbaum, one of the early leaders of the Zionist movement, who eventually became ultra-Orthodox and anti-Zionist. Weinreb served as Birnbaum's secretary, and through him met his wife Esther, and also began to become well-known in European ultra-Orthodox circles.

When the Nazis occupied Holland in 1940, Weinreb was dismissed from his job at the Economics Institute. His home in the town of Scheveningen near The Hague became a center for providing advice to Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, who lacked experience in dealing with the authorities. The Jews of Holland were concentrated in the Westerbork camp, and from there were sent to the death camps in Poland.

List of evacuees

But the tremendous burden on the trains carrying the Jews led to a situation where the question of when a person would be sent to be killed provided him not only with another few weeks and months to live, but even a chance of being rescued.

Ostensibly, the list of evacuees was random, but in fact this was not the case. In Holland particularly, the Nazis postponed the expulsion of people who were included in "special" lists, including those who had immigration certificates for countries outside Nazi-occupied territories. Thus was born the amazing story of "Weinreb's list" - even "Schindler's list" pales in comparison.

Weinreb invented an imaginary senior Wehrmacht officer named Von Schumann, whom he had supposedly saved from a traffic accident. Out of gratitude, the officer ordered him to release from detention or to remove from the list of evacuees those whom Weinreb recommended. Weinreb forged documents that were supposed to have been signed by Von Schumann, and somehow, apparently for fear of getting into trouble with that same officer, the Nazis swallowed the strange story.

Weinreb at first tried to save only 30 people, his friends and family members, but the rumor spread quickly and many people asked to be included on his list. He took only 100 Dutch florins from each person, a very small sum compared to other intermediaries in those days. But for that reason as well the demand was sky-high, and in the end about 3,000 to 4,000 names were placed on the list, greatly increasing Weinreb's income.

Thanks to those lists, the expulsion to death camps was postponed for many hundreds of Jews, and in one case, hundreds of people who were on one of the lists were released entirely.

At a certain point, the Nazis began to have suspicions about the authenticity of the lists. They arrested Weinreb and his family and began to interrogate him. But then an amazing thing happened: The interrogators had a hard time believing that the Nazi officer did not exist, and instead, they constructed a conspiracy theory, according to which Weinreb himself had been misled by a German officer, who wanted to take advantage of him in order to make money from the Jews.

They therefore allowed Weinreb to continue to draw up his lists - this time with their open sponsorship - in order to find the man who stood behind them. Weinreb, who quickly understood that he had to reinforce their belief in the "conspiracy," told his interrogators that he was in fact in contact with that greedy officer - through a liaison man named "Six." That helped only for a short time: Eventually, the Nazis arrested the impersonator, and during his interrogation it turned out that everything was a fiction.

Weinreb's fate seemed sealed, but then the Germans decided to exploit his talent for disguise, and his penetration of the ranks of the impersonators and the escapees, for their own benefit. They threatened him that his life and that of his family depended on his using his talents in order to provide them with information about hiding places, and the names of the collaborators and the escapees. A Dutch investigation committee that operated in the 1970s found that Weinreb had handed over 170 people under those circumstances, including a Dutch nurse whose home served as a hiding place for the escapees. About 70 of those people died in the end.

However, Dutch Jewish historian Jacob Presser wrote in his seminal book, "Ashes in the Wind: The Destruction of Dutch Jewry," that Weinreb was innocent, and that he handed over only the names of people who, according to his information, had already managed to go into hiding.

Presser also claimed that Weinreb's Nazi interrogator and "operator" had promised him that he was interested only in the money of those Jews, and that they would be sent to Theresienstadt and not to death camps. Weinreb himself managed at some point to go underground with his family until the end of the war, and thus they were saved (except for his oldest son David, who died in the Westerbork camp early in the war).

However, the Nazis managed to harm Weinreb in a way that would affect his post-war life: In order to gain cooperation and find him after he went underground, they claimed that he had fled to Switzerland with the property of many Jews.

After the war, this claim added to the substantial amount of testimony against him, mainly concerning extraditions, and he was arrested and placed in the same jail where he had been imprisoned and tortured a few years earlier by the Germans.

A harsher sentence

At the trial, claims were made against him not only regarding the extraditions he had carried out because of German threats, but also regarding the rescue list he had drawn up during the early stages of the war. His accusers said that the entire hoax he had invented was designed to make money, and that in fact he did not really have the power to save Jews from death.

Moreover, several women claimed that as part of the medical examinations required of those included in his lists - a condition for being included in the list of those whose death was postponed, and who were entitled to emigrate - Weinreb had sexually harassed them. This claim is dismissed outright by his son and his supporters.

Weinreb was imprisoned for three and a half years. An appeal that he submitted only led to a harsher sentence of six years' imprisonment. But in 1948 he received a pardon, in honor of the jubilee celebrations for Queen Wilhelmina.

Scholars like Presser who support his version say that this was not a random pardon, but a recognition of his innocence. As proof they point out that immediately afterward he was sent on behalf of the Dutch government to work as an economist in Indonesia, which had received its independence from Holland at the time.

(His family even claims that the government wanted to get him away from Holland so that he would not testify against people close to the government, who themselves had been collaborators).

Thus began a series of trips all over the world, during which he hardly ever returned to Holland. In this context, Weinreb's family also mentions that his conviction was criticized by the American League for Human Rights, the World Jewish Congress, and in The New York Times. His critics, on the other hand, such as Dr. Dan Michman, chief historian of Yad Vashem who himself is originally from Holland, explain his exit from Holland as a process of ongoing flight from the law, and from the repeated demands to cancel his pardon and to try him again.

In 1952, Weinreb was working as a professor of statistics in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. Afterward he moved to Calcutta, India, and in 1958 he was appointed dean of the economics department in the new university that opened in the Turkish capital of Ankara.

After a military coup in Turkey in 1960, he left the country in favor of a position at the UN International Labor Organization (ILO) in Geneva. Relatively relaxed, and having found serenity, Weinreb found time in Geneva to write books on Jewish philosophy and Kabbala. Even earlier, when he was in jail, Weinreb had begun to study Kabbala, and he did not hesitate to share his knowledge with his cell mates - Nazis and collaborators. That was the beginning of a spurt of creativity in the field of Kabbala, which would preoccupy him from that time until his death.

About a year ago, clinical psychologist Gabriel Strenger published "Journey to Freedom: The Seder Night as a Growing Process," a commentary on the Pesach Haggadah and Seder night customs, based on Weinreb's Kabbalistic philosophy. Strenger says that "Weinreb's philosophy does not actually claim to be innovative, and he himself modestly emphasizes that he is passing on to the readers the tradition of the Kabbala of the Ari, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, who developed one of the important streams of Kabbala in Safed in the 16th century.

The important aspect of his books is that they are written in modern, accessible language. Moreover, Weinreb tries to develop a principle that was already developed in Hasidism, that the ideas of Kabbala are, in effect, an expression not only of the deity and the world, but first of all of the soul of each individual. He also greatly develops the Kabbalistic idea that the Hebrew language itself is full of symbolic Kabbalistic significance.

Weinreb returned to Holland in 1964, but there he encountered increasing demands that he be retried.

In 1965, Presser published his major work about the Holocaust in Holland in which he claimed that Weinreb was innocent of all the accusations against him. Presser even called Weinreb's trial "the second Dreyfus Affair," and raised the claim that the people who had difficulty dealing with the fact that they themselves had not managed to save a single person wanted to blame him in order to clear their consciences.

Others, like Weinreb's family, claimed - and still do - that he became a victim of the persecution of Nazi collaborators, who conspired against him for fear that he would turn them in.

Weinreb's son Elimelech, who lives in Israel, says that two people working in the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation "had themselves been collaborators. At the time, father had procured a list from the Germans of their collaborators, and those same people were afraid that father would expose them, and therefore they organized the evidence against him."

Presser's book turned Weinreb into the hero of oppositionist leftist circles in Holland, who demanded a thorough reexamination of the affair. In 1970, the government did in fact establish an investigation committee to check the claims. But Weinreb didn't wait for that, having already left for Israel in 1968, after becoming disgusted with the wave of threats, suits and harassment - his son says that "there were many threats, and sometimes our car tires were even punctured."

Michman, who is one of those who blames Weinreb, says that Weinreb showed up then at the home of his father, who was working as a senior official in the Ministry of Education, and asked for his help.

"Father refused, and later told me that his secretary had said, after a short conversation with Weinreb: `That is a hypnotic person; people will jump out of the window if he tells them to.'"

In Israel, Weinreb wrote the three volumes of his war memoirs, with the charged title "Collaboration and Opposition - An Attempt to Demythologize." These volumes have still not been translated into Hebrew. In 1973 he wandered again, moving from Israel to Zurich, where he lived until his death in 1988.

His son says that he left Israel because "he had a feeling that people here are too irritable. He was a very calm person, and this atmosphere was hard for him."

Elimelech Weinreb describes his father as a person "in whom the most impressive thing was the total calm in which he lived" - perhaps that same calm that enabled him to function vis-a-vis the Germans, and perhaps the calm of someone who has already experienced the worst thing possible. Michman, on the other hand, suspects that Weinreb fled to neutral Switzerland in order to prevent his extradition and trial in Holland.

False testimony

In 1976, the Dutch investigation committee completed its work with a new indictment of Weinreb. Had he not been living in Switzerland, he probably would have stood trial again. The second indictment became the official version of Holocaust research, including the one accepted at Yad Vashem. Thus, both in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust and in the Memorial Book of Dutch communities (a Yad Vashem project that records Jewish history in the countries that suffered Nazi destruction), Weinreb is described as a complete scoundrel, and even the rescue lists that he organized during the first stage of his activity are described as designed only in order to make money.

The person responsible for the two texts is Prof. Joseph Michman, Dan's father and the first chairman of Yad Vashem, and himself a Holocaust survivor from Holland. Michman senior told Haaretz that his accusatory statements are based on an independent examination of the sources.

Elimelech Weinreb, on the other hand, claims that in the second investigation committee, just as in the first trial, "Father fell victim to false testimony that was organized by people who had an interest in harming him."

The Weinreb affair refuses to die out, and the controversy surrounding him affects the Weinreb family even today.

"Every time one of our daughters was about to get married, someone made sure to phone the intended bridegroom's family and warn them about a wedding with `the family of the murderer,'" Elimelech says.

Yael Weinreb, the daughter-in-law, says that their daughter became depressed during a visit to Yad Vashem with her class, after seeing what had been written about her grandfather, and her teacher refused to accept a "family roots" project from her about her grandfather's story.

In Holland, a book is published every few years that brings the affair back into the headlines.

But in Switzerland and Holland, says Elimelech Weinreb, there were also associations established during his father's lifetime to publish his writings and his philosophy; most of the members are Christians rather than Jews.

"He interested many non-Jews, because he didn't teach Judaism, but rather a Jewish world view," Elimelech says.

The associations continue with their activity, and Strenger says that in addition to the dozens of books by Weinreb that have already been published, they also have about 3,000 hours of recordings of lessons and lectures that he gave during the last 15 years of his life. This material is enough for many additional books. It is probable that the debate about his activity in the Holocaust will also be revived every once in a while, especially in Holland - which means that the story of the life and activity of Friedrich Weinreb is still far from over.