'The Greatest Tragedy We Have Ever Suffered'

Ultra-Orthodox Jews fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising with the support of rabbis - but their acts of bravery were later concealed. Such are the findings of a new book on the ultra-Orthodox in the Holocaust.

In July, 1942, only a few months after the first word of the mass destruction of Polish Jewry reached Israel (this initial information did not mention the comprehensive plan to annihilate European Jewry), members of Agudat Yisrael contacted the Jewish Agency to propose the establishment of a joint rescue committee comprised of all Jewish community organizations in the Holy Land - Zionist and non-Zionist alike. Moshe Sharett, the Jewish Agency's "foreign minister," told them their suggestion was out of the question as long as they were not constituent members of the Jewish Agency. They received a similar response from Yitzhak Greenbaum, chairman of the smaller Rescue Committee established by the Jewish Agency.

In contrast, then-Jewish Agency chairman David Ben-Gurion preferred to collaborate with ultra-Orthodox groups but objected to their proposal of an "international committee." In a very late response to Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Levin, chairman of the International Steering Committee of Agudat Yisrael, Ben-Gurion wrote, "repeated attempts to establish a new international committee to address every new tragedy may only increase chaos in our public lives."

Levin, astounded by the delayed response and its content, replied, "for such a long time, you failed to find it proper to respond to our simple request and proposal - this is not a new international committee for every new tragedy. This is the greatest tragedy we have ever suffered - no similar tragedy has befallen the people of Israel since it became a nation."

Finally, the Jewish Agency accepted the proposal and created an extended Rescue Committee comprised of all Jewish movements in Palestine, including the "Aguda."

Internal strife

This is only one of the stories that appears in "Et La'asot Lehatzalat Yisrael" ("The Time to Rescue Israel") by Dr. Haim Shalem, head of the Holocaust Studies Department at Bayit Vegan, a teachers' college for Orthodox women. In recent years, a great deal has been said about the measures, or lack thereof, that the Jewish community in Palestine adopted during the Holocaust. Research on the matter explores the behavior of the Jewish community's central leadership. A second wave of research scrutinizes the actions of specific movements: Mapai, leftist-Zionist movements, the Revisionists and Religious Zionism. Only the ultra-Orthodox were omitted from the picture. Public discourse mainly mentioned their accusations that the Zionist leadership did too little, but their own role in these proceedings was not examined in depth.

Shalem's book, which focuses on "Agudat Yisrael in the Land of Israel in light of the Holocaust," seeks to complete the picture, and exposes many rescue operations conducted by the ultra-Orthodox community, including the ultra-Orthodox presence in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

First, Shalem questions the reasons for the continuing lack of research pertaining to ultra-Orthodox rescue activity. His explanation places responsibility mainly on the ultra-Orthodox community. "It is true that historians were also not particularly interested. But this mainly derives from the ultra-Orthodox attitude toward historical writing - certainly in its academic interpretation. As far as they are concerned, this is of no interest. They establish archives but close them to external researchers because there is always a fear of exposure of differences of opinion. They also have no control, in this case, of what will be written," says Shalem.

Because Shalem is Orthodox and because of the ultra-Orthodox origins of his family, he was able to persuade some archivists to grant him access to research material. After examining the material, he came to the conclusion that, in general, "the ultra-Orthodox were also tainted by the same internal factionalism that interfered with the rescue efforts of other movements."

Thus, even after the Jewish Agency agreed to include ultra-Orthodox organizations in the Rescue Committee, Agudat Yisrael leaders continued to engage in arguments regarding the wisdom of collaborating with the "Zionists" on this matter. But, according to Shalem, some ultra-Orthodox members rose to the occasion, "and those few have more to be proud of, than their similarly few counterparts in other movements."

In Shalem's opinion, the two men most deserving of such praise are Rabbi Yitzhak-Meir Levin and Benyamin Mintz, a journalist employed by the ultra-Orthodox newspaper, Hatzofeh. Mintz left his position at the paper to join the Rescue Committee and devoted all of his time to rescue efforts. Levin deserves credit for the establishment of a united Rescue Committee after he lent the entire weight of his influence to deliberations with Jewish Agency leadership and to deliberations among members of Agudat Yisrael. Mintz relentlessly pressed the leadership to take action and, shortly after joining the Rescue Committee's secretariat, he threatened to resign because he felt that the committee had failed to do enough.

"I did not join the secretariat to read surveys," he complained, "but for the sake of real rescue operations that I have not seen."

Shalem believes that the reason that Ben-Gurion initially shied away from the establishment of a rescue committee, and tended to tie the committee's hands after its establishment, did not derive from a lack of interest in rescue operations, but rather from a lack of belief in the leadership capabilities of the politically cumbersome organization. "He believed in activity conducted by an executive organization subject to his direct leadership, like the 'Institute for Aliyah B' [originally responsible for the illegal immigration of Jews during the British Mandate - Y.S.]. He only established the committee after he recognized the public's desire for united action, which he considered fictitious."

Two other representatives of the ultra-Orthodox community who were engaged in field operations, play an important role in Shalem's book: Dr. Jacob Griffel, in Istanbul, and Chaim Yisrael Eiz, in Geneva. Both of them quickly realized that operations to rescue entire Jewish communities would unfortunately not succeed, and they focused their efforts on rescuing individuals.

Griffel focused on obtaining documentation for European Jews, who would pass through Turkey on their way to Israel. The British permitted refugees to stay for only a few days and required many documents before permitting entry. Griffel worked around the clock to prepare all the necessary documents. Eiz mainly worked in Geneva, providing forged passports to Polish Jews. Consulates of many (mainly South American) nations, that Eiz contacted, agreed to issue passports indicating that their carriers were citizens of those same nations. Eiz facilitated the issue of a few thousand passports, of this type, but "only" a few hundred were put to use, because, in many cases, the Germans ignored such passports.

Censoring fighters' names

Another fascinating revelation in the book describes ultra-Orthodox involvement in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In contrast with the common belief that the ultra-Orthodox community opposed physical resistance and relied solely on divine intervention, there were important rabbis in Warsaw who supported the Uprising. The most prominent among them was Rabbi Menachem Zemba, a member of Agudat Yisrael's Moetzet Gedolei Hatorah rabbinic council, before the Holocaust, and a central authority in the Polish, ultra-Orthodox community. Zemba initially opposed the concept of rebellion, but Shalem presents evidence that indicates that, after the large wave of transports of Jews from the ghetto to the death camp in Treblinka (in July, 1942), he changed his mind and ruled, "I see that, according to halakha it is a mitzvah to participate in the Uprising and to make use of the best tactics of war."

Shalem also uncovers evidence that indicates that some ultra-Orthodox youths actively participated in fighting in the revolt. The most prominent of them was Rabbi Alexander Zemelman, who was an Agudat Yisrael Youth leader in Poland before the war. Most of these ultra-Orthodox fighters joined the ranks of the Jewish Fighting Union (JFU), Betar's militant wing. The JFU received little recognition of its own, after the war. Thus, the names of the ultra-Orthodox fighters were also forgotten.

Shalem cites the general disorder of JFU rosters to explain the absence of ultra-Orthodox names among those who took part in the revolt. "The Jewish Fighting Organization [the larger and more famous organization led by Mordecai Anielewicz] maintained lists, but anyone who did not arrive as a representative of an organized movement, or did not carry a weapon, was not included in the list, and even their lists were censored on the way to Israel."

Arguments arose within Agudat Yisrael regarding the mention of the participation of these individuals in the revolt. Mintz was very proud of them and several articles in the ultra-Orthodox press highlighted their participation and criticized the lack of recognition of their role. Other "Aguda" figures, like Rabbi Moshe Blau, preferred to portray them as individuals who departed from the ultra-Orthodox path. Blau's approach finally prevailed: After the Holocaust, the ultra-Orthodox community emphasized the spiritual courage of those who continued to observe mitzvot (Jewish commandments) and ignored those who supported or participated in the revolt.

Shalem illustrates this with a description of Rabbi Zemba's funeral in Israel: In 1958, Zemba's wartime grave was unearthed in excavations conducted by the Polish government to preserve the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. (Zemba was killed during the Uprising, but he did not take an active part in it.) His remains were transported to Israel and the Knesset conducted a memorial ceremony and observed a moment of silence in his name. The ceremony mentioned his support of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but ultra-Orthodox figures who delivered his eulogy failed to mention this detail.

Shalem considers ultra-Orthodox involvement in the Rescue Committee to be evidence of their integration in the Jewish settlement in Israel and their transformation into "de-facto Zionists." Despite all their criticism of certain aspects of the Rescue Committee, they understood the importance of a Jewish majority in the Land of Israel following their participation in the committee. Levin and Mintz led the faction that preferred to bring ultra-Orthodox, European refugees to Israel rather than other nations in the world, despite the objection of some rabbinic leaders.

When the State of Israel was established, Agudat Yisrael joined a united religious front that included religious Zionists, and Levin and Mintz served as ministers, on behalf of that party, in Ben-Gurion's first cabinet.