Dedicated to the Memory of the Slain

18 10 2013

From 1927 until his death in 1983, R’ Menachem Mendel Kasher published thirty-eight volumes of what was to be considered not only his personal masterpiece, but one of the profoundest anthologies of Torah learning to be printed in the 20th century. As of the time of my writing this, forty-five volumes have been published, the remaining seven having been put together posthumously by his son-in-law, his students and the tireless scholars at Bet Torah Sheleimah – the institute that he had founded.

Titled Torah Sheleimah (תורה שלמה; “The Complete Torah”), these forty-five volumes constitute the first four books of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers); appended to each verse is every passage within the early rabbinic literature that quotes that verse – a corpus that the author defines as ranging from the halakhic midrashim through to the Geonic period, but which is inclusive of works that are traditionally ascribed to authors during that time, despite their actually possessing a later provenance (like the Zohar, to pick but one example), and a handful of texts (like Sefer Hasidim) that were included for reasons of which I am not aware. As a result, the first parsha of the Torah, Parshat Bereishit (a total of 146 verses) takes up 388 pages: the first of the forty-five volumes. The first thirty of those pages are devoted to expositions of and commentaries upon the parsha’s first word, בראשית.

A Gerrer hasid, R’ Kasher was born in Warsaw in 1895. At the instruction of his rebbe, R’ Avraham Mordechai Alter (the Imrei Emes), R’ Kasher moved to Palestine and established the Sefas Emes Yeshiva in Jerusalem. His being there enabled him to help his rebbe escape Poland and move to Palestine after the outbreak of World War II, but it was there that he and so many others had to watch helplessly as millions more were turned to smoke. His efforts in preserving and transmitting the work of the Rogatchover has earned him great renown, and for his Torah Sheleimah he received the Israel Prize in 1963.

I am very fortunate to have been able to add this forty-five-volume set to my growing collection, and can testify to its incredible beauty. The author’s tremendous ambition and the scope of his phenomenal knowledge are absolutely breathtaking. I haven’t been so much in awe of a single work of scholarship since I first discovered Seder haDorot, or R’ Saul Lieberman’s Tosefta Kifeshutah, and I stand humbled by both the vastness of the tradition and the towering genius of its brilliant expositors.

While opening the eighth volume of Torah Sheleimah recently, to look upon R’ Kasher’s presentation of Parshat Shemot (the first parsha in the book of Exodus), I was struck by a somewhat arresting poem that the author presents by way of a dedication. Prior to this poem is a brief preface, chiefly concerned with the specific manuscripts and versions upon which he relied, and which is signed:

ותושלם מלאכת הקודש, ביומא תליתאה, לירחא תליתאה, שנת בשב”ת

The sacred work [of compiling this volume] was completed on the third day of the third month (3rd Sivan = May 25th), 1944.

After this poem is found a brief dedicatory message, somewhat brutal in its bald emotion:

החלק הזה כולל פרשת שמות, ובו פרשת עינוייהם וסבלותיהם של בני ישראל בראשית עלותם כאומה על במת ההיסטוריה העולמית

עלה בגורלו של הספר הנוכחי לצאת לאור בימי דמים ועינויים, ושוב בני ישראל נאנחים תחת סבלותיהם האיומים

אך נהיה חוטאים לאמת אם נשווה את שברנו בימים אלו, לצער שנצטערו בני ישראל במצרים. הנחש הקדמוני גדל ונתפתח במשך שלושת אלפים שנה. לרשות עמלק ושותפיו עומדים כל כלי המדע להשחית ולהשמיד ולאבד. בחרי-אף וללא שבעה הסתערו פראים, טמאים וזדים על בני עמנו שבאירופה לגדוע אותם מן החיים, כאיש כאשה, כסב כעולל

אנו, שבדרך נס ניצלנו ממבול-הדמים האירופאי שנשפך על העולם כולו ועל עמנו שבעים ושבעה, נתקיים בנו: “ויקוצו מפני בני ישראל”, אף “וימררו את חייהם”. מגיע ללבותינו הד דברי משה רבנו אוהב ישראל: “למה הרעתה לעם הזה?” ואזנינו קשובות לתחינת נעים זמירות ישראל: למה ברחוק תעמוד

אין אנו מבינים לדרכי ההשגחה. “כי לא מחשבותי מחשבותיכם ולא דרכיכם דרכי”. ואנו תקווה שגם בימינו תתקיים תשובת ה’ למשה רבינו: “עתה הראת…” ונזכה לראות חיש-מהר ובקרוב בימינו את ישועת אלהינו, ומי שאמר לעולמו די, יאמר לצרותינו די, והרשעה כעשן תכלה, והשוכן בשמים ירים קרן עמו, ונגיל בפריחת תורתנו הקדושה ובמשוש ארצנו הבנויה בקודש, בשוב ה’ את שיבת ציון

My translation:

This volume includes Parshat Shemot, in which is recorded the suffering and the oppression of the children of Israel when they first entered as a people upon the stage of world history.

It is the fate of this present edition to be published during days of blood and suffering, when the children of Israel are again groaning under their fearful oppression.

But we would be unfaithful to reality were we to equate our torment in these days with the anguish that was experienced by the children of Israel in Egypt. The primal serpent has grown and expanded over the last three thousand years; in the service of Amalek and his allies stand all of the tools of technology to eradicate, annihilate and destroy. With furious anger and without ever being sated, the savage, the unclean and the wicked have laid siege to our people in Europe, severing them from the source of life: women together with men, the old with the very young.

For those of us who by miraculous means have been saved from the torrent of European blood that has been poured upon the entire world and upon our people sevenfold¹, in us has been established: “They became sick because of the children of Israel”², such that “it made their lives bitter”³. An echo of the words of Moshe Rabbeinu, the lover of Israel, reaches our hearts: “Why have you made things so bad for this people?”⁴ And our ears are attuned to the plaintive cry of David⁵: “Why do you stand from afar!?”⁶

We do not understand the ways of providence. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts nor your ways mine”⁷. But we do hope that in our days will also be established Hashem’s response to Moshe Rabbeinu: “Now, see…”⁸, and that we will merit to see quickly and soon our God’s salvation. Let He who said to His world, “Enough!”⁹, say to our sorrows, “Enough!” May wickedness dissipate like smoke and may the one who dwells in the heavens raise up the horn of his people. May we rejoice in the blossoming of our holy Torah, and in the joy of our land, rebuilt in holiness, when Hashem returns the captivity of Zion.

¹ Lit. seventy-sevenfold (cf: Gen 4:24).
² Exodus 1:12
³ Exodus 1:14
⁴ Exodus 5:22
⁵ Lit. “of the pleasing [composer] of the songs of Israel” (cf: 2 Samuel 23:1).
⁶ ≈ Psalms 10:1
⁷ Isaiah 55:8
⁸ Deuteronomy 4:35
⁹ cf: Hagigah 12a, Genesis Rabbah 46:3

On the following page stands R’ Kasher’s poem. It is titled בכה אבכה מר: “Bitterly shall I weep”. As with the passage above, typological constraints have required me to strip the Hebrew of some of its punctuation, but I have attempted to reflect it in my translation below:

בכה אבכה מר על חרבן עיר-מולדי ורשא
קהלה קדושה של ששים רבוא נפש-ישראל
עיר מלאה חכמים וסופרים, והתורה מורשה לה
אהה, צדיקיה וחסידיה, תמימיה וקדושיה
אנשים ונשים, ישישים וטף, נשרפו ונכרתו ונשחטו
הה, לדמים אשר נשפכו כמים
דמי בני ישראל ובנותיו, הטהורים והזכים
הה, לישיבות, בתי-המדרש ובתי-החסידים על רבבות לומדיהם
מי ימלל תפארת גדלתה והוד קדשתה
ועתה נרמסה ונהרסה ברגל-רשעה
בלא הפוגות אקונן על חללי בת עמי
הרוגי פולין, רוסיה, אשכנז, צרפת, בלגיה, הולנד, ליטה ולטביה, רומניה ואונגריה
גדול שברנו, עצמו מכאובינו, רבת אמללנו
אתה ה’ ידעת כלם
מצבת-זכרון, מנחת עני, מגשה לזכר קדושינו

Bitterly shall I weep for the razing of Warsaw, the city of my birth,
A sacred community of sixty myriad souls of Israel –
A city filled with wise men and scribes, for the Torah was its inheritance,
Woe for its righteous, its pious, its pure and its holy,
Men and women, the elderly and the infants are burned, cut down and slaughtered –
Woe for the blood that flows like water,
The blood of the sons and the daughters of Israel, the pure and the blameless!
Woe for the yeshivot, the study houses and the hasidic institutions with their myriad students!
Who can relate the glory of its greatness or the splendour of its sanctity,
Which is now trampled down and crushed beneath the foot of iniquity!
Without rest I will lament the slain of my people,
The murdered of Poland, of Russia, of Germany, of France, of Belgium, of Holland, of Lithuania and of Latvia, of Romania and of Hungary –
Great is our agony, powerful is our pain, enormous is our grief:
You, Hashem, know all of it!
This memorial monument, this paltry tribute, is dedicated to the memory of our slain.

That this was written in May of 1944 is itself chilling. This was less than a month after the first transports from the Hungarian countryside had begun rolling towards Auschwitz. At the time of this poem’s composition, close to 500,000 Jews were yet to be murdered.


Saviour of Warsaw’s Children

20 06 2013

On October 16th, 1940, the German Governor-General, Hans Frank, established the largest ghetto in all of occupied Poland. Comprised of an area some 3.4km², the Warsaw Ghetto was populated for a time by over 400,000 people. Hunger, privation, casual murder and the systematic eradication of its inhabitants in Treblinka resulted in the annihilation of almost 300,000 Polish Jews between 1940 and 1943.

The Piaseczno Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, ran a secret synagogue within the Warsaw Ghetto. He was murdered in Trawniki during Operation Harvest Festival, but was survived by some of his disciples. His weekly and festival discourses have been edited and published in English translation as Sacred Fire.

Adam Czerniaków, former senator in Poland’s parliament, was the appointed head of Warsaw’s Judenrat: the governing body of Jews who were tasked with enforcing Nazi directives. On July 23rd, 1942 – one day after the commencement of Grossaktion Warsaw – Czerniaków swallowed a cyanide tablet. He was survived by his wife, Niunia, who preserved the diary that he had kept from 1939 and who published it in 1979. It is available, in English translation, as The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow.

Dr Emanuel Ringelblum, historian of mediaeval Polish Jewish history, was moved into the Warsaw Ghetto along with his family and the rest of the local population. There he led a committee of historians, rabbis, scientists and social workers named Oyneg Shabbos (“the joy of Shabbat”), collecting visual and textual documents that would enable them to later tell the story of the ghetto and its inhabitants. As it became increasingly apparent that this story would end with the deaths of all of its actors, their mission became one of preservation only. Ringelblum and his family were all murdered in 1944, but two of the three collections that had been hidden have subsequently been unearthed. Their contents are currently housed in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.

Together with the reams of archival footage taken by the SS, the copious German documentation of the Ghetto and the voluminous testimony of its survivors, it is hard to imagine that much could be forgotten. And yet, were it not for a school project undertaken by four girls from Uniontown High School in Bourbon County, Kansas, one of the most historically significant personages of the Warsaw Ghetto may have remained in obscurity.

Irena Sendler was not a resident of the ghetto, and although she is reputed to have worn an armband with a magen david, she was not Jewish. A senior administrator in the Warsaw Social Welfare Department, Irena was able to reroute funds to Jewish families before the formation of the ghetto, registering them under false Christian names and forestalling inspections under the pretext that they suffered from highly infectious diseases. Upon the construction of the ghetto, Irena joined a Polish resistance movement called Zegota: the Polish Council to Aid Jews. With the aid of a pass from the Epidemic Control Department, and with food and medicine secreted on her person, Irena found herself within the ghetto on a daily basis.

Few of us can imagine the tribulations that would be faced by one who sought to smuggle items into the Warsaw Ghetto. At tremendous risk to herself, Irena Sendler helped to ameliorate (in so small a fashion) the swelling tide of disease and malnutrition that plagued the ghetto’s inhabitants. But it was not enough, and so she dared to risk the impossible: to enter empty-handed, but to smuggle people out.

In the years before her capture and incarceration in 1943, Irena Sendler rescued some 2,500 children. “Some children were taken out in gunnysacks or body bags. Some were buried inside loads of goods. A mechanic took a baby out in his toolbox. Some kids were carried out in potato sacks, others were placed in coffins, some entered a church in the Ghetto which had two entrances. One entrance opened into the Ghetto, the other opened into the Aryan side of Warsaw. They entered the church as Jews and exited as Christians.” [Source]

In order to preserve their true identities, Irena Sendler wrote a list. In coded form, its meaning known to nobody but herself, she wrote the birthnames of these children and the names that she had given them. Buried beneath an apple tree, across the road from the German barracks, the information might have remained hidden were it not for Zegota members having successfully bribed the Gestapo agents charged with her execution, and having subsequently affected her release. Physically broken from Gestapo questioning, Irena was forced to spend the rest of the war in hiding, and for many years after its conclusion there were few who knew of her deeds.

In 1965, Irena Sendler was accorded the title of “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, but it was not until 2000 that her actions started to become more widely known. It was then that four students (Elizabeth Cambers, Megan Stewart, Sabrina Coons and Janice Underwood) won the 2000 Kansas state National History Day competition with their play, Life in a Jar. A dramatic representation of Irena Sendler’s heroic story, this play not only raised awareness within the United States, but has since garnered international attention as well. When the students met Irena in 2001, the meeting was covered by Poland’s newspapers. In this way, so many who had never heard of her came to learn of her remarkable story; and in such a fashion, Poland’s parliament came to consider ways of honouring her legacy themselves.

In 2003, Irena was awarded Poland’s highest military and civilian decoration, the Order of the White Eagle, along with the Jan Karski Award for Valor and Courage. With her photograph in the newspaper, the 96-year old woman began receiving phone calls from those whom she had rescued as children, the overwhelming majority of whom had lost their original families, but several of whom remembered well the face of their liberator. In 2007, the Polish parliament unanimously nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize. Irena, who was too ill to attend the ceremony held in her honour, had her remarks read for her by a woman whom she had saved:

“Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory. Over a half-century has passed since the hell of the Holocaust, but its spectre still hangs over the world and doesn’t allow us to forget.”

In 2008, at 98 years of age, Irena Sendler passed away. She is survived by her daughter, Janina Zgrzembska, and by descendents too numerous to count.

Photo by Mariusz Kubik

Photo by Mariusz Kubik

Yom haShoah 5773

7 04 2013

In amongst my sprawling and growing assortment of books is another collection, and one that takes up very little space. Arranged in two folders, red and green, are a number of banknotes. The red folder contains a currency that was never a currency, and the green contains one that should never have been. They are a tenuous, yet tangible, connection to the recent past. And their value to me is priceless.

A Currency of Need

As early as 1914, when faced with the depreciation of the German Papiermark and the fact that the metal used to mint coins was worth more than the coins themselves, institutions that were unaffiliated with the German banks began printing a makeshift currency that could be used in certain specific locations within the towns of their origin. This currency has come to be known as Notgeld (“Necessity Money”), and it takes a variety of forms. Largely worthless at the time (although in some cases their usage did help to stimulate the economy), they quickly became an object for collectors. Some of them are exceptionally rare.

Given that they were of limited usage, and given the interest that people had in them as works of art, many institutions that produced this currency (be they hotels, or post-offices, or town councils) took the time to decorate them with motifs of religious or cultural value. After the defeat of Germany in the Great War and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, several of the Notgeld issued were of an antisemitic character. The following are the items (all uncirculated) that I have thus far collected.

Brakel, Germany (2 mark, 1921):

The inscription on the front tells of a [Jewish] man who suspended his youngest child out of the window to defecate, but to his surprise a councilman was walking by at the time. It concludes by noting that this was a “true story” (Wahrhaftige), which occurred in 1655.

On the back, you can see the guilty Jew chained to a post, with a vulture looking down upon him:


Sternberg, Germany (1 mark, 1921):

These ones comprise a series (a Serienscheine), which concerns itself with the purported desecration of the host in 1492, when a priest named Peter Däne alleged that the local Jews had been torturing Jesus after death. The first item in the series shows him selling the hosts to the Jews:

Sternberg 1 (1 mark 1921) - front

The second item in the series depicts the Jews torturing the hosts:

Sternberg 2 (1 mark 1922) - front

The third and final item in the series shows the Jews being punished for their desecration:


The backs of the three notes are all decorated with a picture of Sternberg in 1492, the year that 26 Jews were burned at the stake for this fictitious crime:


Tostedt, Germany (50 pfennig 1921):

The front of the note depicts two Jews, hanged from a tree and surrounded by ravens. The German declares that “this should happen to all of the profiteers and Germany would be better off”.



Frankfurt, Germany (25 pfennig, 1921):

Presented in the style of the surrealists, this note depicts crooked and, in one case, possibly hornéd Jews. The symbol on the chest of the man in the foreground is possibly reminiscent of the communist hammer and sickle. Unlike the other items, there is nothing overtly antisemitic about this one, and it is only the historical context that makes of it something foreboding.

Frankfurt am Main 25 pfennig 1921 - front

Frankfurt am Main 25 pfennig 1921 - back

The Currency of Death

As they had done in Oranienberg as early as 1933, the Nazis introduced money to Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943, and for much the same reason. A “model camp”, and one to which the Red Cross had access, it was important to carefully decorate the thin veneer of normalcy. In the infamous and unreleased propaganda film that the Nazis made of Theresienstadt, Jews can be seen lining up outside a bank, waiting to deposit their money. Depositing it in the bank was one of very few things that could actually be done with it, as a result of which they are almost all of them in uncirculated condition.

The designer of the notes was a Jew named Peter Kien, who was under instructions from Reinhard Heydrich to make the Moses on the banknotes look semitic, and to ensure that the sixth commandment (“Thou shalt not kill”) be excluded from the picture. This second stipulation has led to the erroneous claim that Moses’ hand is obscuring the sixth commandment. This claim can be found in Joel Forman, “Holocaust Numismatics” (1997), John Sandrock, “The Use of Banknotes as an Instrument of Propaganda” (2004) and Stephen Feinstein, “Art and Imagery of the Ghetto – During and After the Holocaust” (2005). Embarrassingly, this misinformation is even perpetuated by the Tauber Holocaust Library and Zachor, 2005: two sources whose authors I would expect to be more familiar with Hebrew. In actual fact, Moses’ hand is partially obscuring the fourth commandment (the letters כו of the word זכור can be glimpsed through his fingers, meaning that this version of the decalogue is the one found in Exodus 20), and completely obscuring the fifth (“Remember the Shabbat” and “Honour thy parents”, respectively).

The Nazis wanted the money to serve as part of an elaborate illusion. Simply introducing the notes was not sufficient for this fantasy to appear real. Therefore, they made a significant effort toward having the money seem like it was actually being used. Around eighty people were given jobs keeping track of payroll, coupons, and salaries. Meticulous records were kept, all as part of the illusion that the money had some sort of value. Everyone who worked in the ghetto, or was a prominent figure, was paid a monthly salary that varied by job, sex, and status…

The Nazis wanted to get the money to circulate, but without a real value, the inmates did not see a lot of incentive in earning the money or spending it. Everyone was required to save some of their wages, but ultimately there was nothing to spend them on. Shops were set up in which it was ostensibly possible to buy the items that had been confiscated from prisoners upon entering the ghetto. These items were priced so high, however, that the money was never really taken seriously.

– Ray Feller and Steve Feller, Silent Witnesses: Civilian Camp Money of World War II (ed. J.E. Boling; 2007), 81.

The design on all of these notes is the same, although the notes increase in size as the denomination increases. Each note is dated January 1st 1943 (although they only became available mid-April of that year) and features on the back the signature of Jakob Edelstein, who was the first Elder of the Jews in Theresienstadt and who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944:

Terezin 1 front

Terezin 1 back

Terezin 2 front

Terezin 2 back

Terezin 5 front

Terezin 5 back

Terezin 10 front

Terezin 10 back

Terezin 20 front

Terezin 20 back

Terezin 50 front

Terezin 50 back

Terezin 100 front

Terezin 100 back

(The above images are not photos that I have taken of my own banknotes, but are images that I downloaded.)

Unlike the notes from Theresienstadt, the notes from the Lodz ghetto are all thoroughly well-used. There, having a little money might mean the difference between life and death. As is discussed in Ray and Steve Feller’s Silent Witnesses: Civilian Camp Money of World War II, providing the ghetto inmates with a currency of their own was but one of many ways in which the Nazis were able to reappropriate all of their property. Instead of simply stealing what they wanted, they purchased it from them and converted the money (minus a 30% tax) into the ghetto’s currency. Were somebody to escape, the currency would be useless to them outside the ghetto. Inside the ghetto, it was needed in order to survive.

This item is a postage stamp, valued at 10 pfennig. All such notes are dated either “17 April 1942” or “15 Mai 1944”, the latter date being within three months of the liquidation of the ghetto and the extermination of its remaining members.



The following images are of the actual items that I purchased. They each feature the use of the menorah as an image, as well as that of the magen david – both by itself and in the form of barbed wire. Although it may be hard to see on the images below, each note also features an identifying mark that, together with its serial code, the nature of the printing and the fabric of the note, helps to identify counterfeits. The identifying mark is always on the face of each note; where I also have a photograph for the back of the note, the face of the note is shown first. Each note also features the signature of the Elder of the Jews of Lodz Ghetto, the controversial Chaim Rumkowski, also printed on the face.

The identifying feature of the 50 pfennig note is a dot within the magen david that is found within the 0 of the number 50.


The identifying feature of the 1 mark note is a small dot between the /M/ of “Mark” and the following /a/, level with the top of the /a/.


The identifying feature of the 2 mark note is a similarly placed dot, level with the middle of the /a/.

The identifying feature of the 5 mark note is a dot within the /k/ of the word “Mark”.


The identifying feature of the 10 mark note is a dot within the /h/ of the word “Zehn”.

The identifying feature of the 20 mark note is a dot within the loop that is formed by the top of the initial /Z/ in “Zwanzig”. There is also a 50 mark note, but it is somewhat rarer and therefore more difficult to acquire.

My final item is an example of a promissory note (Konversionskasse), to the value of 5 mark. These notes were given to people (primarily Jews) who wished to move abroad and keep their money. After paying an exorbitant tax, the remainder of their wealth was transferred into notes of this nature, which they would soon discover were completely worthless. They are almost always stamped with WERTLOS (“worthless”) or with ENTWERTET (“cancelled”).

Konversionskasse 5

I receive very mixed reactions from people when showing them my collection. While some are impressed with the connection to history that holding such items in one’s hands can create, others still are repulsed with the horror of it all, and uncertain as to why one might wish to acquire them. Myself, I have very mixed feelings. At times, I find myself drawn to them: they are something solid, tangible, real. They are silent witnesses in the true sense of the term, but even voiceless they speak louder than words. They testify to a period of utter hatred, and one that I remain uncertain of how to understand. While the antisemitism of the Notgeld is connected, for me, with a long history of political antisemitism (itself predicated upon broader social and religious forms of Jew-hatred), the horrors of the Holocaust are exploitative of such attitudes, though not necessarily a natural development from the same.

It is telling that the images on the antisemitic Notgeld are all either set in the distant past, centred on usurers and profiteers (rather than explicitly “Juden”) or, in the case of the Golem from Frankfurt, offensive by association only. There is a yawning gulf that lies between the contents of the red folder and the green, and while the items in the two folders interest me, challenge me, repulse me and inspire me, it is that gulf that I find most worthy of deliberation.

On Liberation and Contempt: The Origin of a Nasty Myth

22 12 2011

I had the great pleasure, just a few weeks ago, of delivering a talk at Limmud Oz Fest, entitled “Enemies of the State”. In this talk, I presented the range of attitudes that exists throughout the Haredi world (the so-called “ultra-Orthodox” world), vis-à-vis Zionism and the State of Israel. While many people view the Haredim as opponents of the state (as per the title of my talk), the reality is somewhat more nuanced.

We spoke about Hardal: Haredi Dati Leumi (“Haredi Religious Nationalism”, for want of a better translation), which is modelled on the philosophy of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook. The first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine under the British Mandate, Rav Kook understood the State of Israel (even as a secular entity) as constituting “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption”. At least in theory, proponents of this philosophy serve proudly in the army and support Israel’s government, although the relatively recent withdrawal from Gaza did much to create a certain degree of factionalism within the Hardal camp.

At the other end of the spectrum, we looked at the breakaway group of Neturei Karta international, who split from Neturei Karta in Jerusalem after the death of its founder, Rabbi Amram Blau. Their very visible presence at Israel rallies, their vocal and financial support of Arab leaders who call for the destruction of Israel, and their attendance at Ahmedinajad’s Holocaust Denial Conference in Tehran have all done much in the way of fostering the misapprehension that Haredi Jews wish to see Israel disappear. (If you are interested, you can read transcripts of their speeches in Tehran on their website, where you can also find much information about their ideology.)

Between these two extremes, we spoke of a range of other groups: Shas, the two Ashkenazi political parties (chiefly Agudas Yisroel), the Edah haChareidis of Mea Shearim, and various groups (primarily Hasidic) who express views that align themselves with the Edah or with the mainstream faction of Neturei Karta. We looked at some historical background, particularly concerning the demographic nature of the Old Yishuv, as well as some of the religious Zionist settlement, but then followed the formation of key political groups and ideologies from 1912 until today. In so doing, one of the most important groups and ideologies centred on a key individual: Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the former president of the Edah and the first Rebbe of Satmar.

Published in 1961, the Satmar Rebbe’s VaYoel Moshe (“And Moses Consented”, from Exodus 2:21) outlined his perspectives on Zionism and the State of Israel in the form of three essays, each of which had a formative impact on the philosophy of the Edah haChareidis. The second and the third deal with the impermissibility of returning to the land of Israel under the bureaucratic Law of Return (“מאמר ישוב ארץ ישראל”), and with the impermissibility of using the holy tongue for profane discourse (“מאמר לשון הקודש”). The first, and most important, essay is entitled “The Three Oaths” (“מאמר שלש שבועות”), and deals with his opinions concerning Zionism as a philosophy.

As with many religious Jews who opposed the State of Israel, the political philosophy of Zionism was understood by the Satmar Rebbe to have no basis within the traditional literature. An historically aberrant offshoot of the non-Jewish, post-Enlightenment philosophy of Nationalism, Zionism was seen to be a secular, European phenomenon that had no place within the hallowed halls of Jewish tradition, and no home on Israelite soil. What is more, its very existence was construed as being harmful to the continued survival of the Jewish people around the world. While these particular indictments do not necessarily impact upon apolitical Zionist models (such as the cultural philosophy of Ahad haAm), they were certainly related to the prevailing Zionist model, and the one that was formally instituted in 1948.

In demonstrating this idea, the Satmar Rebbe provided an exegesis on a midrash that is related in the Babylonian Talmud:

שלש שבועות הללו למה אחת שלא יעלו ישראל בחומה ואחת שהשביע בקדוש ברוך הוא את ישראל שלא ימרדו באומות העולם ואחת שהשביע הקדוש ברוך הוא את אומות העולם שלא ישתעבדו בהן בישראל יותר מדאי… בצבאות או באילות השדה אמר רבי אלעזר אמר להם הקדוש ברוך הוא לישראל אם אתם מקיימין את השבועות מוטב ואם לא אני מתיר את בשרכם כצבאות וכאילות השדה

This section, which occurs near the end of Tractate Ketubot, appears in the context of a discussion between Rabbi Zeira (who wanted to return to the land of Israel) and Rav Yehuda (who wanted to stop him). Rav Yehuda’s contention is that the exile can only end at such a time as God declares it to be over, and this is asserted in a back-and-forth fashion with the aid of various scriptural passages. The midrash that appears above, and that I translate below, relates to Song of Songs 2:7 – “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the wild does: do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!” (NRSV). Based on the idea that this poem represents a highly-coded love song between God and Israel, the rabbis present the following interpretation:

Why are there three oaths? [ie: why is there a reference to making an oath in Song of Songs 2:7, 3:5 and 8:4?] One is that Israel should not ascend [to their land] by force, one concerns the Holy One’s adjuring Israel that they not rebel against the nations of the world, and one concerns the Holy One’s adjuring the nations of the world that they not oppress Israel too much…

“By the gazelles or the wild does” (2:7). Rabbi Eliezer’s interpretation: The Holy One told Israel, “If you keep these oaths – good. But if you do not, I permit your flesh like the gazelles and the wild does.”

– Tractate Ketubot 111a

The nations of the world (according to the Satmar Rebbe’s utilisation of this midrash) are obliged to persecute the Jews, but they are obligated to do so only to a certain extent. That obligation, however, only rests upon them insofar as the Jews keep their side of the bargain: that they should neither attempt to reclaim the land of Israel by force, nor rebel in any measure against their host nations. Should they break their oaths then the nations of the world are absolved from theirs, and the flesh of Jews becomes as the flesh of wild animals: free for the taking.

It was the conviction of the Satmar Rebbe – and the opinion of the Edah haChareidis – that Zionism, insofar as it constituted an annullment of the two oaths imposed upon the Jews, was responsible for having caused the Holocaust. Nothing so devastating (nor so historically unprecedented) as the Shoah could have happened without the sanction of God, and no sin could have been so deserving of annihilation than the crime of prematurely terminating the exile. What is more, there were allegations made by the Satmar Rebbe that Zionist agencies were even financially and politically responsible for the fate of their coreligionists in Europe. You can see an example of such claims on this website, some of which constitute a bizarre internalisation of statements made by Hitler himself (see, for example, this page).

Where does this allegation originate?

As reported recently in Vos Iz Neias (and with a tip of the hat to Hirhurim), Satmar Hasidim from Kiryas Joel, NY, recently celebrated the 67th anniversary of Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum’s escape from Nazi-occupied Hungary in 1944. The anniversary of his departure is celebrated on the 21st of Kislev (which, in 1944, was December 7th), and was a key event in the formation of his own anti-Zionist philosophy, as well as in the philosophy of Rabbi Amram Blau’s Neturei Karta. Rather than see the fact that the Satmar Rebbe was saved by a Zionist committee as ironic, the very manner in which he was saved added fuel to his fiery hatred of Zionism. It is my contention that allegations concerning Zionist complicity in the Shoah all centre around the transport that saved the Satmar Rebbe’s life.

In order to understand how this could be so, it is necessary to consider the fate of Hungarian Jewry during the Shoah.

By the time that the Final Solution caught up with the Hungarians, the 750,000 Hungarian Jews were the last sizable Jewish community left in Axis-controlled Europe. In the east were the mass graves of Romania and the Ukraine; in the south, shipments of Jews from Serbia, Croatia and Greece were being sent by the trainload to Auschwitz; to the west, the Reich and its conquered territories were Judenrein; to the north were the killing centres of Poland. Prof. Raul Hilberg describes the situation as follows:

When the Hungarian Jews looked at a map of Axis Europe at the beginning of 1944, they could see that all around them Jewish communities had been attacked and destroyed… Conversely, when a German official looked at his map in Berlin, he could see that everywhere “the Jewish problem” had been “solved,” except in one relatively small area: Hungary. And when he looked at Hungary, he could see the largest concentration of Jews who still survived in the German sphere of influence. Truly, the Hungarian Jews were living in a land island, enclosed and protected by a political boundary. The Jews depended on that barrier for their survival, and the Germans had to break it down.

– Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, Volume II (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1985), 796-797.

While Hungary’s government vacillated between being the willing and unwilling supporters of the Reich (both before and after the German intervention of 1944), the desperate Jewish community tried to bring their predicament to the attention of the West. In so doing, a Zionist committee was formed in 1943, known as the Aid and Rescue Committee (ועדת העזרה וההצלה). Headed by Dr Ottó Komoly, who was killed just before the arrival of the Red Army, and Dr Rudolf (Rezsö) Kastner, it aimed at rescuing those Jews who had escaped to Hungary from Poland, Slovakia and the Reich. These Jews, who were predominantly concentrated in the Carpathians, in Transylvania and in the countryside to the north of Budapest were all deported to concentration camps by July 1944. Ottó Komoly, who was the president, liaised with Hungarian sources in order to prevent their being sent to Auschwitz; Rudolf Kastner, his executive vice-president, liaised with the Germans.

Three distinct relief efforts were organised, each of which became legendary for different reasons: one for its failure, another for its implications, and the third for its success. As we shall see, the Satmar Rebbe owed his life to this third effort.

Their first plan was in consultation with the British, and involved the training of Hungarian Jewish paratroppers, living in Palestine, who could drop into Europe and form a partisan operation. The three paratroopers whom the British trained were Yoel Palgi, Peretz Goldstein and the poet, Hannah Szenes. They landed in Croatia on April 14th, 1944, and learning that Budapest was already occupied by the Nazis, the two men aborted their mission. Hannah Szenes continued on alone and was arrested on the 8th of July, tortured, tried for treason and then executed. She was 22 years old.

The second attempt occurred in May of 1944, when the Aid and Rescue Committee received detailed information as regards the number and the routes of the trains that were shuttling Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. With the aid of a branch in Bratislava, the Aid and Rescue Committee had this information wired to Switzerland, with a request to bomb two or three railway junctions and disrupt the whole operation. While they were met with silence from the Allies, their tactic did succeed in temporarily slowing down the transports nonetheless. As Raul Hilberg notes, “history plays strangely with its participants”. Although the Allies showed no interest in disrupting those transports, the relaying of the message from American and British agencies in Bern to their respective countries was intercepted by Hungarian counter-intelligence. Not knowing where the message had originated, the Hungarians were nonplussed as to how its authors knew the exact location of all Hungarian and German agencies in Budapest, as well as the number of trains going to Auschwitz, and their respective routes. In fact, the Hungarians became so frightened of Allied bombing as a result of this interception that, for the next three months, their cooperation with the Germans could only be described as “reluctant”.

In October, however, the Germans deposed the Hungarian prime minister (the sixth, since the war began), and appointed the leader of the fascist Arrow Cross Party: a man by the name of Ferenc Szálasi. By this stage, Auschwitz was already in its liquidation stage, the train lines were no longer operative, and the remaining Jews of Budapest (itself, the only Hungarian Jewish community that was left) were either marched towards Austria, or ghettoised in the capital. By the time that Hungary surrendered to the USSR, over 180,000 of its Jewish inhabitants had been murdered. Almost all of the survivors were from Budapest.

That the number wasn’t higher is due to a number of factors: the fact that the Final Solution only reached Hungary at such a time as Germany had already lost the war, the concentration of Jews in the capital city, who – for various reasons – were saved until the end, and at least three wartime Hungarian prime-ministers who resented the Germans and whose intentions it was to delay the Final Solution of the Jewish problem as long as possible. Alongside these larger issues stands the heroic work of Raoul Wallenberg, who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews at great risk to himself. Among them were my grandmother and her mother, who were spared the fatal march from Budapest to Austria as a result of his “discovering” that they held Swedish passports. By all accounts, it would appear that Raoul Wallenberg perished in a Soviet prison.

Smaller in its overall importance than these factors was the third rescue mission conducted by the Aid and Rescue Committee, which succeeded in saving the lives of just over 1,600 Jews – one of whom was Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum. Organised by Dr Rudolf Kastner, who liaised with Eichmann, a trainload of Jews (“Kastner’s Train”, as it came to be known) was sent to Switzerland instead of Auschwitz. The question is: what was Eichmann given in return?

Answering this question has proven to be tremendously difficult. After the war, Rudolf Kastner composed “The Report of the Jewish Rescue Committee in Budapest” (“Der Bericht des jüdischen Rettungskomitees aus Budapest”), in which he testified that Eichmann had agreed to the release of 600 Jews in exchange for 6.5 million pengö (= approximately 4,000,000 RM), who would then all be given safe passage to Palestine. Subsequently, Eichmann raised the number to 1,600 Jews, and although he sent them all to Bergen-Belsen instead, many of them subsequently arrived in Switzerland late in 1944. It was hypothesised, during Eichmann’s trial, that he raised the number on the suspicion that he may one day stand before a tribunal. In April of 1944, that was hardly a prophecy.

In 1960, Adolf Eichmann was interviewed by a former Nazi journalist, Willem Sassen. In this interview, which was subsequently published in Time Magazine, Eichmann recalled the events of the Kastner Train differently: according to Eichmann, Kastner made the additional promise of maintaining order in the camps, the better to facilitate the regular deportations to Auschwitz that were already underway. The last thing that the Nazis wanted was a second Warsaw Ghetto uprising, so in Eichmann’s words, “it was a good bargain”.

After having escaped from Auschwitz in April of 1944, Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler drafted a report that described the layout of the camp and its use of gas chambers. Controversially, Rudolf Kastner has been accused by some of having suppressed the report, which would have otherwise led to tremendous unrest amongst the Jews and the possible escape of many. Indeed, it would appear that Rudolf Kastner received a copy of this report on the 28th of April, but that it was not something that he brought to the attention of regular Hungarian Jews. By the 7th of June, the Nazis had finished deporting the Jews of the Carpathians and Transylvania. Sturmbannführer Walter Höttl, who was one of the SS officers surpervising the forced evacuations of those two zones, describes them in the following way:

Without resistance and in submission, they marched by the hundreds in long columns to railway stations and piled into the trains. Only very few gendarmes were supervising the operation; it would have been easy to flee. In the Carpatho-Ukraine, which contained numerically the strongest Jewish settlements, the forbidding mountains and forests offered an opportunity for prolonged hiding. But only few removed themselves in this way from their doom.

– Raul Hilberg, Destruction, 841 – citing Walter Hagen (Höttl), Die Geheime Front (Zurich, 1950), 39.

Was Rudolf Kastner, in his efforts to release 1,600 Hungarian Jews, complicit in the Nazi atrocities? In 1953, an amateur Israeli journalist named Malchiel Gruenwald, accused Kastner (who was at that time a spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Trade and Industry) of collaboration with the Nazis. What is more, it was revealed that several spaces on the train were filled with Kastner’s relatives and friends.

Some of the judges on Israel’s Supreme Court were scathing, accusing him of having been a knowing accomplice to the Nazi destruction of Hungarian Jewry, who acted out of desire for personal gain. While the overriding sentiment, on which the court decided, was that he had been an unwilling and unknowing accomplice, he resigned from his job in disgrace. A thorough and fascinating description of the case was composed by Akiva Orr: “The Kastner Case, Jerusalem, 1955”, in Israel: Politics, Myths and Identity Crisis (London: Pluto Press, 1994), 81-116. The book can be downloaded from this link.

In 1958, the courts overruled their former opinion and acquitted Rudolf Kastner, but it was too late for him. A year earlier, in 1957, Kastner had been gunned down outside his house in Tel-Aviv. His killers (Ze’ev Eckstein, Dan Shemer and Yosef Menkes) served seven years each.

While this is not the only instance in which Jewish organisations “bartered”, for want of a better term, with the Nazis, and while Raul Hilberg demonstrates innumerable instances of near-complicity in the interest of self-preservation, the very central nature of a Zionist agency in this particular incident, and the fact that it fell in the direct experience of the Satmar Rebbe himself, makes it a viable candidate for the origin story to the Satmar and Neturei Karta myth: that the Zionists were not only responsible for the Shoah on a supernatural level, but that they were directly involved in the machinations of the Reich.

So far as Kastner is concerned, for whom I cannot help but feel a weight of regret, I would echo the sentiments of Judge Benjamin Halevy, whose indictment of 1955 was so beautifully expressed. Quoting Homer Virgil, he declared that

timeo Danaos et dona ferentes (“I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts”). By accepting this present Kastner had sold his soul to the devil.

– Akiva Orr: “The Kastner Case, Jerusalem, 1955”, in Israel: Politics, Myths and Identity Crisis (London: Pluto Press, 1994), 81-116 (91).