Efraim Zuroff, The Response of Orthodox Jewry in the United States to the Holocaust: The Activities of the Vaad ha-Hatzala Rescue Committee, 1939- 1945 (New York: Ktav, 1999), 316 pp.
In a magazine article of no particular relevance to the book under review here, I ran across the following lines:
“As a member of her school’s student council, [my daughter] spearheaded an effort last Valentine’s Day to raise money for AIDS research; almost every kid in the school wore an article of red clothing and donated a dollar. After it was over she said to me, “I know it wasn’t a lot, but it felt good to do something.”
Having just completed my reading of Efraim Zuroff’s book, I recognized the girl’s sentiment as consistent with one of the messages that this study conveys. Indeed, what I shall refer to here as the integrity issue is central not only to Zuroff’s illuminating account of the Orthodox rescue committee, the Vaad Ha-Hatzala, but also to a growing number of works in the field relating to America and American Jewry in relation to the Holocaust.
Both Aaron Berman and David Wyman, for example, have raised integrity issues with regard to the American Jewish leadership during World War II. They praise Peter Bergson’s splinter group for having moved beyond conventional thinking and mounting an unremitting campaign to promote Jewish rescue as an issue in American public opinion. However, the real extent of the Bergsonites’ success in shaping policy initiatives undertaken by Washington remains unclear.
Berman, going somewhat beyond Wyman in this respect, also asks the related question of whether the commitment of American Zionist leaders such as Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen Wise to their postwar Zionist agenda might not have adversely influenced the prioritizing of rescue in 1943-44. In so doing, he reverses the integrity issue and suggests that purist thinking can be counterproductive. In any case, it is not the results that count: Berman does not probe the evidence as to whether rescue was actually made more possible (by Bergson) or deferred (by Wise and Silver), but deals rather with issues of intent and attitude.
Similarly, Deborah Lipstadt’s work on the American press in the Holocaust period is essentially concerned with questions of journalistic integrity, evaluating the amount of anti-Jewish bias, factual awareness, accuracy, and concern that were displayed in the press regarding the plight of Europe’s Jews. Although Lipstadt (like Wyman) explicitly claims that rescue was directly thwarted because of indifference in official Washington and in American public opinion, she (again like Wyman) does not actually seek to prove this proposition; rather, she treats it as self-evident that a greater measure of journalistic integrity, fairness, and better intentions would have produced more beneficial results.
These indictments against American behavior during the Holocaust, therefore, rest not on missed rescue opportunities in any definitive sense, but, rather, solely on domestic matters. It is as if to say: objective rescue possibilities aside, the impaired integrity of Americans in relation to the Holocaust is deplorable in and of itself. Indeed, Wyman comes close to admitting that (hypothetical) rescue attempts might very well have been futile, but insists, nevertheless, that such attempts should have been made, if only to satisfy moral obligations.
This point of view has been questioned on several occasions by Henry Feingold. Pointing out that Nazi Germany preempted virtually every realistic rescue option (after the summer of 1941), he urges that the historical indictment of Americans be stripped of its overwrought moralistic tone. Understanding the reasons and means of both administration behavior and American Jewish lobbying efforts within the parameters of the possible is a sufficient goal, without having to involve further speculations.
A similar point is addressed by Richard Breitman and Alan Kraut. Their work on American refugee policy in the 1930s and 1940s shows that analyses of Roosevelt administration policies must take more into account than intentrelated issues, even when examining the domestic aspects of the story alone. Lucy Dawidowicz, Yehuda Bauer, and (most recently and most bluntly) William Rubenstein have directly addressed the issue of the potential for rescue and have challenged the notion that many Jews might have been saved by the Allies during the war.
It is in the context of this debate that Zuroff’s book on the Vaad haHatzala takes its place as a reconsideration of integrity and rescue issues. In detailing concrete matters such as the type, extent, and relative efficacy of fund-raising and refugee-aid programs undertaken by the Vaad Ha-Hatzala, Zuroff relates to domestic American Jewish matters but, in addition, takes us beyond the borders of the United States and beyond intent-issues. Apart from telling us how many dollars were raised by the Vaad between 1940 and 1944 (about half a million, which represents a fraction of the total raised by American Jews through the UJA), he also gives us a tally of how many individuals and families from the yeshivah world were enabled to escape from Poland to Lithuania prior to June 1940, and thence made their way to Vladivostok or Soviet Central Asia; from Vladivostok to Japan, Shanghai, or Canada; and (under another set of circumstances, toward the end of the war) from Germany to Switzerland.
The numbers are not large—no more than several hundred rabbis, their families, and their students—and Zuroff finds it impossible to grant the Vaad ha-Hatzala total credit even for these modest successes. The Joint Distribution Committee was also involved, to say nothing of private individuals and government officials in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia. Given the drift to integrity politics in the recent literature, however, it is certainly refreshing to get such specifics in a scholarly work on American Jewish responses to the Holocaust. It is comparable in that regard to Yehuda Bauer’s work on the Joint (JDC), and it is worth noting that Zuroff’s book originated as a doctoral dissertation under Bauer’s supervision.
Zuroff begins his account with a chapter that details the war-relief work undertaken by Orthodox rabbinical circles in the United States during World War I on behalf of their brethren in Eastern Europe—an important precedent for the activities of these same circles twenty-five years later. In eight subsequent, well-organized chapters, he takes the reader through each stage of the journey undertaken by refugee yeshivah students, their rabbis, and accompanying families between 1939 and 1943. Special attention is paid here to the ways in which visas were obtained (for example, the famous Curacao “visas” acquired through Dutch consular officials); transit fares paid; entry permits obtained (for Shanghai, Canada, and elsewhere); and maintenance funds transferred from America to the Far East and to Soviet Central Asia. In the tenth and final chapter, together with a brief “Afterword,” Zuroff puts forth the argument that, in 1943-44, once the facts of mass extermination were received and absorbed, the organization turned its focus from refugee relief (directed at a yeshivah constituency only) to a new approach, which called for rescue initiatives directed at the Jewish population as such. This last aspect deserves a lengthier treatment, as Zuroff himself agrees, and one hopes that it will receive its due in a scholarly study.
Nevertheless, it is not Zuroff’s intent to rest his case on the numerical calculus of rescue. In considering the numerical merits of the Vaad’s refugeerelief and rescue achievements alone, it does not appear that the creation of a separate organization, with an independent and problematic fund-raising network, alongside that of the United Jewish Appeal and the JDC, was warranted. This is a point that Zuroff himself concedes at the end of his book, where, in so many words, he conjectures that more Jewish lives might have been saved had the Vaad ha-Hatzala cooperated more directly with the JDC. However, he argues, the success of the Vaad must be measured against a different yardstick, which alone justifies the separatist path that it took. And it is here that we reenter the realm of integrity politics, where what counts is not what you did but rather why you did it.
First, the Vaad was a necessary advocacy group, operating alongside the mainstream Jewish establishment in America (which, not coincidentally, is a view that dovetails with what others have written about the Bergson group). In that context Zuroff singles out the march of 400 Orthodox rabbis that took place in Washington in October 1943, sponsored by the Vaad and the Bergson group, as the crowning political moment of the Vaad’s career. Never mind that the demonstration failed in its mission to meet with President Roosevelt, and never mind that the publicity value of the event was just that and nothing more. The point in this instance (Zuroff argues) is not results, but attitude and commitment.
In line with this reasoning, the separate fund-raising operation run by the Vaad is similarly justified. Although it is possible that these funds might have been put to better use in other ways, money is literally the only available coin of influence and power in a voluntary community like American Jewry. Budgets are the only means of creating either program or policy. The Vaad unabashedly used its independent fund-raising activity to engage in special pleading for its constituency in Europe, and it did not flinch at cutting legal corners whenever the disbursement of those funds appeared to hold out the chance of saving lives.
To his credit as a historian, Zuroff balances his praise of the Vaad by pointing out that it was not alone in its forthright commitment to saving lives, even when that meant evading American legalities: similarly desperate measures were adopted by JDC representatives in Switzerland, especially toward the end of the war. However, had it not been for the Vaad’s prodding, the JDC’s operations in Europe and Asia might not have addressed the particular plight of yeshivah students and Torah scholars with great dispatch, care, or efficacy.
Second, the Vaad’s brief went beyond the material aspect of rescue and refugee-maintenance. It aimed, rather, to raise sufficient funds to enable refugee yeshivah-layt to live and study together, to continue to pursue their particular calling in life, and to leave the Soviet Union as quickly as possible (where, though safe from the Nazis, they were still liable to come under pressure from the authorities because of their religious lifestyle). Torah, therefore, was the real raison d’être of the Vaad Ha-Hatzala. In those terms, even the modest and partial successes that could be attributed to its activities must be justified not in terms of the numbers involved, but in terms of the way of life that was thus enabled to continue. Indeed, as Zuroff argues approvingly in his conclusion, the steadfastness of the Vaad during the war can be seen as a prologue to the reestablishment on American shores of ultra-Orthodox communities after the war. In a word, the people of the Vaad and those whom they aided were true to their faith, which is a self-justifying value.
The combination of a hard-headed examination of the pragmatic politics of refugee-and-rescue advocacy among American Jewry during World War II, on the one hand, and a thesis that privileges integrity over results, on the other, is what accounts for the peculiar duality of this book. Zuroff tries to have it both ways: the separatist agenda of the Agudat Harabbonim, the traditionalist rabbinical group that gave rise to the Vaad Ha-Hatzala, was both productive and counter-productive. Separatism is both condemned and praised. Thus, Zuroff confuses the reader on the key issue that he has raised; namely, that of communal fragmentation versus cooperation.
The issue of separatism is an integrity issue par excellence. The decision by the Vaad ha-Hatzala to function independently rested upon a refusal to compromise on what it viewed as matters of ultimate principle. Moreover, this separatist dynamic could not be contained even within the traditionalist Orthodox world. The Vaad was itself plagued by the independent fund-raising campaigns run, despite its pleas, by the individual yeshivot to which the Vaad was funneling aid. On at least several occasions, too, the Chabad (Lubavitch) group submitted separate requests to the JDC—again, contrary to the wishes of the Vaad.
Why internal splintering of this sort should have occurred within an already-small, traditional-Orthodox camp, among people who shared the same passionate commitments and lifestyle, is a natural question here. Yet Zuroff offers us little in the way of an explanation.
It is clear that separatism was at the very root of the culture that the Vaad was trying to save—we are dealing with people for whom even Vilna represented too great a risk of urban, secular distractions and who therefore dispersed into small towns in the Lithuanian countryside. The pre-war unwillingness of most yeshivah heads to entertain thoughts of emigration also surely derived from a posture of religious separatism. Zuroff does drop certain hints—albeit almost in passing—in this regard. Thus, he notes that only the Mir Yeshivah took the elementary step of securing passports for all its students and that, as a result, it was able to travel as a group and survive as an intact institution. Again, he also notes, it was the yeshivah students who took the initiative and left eastern Poland for Lithuania, virtually dragging their unwilling rabbis after them, before it was too late.
In presenting the culture of religious separatism as a positive value in its own right, however, Zuroff finds it difficult to pursue such underlying critical questions very far. If religious separatism is a virtue and a culture worth saving—by resorting to separatist means, if necessary—how then can one criticize those involved for having thereby made the overall tasks of refugee assistance and rescue less unified and perhaps less effective? Lack of an overall conceptual coherence leads Zuroff to underscore the operational costs of separatism even while he pays respectful obeisance to the integrity of those who acted in accordance with their conscience and whose actions thereby acquire the character of spiritual resistance.
What accounts for the perennial interest in integrity issues in the study of America and America’s Jews during the era of the Holocaust?
America and American Jews, to put it quite simply, were not directly involved in the Holocaust per se. When it comes to the victims and the perpetrators, researchers have a factual agenda with which to deal. This is far less the case when it comes to those who stood outside the physical orbit of the Holocaust. Descriptive categories have been created (“witnesses” and “bystanders”) to widen the scope of those who might be implicated in the events, but such categories are somewhat ambiguous, not to say artificial. They serve primarily to discover indirect complicity in the Holocaust among parties other than the Nazi regime itself.
This exercise in spreading the guilt might serve cathartic moral ends: how much easier it is to believe that “it” could happen because “the whole world was silent” than it is to absorb the idea that the power of a terrorist state in wartime could really be so absolute as to enable it to flout every decent fundamental of human civilization with relative ease. It is clear, however, that the hard facts of the Holocaust relate to the Hitler regime and those directly under its control. We are left, then, in the case of the “bystanders,” with research into questions of moral intent and speculation over how many lives might have been saved, if only . . .
As for the Jews in America and the Holocaust, we are up against retroactive blame issues here, too. But, as Efraim Zuroff’s book illustrates, we are dealing here with other, more contemporary issues as well. Zuroff’s account of the Vaad ha-Hatzala is about the Holocaust era, to be sure; but, underlying this quest into religious integrity, is a very up-to-date concern with the durability of the values of authenticity and communal solidarity in the context of strong assimilatory pressures.
It is this subtext, perhaps, that leads Zuroff to identify the work of the Vaad haHatzala as “the response of Orthodox Jewry in the United States” (the title of his book), as if an entire sub-community of Jews were responsible for the work undertaken by this rescue committee. The work of the Vaad was, of course, an Orthodox response, but it is an exaggeration (perhaps a distortion) to suggest that it was the Orthodox response. There is a whiff of special pleading on behalf of the Orthodox constituency in this claim, and it most surely has its roots in present-day cultural politics rather than in a historical agenda. In fairness to Zuroff, such special pleading is only barely perceptible in his book, and is implied more than it is stated. In that sense, and compared with far more egregious examples that have, unfortunately, been published, Zuroff’s book may almost be seen as a timely corrective.
Three facts need to be stated in this regard. First, the Vaad was an organization of rabbis, not of Orthodox Jewry at large. The Vaad’s work was specifically limited to the rescue and maintenance of refugee yeshivah heads and their students. The target population was not Jews in general or even Orthodox Jews in general, until January 1944, when the Vaad decided to broaden its mandate (the point at which Zuroff ends his book).
Second, Orthodox Jewry in America in the 1940s was not a corporate body (religious or politic) that could activate a collective response of its own to the Holocaust. Orthodoxy at the grass roots had extremely fluid definitional boundaries, with a large “non-observant” periphery. Even at the leadership level, there were two rival rabbinical councils. For example, Zuroff relates that the Vaad came into frequent conflict with other Orthodox organizations, such as the Zionist Mizrachi party.
Third, the Vaad owed much of the financial support it received to donations from non-Orthodox Jews who, through their local Jewish federations and welfare funds, were asked to save what could be saved of Eastern Europe’s yeshivah world. Similarly, as the Vaad geared itself up to run political activities, it relied on a partnership with the Bergson group— decidedly not an Orthodox outfit.
In short, the Vaad was as much “the response of Orthodox Jewry in the United States” as the JDC was “the response of Reform Jewry” (which it clearly was not).
It is completely legitimate to choose to write about one organization’s history, and Zuroff makes a cogent case in this book for doing so. It is another thing, however, to pass off this very specific story as characteristic or representative of an ideologically committed population at large. Orthodox Jews, like their non-Orthodox counterparts, voted for Roosevelt, bought war bonds, sent off sons to fight in a war that was simultaneously America’s war for democracy and the Jewish people’s war for survival, and (for the most part) supported Zionism. All these were responses by Orthodox people to the Holocaust. The Vaad ha-Hatzala should rightly be remembered because it was one more response, and a very particular one, at that, by some Orthodox Jews.
Source: Yad Vashem Studies, XXVIII, Jerusalem 2000, pp. 379-389.