“When one wants to achieve great things, one cannot shy away from responsibility."
Rabbi Shaul Weingort in a letter to Schabse Frenkel, July 18, 1945
Shortly before WWII broke out, Shaul Weingort (1914-1946), a young Polish rabbi, arrived in Switzerland. Although only in his mid-twenties, Rabbi Weingort was already regarded as a brilliant scholar. In the years that followed, Weingort sent letters to many of the greatest minds of the Jewish world. The topic of those letters, however, was not Talmudic interpretation or Jewish Law; they were meant to save lives. Weingort’s extended family was among millions of Jews who had come under German rule as a result of the occupation of Poland. The rabbi began to send aid packages with food, medication and religious items. When the deportations to death camps began, however, foreign citizenship became the only way to escape.
In the new publication We Think of You as an Angel: Shaul Weingort and the Rescue of Jews during the Holocaust (Yad Vashem, 2020), historian Sara Kadosh (on whose introduction this review is based) sheds light on Weingort’s efforts to create an aid network that delivered sustenance, South American passports, and hope to his family and hundreds of other Polish Jews in an attempt to save their lives. Weingort died tragically in 1946, and until now his story was largely unknown.
Rabbi Weingort reached Switzerland in August 1939 shortly before the outbreak of the war. He had no money and little practical experience, and yet spent the following years endeavoring to rescue family, friends and acquaintances who were trapped in Nazi-occupied Europe. From his base in neutral Switzerland, he corresponded extensively with Jews in Germany, in the ghettos of Poland and elsewhere in Europe, as well as with Jewish leaders in England, the US, China, Turkey and Eretz Israel.
Of particular interest is the extensive correspondence he conducted with several hundred Polish Jews in the Vittel internment camp in France – many of them members of his family – and his desperate efforts to save them from deportation. The internees in Vittel, as well as those in Liebenau and Tittmoning, repeatedly expressed their gratitude to Weingort and their admiration for his exceptional ability to meet their every need. “We think of you as an angel,” Rabbi Shabtai (Schabse) Rapaport (Weingort's uncle, who had served as the Rabbi of Pińczów prior to the German invasion) wrote to him in June 1943, “I cannot thank you enough; How will I ever be able to repay you?"
For many years after his untimely death in 1946 in a car accident, his massive wartime correspondence with Polish ghetto internees and prisoners in German camps remained hidden in his home in Switzerland. Only in the mid-1980s were his papers brought to Bar-Ilan University in Israel, where they first became available to researchers. The collection was subsequently transferred to the Yad Vashem Archives.
Shaul Weingort’s correspondence with family and friends in the Warsaw ghetto and other ghettos reveals aspects of ghetto life that are not widely known. It outlines the rescue methods he used during the war, including sending food packages to sustain lives, and South American passports to help Jews avoid deportation. His activities in Switzerland bring to light the experiences of thousands of Jewish refugees who reached that country during the war: Weingort served as a chaplain in Swiss refugee camps and played a leading role in the struggle to redeem Jewish refugee children placed with Christian families or in non-Jewish children’s homes in Switzerland.
The book is based in large part on the documents in the Shaul Weingort collection and the Weingort family papers. "Most exchanges between Weingort and the internees are written in code to avoid the censor," explains Enno Raschke of Yad Vashem's Publications Department. "They talk of passports as 'love gifts' or 'medication,' of deportations as 'weddings', sent greetings to 'Aunt Rahamim' [alluding to the Hebrew word for 'mercy'], talk about living together with M. Sekune (as in Sakana –or 'danger'), and indicate that they might move together with this or that uncle or the grandfather (who had passed away, indicating that they were in mortal danger)." The manuscript also makes extensive use of documents found in many additional archives around the world, among them the Swiss Federal Archives in Bern; the Va’ad Hatzala Archives at New York's Yeshiva University; the Agudath Israel of America and the YIVO Archives, both in New York; as well as the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem. Memoirs and interviews have yielded additional information concerning Weingort’s role as an educator in the Etz Chaim Yeshiva in Montreux and as a community activist in Switzerland.
We Think of You As an Angel is a masterful work reconstructing a young man's heroic attempts to do all that was in his power – and much more – to save his fellow Jews during the Holocaust.
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