While so many were being kidnapped, held in captivity and killed, a group of free Jews in Europe were working to help their brothers and sisters. They called themselves "The Working Group." Their goal was to save as many people as possible. The odds were not in their favor.
Jews Saving Jews, Podcast Transcription
"Fate has willed us apart, yet the same fate has also willed that during the years of our people's greatest misery, your mother is fulfilling a great mission in order to ease this terrible suffering. If I survive this difficult period, I think I will be able to say that I have not lived in vain. In this spirit, you must bear the separation, the suffering of the People of Israel stands above any personal pain."
Those are the words of Gisi Fleischmann, one of the two leaders of the Working Group, a group of Jews who, in the face of the Holocaust did their best to help fellow Jews to safety. I'm Nate Nelson, welcome to "On the Holocaust" from Yad Vashem. In this episode Dr. Robert Rozett, Director of the Yad Vashem Library, tells us who these ordinary, and yet in some ways larger-than-life people were, and how they tried saving people against impossible odds.
Q: Greetings Dr. Rozett, can you start off by telling me about Slovakia and its role in the Holocaust?
A: Slovakia was set up after what we call the Munich Agreement, where the countries of France and Italy, and of England, decided that they would allow Germany to take apart Czechoslovakia basically. It happened in two pieces. Slovakia was set up in March 1939. The head of Slovakia was a priest by the name of Joseph Tiso. Slovakia Instituted anti-Jewish measures immediately. By the time we're into early 1942, and the Nazis have already pretty much coalesced what we call "the Final Solution", the destruction of the Jews of Europe, there's a discussion at the Wannsee Conference, as it's called, where they're talking about how to go about doing this in certain parts of Europe, [saying] that Slovakia will not be a problem, and Slovakia was not a problem. They agreed even to pay money to the Germans for every Jew that they deported from Slovakia.
Q: You mentioned how the Slovak government was cooperating with the German government. At what point did this partnership begin to endanger the Jews of the country?
A: Well, of course there are anti-Jewish measures, coming into early 1942. But around February 1942 the Education Minister in the Slovak government who studied law together with one of the Jewish leaders told him about the impending deportation of Jews of Slovakia. Members of the official Jewish leadership, some of them, who were unhappy with the Jewish leadership, the official one, which was very submissive, they thought, made something they called "the Group of Six". They started to think about what could they do to prevent the deportations, and then this group became what we call the Working Group, which is sort of a semi-underground, semi-legal, semi-illegal group, that began dealing with trying to rescue Jews in Slovakia.
So the first things they tried to do, when they heard that the Slovak government was going to deport Jews, they tried to approach various Slovak government officials, and to convince them not to do it. There are some sources that say they even offered some bribes. This didn't have influence anything all that quickly. They also suggested something else to them very early on, the Slovaks stated that they were going to deport the Jews to the East and in order to use their labor in the East, and they said why not use Jewish labor in Slovakia? And there were a number of camps that already existed in Slovakia, for various things under the Jewish community, under the Zionists and others, preparing then to go to Palestine and such things. And the idea was to put Jews in those camps, and they would work for Slovakia in those camps and not be deported. And so that was one of the things they tried to do, in order to prevent deportation. Now they didn't prevent them and the train started to roll, and so they started to think about other things that they could do, in order to somehow stop the deportations from continuing. One of the things that they understood was that the head of Slovakia with a Catholic priest, and so they said let's turn to the Vatican. And they turned to all kinds of Catholic officials in Slovakia, a number of them, including the main representative of the Vatican in Slovakia, a man named Father Giuseppe Burzio. And Burzio sent a cable to the Vatican, explaining what was going on, trying to get the Vatican to intervene to stop the deportations, to put pressure on Father Tiso, was the head of the government. That didn't happen quickly. It eventually happened to a certain extent that took a long time. So they started thinking about some other things to that they could do. They understood that Slovakia was what today we would call a client state of Germany, Germany had set it up, it was independent but Germany had a great deal of leeway, and they had a lot of presence in Slovakia. And the Germans has sent an advisor to deal with Jewish issues in Slovakia, out of the office that Adolf Eichmann worked in, under the SS, under Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS. This man's name was Dieter Wisliceny. And they said well, maybe we should try and turn to Wisliceny, and try to bribe him to get him to stop the deportations, thinking that Wisliceny had a great deal of power himself. Wisliceny didn't have all that much power himself, but he could go back to the very powerful people in Berlin, and talk to them. And he came back with the idea that maybe they would accept something, that there would be negotiations and they came up with a figure, and it was something between 40,000 and 50,000 dollars, depends on the source that would be paid to Wisliceny to stop the deportations in Slovakia.
While this is happening, they were also trying to do a few other things, because they were trying different tracks at once. The Zionist youth movement in Slovakia, when the deportations began, after a little while thought the best thing to do was to try to flee Slovakia to neighboring Hungary. Slovak Jews and Hungarian Jews are cousins, in fact there are family connections between many of them. Slovakia had been once part of Hungary. Many Slovak Jews spoke Hungarian. And so it was natural to try to cross the border where things were quieter at the time, and that's what they started to encourage. And the Working Group became involved in trying to help finance them, because to cross the border you need money, you need help. It costs money to get a smuggler, you have to pay him, or to get false papers or both. Or even to just get false papers and buy a train ticket, you have to have some money. And so they began helping to finance them. And that was another thing that was going on now, while they're beginning to talk to Wisliceny, while the deportations are going on, Jews begin to flee from Slovakia and the Working Group is involved in this. It's not the only factor, some Jews just flee by their own. But many of them flee with the help of the Working Group. So all of these things are happening at once, while they're starting to talk with Wisliceny, and trying to pay Wisliceny the sum they're supposed to pay him.
Q: What exactly was the Working Group?
A: Well, first of all who's in the Working Group? The Working Group were older people, right? The Zionist youth movement are young people in their teens and early twenties. And they're like the Zionist youth movements anywhere over the world at the time that, that they're young, they're rather dynamics, they're still young people though, right? The Working Group is very different but it includes some Zionists. Because there are two important people in the Working Group that we want to talk about, there's a number of them, they're all important. But the two most prominent figures are two very very different people. One of them is a Zionist, and one of them is very far from being Zionist. We'll start with the one who's far from being Zionist, his name is Rabbi Michael Ber Dov Weissmandl. He's a man who wears a long black caftan, and he has a black hat and he has a big beard, and he looks like a very traditional Eastern European Jewish person, right? And he is very involved in the Working Group, but he's one of the most important figures in it, maybe you could say the leading or one of the leading. The other person who is very very prominent in the Working Group is his relative by marriage, and her name is Gizela or Gisi Fleischmann, and although she also grew up in an orthodox home, she has gravitated in her younger years toward Zionism. She's become the head of the women Zionist organization in Slovakia, WIZO. And she was very involved from the time Slovakia started to try to help people leave, Jews leave Slovakia, even help other Jews leave Europe by way of Slovakia when it was still possible into the very early years of the war. And she's a very dynamic person, and again, very different from Rabbi Weissmandl. But they make an excellent team and they work together leading much of the activity of the Working Group. So the Zionist youth movement, in a sense there are Zionists in the Working Group, so there's a contact point, but they're not really part of the Working Group, they are working to a certain extent in coordination with it.
Q: So give me the details on what the Working Group did to try and help Jews.
A: Helping Jews cross the borders is one thing they're doing, but what they're really trying to do is to stop the deportations. That's really what they want to do. Safeguard some Jews, by putting them in labor camps or to help them cross the border, but the big thing is to stop the deportations. So once Wisliceny comes back from Berlin with this idea that for a certain amount of money - 40,000-50,000 dollars to be paid, they will stop the deportations from Slovakia, what they're trying to do is raise the money. Now it's not that much money, but the Slovak government was very efficient in robbing the Jews of Slovakia of most of their money. So where do you get the money? You can't get in Slovakia. You have to try to get it somewhere else. Eventually they managed to get the whole sum between what's left in Slovakia and some help from some Jews in Hungary. And in October 1942, about six months after the deportations had begun in March 1942, they make a full payment to Wisliceny, and this happened to ge on Yom Kippur 1942, and the deportations stop.
Q: The bribe – did it work?
A: The deportation from Slovakia stopped after they paid the bribe. But the question is did they stop because of the bribe? And of course we, historians, know things that people on the ground didn't know. Weissmandl and Gisi Fleischmann and the other people in the Working Group were sure it was the bride that stopped the deportations, maybe a little bit of pressure that had come out of the Vatican after sometime, and some other things happening. But they thought it was mostly the bribe. And that brought them into another set of negotiations, we'll talk about in a minute, but before I say that, we know as historians that it probably wasn't the bribe. It was too little money, it doesn't make any sense, first of all. And secondly, we know something else. We know that the Slovaks agreed to deport 65,000 Jews from Slovakia. And by October of 1942, six months after they'd begun, they had deported about 58,000 Jews, and they'd put about 6,000 in labor camps in Slovakia. They were very close to 65,000. And that's it. They said "we're done." And they had also understood more what the deportations were, and some of the people in the government weren't that excited about it. So maybe that has something to do with it too, saying "we're done". But Weissmandl and Gisi Fleischmann, they understood it was the money. In the meantime, they had sent people out, couriers, after the deported Jews, to find out what was happening to them. And they returned with stories of horror. Now, they didn't know what we know about the Holocaust, but they knew that people were suffering and dying, and terrible things were happening to them, being moved around, because many of these Jews were sent to ghettos in Poland, then to camps. They also learn that Jews from all over Europe were being sent to Poland. And so they came back to Wisliceny now with a new idea - we will pay you a bribe to stop sending Jews to Poland. And Wisliceny went back to Germany, to Berlin, spoke with his bosses, including Himmler the head of the SS, and came back with a thing, okay let's negotiate. And they came up with an idea that for two million dollars to be paid to the SS, they would stop deporting the Jews from all over Europe to Poland. This came to be known as the Europa Plan. So the Working Group, Fleischmann and Weissmandl, and the others around them, from the late Autumn of 1942 onwards, were trying to raise the money they had to raise. Now they didn't need two million dollars, because they were willing to take ten percent, the Germans, 200,000, a down payment. But if they had a hard time getting 40,000 or 50,000 dollars, they had that much more of a hard time getting 200,000 dollars. And so they began turning to where they could turn.
Q: So where could they turn?
A: There were two main places that they were trying to get money from: one was from Switzerland the other one was from the Yishuv, from the Land of Israel - the Jews living in Mandatory Palestine. And they wrote to them, and they also wrote to the representatives from Mandatory Palestine in Switzerland, that's who they were really work with most closely. And the main person in Switzerland they worked with was a man named Sally Mayer, who represented the major Jewish charity in America, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). And so they were trying to get money on these two sources mostly. And they had some real issues about it. First of all, they had to convince them that this was serious. But even before that they had to try to help them understand what was happening with the Jews, because they were far away from this. And it was very hard for them to understand. We talk about the unprecedentedness of the Holocaust. And whenever we talk about responses of anyone anywhere, the very first thing that has to happen, is that they have to start to have an understanding that this is the situation. So that was something that they had to do, they had to convince them that there's something new. And in most cases, they did slowly. But there were other issues. One of them is just logistics. It's not 2020 where if I want to give you money and I go to my app on my phone, and just transfer it. In this case you either have to transfer the money physically, or you have to have some way to borrow money and know you're going to pay it back or something, you have to have physical money. And this is a war. So going from the United States to Switzerland sounds easy because it's one country to a neutral country, right? But there's a war in-between. And going from Palestine to Switzerland or to Slovakia... it's all complicated, so that's a big hurdle. The second hurdle is that, the main representative sitting in Switzerland, Sally Mayer of the Joint Distribution Committee, has money, but not enough. And he begins borrowing money from Jews in Switzerland, saying we're going to pay you back and everything... and they give him money, but he doesn't have excesses of money. And he's not just responsible for Slovakia, and he's not that sure that this is a real thing that's happening, and he's responsible for all the Jews under Nazi domination. And it takes a very long time for him to decide that this is a priority. And even when it is, he still doesn't have all the money. So, they're spending all this time trying to collect money, but it's very very hard to get it.
Q: And finally they achieve their goal or not?
A: No. They never get the full 200,000 dollars. Many months pass, and now we're in the autumn of 1943. They paid a good chunk of it but not all of it. And Dieter Wisliceny, who is sitting in Slovakia, is the advisor in Jewish Affairs, is transferred to Greece where they begin embarking in the murder of the Jews of Greece. And he will become involved in that. And so, these negotiations go in to kind of a hibernation, they don't die but they go into hibernation. And so in the end, they never managed to do this, they never managed to pay all the money. The Europa Plan never consummated the way they were hoping that it would be.
Q: Amidst, you know, the Holocaust, all this chaos, the Slovak uprising occurs. How does that historical event factor into our story here?
A: When the work camps for the Slovak Jews were set up, people of all ages were sent there, right? And some of the younger people, communists and Zionist youth members sort of spontaneously started developing, kind of resistance cells. Now these are not German camps. So their labor camps are not a nice place to be, and during the deportations Jews were sent to them, and also deported from some of them too. But those who were staying there for labor, after the deportations ens, they could go out. They go out to the doctor, if they have to. They go out on the Sabbath. They can go walking around. And so they walk around these young people in these cells of resistance, and they try to buy weapons from the farmers nearby, whatever they do. The Working Group starts giving them money when they learn about this, to help buy them weapons. Then they do one other thing. There's a planning of a Slovak National Uprising, this a big plan, it's already from the Slovak Government in exile, that's sitting abroad in England, and their representative in Slovakia and the Czechoslovak government in exile and people in Slovakia, and so there's an uprising being planned. And they connect these resistance cells in the camps to the Slovak National Uprising. On the 29th of August 1944 the Slovak National Uprising breaks out. The Jews leave those camps. The fighters among them join the fighting forces, they eventually join what we call the partisans which is the big group that's fighting. The Germans put this uprising down brutally. Really brutally. It takes less than two months to put it down. They deport most of the Jews that had been left in Slovakia, almost all of them. And many of the fighters are killed. Some managed to survive all of this. Part of the story also is that there are also four paratroopers sent from the Land of Israel at this time, and three of them were killed in the uprising, one of them will survive. So this is part of the story too. The uprising also failed - ultimately it hadn't led to rescue either. If it had succeeded then that would really mean rescue, because the government would have changed, and whatever Jews would have stayed alive, then it would have been over for them. But that's not what happened here at all.
Q: Going back to Gisi Fleischmann, she had a bit of money at her disposal to try to help save Jews even help save herself. What did she do with what she had at her disposal?
A: Well Gisi Fleischmann had two daughters, Judith and Alice. And she managed to send them out of Slovakia while it was still possible, before the war, and they went to Mandatory Palestine. And she wanted to join them, but from the beginning she was involved in these helping activities and eventually in this rescue. And so she did not consider leaving on her own, just like a number of other Jewish leaders we can talk about, who were involved in serving their communities, and put their own personal desires aside in order to serve the communities. She was one of those people. Not only that. She had a plan to try to bring Jews from Theresienstadt, out of Theresienstadt, and bring them to Palestine, or bring them to safety. And she was working with the wife of a Slovak minister in the government, to try to get influence to have this happen. And the woman, the wife of the minister, was willing to help Gisi Fleischmann because Gisi promised her she'd get her son to Switzerland to safety, their young son. All of this was discovered. Gisi was arrested, and she was put in prison for several months because of this. So she suffered a great deal. She really gave up everything in order to rescue. We have letters that she wrote to her daughters. And in one of the letters, one of her daughters is sick and she writes about how anxious she is as a mother, to have a sick daughter so far away. And in another letter she just says "my beloved children, it's with great anticipation I wait for news from you." I mean she's a larger-than-life figure, but she's an absolutely normal figure. She's a mother who misses her children who are far away. And whose greatest hope is to survive all of this, and go to Palestine to be with her children.
Q: What was Gisi doing before the war started?
A: Before the war she was the head of the women Zionist organization, so she was dealing in what you would do in such a thing - supporting the Jewish Yishuv, the Jewish entity in Palestine, helping people make Aliyah [immigrate] to Palestine, you know, involved in Zionist activities. That's really what she was doing before, and this is what brought her in during the war years, to also try to help people leave Slovakia, or leave by way of Slovakia, to get out. Because she'd already been dealing with immigration, you can say. She became the head of the immigration department in the official Jewish leadership, when the Slovaks set that up.
Q: So we can say that by the time the war came around, she was pretty well-prepared, she had already dealt with this kind of thing before.
A: Like many Jewish leaders, there is a certain continuity. This doesn't always happen, but there's often continuity. And so, in this case she had her pre-war experience, that then helped her, but of course the war and the beginning of deportations from Slovakia bring an extreme and extraordinary situation. For whatever she knew before is helpful, but what they need to be very very very innovative, in their thinking, in what they can do, and how they can work, way beyond anything they had done before.
Q: What about Michael Weissmandl?
A: Rabbi Weissmandl, as I said, he was the son-in-law of the head of the most important Yeshiva [a form of Jewish educational institution] in Slovakia. And he was actually a very travelled and learned man. He had gone to Britain to see manuscripts that had been deposited there, old Jewish manuscripts that are in the British National Library. I think that he didn't really have any kind of background about this. But there was just something about him. And the people who described him, talk about him, as him being an extraordinary individual, very charismatic, very bright. And he was deeply dedicated to this rescue. And we know that after the war, and Weissmandl survived all this, in a moment I'll tell you how, but he survived all of this, and we know that after the war, that he wrote about it, and he wrote how bitter he was about the lack of aid that he got, in trying to rescue. Because he was so deeply rooted. And we know from the letters that he wrote during the war himself - he talks about how your brother's blood cries out from the ground, which is taken from the Bible, of course, in order to try to get people to understand what's happening here.
Q: Now as the war goes on, they can't really raise enough money, what happens to each of these characters in our story?
A: During the fall of the Slovak National Uprising they were both arrested, Gisi Fleischmann and Michael Dov Ber Weissmandl. They were both sent to Auschwitz. Gisi Fleischmann, we're told, was sent to Auschwitz with a special note that said "her return is not desired", so that she would have been among the last people who were being murdered in Auschwitz outright in the gas chambers. Later on, they stop that, not too much after she got there, people still died in Auschwitz, but they were not murdered outright. But she was.
Rabbi Weissmandl is a very different story. He was put on a train with his family, some of the young men in the train managed to pull out some of the boards from the car, and they convinced him he should jump. But his family couldn't jump, they stayed on the train. So his family was sent to Auschwitz, and they were murdered in Auschwitz. Weissmandl himself jumped, and he managed to get away from the train. And he got in contact with the representative of the International Red Cross in Bratislava, who then smuggled him into Switzerland in the last days of the war. And then after that, he made his way to the United States, to a place called Mount Kisco, where he became the head of a Yeshiva. And he wrote a book called "Out of the Straights" or "Out of the Depths" ("Min HaMeitzar"), where he told all about what they had done, includes all kinds of letters and documents. But it's a very bitter book, because he's very angry at the world, especially the Zionists but not only the Zionists, for not having done more to rescue. So he eventually passes away not that much after the book came out, as a very bitter man. But you can understand his bitterness in two ways; first of all, he worked so hard to rescue and he feels that he was let down. And second, I assume, there must have been a lot of guilt about jumping off that train and leaving his family behind.
Q: What do you think that we can learn from this story? Or what should we learn from this story?
A: Well I think the first thing that we learn from it is that the stereotype that grew out of the Holocaust that Jews were so passive, and that they didn't respond and that their leaders failed, it's not really accurate and it's not the right way to look at things. They did fail. But they didn't fail because they didn't try in many cases. And they failed not because, again, they didn't try. In this case, the Working Group did about everything you can think of, I mean there are some other things they did that I didn't mention. They did everything you could think of, pretty much, to try to rescue in large-scale and they couldn't. And what it really teaches us is that the Jewish leaders were not in a position to fundamentally change what was going on. And in order to rescue in large numbers, you had to fundamentally change what was going on. In different words we can say they were powerless. They were powerless to change the situation. Now that doesn't mean they didn't try. But it makes us understand much better what was arrayed against the Jews, and how things fell for them, how things happened to them, or even though, again, they might have tried so many different things, they couldn't necessarily rescue. And then it also helps us understand even individuals, because individuals who saved their lives, sometimes it was a result of something they did, and sometimes it was luck. And usually it was a combination of both. And one person would do the same thing as another person, and one person would survive and another wouldn't. Because there are so many things changing all the time. So it helps us to understand this complexity of Jewish response, what it's all about, the ability of rescue and to help people, and understand that it's not black and white. It's a very complex situation. And again, being a hero doesn't always mean that you succeed.
Thanks to Dr. Robert Rozett for telling the story of the Working Group - motivated, brave people, who made it their duty to save other Jews, even when it seemed impossible to do so.
I'm Nate Nelson. This has been "On the Holocaust" from Yad Vashem. Thank you for listening.