Rescued from the Reich: How One of Hitlers Soldiers Saved the Lubavitcher Rebbe Hardcover – October 11, 2004
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This is a follow up from Bryan Mark Rigg on an event he uncovered in writing Hitler's Jewish Soldiers: The Untold Story of Nazi Racial Laws and Men of Jewish Descent in the German Military (Modern War Studies) (Modern War Studies (Paperback)). In the course of researching that book, Rigg learned that the Lubavitcher Rebbe had been rescued by German soldiers from occupied Poland and sent to the Lubavitch community in America. Rigg decided to follow up on this strange story and this book is the result.
This book has many virtues. One is providing an introduction and survey to the Lubavitch Jewish community. I knew about Chabad and Lubavitchers and Hassidim and the odd stories that the Lubavitcher Jews believed that their last Rebbe was the Messiah and would rise from the dead, but I honestly did not know how little I knew. This book did a substantial job of filling that gap by explaining the origin of the Hassidim and their culture and history in Russia and Poland.
The second, of course, is the telling of a fascinating and exciting story that describes how Orthodox Jews obtained the assistance of Justice Brandeis and Secretary of State Hull to work with the head of the Nazi Four Year Plan - who wanted good relationships with the United States in the fall of 1939 - to concoct a plan to rescue the Rebbe from Warsaw. This Nazi - Helmut Wohlthat - knew the right German, a man with the abilities and connections and interest to rescue the Rebbe.
That man was, of course, the mysterious Abwehr head, Admiral Canaris. Canaris obtained the assistance of several Mischlinge under-officers, who located the Rebbe in Warsaw, smuggled him through SS checkpoints to Berlin, took him to Riga, where, just before the Russian invasion of the Baltic countries, the Rebbe and his entourage boarded a ship for America. Part of the backstory is the string-pulling that was required to circumvent the anti-semitic head of the visa section of the American State Department. It all makes for interesting reading.
Rigg's outlook is that we are disserved by a Manichaean world of evil Germans and good Americans. He dilates on the story of Ernst Bloch, one of Rebbe Schneerson's Mischlinge rescuers. Bloch was a loyal German, who was despised by Hitler because of his Jewish father. Bloch volunteered to go to the Russian Front, where he performed admirably, only to be removed on the eve of the Battle of Kursk by Hitler who was liquidating all Mischlinge officers. Bloch barely escaped being sent to a labor camp, and then to a death camp, perhaps. Nonetheless, when the Russians attacked Berlin, Bloch volunteered to lead troops in the home defense effort and was killed in that defense.
Bad Nazi? Good German? Rigg writes:
"He saw Germany and the Nazi state as distinct entities; he could serve Germany without serving Hitler. Only this explanation can account for why he volunteered in 1943 for the Russian front and later fought and died in the Volkssturm when he could have escaped with his family to the West. Although perhaps self-delusional, Bloch felt bound by his oath to his nation to remain loyal to his comrades. 32 Had Bloch known about the genocide, would he have continued to fight? As a high-ranking Abwehr and combat officer, he must have known more than the average soldier. 33 Moreover, he knew enough to help Jews escape from the Nazis. But if Bloch saw firsthand evidence of what we today call the Holocaust, he probably did not understand the full meaning of what he witnessed.
The flip side was the decisions made by Americans, including Roosevelt and American Jews and the Rebbe himself. Roosevelt could have ended the restrictions on Jewish immigration but didn't:
"Even after receiving convincing evidence in 1942 that the Nazis were systematically killing Jews by the hundreds of thousands, Roosevelt could offer Wise only hollow words: “We shall do all in our power to be of service to your people in this tragic moment.” 9 Roosevelt would not exert the necessary effort to force the immigration authorities to help the oppressed seeking refuge; moreover, he would not pursue the diplomatic and military options necessary to prevent or at least slow the killing of Jews under Hitler. In David Wyman’s judgment, “Roosevelt’s indifference to so momentous a historical event as the systematic annihilation of European Jewry emerges as the worst failure of his presidency.”
"welcomed. It was clear that the German Foreign Office was keenly interested in Roosevelt’s opinions on Nazi policies and that Wohlthat was an important player in helping maintain good relations with the United States. Germany was not at war with the United States yet and still hoped to convince Britain to ignore its actions in Poland and to join it as an ally. Germany was also promoting a program of Jewish emigration at this stage, and the Rebbe and his group leaving Europe fit into this strategy."
Jewish groups also fell into an ambiguous moral role:
"Even Morgenthau, Kalmanowitz, Kotler, and other Vaad leaders missed opportunities to rescue people. Certainly many Jewish leaders failed to take the most radical forms of action to help mitigate or prevent the crimes being committed. Only in late 1943, when the true scope of the Holocaust dawned on Morgenthau and the Vaad leadership, did they aggressively pursue the rescue of Jews under Hitler. Yet eve Kalmanowitz, who was ardent in his commitment to rescue, wrote Assistant Secretary of State Adolf A. Berle in August 1944 to send prayer books and Bibles to the Jews in the USSR when the requisite funds could have been used for lifesaving efforts.'
"Other American Jewish leaders in government, says Saul Friedman in his study of U.S. policy toward Jewish refugees, “opted for mendicancy rather than leadership.... Insecure themselves, constantly wary of raising the spectre of double-loyalty which was the grist of anti-Semites, these persons overexerted themselves to display their Americanism, their concern for this nation’s welfare to the exclusion of all others, even when doing so meant the deaths of loved ones in Europe.”
The Rebbe's organization itself showed a similar ordering of priorities:
"Although the Rebbe had made a public statement in 1940 on behalf of all Jews in Poland, his organization now did not request help for Jews under Nazi oppression or ask that Hitler’s atrocities be made more public. As historian David Kranzler says, “Chabad focused on its mission to rescue American Jews from assimilation and rebuild its community, working against incredible odds. It focused on its own mission.”
"The Rebbe’s obsessive quest on behalf of his library has unsettled many. Historian Ephraim Zuroff, an Orthodox Jew, asks, “How can one justify expending even a small amount of resources and energies to try and save the rebbe’s library at a time when the rescue of lives should have taken precedence?” One wonders why no one talked about using the funds and political contacts necessary for retrieving the books to save more Jews, but the Lubavitchers never discussed this matter.As Zuroff writes, Lubavitchers “do not consider such a set of priorities controversial or in any way problematic.” 16 In other words, if the Rebbe wanted it to be done, then such an order was not questioned. According to Rabbi Shalom Dovber Levine, head of Chabad’s library and archives, “There was something very secret and holy in building the Library from the start.... In the worst times of depression in Russia and Europe, he gave his life for it. He viewed it as part of the rebuilding of the Lubavitch movement.”
I will confess that my interest in matters pertaining to World War II was sparked by the Pius Wars. Having read a few of the anti-Pius books, I am amazed that we are not treated to the finger-pointing polemics that Pius is treated to, although he did comparatively more and risked more than than American Jews. The nice thing here is that Rigg's is not writing a polemical track and so we get an effort to understand rather than warmed-over "virtue signaling" from seven decades after the fact. Rigg's writes:
"Often a lack of imagination and aggressiveness, as well as unwillingness to go against Roosevelt, prevented Jewish leaders from meeting the situation head-on. Most of them knew things were bad for the Jews under Hitler, but many could not fathom just how bad. Roosevelt could possibly have been prodded into action had they threatened him with political retaliation, which they seem not to have attempted."
"“Nothing is easier than to apportion praise and blame, writing many years after the events,” historian Walter Laqueur has observed. “It is very easy to claim that everyone should have known what would happen once Fascism came to power. But such an approach is ahistorical [F]ew come out of the story unblemished. It was a story of failure to comprehend, among Jewish leaders and communities inside Europe and outside, a story of failure among non-Jews in high positions in neutral and Allied countries who did not care, or did not want to know or even suppressed the information.”
This clearly could never be the stuff of Hollywood movies, but then unless the story was re-written to make Bloch and his group an undercover squad of American commandos, the true story would never sell in Hollywood either.
History is messy.
This book is worth reading.
Rigg also describes Hitler's Aryanization process of some Jews who were of mixed blood, which is a little known topic and one worth learning and considering within the history of WW II and the Holocaust.
Although most Americans are aware that Jews were not welcomed with open arms in America during the 30s and 40s, the author does an excellent job of revealing the depth of anti-semitism in American society and government during that period. This is an important book that is worth reading for its contribution to a comprehensive WW II history.
Dr. Rigg has outdone himself. While his first book was occasionally slow-moving (growing out of a doctoral dissertation), "Rescued from the Reich" is both well-documented and shows evolution of Dr. Rigg's historical narrative style, making it more of a page-turner or page-burner, which adds a great deal to a book of this type. Also, now fully-fledged a professional historian, I think I see Dr. Rigg willing to make more speculations, which increase the readability of this work.
Who could believe it? An Abwehr officer, half-Jewish, sent to Warsaw in the middle of the bombing of Poland to rescue the Rebbe of the Lubavitch sect from the German advance and the eventual Final Solution? It is not only believeable, but of course true--and in that sense, a political thriller. In "Der Untergang", a film growing out of the novel of the same name, we see Heinrich Himmler encouraging his Fuehrer even in the last dark days of the Reich, while Berlin is being shelled, to consider "making politics" (Politik machen) with the Western Allies.
I think Admiral Canaris and Major Ernst Bloch, responding to a request from Washington, were doing the same--making politics, with an eye toward the disastrous future for Germany. Only in such a way could such a mission be justified by the Abwehr--the German CIA, which trumped even the Gestapo (inner Germany secret police, analagous to the FBI).
I cannot recommend this historial work more highly--to anyone interested in the evolution of the Third Reich, WW2, the Holocaust, and intelligence matters. Great effort, Dr. Rigg!