Thursday, April 07, 2005

How one of Hitler's Soldiers Saved the Lubavitcher Rebbe

The Guardian reports on Chabad's latest efforts to reclaim the 6th Rebbe's library from Russia -- which gives me the perfect 'in' to discuss Rescued from the Reich : How One of Hitler's Soldiers Saved the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Bryan Rigg. The Rebbe's attempts to get the library out of Russia when he escaped to the US (from Poland) in 1940 is one of the main (and least original) subjects of the book, which raises the question of why he went to such lengths to rescue books while there were human beings to get out.
The main contribution of the book is the rather astounding story of how the Rebbe was smuggled out of Poland by a team of Abwehr (German military secret service) soldiers -- who were almost all mischling (half/quarter Jews) who had been 'aryanized' by Hitler. Rigg explains that mischling had to serve and there were tens of thousands of them in the Wehrmacht. The secret rescue was coordinated at the request of the Americans, following intense pressure by Lubavitch, by Helmut Wohlthat, the chief administrator of Goering's Four Year Plan, who considered it a gesture of goodwill towards the US.
The account of Lubavitch's maneuvers on the American side are also interesting. Clearly, the movement was already extremely politically savvy. Nevertheless, it took months to get the correct visas as the US would not allow the Rebbe into the country without proof that he would have a job waiting for him! Strangely, Lubavitch never properly compensated the lawyer who worked for them day and night despite numerous requests -- which is puzzling because you would have thought they would have spent any amount of money to ensure his rescue. In any case, Rigg argues that the German soldiers' efforts on behalf of the Rebbe and the American reluctance to help show that the 'good vs. evil' dichotamy was at times, on the ground, more complicated than we sometimes think.
Eventually, the Rebbe arrived in the US with a small entourage which did not include his daughter Shaina Horenstein and her husband, who were not allowed out of Poland as Polish citizens. They were both killed in the Holocaust.
The end of the book explores the Rebbe's actions after he came to the US, and in particular his emphasis on bringing US Jews back to tradition instead of trying to rescue European Jews. He did not, for example, join the Va'ad, criticised Jewish organizations which worked for the rescue of European Jewry on Shabbat and discouraged mass demonstrations. The point, the Rebbe seemed to think, was not to hope and work for the defeat ofHitler but to work for the coming of the Messiah, which would guarantee redemption. How ironic -- and again puzzling -- that the Rebbe, who was rescued himself by political contacts and pressure, did not really try very hard and basically did not approve of employing these on behalf of others.
Last but not least, Rigg interviewed the recently deceased Barry Gourary, the 6th Lubavitch Rebbe's grandson who was rescued together with him. He gives (...albeit only in the footnotes) interesting insight into the relationship between the Rebbe's sons in law, Menachem Schneersohn and Gourary's father, while the 6th Rebbe was still alive:
The brothers in law disliked each other intensely, according to Barry Gourary, because they knew they were both candidates for the position of Rebbe.
Gourary describes their relationship in 1940 as resembling that of Cain and
Abel, without the murder. He claims that after Samarius, his father, initiated the rescue of Menachem, his mother, Chana, asked, 'Why are you doing this? Don't you know Menachem hates you?" Samarius replied, "Yes, I know he probably will do me [political] harm if he comes to the US, but I have been given my orders"...
The candidacy of RAbbi Menachem was not a foregone conclusion until 1951 and in fact Samarius seems to have been groomed for the position, traveling around with Rebbe Schneersohn on most of his important trips throughout the 1920 and 1930s.
[Rabbi Heschel] Greenberg feels that Menachem never felt anything but love for his brother-in-law and that the whole conflict was caused by Barry and Chana's jealousy and resentment.
It's a shame such interviews could not be accomodated in the main text; indeed, the book suffers from a slight absence of primary source 'color.' Nevertheless, most of the information it contains is highly original and fascinating. The question in my mind is, why has the story of the Rebbe's miraculous rescue been virtually unknown for all this time -- rarely discussed or perhaps even rarely known by Lubavitchers? Is there another part to this story which even Rigg has not uncovered which would account for this mysterious silence?

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