How Did the Satmar Rebbe Survive the Holocaust?

Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe, was one of the biggest opponents to Zionism and the State of Israel from the ranks of Orthodox Judaism. Over the course of his life, Teitelbaum was involved in dramatic events in different countries and continents. He first gained prominence as a young Hasidic rabbi in Hungary during what transpired as the last years of Jewish life in this region before the Nazi occupation. During the Second World War, Teitelbaum managed to escape and save his life with great difficulty. After the war, he became a central figure in the revival of the Hasidic world in the United States. He served as the spiritual leader of one of the largest Hasidic movements, which he rebuilt almost from scratch, and he also headed the most extreme faction within the Haredi community in Jerusalem. In a series of articles, I will discuss the darkest points of his life: how did he survive the Holocaust? What were the prices he had to pay for his life? How these events shaped his decision to establish himself in New York rather than in Jerusalem?

The rise to power of the Nazis and the outbreak of the Second World War completely destabilized the position of the Jews in Europe. Polish Jewry, the largest community, was the first to be affected. Hungary remained an island of relative stability almost until the end of the war. Since the 1930s, Hungary had been governed by a pro-Nazi party that had introduced anti-Jewish legislation. In 1940, Hungary joined the Fascist axis alongside Germany, Italy, and Japan. Due to its pro-Nazi tendencies, Hitler refrained from occupying Hungary, with the result that the condition of the Jews was better than in the countries that fell under direct German occupation. There were no ghettoes in Hungary, religious life and Zionist activities continued, and Hungarian Jews were not sent to the concentration or extermination camps (although several labor camps were established for Jews).

As the gates of the world remained closed to the European Jews, the only possibility for emigration, albeit on a limited scale, was to Mandatory Palestine. After the British published the “White Book,” which drastically cut the number of visas available for immigration, “certificates” allowing migration were given only to those who declared their support for Zionism. Haredi opponents of Zionism found themselves in trapped.

The Hasidic biographer Dovid Meisels claims that in 1940 Agudat Yisrael attempted to persuade the Hungarian leadership to take advantage of its quota for emigration to Palestine and to remove the senior rabbis from Hungary. Agudat Yisrael argued that they should accept this proposal in accordance with the religious imperative to save lives (pikuach nefesh). At this time – shortly after the start of the war – many of the Hungarian religious leaders rejected this suggestion, presumably under the illusion that Hungary would continue to provide a relatively safe haven.

Teitelbaum instructing his followers to resist Agudat Yisrael’s attempts to persuade them to emigrate. According to Meisels, his reasoning was as follows:

One may not join the Agudah because Agudah cooperates with the Zionists, working alongside with them to achieve a Jewish state. That state, once achieved, will certainly be ruled by heretics and non-believers who will use it as a vehicle to wipe out Torah and Emunah (faith) from the holy land…

As to the argument that Jews needed somewhere to flee, the Rebbe responded that the Zionist goal was not to save Jews! They could have saved many more Jews in Palestine by refraining from pressing for a state… And even if some lives could be saved by going to Palestine, one cannot save Jews by subjecting them to a danger to their belief in Hashem (God) and His Torah.

Teitelbaum argues that it is preferable to remain in Hungary rather than strengthen the supporters and partners of Zionism and enable them to score a success. It must be emphasized that at this time, the Jews of Hungary were not facing imminent and mortal danger. However, any historical assessment cannot ignore the fact that, in the final analysis, the Rebbe was saved due to the opportunity he was given by Zionist activities in Budapest. He was not the only Hasidic rabbi to be saved in this manner, though there is no evidence that Teitelbaum ever publicly expressed gratitude to those who helped him.

In March 1944, Hitler ordered his forces to occupy Hungary. This move had tragic consequences for the Jewish community; almost the entire Jewish population of the country – some 450,000 souls – perished in the extermination camps. By July 1944, there were no Jews in Hungary.

In the face of their worsening military defeats, the Germans accelerated their policy of concentrating and annihilating Jews. Initially, all the Jews were concentrated in ghettoes in the provincial cities. Later they were moved to Budapest, where some 100,000 Jews lived. After the German occupation, strict laws were enforced against the Jews with the goal of preventing them from moving around the country or from escaping. The goal was to concentrate the Jews in the ghettoes and then send them to their death.

Satmar was a five- or six-hour journey from the Romanian border, and Romania was not under Nazi occupation. Accordingly, crossing the border ensured survival. The smuggling route across the border was far from simple, requiring funds and leaving those who fled at the mercy of smugglers and criminal elements. A few days before the Jews were concentrated in the ghetto, from which it was impossible to escape, Teitelbaum sent his daughter to Romania, assuming that if she managed to cross the border, he would join her. The daughter and her husband indeed managed to cross into Romania. The evening before the Jews of Satmar were herded into the ghetto, Teitelbaum set out for the border. He was less fortunate than his daughter, however. The truck driver who took him, together with a large group of Jews, was unfamiliar with the route. Due to his error, the Jews did not reach their desired destination but were seized by German soldiers and sent to the Klausenburg/ Cluj ghetto.

(Picture of Adolf Eichmann during his trial in Jerusalem. Curtesy of the Government Press Office)

Blood for Goods

In March 1944, immediately after the German occupation, members of the Jewish Relief and Rescue Committee of Budapest contacted the senior Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann, who came to Hungary to plan the annihilation of the Jewish population, and Kurt Becker, the head of the SS Economic Department. During the discussions, Eichmann and his staff suggested that the Jews of Hungary could be moved outside the zone of German occupation in return for 10,000 trucks and sundry merchandise (the proposal became known as the “blood for goods” deal). Yoel Brand, a senior member of the Relief and Rescue Committee, flew to Istanbul to forward the proposal to the British. On the orders of Lord Moyne, the British Minister of State for the Middle East (whose permanent base was in Cairo), Brand was placed in detention and his proposal was not even discussed.

After the failure of Brand’s mission, the Relief and Rescue Committee continued to pursue their contacts with Eichmann and his staff. The main negotiator from the Jewish side was the Zionist activist Yisrael (Rudolf) Kastner. The Nazis permitted a train to leave Hungary carrying several hundred Jews, and the number of passengers eventually reached 1,684. The fortunate passengers were chosen by Kastner and Otto Komoly, the chairman of the Rescue Committee, and included Kastner’s family, some 300 people from the Klasenberg ghetto, wealthy Jews (who paid $ 1,000 per person) and members of the various Zionist youth movements. Most of the Zionist leadership of Hungary boarded the train. Kastner believed that the train would be the first of many, but this did not prove to be the case. Instead of heading for a neutral country, the train arrived in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. Kurt Becker continued to negotiation with the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency regarding the “blood for goods deal.” In August 1944, during the course of the negotiations, 318 of the former passengers on Kastner’s train were released from Bergen-Belsen and sent to Switzerland; in December of the same year, they were joined by the remaining 1,366 inmates of the camp who had arrived on the train.

Kastner’s activities became the subject of a fierce controversy after the war. In a famous libel trial conducted in Israel, the district court Judge Binyamin Halevy found that Kastner had “sold his soul to the devil” and assisted the Germans in annihilating the Jews of Hungary. Kastner’s reputation was partially vindicated by the Israeli Supreme Court in an appeal against the ruling, but by this time Kastner was no longer alive. He was murdered by a number of young men incensed by the allegations leveled against him in the libel trial.

Joel Teitelbaum was included in the list of those eligible to board the train, together with his wife and his personal assistant. Since it was possible to save just a few hundred people from a population of some four hundred and fifty thousand, and since the Zionist leaders determined who would be saved, it is impossible not to ask why the rabbi received a permit, despite his fierce anti-Zionist views. Why did the Zionist activists not prefer to allocate these three places to their supporters rather than their sworn opponents? There is no clear answer to this question.

Hasidic historiography offers two possible answers to this mystery, both of which may cast some light on the actual events. Teitelbaum’s followers claim that the main reason for the inclusion of the Rebbe’s name in the list was the intervention on his behalf by Kastner’s father-in-law, Dr. Yosef Fischer. It should be noted that Kastner and his family, including Fischer, were originally from the town of Klasenberg, where Teitelbaum and Fisher were among those forced to live in the ghetto. Dr. Fischer was an influential figure and one of the leaders of the Jewish community in the city. A Satmar source even claims that he was the head of the Neologue Jewish community in the city (the Neologue movement, popular in Hungary, took a modernizing approach to the Jewish religion but was less radical in its innovations than the Reform movement). According to the Satmar sources, after Fischer and Teitelbaum eventually reached Switzerland, Fischer confessed to the Rebbe that his own mother had appeared before him in a dream and insisted that he include Teitelbaum in the list of those allowed to board the train.

This explanation may contain a kernel of truth. During his libel trial, Kastner stated: “I received a personal request from him [Dr. Fischer] to include Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum on the list… Truly, I do not recall any other such request.”

The second claim is that the Orthodox community in Budapest paid the required ransom for Teitelbaum’s place. This was certainly the case after the train departed, when it was halted several times by Eichmann, who each time demanded more money in order to allow the train to reach a safe destination. As mentioned above, the passengers were initially sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and only after five months of additional negotiations, and payment of a further ransom, were all the passengers released. According to Gelbman, “Our Rebbe was included in the list of railroad passengers thanks to the activities of the Haredi activists, and not out of generosity on the part of the Zionists.” The problem with this assertion, however, is that the Haredi activists in Budapest had no influence on Yosef Fischer in Klasenberg, and it was he who acted on Teitelbaum’s behalf. My own conclusion is that the decision to allow Teitelbaum to board the train was not influenced by the requests of the Haredi activists in Budapest, but was the personal decision of Yosef Fischer.

Teitelbaum’s decision to board the train raises a principled question as to why he agreed to be included in the list of passengers on the train. This question raises two issues. The first is the abandonment of his followers to the fate at the mercy of the Nazi oppressor. The flight of rabbis from Europe was a broader phenomenon that was later the subject of considerable criticism. After the war, for example, a document was found in Auschwitz extermination camp bearing the testimony of the Rebbetzin of Stropkov against Aharon Rokach, the Belzer Admor. Rokach, one of the most important Hasidic leaders of the time, took advantage of a precious “certificate” three months before Hungary fell and emigrated to Mandatory Palestine. The Rebbetzin wrote: “They themselves fled to the Land of Israel the last moment, saving their own lives and leaving the people to go as lambs to the slaughter. Master of the Universe! In the last moments of my life I beg you, forgive them for this terrible desecration of your name!”

The second aspect is why the rabbi agreed to board a train that was arranged by the very Zionist activists he despised and whom he saw as the source of all evil, to the point that he argued that the Holocaust itself was divine retribution for Zionist action. How did he feel able to enjoy the fruits of Zionism? As will be recalled, just a few years earlier he opposed emigration to the Land of Israel in order to avoid strengthening the Zionist cause. By boarding the train, was he not granting Zionism a victory?

According to the Hasidic biographers, Teitelbaum could not have helped his followers by remaining in Europe, and he chose to leave in order to “raise heaven and earth” on their behalf. They claim that Teitelbaum was forced to hide after the Nazis entered Satmar, so that he was already inaccessible to his followers and there was no point in remaining in the city. Teitelbaum reached the conclusion that he would be able to do more to save the Jews if he escaped to a free country.

These versions do not explain why the Zionists went out of their way to save Teitelbaum. I would suggest that one reason was his willingness to express support for the goals of Zionism, by expressing support for Agudat Yisrael. An allusion to this possibility may be found in his main work, Veyoel Moshe. In a comment not repeated elsewhere, Teitelbaum writes:

Moreover the Zionist themselves, when they controlled the total number of certificates granted by the English government each year for immigration to the Land of Israel, wished to give a certificate only to those who followed their approach and agreed with their method, the method of Zionism, heresy and apostasy, Heaven forfend, and anyone who wished to travel to the Land of Israel was forced to flatter them and their ways. (Veyoel Moshe, New York: Beit Meisar Jerusalem, 1981, 184.)

In this passage, Teitelbaum claims that it was impossible to secure a permit to emigrate to the Land of Israel (thereby escaping mortal danger) without expressing support for Zionism. Is it possible that he, too, followed this course of action? Might it be that Dr. Yosef Fischer, his neighbor in the ghetto, received a declaration from him of his willingness to support Zionism, in some shape or form, and in return intervened on his behalf alone, among all the inhabitants of the ghetto? I should add that a few months later, the Zionist movement again intervened to prevent Teitelbaum’s expulsion to a refugee camp in Algiers, and enabled him to travel to Palestine. Given the highly restricted number of individuals who could be saved, what led the Zionists to go to such lengths on Teitelbaum’s behalf? I must emphasize that the Zionists never claimed to be in possession of any declaration by Teitelbaum supporting this hypothesis, and for the present, at least, it can only be raised by way of speculation.

Next week I will discuss how Teitelbaum reached Jerusalem, and under what circumstances he decided to leave, establishing himself in New York.

About the Author
Motti Inbari is an associate professor of religion at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He is the author of Jewish Fundamentalism and the Temple Mount (SUNY 2009) and Messianic Religious Zionism Confronts Israeli Territorial Compromises (Cambridge 2012) and Jewish Radical Ultra Orthodoxy Confronts Modernity, Zionism and Women's Equality (Cambridge 2016).
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