The Satmar Rebbe and the Destruction of Hungarian Jewry: Part 1
The terrible cost of Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum’s life and actions during the Holocaust, and his later extremism
This is the first of a two-part investigation into the life of the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum. Read part two here.
In her book Be-Seter Ha-Madrega (In the Covert of the Cliff), Haredi Holocaust historian Esther Farbstein writes, “Rabbi Yoel (Yoelish) of Satmar was unquestionably chief among leaders [of Haredi Jews in Hungary].” If Farbstein is correct in her claim, Rabbi Yoel’s conduct before, during, and after the Holocaust may explain, albeit only partially, the extraordinary devastation suffered by the Hungarian Orthodox community, which had regarded him as “chief among leaders.”
The first section of this article describes Rabbi Yoel’s life and actions during the Holocaust, both on personal and public levels, as reflected in his writings, the contemporary press, memoirs written by his Hasidim, and archival sources. In many cases, researchers note that Rabbi Yoel’s position regarding the Holocaust was extreme and exceptional compared to views held by other rabbis and spokespeople of the Haredi community. Yet the worldview he cultivated, coupled with his theological explanations of the Holocaust and its mystical meaning, drew a growing number of followers, in whose eyes he was the last remnant of a dying ideology. His anti-Zionist worldview, representing as it did to them the Eastern European “Old Home,” expunged his failures during the Holocaust. As his public stature grew, criticism from within diminished, while criticism from without was disregarded and dismissed as Zionist defamation.
As I argue in greater detail in the following, Rabbi Yoel’s life, activities, and decisions during the Holocaust and his pressing need to explain and justify them thereafter offer a possible explanation for the extremism of his later views. Any fair examination of the historical record shows that Rabbi Yoel’s contribution to assisting Jewish refugees and to the rescue of Transylvanian Haredi Jews was negligible. Prior to the Holocaust, he ignored the dangers threatening the Jews of Transylvania and failed to engage in the preparation of rescue and aid plans. Although he became privy to reports on the extermination of the Jewish communities in Poland, given his position as a member of the Central Bureau and through his connections with the authorities, he refrained from calling on his followers to save or prepare themselves. On the contrary, he warned any would-be immigrants to Palestine or other countries that they were in danger of severely harming their Haredi way of life. Moreover, he refrained from cooperating with the Zionist—and even with the Haredi—leadership in addressing current issues or preparing for the impending threat and even opposed measures of a religious nature, such as prayer and fast days, which he feared would be perceived as a protest against the authorities.
When the danger of war became real and immediate, Rabbi Yoel did his best to equip himself and his closest circle with certificates or visas that would facilitate their escape to Palestine or the United States. At the same time, he thwarted all attempts at cooperation between the heads of the Orthodox communities and the Zionist organizations, which could have helped to rescue them. He failed to set a personal example and rejected his associates’ advice to prepare a hiding place or attempt to cross the border to Romania. Had he done so, some of his Hasidim may have done the same and thus survived.
When put to the test, he chose to save himself clandestinely after his own congregation had already been incarcerated in ghettos and to abandon his followers in the time of their harshest adversity. His conduct stands in stark contrast to that of other rabbis in his vicinity, many of whom rejected pleas to save themselves and accompanied their congregations to the transport trains, the extermination camps, and in some cases even into the gas chambers.
Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum (1887–1979) was the youngest son of Rabbi Hananya Yom-Tov Lipa Teitelbaum (1836–1904), chief rabbi of Sighet (Sighetul Marmaţiei, Máramarossziget), the seat of Maramures county in Hungary and rebbe of a large Hasidic court. From a young age, he became known for his intellectual capacity, but the child Yoel was not destined to succeed his father as leader of the Hasidic movement, head of the yeshiva (rabbinical seminary), and chief rabbi of Sighet because these posts were designated for his elder brother. Shortly after Rabbi Yoel’s marriage at the age of 17, his father died. In order to ensure that he would not interfere with the smooth transfer of power to his older brother, the destitute Rabbi Yoel was obliged to leave Sighet, settling in the nearby town of Satmar (Satu Mare). From then on, he worked persistently and determinedly to carve out a place for himself as a leader in the Hasidic community. Over the years, he became known for his relentlessly ambitious personality and his ultra-conservative, anti-modern and anti-Zionist views, which led him to fiercely oppose even the activities of the pan-Haredi Agudath Israel movement.
In 1934, Rabbi Yoel was appointed chief rabbi of Satmar, Romania. This appointment was preceded by six years of bitter public wrangling with adversaries who sought to prevent the appointment of the zealous rabbi. In 1937, following numerous failed attempts, Rabbi Yoel achieved his ultimate goal and was appointed to the executive committee of the Central Bureau of the Orthodox Communities in Transylvania, the body that managed and oversaw the lives of some 150,000 observant and Haredi Jews. With this appointment, Rabbi Yoel fulfilled his lifelong ambition to become the chief rabbi of a major community, head of a yeshiva, and a rebbe of a Hasidic dynasty, thus becoming a key figure with considerable influence over the Haredi Jewry of Transylvania. These achievements, however, were overshadowed by news of the growing power of the Nazi regime in Germany.
The year 1933 witnessed restrictive measures that curtailed the ability of Romanian Jews to engage in the economy, government, and public education systems. In Satmar, these measures were reflected in anti-Semitic announcements published in the local press. By December, the numerus clausus was put into effect, and the entire Jewish press was placed under censorship. In 1937, the anti-Semitic propaganda intensified, and the Jewish public was subjected to additional restrictive measures, including restrictions on Zionist activity, a reduction of funds allocated to religious needs, and a curtailment of lawyers’ professional activities.
New anti-Semitic parties took part in the elections held that year, while the Jewish party failed to win even a single seat in parliament. The elected government, headed by Octavian Goga (1881–1938), was blatantly anti-Semitic, and during its 40 days in power, which ended in February 1938, it managed to pass a large number of anti-Jewish decrees and measures. The most drastic of those was the requirement to review citizenship documents of Jews in the regions annexed to Romania after World War I, thus putting anyone who failed to prove the authenticity of said documents under threat of deportation. These measures, which violated the treaties protecting the rights of minorities, triggered an incensed international reaction and drove King Carol II of Romania to overthrow the government and proclaim himself ruler of Romania. Yet despite the king’s declarations, most of the restrictive measures against Jews remained in place.
In spite of the numerous reports of anti-Semitic occurrences in Germany and Poland, the Central Bureau, of which Rabbi Yoel was a prominent leader, took no actions to prepare for the imminent threat to Romanian Jewry. Moreover, the Bureau did nothing to try to revoke the requirement to prove Romanian citizenship, nor did it offer aid and relief to the Polish refugees. The same passive policy was adopted by several other organizations, such as the Jewish Party and the Union of Romanian Jews (Uniunea Evreilor Români). Other organizations, by contrast, undertook initiatives such as the formation of Jewish Self-Defense Brigades and a relief network for refugees, established by the Bureau of the Neolog Communities. (The Reform Movement in Hungary was called Neology.) Despite the prohibition and the risk involved, the Zionist youth movements maintained their activities, prepared for underground action, and at the same time trained pioneers for emigration to Palestine.
When the Goga government came to power in the late 1937, Rabbi Yoel decided to travel to Czechoslovakia. Fearing he may try to escape, leaders of his own community begged him not to abandon them at a time of crisis. In response, he argued that a tzadik could only perform his work in safety and, ignoring their pleas, departed as scheduled. A few weeks later, when the king dissolved the government, Rabbi Yoel returned to Satmar, and in his next sermon he justified having left his community. Although aware of the gravity of the situation, in his speech he offered no practical solutions and merely called upon his followers to put their trust in divine deliverance.
Through his involvement in rescue efforts and his connections with the Jewish leadership in Budapest, Rabbi Yoel was well aware of the danger to European Jewry in general and to the Hungarian Jews in particular. Nevertheless, he held that any initiative to revoke the anti-Jewish measures or protest against them was doomed to fail and could even exacerbate the situation. Thus, for instance, although aware of the violent activities initiated by the Romanian student organizations, some of which he experienced firsthand, he objected to the formation of the Jewish defense brigades.
Following the forming of Goga’s government and the harsh measures it passed, Rabbi Yoel rejected the suggestion of Rabbi Ya’akov Elimelech Panet (1899–1944) from Dès that the two rabbis consult with each other and collaborate on a joint response. He also rejected the Central Bureau’s initiative to set a Ta’anit (a day of fast), on Rosh Hodesh (the beginning of the new Hebrew month) of Adar Aleph (February 1939) to pray for the lifting of the harsh measures. He decreed that in Satmar, the fast day would be held two weeks later, on Ta’anit Esther Haqatan (the little Fast of Esther), so as not to be perceived as a protest against the authorities. By the eve of the Jewish New Year (October 1939), the situation had become graver, and numerous refugees had arrived in the town. In his holiday sermon, Rabbi Yoel mentioned the dire circumstances of the Jewish communities in Poland, but offered his audience no practical solutions other than strict observance of the mitzvot. His own yeshiva was not spared the ravages of the worsening anti-Semitism and was attacked by Romanian soldiers.
In his January 1940 sermon, Rabbi Yoel once again addressed the severity of the circumstances, although there, too, he merely reiterated his calls for prayer and repentance. In August of the same year, the northern part of Transylvania was annexed to Hungary. Although at first, the Jews welcomed the return to the fold of the “Old Homeland,” it soon became apparent that the anti-Jewish measures in Hungary were even harsher than those in Romania. Later that year Rabbi Yoel helped prevent the deportation of a number of rabbis who did not possess the required citizenship documents. He approved the Central Bureau’s collaboration with the Hungarian Jewish Aid Bureau (Magyar Izraeliták Pártfogó Irodája), which provided aid to Jewish war refugees, and encouraged fundraising in Satmar. He furthermore permitted the use of the funds of the Transylvanian branch of Kolel Shomrei Ha-Homot (the charity fund for Hungarian Orthodox settlers in Palestine), which he headed, as due to the war they could not be transferred to Palestine.
Since its establishment in the early twentieth century, the Central Bureau of Hungary avoided joining Agudath Israel. Following Transylvania’s annexation to Hungary, Agudath Israel exerted increasing pressure on the Bureau to join it, claiming that the joint movement would find it easier to raise funds for Hungarian Jews in the United States. Some of the rabbis in the Bureau, which now included representatives of the regions annexed to Hungary during the war, among them Rabbi Yoel, opposed any change to the historical ban. Several branches of the movement, which were established despite the objections of these rabbis, subsequently engaged in the rescue of many Haredi Jews, including Rabbi Yoel himself.
When the danger became graver, Rabbi Yoel consented to cooperate with some of the Agudah’s officials, and in particular with the head of the Orthodox congregation in Budapest, Philipp (also known as Fülöp or Pinchas) Von Freudiger (1900–1976). The cooperation between the organizations in aiding the refugees drew the Ha-Mizrahi (religious-Zionist) movement and the Haredi leadership in Budapest closer. Ha-Mizrahi leaders suggested that Haredi Jews participate in the activities of the Zionist national funds and in return agreed that the religious organizations would coordinate their activities, increase the quota of certificates allocated to religious Jews, and facilitate their escape from the imminent threat of war. Following two meetings in late 1941, Rabbi Yoel ultimately decided to reject the proposed cooperation.
Rabbi Yoel helped raise funds to rescue the Jews of the Austrian region of Burgenland, who had been deported in 1943 to the Slovakian periphery. He also joined the attempts to rescue Rabbi Elhanan (Hone) Halberstam (1884–1942) of Koloshitz and Rabbi Yesh’aya Halberstam (1864–1943) of Czchów, who had been incarcerated in the Bochnia ghetto together with some 20 of their relatives. These efforts were jointly initiated by Haim Israel Eiss (1876–1943) and Ya’akov Griffel (1901–1961), representatives of the Rescue Committee (Vaad Ha-Hatsala) formed by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada (henceforth, “the Rescue Committee”) in Zurich and Istanbul, respectively.
That same year, Rabbi Yoel traveled to Budapest to attend a rabbinical gathering held to raise funds for an Orthodox aid organization for refugees. Since all the funds entrusted to Rabbi Yoel reached their destination, Eiss suggested that Rabbi Yoel establish an independent rescue organization. Griffel, too, gave his blessing and recommended that the newly formed organization also serve to transfer Jewish Agency funds to its activists throughout Hungary. Although the Jewish Agency accepted the proposal, it made its approval conditional on a signed contract with Rabbi Yoel. The rabbi’s refusal put an end to the scheme.
It was during this period that some 40 rabbis signed a memorandum by which Haredi Jews would be integrated into the Zionist organizations operating networks assisting in the escape and concealment of Jews. When Rabbi Yoel found out about this, he appealed to the Central Bureau in Budapest, which demanded a nullification of the agreement.
During the war years Rabbi Yoel made several attempts to flee from danger. In September 1939, he applied for a tourist visa to visit Palestine for a few months, but his application was rejected. Rumors of his impending trip persisted during the following years. In 1942, Rabbi Yoel was offered a spot on a list of Zionist rabbis for whom Ha-Mizrahi would obtain certificates that would enable them to immigrate to Palestine, yet he refused. In late 1943, he sent his daughter Royze to Budapest to obtain certificates for himself and his family, but her mission failed. A short while later he traveled to Budapest to try and obtain certificates by himself. Having failed, he sought the help of Joseph Eiss, son of Haim Israel Eiss from Switzerland. Eiss approached Griffel, and the certificate was delivered to the offices of the Jewish Agency in Budapest.
Although issued by the British authorities, these certificates required the approval of the Zionist organizations, which were reluctant to provide them to anti-Zionist rabbis. Therefore, approval of Rabbi Yoel’s certificate was made conditional on his signing a document that recognized the authority of the Zionist organizations in Palestine and renounced the activity of Ha-Edah Ha-Haredit (the ultra-Orthodox community) in Jerusalem, which he refused to do. Having failed in this attempt, he requested the help of Gyula Weiss, a Zionist and one of the leaders of the Neolog congregation in Cluj (Cluj-Napoca, Kolozsvár, Klausenburg). Weiss replied that in view of Rabbi Yoel’s recent anti-Zionist sermon in Oradea, he was unable to provide him with a certificate. He did, however, provide certificates for Rabbi Yoel’s daughter and son-in-law, who confirmed their repudiation of the rabbi’s anti-Zionist stance.
At the same time, his followers failed to obtain a visa for him to enter the United States. Rabbi Yoel’s attempts to leave Hungary were part of a broader general phenomenon, which attracted criticism, even then, of rabbis and other public figures fleeing the country. On the other hand, there were many other rabbis, among them Rabbi Yoel’s own relatives, who refused to save themselves and to abandon their congregations to fate.
Rumors of the fate of Poland’s Jewry reached Satmar in 1943, and many Jews began to prepare by building concealed hideouts and locating people who would agree to hide them in return for payment. Offered these alternatives, Rabbi Yoel rejected both. The principal route of escape for the Jews in northern Transylvania, then under Hungarian rule, was by crossing the border into Romania. The Zionist movements made preparations in advance to use this route and were thus able to save the lives of more than 10,000 Jews. In March 1944, a group of Hasidim from Oradea dispatched a vehicle to collect Rabbi Yoel so that he could join them in crossing the border. When he refused, the plan was aborted, dooming the entire group.
On March 19, 1944, the Nazis occupied Hungary, and shortly thereafter Adolf Eichmann began implementing the Final Solution plan for Hungary’s hundreds of thousands of Jews. On April 27, the Jews of Satmar were given three days to move into a ghetto. Subsequently, the son of Rabbi Eliezer Fisch (1880–1944) from Bixad, a close friend of Rabbi Yoel’s, offered to smuggle Rabbi Yoel to Cluj, the place of residence of businessman Yirmiyahu Tessler, one of the leaders of the Hasidic congregation. Joseph Meir Glick, Tessler’s brother-in-law and a resident of Satmar, was also made privy to the scheme. As travel on intercity roads was forbidden to Jews, it was suggested that they travel by train using forged documents and gentiles’ clothing. Joseph Meir’s brother, sent as a vanguard, arrived safely in Cluj, thus proving that the plan was feasible. Refusing to shave off his beard and pass himself off as a gentile, Rabbi Yoel rejected this option as well.
As the date set for the move to the ghetto drew nearer, Rabbi Yoel’s closest associates sought a safer way to smuggle him out. Joseph Meir bribed two junior officers, drivers of a Red Cross ambulance, who agreed to drive Jews to Cluj in return for a handsome sum. Upon receiving the news that the first group of passengers had arrived safely at its destination and was about to cross the border, Rabbi Yoel consented to the escape plan. The travelers included Rabbi Yoel, his wife, his personal assistant Joseph Dov Ashkenazi, his friend Rabbi Eliezer Fisch and his family, and several wealthy families who paid most of the costs. On the appointed night, May 3, 1944, Rabbi Yoel, Rabbi Fisch and their families boarded the ambulance followed by other passengers, some of whom were not on the original list. The vehicle set out for Cluj, where the passengers were to be smuggled under cover of darkness to the town of Turda, on the Romanian side of the border.
Amid the chaos of the departure, Joseph Meir, the only person who knew the way to Tessler’s house, was left behind. When his absence was noticed, it was too late to turn back, and when they arrived in Cluj in the middle of the night, the passengers were unable to locate Tessler’s home. At dawn, the drivers ordered the passengers to disembark and left them to wander the streets, trying to locate Jewish homes. Suspected of being local Jews attempting to escape before incarceration in the ghetto, they were soon arrested by the police. When Tessler found out about their arrest he hired a lawyer, but to no avail, as the next day Rabbi Yoel and his entourage were sent to the ghetto.
Conditions in the Cluj ghetto, which was located in the courtyard of a brick factory, were harsh. Despite the kosher kitchen, Rabbi Yoel asked that his food be prepared in separate vessels. He prayed in a separate minyan and refused to serve as cantor in the makeshift synagogue. He took care not to be seen in public and only conversed with a close circle of followers from the local Hasidic congregation. During his stay in the ghetto, few of its residents were made aware of his presence, and it seems that he never approached any other rabbis, not even Rabbi Akiva Glasner (1886–1956), Cluj’s chief rabbi. In view of the harsh living conditions, Rabbi Yoel asked his followers to try to transfer him to Budapest or back to the ghetto of Satmar, where Jews were housed in residential buildings, but they were unable to fulfill his requests. Upon learning of his incarceration, his close associates managed to obtain a certificate for him, but by then it could no longer be used. The first transports to Auschwitz left on May 25, 1944, a few weeks after the rabbi’s incarceration in the ghetto.
The ghetto’s inmates included several Cluj residents who had been leaders of the Jewish community in Transylvania, among them Dr. Theodor Fischer, a Jewish Party representative in the Romanian Parliament; Dr. Joseph Fischer (unrelated), head of the Neolog congregation and president of the Jewish Party in Transylvania; and Hilel Danzig, son of the rabbi of the modern congregation in Sighet. Another member of this circle was Israel (also known as Rudolf or Rezső) Kasztner, a leader of the Zionist movement and a member of the Budapest Relief and Rescue Committee (Budapesti Segélyező és Mentőbizottság). Kasztner, Dr. Joseph Fischer’s son-in-law, a resident of Budapest, and a member of the Jewish Council, was negotiating a deal with German officials whereby a group of Jews would be put on a special train and taken to a country beyond the boundaries of Nazi occupation in exchange for a hefty bribe.
Toward the finalization of the deal, a list of the passengers, including some 300 inmates of the Cluj ghetto, was compiled, and Rabbi Yoel was offered a spot on the train together with his wife and his assistant, Joseph Ashkenazi. Overcoming his misgivings about the plan and the fact that the train would be under the supervision of Zionists, Rabbi Yoel decided to embark on the journey. He reached this decision with the knowledge that no other rabbis, including his friend Rabbi Eliezer Fisch, would be considered for the list, nor would the rest of his Satmar entourage. On Friday, June 9, 1944, after the ghetto’s entire population had been transported to Poland, a train carrying 388 Jews left Cluj and arrived at its first stop, in Budapest.
Arriving in Budapest on Friday evening, the passengers were taken to a nearby compound, where over 1,000 other people were already waiting to board the train. Although observant passengers received food prepared in the kitchen of one of Budapest’s kosher hotels, Rabbi Yoel’s meals were delivered from the kitchen of Haim Roth, a wealthy member of the Orthodox congregation. During the waiting period, fearing what was in store, Rabbi Yoel slept with his shoes on, ready to flee at a moment’s notice. He was still deliberating about whether to board the train or remain in Budapest, but Freudiger and Roth, leaders of the Orthodox community, convinced him to travel on. They also made sure that several rabbis who were his colleagues at the Central Bureau, such as Jonathan Steiff (1877–1958), rabbi of the Orthodox congregation in Budapest, and Rabbi Shlomo Zvi Strasser (1863–1953) of Debrecen, were also added to the list of passengers.
On Friday, June 30, 1944, once negotiations with the Germans had been concluded, the passengers boarded a freight train that did not leave Budapest until the following day. The plan was for the train to cross the border; continue on its way to Hanover, Germany; and then proceed to Spain via Western Europe. The first mishap occurred within a few hours, at a stop in the border town of Mosonmagyaróvár. The transport’s directors were informed that by order of the Gestapo, the train was to be diverted to Poland. Realizing the significance of the change, the anxious passengers dispatched two men to Budapest to seek help. When told of the change, Freudiger and Roth approached Kasztner, who met with Eichmann. The latter explained that this was a mistake and demanded more money. After several days of negotiations and following the payment of additional funds, some of which were raised specifically for the rescue of Rabbi Yoel, the train continued on its journey.
At the next stop, Bratislava in Slovakia, the town rabbi, Michael Dov Weissmandel (1903–1957), bribed the station workers to delay trains carrying Jews, so that food and drink could be provided for them. He also wrote to the United States and other countries requesting international supervision to ensure the train’s safe arrival. On Thursday, July 6, 1944, the train left Bratislava for Vienna and then on to Linz. The passengers were able to disembark in Linz, where they bathed and washed their clothes. Throughout the journey, Rabbi Yoel dressed plainly, covered his bearded face with a kerchief and sat in a corner of the last car, hidden from view behind cloth sheets that hung from the ceiling. He shunned the company of the other passengers, including rabbis, and some of the passengers who knew him were impressed by his humility.
On Sunday, July 9, 1944, about a month after its departure from Cluj, the transport arrived at Bergen-Belsen, then a transit camp for Jewish and non-Jewish foreign nationals. Conditions in the camp were relatively comfortable because the detainees were to be exchanged for Germans from other countries or for collaborators and spies. The “Hungarian Group” was held in a special section, in better conditions than those of other groups. Its members were allowed to keep their personal belongings and enjoyed relative freedom. Although the group included quite a number of notable figures, Rabbi Yoel was given special consideration. The group’s physician exempted him from roll calls, and volunteers performed the tasks imposed on him.
Rabbi Yoel refrained from associating with the other rabbis and spoke only to Rabbi Jonathan Steiff, with whom he studied Torah and Talmud. He did not pray in the camp’s makeshift synagogue, and only on the Sabbath did he join a minyan to hear the Torah reading. During his stay in the camp, he never shaved and refused to consume products such as medicines, tinned sardines, and condensed milk, fearing they may not be in adherence to Jewish dietary laws. Despite the difficult circumstances, he remained as strict as ever and even confronted one of the rabbis and accused him of being overly lenient in his rulings.
Negotiations regarding the release of the detainees dragged on, as fundraising efforts in Hungary were stalled due to the war, inner conflicts among the rescue organizations, particularly in Switzerland, and delays in approving the transfer of funds raised in the United States to Germany. Such approval was required under the regulations of the British and American treasuries, which prohibited the transfer of funds to countries with which they were at war.
About two months after the train’s arrival at Bergen-Belsen, a group of 318 passengers was released. When it was discovered that Rabbi Yoel was not among them, rescue activists in Switzerland asked Kasztner to make sure that he be included in the second group to be released. At the same time, another unusable certificate was obtained for him, and rescue organizations in Switzerland appealed to Orthodox organizations in the United States on his behalf. George Mantello (1901–1992), the consul of El Salvador in Geneva, used his connections with Nazi officer Kurt Trumpi to send Rabbi Yoel medicine and other necessities.
On Dec. 3, 1944, the remaining passengers were released and transported by train to Bregenz, on the Swiss border. With the help of Kasztner and SS officer Herman Krumey, the final arrangements were made, and the passengers were transferred to another train, which crossed the Swiss border. Ultimately, the Swiss authorities agreed to accept the survivors and grant them refugee status, while restricting their place of residence and length of stay. The train stopped first at St. Gallen, where it was met by representatives of the various rescue organizations operating in Switzerland, who immediately recognized Rabbi Yoel’s bearded visage. The chief rabbi of the Orthodox congregation in Zurich, Rabbi Mordechai Ya’akov Breisch (1895–1976), himself a Holocaust survivor, was the first to shake his hand and present him with a note (Kvitel in Yiddish) containing a request for a blessing, thereby symbolically restoring his status as a Hasidic rebbe. News of the group’s release reached Jerusalem, where the rabbi’s daughter and son-in-law had settled after escaping Hungary across the Romanian border. The event was likewise publicized in the American Jewish press, where Rabbi Yoel’s name figured prominently. During the ensuing weeks, the story of his rescue spread to liberated Europe, and in Bucharest local rabbis held a thanksgiving meal in honor of the occasion.
Upon his arrival in Switzerland, Rabbi Yoel was accorded preferential treatment by the authorities. Since the train arrived in St. Gallen on a Friday, he was permitted to spend the Sabbath with a Jewish family, where he was provided with kosher food and elegant clothing while the rest of the group traveled on to the town of Caux. That Sunday, Rabbi Yoel traveled to Caux, but when he reached Montreux, he asked to stop there so that he could light the Hanukkah candles at the appointed time and receive students from the local yeshiva who came to meet him. The following day Rabbi Yoel rejoined the other passengers, but Mantello and Fischer intervened on his behalf, and he was permitted to stay with Moshe Gross in Geneva. By Passover, Rabbi Yoel had already rented his own apartment in Geneva, paid for with money raised by his followers in the United States. By then, he was answering queries on halakha, attending family events, and had visited the Montreux yeshiva and given a lesson to its students. On the festival of Shavu’ot, his last holiday in Switzerland, several dozens of guests attended the holiday service Rabbi Yoel led in his apartment.
Montello arranged for the publication of the rescue train affair in the Swiss press, with Rabbi Yoel’s name featured prominently. The rabbi subsequently met with the Swiss officials processing the refugees and became acquainted with the heads of local government. As he could speak neither any of the languages spoken in Switzerland nor English, a Jewish student assisted him, serving as his interpreter and conducting phone calls for him. Rabbi Yoel also met with other refugee rabbis, including Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandel, who complained bitterly about the ineffectiveness of the various Jewish rescue organizations, as well as with American government representatives, to whom he testified about conditions in the Bergen-Belsen camp.
Rabbi Yoel’s rescue efforts in Switzerland focused on tracking down Jewish children placed for adoption with Christian families and reclaiming them so they could be brought up as Haredim. To this end, he appealed to the Rescue Committee in the United States for help and tried to convince Swiss Haredi families to adopt these children. He later joined Rabbi Tuvia Lewinstein (1863–1953), chief rabbi of the Adas Jeschurun congregation in Zurich, in raising funds for the establishment of a children’s home. Impressed by this vigorous activity, representatives of Agudath Israel in Switzerland suggested that he travel to the United States to promote fundraising for the Agudah. It soon became apparent, however, that Rabbi Yoel’s distaste for non-Haredi organizations impeded his participation in the rescue operations. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s representative was dismayed by his intention to bring up the children as Haredim, while Agudath Israel’s representatives were displeased by his unwillingness to cooperate with them. Consequently, Rabbi Yoel’s main rescue goal, the establishment of an independent home for Haredi children, came to nothing.
Rabbi Yoel tried to provide aid to adult refugees and to his Hasidim in the Displaced Persons (DP) camps in Germany as well, yet there too his problematic relations with the other organizations hampered his efforts to help even his own relatives and acquaintances. He also participated in fundraising efforts to supply aid to the Romanian Jews, and on this occasion he cooperated, remarkably, with the Zionist activists he had met on the Kasztner train.
When the war ended and the full scale of the destruction of Eastern European Jewry and the Jewish orthodox world, its rabbis, and institutions was revealed, doubt was cast on the entire future of the Haredi way of life. Like other rabbis, Rabbi Yoel believed that Zionism was bound to grow stronger and restrict Haredi Jewry, especially after the establishment of the state of Israel, which now seemed closer than ever. On the other hand, he deemed life in the United States, or any of the other Diaspora communities, unsuitable for Haredi Jews.
At the end of the war, northern Transylvania had been returned to Romanian rule, and survivors left the DP camps and hiding places and returned to their former homes. Among the returnees were rabbis such as Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum (1914–2006), Rabbi Yoel’s nephew, who sought to return to his congregation in Zenta, Yugoslavia. However, upon learning that his brother Rabbi Zalman Leib (1912–1944), former Rabbi of Sighet, had died in the Holocaust, he decided to take his place and restore religious life in that town. Other rabbis re-established the Agudath Israel movement in Romania and founded the Orthodox Central Bureau in Cluj. Numerous survivors settled in Satmar, and in just a short period their numbers reached several thousands. Within a few months several synagogues re-opened, and the orphanage, the Jewish hospital, Hevra Kadisha (Jewish burial society), and the rabbinical court were reinstated. Simultaneously, a Hasidic congregation was established, and many of its members expected Rabbi Yoel to return and revive Hasidic life in the town.
Thus, although Rabbi Yoel may well have concluded that Romania was the only place in which the traditional Haredi way of life could be revived, he chose to remain in the safety of Switzerland until it was time to leave Europe. His assertion that he was unable to return to Romania is unconvincing. He was, after all, a well-known public figure and a citizen of Romania. In fact, he had used his position and connections to request an extension of his stay in Switzerland. Presumably, had he wished to do so, he could have returned to Satmar, founded a Hasidic community, and re-established his Hasidic court. Likewise, Rabbi Yoel refrained from joining rescue efforts in the DP camps, where other rabbis were engaged in restoring survivors’ religious life and reinforcing their faith in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
When his sojourn in Switzerland came to an end, Rabbi Yoel considered emigrating to the United States or to Palestine. Eventually, he decided to settle in Jerusalem, where he attempted to establish a Hasidic court. Due to his extremist views and failure to understand post-Holocaust intra-Haredi politics, his entire venture came to naught, and he and his institutions became bankrupt. Within a year, Rabbi Yoel packed his meager belongings and sailed, humiliated and penniless, to the United States.
The publication of this two-part article is taking place 70 years after the arrival of the Kasztner train at Bergen-Belsen on July 9, 1944.
This article is adapted from an essay that appeared in Dapim 28:2 (2014), available here, and in Menachem Keren-Kratz’s forthcoming biography, The Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum.
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