Sep 2005 Journal

previous article:Art notes
next article:Letter from Israel

Rescue extraordinaire (book review)

by Bryan Mark Rigg
Yale University, 2004, 284pp., £18.00

This is an astonishing story and, if the author had not been a historian, with a previous book about Nazi Germany to his credit, one would have been tempted to question its veracity. It is, however, a well-researched and heavily referenced account of the rescue of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Joseph Isaac Schneersohn) from German-occupied Warsaw in October 1939.

The Lubavitchers are a religious dynasty of Hasidic Jews who stemmed from Byelorussia in the late eighteenth century. Later, they spread throughout Eastern Europe and then worldwide, with a particularly strong presence in the USA. Their Rebbe was regarded as a prophetic leader and a revered father figure. Joseph Isaac was the sixth in a dynasty of Schneersohn Rebbes, having succeeded his father in 1927. He soon came into conflict with the antisemitic authorities in the Soviet Union, and this included arrest and release after pressure from the USA. In 1927, having set up hundreds of clandestine Jewish schools in the Soviet Union, he moved to Poland, where he established the main Lubavitcher yeshiva near Warsaw. With the help of funds raised by the American Jewish community, he first, however, evacuated his large library to Riga and it was from there that he organised his base near Warsaw.

Thus it was that, following the German attack on Poland in September 1939, he found himself stranded in Warsaw, surrounded by numerous members of his family and his immediate supporters.

The bulk of this book is a description of how the complex rescue operation to return the Rebbe first to Riga and then to the USA was organised once the Germans had occupied Warsaw. The pressure came from the USA and the Germans felt it was opportune to humour the Americans. The co-operation of the head of the German military intelligence (the Abwehr), Admiral Canaris - an enigmatic figure who was later involved in the plot against Hitler - was obtained. Canaris chose a squad of four men, led by Captain Ernst Bloch, a World War I hero who, despite his father's Jewish identity, was allowed to serve in the German army in World War II. Two members of his team were likewise part-Jewish (Mischlinge) and the fourth was a major who was head of the Abwehr in Warsaw and was able to play a key role.

One major problem was to establish contact with the Rebbe, who moved secretly to Warsaw; his followers were loath to trust approaches made by Bloch's team. The rescue was ultimately successful and also involved numerous members of his family and entourage. The Americans readily issued visas and the story reads like an improbable thriller with a happy ending.

What was the fate of the rescuers? Bloch continued to serve in the army on the Russian front and was killed in the battle of Berlin, his family having escaped to the West. Canaris was arrested after the foiled plot against Hitler and hanged by the SS in April 1945.

What was the motivation of those involved in the rescue? Bryan Rigg does not think that altruism was a major factor: each participant seemed to have his own agenda. American policy towards Jewish emigration before the war had been shamefully indifferent and was often punctuated by rank antisemitism in high places. The influence of the American Lubavitchers must have been a key factor. Göring's chief administrator of his four-year plan, who played an important role, wanted Germany to maintain good relations with America. Captain Bloch probably distinguished between his loyalty to the German state and his distaste for Hitler, and may have been influenced by his father's Jewish identity.

The reader of this extraordinary story is entitled to ask whether the Lubavitcher Rebbe really merited this intricate, dangerous and costly mission, when there were so many other Jews equally deserving of rescue. There can be no answer to this.
Leslie Baruch Brent

previous article:Art notes
next article:Letter from Israel