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Rescued from the Reich

Rescued from the Reich: How One of Hitler’s Soldiers Saved the Lubavitcher Rebbe

foreword by Paula E. Hyman
Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Rescued from the Reich
    Book Description:

    When Hitler invaded Warsaw in the fall of 1939, hundreds of thousands of civilians-many of them Jewish-were trapped in the besieged city. The Rebbe Joseph Schneersohn, the leader of the ultra-orthodox Lubavitcher Jews, was among them. Followers throughout the world were filled with anguish, unable to confirm whether he was alive or dead. Working with officials in the United States government, a group of American Jews initiated what would ultimately become one of the strangest-and most miraculous-rescues of World War II.

    The escape of Rebbe Schneersohn from Warsaw has been the subject of speculation for decades. Historian Bryan Mark Rigg has now uncovered the true story of the rescue, which was propelled by a secret collaboration between American officials and leaders of German military intelligence. Amid the fog of war, a small group of dedicated German soldiers located the Rebbe and protected him from suspicious Nazis as they fled the city together. During the course of the mission, the Rebbe learned the shocking truth about the leader of the rescue operation, the decorated Wehrmacht soldier Ernst Bloch: he was himself half-Jewish, and a victim of the rising tide of German antisemitism.

    A harrowing story about identity and moral responsibility,Rescued from the Reichis also a riveting narrative history of one of the most extraordinary rescue missions of World War II.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12972-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-x)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xx)

    The stories of rescue of Jews from Nazislaughter, though regrettably limited in number, are inherently compelling. They usually involve individuals who, for one reason or another, chose to defy authority, breaking with the dominant indifference of their societies to what was happening to the Jews in their midst.

    Some, like the Huguenots of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in France, who hid thousands of Jews in their village and smuggled others to Switzerland, were motivated by religious conviction, a charismatic and influential pastor, and suspicion of the state honed by their experience as a small Protestant minority in a Catholic land. Others, like...

  4. Prologue
    (pp. 1-2)

    In 1939, a group of Jews in Warsaw huddled together in a corner of a room saying their prayers. The Nazis were combing the city for those they deemed threats to the occupation, and the Jews knew many would meet their end, both Jew and Gentile alike. As they chanted their ancient litanies, a loud bang echoed through the room, then a quick succession of hard knocks at the door. All looked to their leader, Rebbe Schneersohn. ‘‘Should we let them in?’’ Many believed that all that stood between them and death was a few inches of wood. The Rebbe...

  5. ONE The Invasion
    (pp. 3-15)

    Hitler launched his campaign of military conquests by attacking Poland. In August 1939 he told his generals that he would concoct a ‘‘propaganda reason’’ for the invasion, the plausibility of which should not concern them in the least. Declaring that the victors write the history books, he encouraged the commanders to close their ‘‘hearts to pity’’ and to ‘‘act brutally.’’ Eighty million people, he explained, needed their Lebensraum. He had written inMein Kampf,‘‘The Reich must again set itself along the road of the Teutonic Knights of old. . . . And so we National Socialists . . ....

  6. TWO The Lubavitchers and Their Rebbe
    (pp. 16-37)

    The religious dynasty of Hasidic Jews called Lubavitchers originated in Lubavitch, Byelorussia, in the late eighteenth century. Hasidism itself began with the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), who mobilized Eastern European Jewry in response to decades of persecution and poverty and to the trauma inflicted by the messianic crusade of a charismatic figure named Sabbetai Zvi.

    Zvi entered on the scene with Europe still recovering from the aftereffects of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), a time when many people were yearning for a better future. Zvi tapped into their fears and desires, with devastating results. Although...

  7. THREE Poland Under the Germans
    (pp. 38-57)

    Early on 1 September 1939, a hot Friday morning, many of the yeshiva students in Otwock awoke to the sound of explosions. No one knew what was going on. Only several hours later did they learn that Hitler had invaded Poland. ‘‘It was like thunder,’’ wrote Joseph Wineberg, then a student. The horrors of war quickly made their way to Otwock. The Chabad orphanage there took a direct hit that killed ten children during the first bombardment. Another bomb struck the house where the Rebbe, his mother, one of his secretaries, Haskell Feigin, and many others, including Israel Jacobson’s daughter...

  8. FOUR A Plan Takes Shape
    (pp. 58-68)

    While the Lubavitchers in Warsaw tried to stay alive and keep their Rebbe hidden, their American coreligionists pressed the U.S. government to help rescue him. Rabbi Israel Jacobson, then executive director of Chabad in America, felt lucky that he had been able to leave Poland a few days before the war began. Extremely close to the Rebbe, he feared for the leader’s life. Jacobson obtained information about him through Rabbi Mordechai Chefetz, head of the Lubavitcher movement in Latvia. By telegraph, telephone, mail, and messengers, Chefetz himself received regular updates from Chaim Lieberman, Schneersohn’s private secretary. How Lieberman kept information...

  9. FIVE The Nazi Connection
    (pp. 69-75)

    Helmut Wohlthat was an ambivalent Nazi, despite his high office. He had studied at Columbia University in New York from 1929 to 1933, and his time in America made him a logical choice to contact for help. Although it was dangerous to help Jews, there is evidence Wohlthat did so during the 1930s; in 1974, he claimed that he allowed thousands of Jews to take money and assets in excess of the legal limit out of Germany. He also had friends in the German resistance.¹

    Nevertheless, he also aggressively persecuted Jews. On 22 July 1938, on Göring’s orders, he pushed...

  10. SIX Bloch’s Secret Mission
    (pp. 76-86)

    Ernst Ferdinand Benjamin Bloch was born 1 May 1898 in Berlin, one of two sons of Dr. Oskar Bloch, a Jew, and his Gentile wife, Margarete née Schönberg. Margarete’s first husband had died in 1897; he too was Jewish and she had two daughters by him. Mixed marriages were common in Germany; several thousand were taking place at the turn of the century.¹

    Bloch grew up in a wealthy home until his father died, in 1910, when the family fell on hard times. Besides doing odd jobs to help support his mother and siblings, he worked hard at school and...

  11. SEVEN The Search Begins
    (pp. 87-94)

    From late September into early October, the Rebbe and his followers remained trapped in Warsaw and, despite the constant threat of arrest and persecution, continued rigorously to observe Orthodox tradition. On25–26 September, at the height of the bombing, the Rebbe had a sukkah built for the coming holiday, inspiring his followers to believe that the Jewish spirit would not be defeated.¹ He told them, ‘‘For Hashem to do his part, we have to build a sukkah’’ and promised ‘‘a long life to whoever goes to gather the branches we need for the roof.’’ Ironically, it was a secular Jew...

  12. EIGHT A Lawyer’s Work
    (pp. 95-111)

    On 18 October 1939, American Lubavitchers held a fund-raiser at the New York City Jewish Center for the Rebbe’s rescue. A letter from America’s Chabad headquarters had gone out to several Jewish organizations at the beginning of October saying that ‘‘every Jew, having a spark of Judaism within his breast, must conscientiously work to help save the Rabbi from the lurking peril.’’ Sam Kramer and several others attended the fund-raiser, but, although many turned out in moral support, only two thousand dollars was collected. The organizers had hoped to raise at least ten thousand.¹

    Kramer, Chabad’s legal counsel, was a...

  13. NINE The Angel
    (pp. 112-114)

    Acting on promising new information from Wohlthat on 25 November, Bloch and his team inspected an apartment house where they thought the Rebbe lived. When an old man answered, staring at them with hostility and fear, Bloch explained that, though soldiers, they had orders to help the Rebbe escape occupied Poland. The old man denied knowledge of the Rebbe’s whereabouts and closed the door. After Bloch left, however, Schneersohn instructed his staff and family that, if the officer returned, they should give him ‘‘truthful information.’’¹ Perhaps the Rebbe had finally been informed that Bloch had been assigned to help him...

  14. TEN The Escape Route
    (pp. 115-121)

    On 27 November, Pell reported to Rhoade with good news. Wohlthat had informed him that the German soldiers had found the Rebbe alive and that he was now under the protection of a staff officer. Pell also told Rhoade that, in response to the Rebbe’s plea for funds, which the Abwehr had passed on, he had sent $250 through the State Department.¹ The burden of uncertainty must have left Rhoade’s shoulders—the Rebbe had finally been found.

    The Rebbe, remarkably, seemed concerned most about his library. On 27 November, he sent Lieberman a telegram explaining that he lived in horrible...

  15. ELEVEN Flight
    (pp. 122-129)

    Having gone to such extraordinary lengths to locate and rescue the Rebbe, Bloch was shocked to learn that the Lubavitchers expected him to arrange for the escape of more than a dozen additional Orthodox Jews, not the few family members he had been ordered to help. Although the Rebbe was a ‘‘great leader,’’ Bloch told Schenk, in his own community he lived a life ‘‘totally divorced from reality.’’ The Rebbe failed to see that he was not in command of the situation. He simply could not understand the hazards he would bring on himself, as well as on the soldiers...

  16. TWELVE Waiting in Riga
    (pp. 130-146)

    When news reached Jacobson that Schneersohn, his family, and his staff had reached Riga safely, Jacobson arose from a meeting and ran out into the street. There, he jumped up and down, did ‘‘handsprings on the sidewalks,’’ and shouted ecstatically. ‘‘I could not contain my joy.’’ He then returned to his office to continue planning the Rebbe’s journey. That day, he also received a phone call from the Rebbe thanking him and the American Lubavitchers for all their efforts on his behalf.¹

    On 20 December, Rhoade telephoned Pell and immediately afterward wrote him a letter to express appreciation for his...

  17. THIRTEEN Crossing a Perilous Ocean
    (pp. 147-151)

    On 6 March 1940, Finland sued for peace and surrendered its territory to the Soviet Union. Although the Soviet victory had come at a high price, with the loss of two hundred thousand men to Finland’s twenty-five thousand, Stalin’s desire for expansion was not deterred.¹ He took over the Baltics in June. Had the Rebbe and his group still been in Latvia, they would probably have died.

    The day Finland surrendered, the Rebbe’s group left Riga by plane for Stockholm, catching one of the last flights from Latvia to Sweden. Those escaping with the Rebbe were his wife, his mother,...

  18. FOURTEEN The Rebbe in America
    (pp. 152-187)

    On hearing that the Rebbe was on his way, Chabad sent out a notice to several rabbis saying, ‘‘If our mouths had the sea’s capacity for song, it would not suffice to praise and thank G-d for the miracles and wonders He has performed for us and for the entire House of Israel by salvaging for us this teacher of his people, this leader of his nation, the Rebbe.’’ Their prayers for God to save the Rebbe were indeed answered. The Rebbe’s ship arrived in New York harbor late in the evening on 18 March, but passengers had to wait...

  19. FIFTEEN The Fates of the Rescuers
    (pp. 188-196)

    If the Rebbe never alluded to his rescue, neither did Bloch. Indeed, since he was in the secret service, he had been trained never to discuss his duties, even with his wife.¹ Had he survived the war, Bloch might have been more open. After rescuing Schneersohn, he returned to his industrial espionage work and, later in 1940, was promoted to lieutenant colonel.² He commanded over forty officers and staff members and dined on occasion with industrialists such as Gustav Krupp von Bohlen and Max Schlenker. He enjoyed the confi-dence of the executives of important German firms, including I. G. Farben,...

  20. Conclusion
    (pp. 197-208)

    All too often the history of Nazi Germany is depicted as a morality play, a story of good and evil, victims and perpetrators. Such a dichotomous view fails, however, to account for the complexity of the Third Reich, not to mention that of human motivation and behavior.

    On one side of the polarized view of the Rebbe’s rescue stand the altruistic American liberators of oppressed Europe. Our American heroes were nevertheless reluctant to act until personally pressured. American officials failed to respond not only to thousands of desperate pleas from European Jews who wished to escape to the United States...

    (pp. 209-212)

    In 1992, I began investigating the phenomenon of soldiers of Jewish descent who fought in the Wehrmacht; the result was published asHitler’s Jewish Soldiers: The Untold Story of Nazi Racial Laws and Men of Jewish Descent in the German Military.During my research, I came across the story of Ernst Bloch and the Rebbe, a story that seemed too fantastic to believe.

    The short section on the rescue in Rolf Vogel’sEin Stück von Unsparticularly sparked my interest. I examined documents in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and in the Bundesarchiv/Militärarchiv in Freiburg, and I interviewed several...

  22. NOTES
    (pp. 213-256)
    (pp. 257-270)
    (pp. 271-276)
  25. INDEX
    (pp. 277-284)