An Against-All-Odds Rescue

Historian Bryan Mark Rigg chronicles how the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe was spirited from the Nazis by a most-unlikely savior.

The Jewish Week/November 5, 2004
By Sandee Brawarsky

In one of the more extraordinary true stories of Holocaust rescue, the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, was spirited out of Nazi-occupied Warsaw in 1939, where he and his family were trapped, to Riga, Stockholm and then to America. A decorated officer in the Wehrmacht who was half-Jewish saved his life, carrying out a task assigned by the chief of Nazi intelligence, who loved Germany but not Hitler.

These unlikely efforts were coordinated with a "bureaucratic Bermuda triangle" of American politicians, cabinet officials and diplomats, with considerable lobbying by the Lubavitchers in America and some influential friends. Historian Bryan Mark Rigg tells the story in detail for the first time, synthesizing 10 years of research on documents from German and American archives along with oral histories, in "Rescued from the Reich: How One of Hitler's Soldiers Saved the Lubavitcher Rebbe" (Yale University Press).

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

Rigg is quite critical of President Roosevelt and American authorities in not acting decisively to rescue Jews, and he's also critical that the Lubavitch rebbe didn't do more to try to get other Jews out of Europe once he arrived in the United States.

In a telephone interview with The Jewish Week from his home in Dallas, Rigg repeatedly refers to himself as a secular historian. He recognizes that the rebbe had many close calls in his escape - a Warsaw building he left was bombed, his convoy out of Warsaw was stopped by the Gestapo, other boats crossing the ocean were bombed - and that many Lubavitchers would say that God was on the side of the rebbe in his rescue, that those who helped him were instruments of divine will. "But then," he says, "I would have to ask: Why didn't God rescue the Six Million?"

The rebbe, who was born in 1880, took on the leadership of the Lubavitchers in 1920, upon the death of his father. Then, he "had fiery blue eyes and, though a grown man, moved with the energy of a teenager." Twice, after the Russian revolution, the rebbe was imprisoned for his efforts on behalf of Jews, and, in both cases, prominent Americans and others intervened on his behalf. He was exiled to Riga, Latvia, and then moved his yeshiva to Poland. By 1936, he was ill with multiple sclerosis and had trouble walking, but his mind remained sharp and his spiritual fortitude intact. "At five foot eight and 200 pounds, he did not cut an impressive figure," Rigg writes. "Yet most Lubavitchers thought him a giant."

Ernest Ferdinand Benjamin Bloch was born in Berlin in 1898 to a Jewish father and gentile mother; he was one of many "Mischlinge," a derogatory term referring to half-Jews, serving in the military. A career officer who fought in World War I, he was "Aryanized," declared of German blood in spite of his roots, in 1939. He was chosen to head the secret operation to rescue the rebbe by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, Nazi intelligence, a high-ranking official who, as the war progressed, distanced himself from Hitler. Canaris, who put his own career on the line as well as the lives of those he ordered to perform the operation, was known to Helmut Wohlthat, chief administrator of Goring's Four-Year Plan, as someone who helped Jews. And it was to Wohlthat, an ambivalent Nazi, that the American consul general in Berlin turned to for help.

The chain to Wohlthat, on the American side, included Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Sen. Robert Wagner, Justice Louis Brandeis, Attorney General Benjamin Cohen and assistant chief of the State Department's European Affairs Division Robert T. Pell, among others, with many resourceful Lubavitch followers involved, too. Coded cables went back and forth across the ocean, at a time, as Rigg notes, when anti-Semitism was prevalent in the State Department.

When Bloch and his colleagues, including two other soldiers with Jewish backgrounds, arrived in Warsaw, they were faced with the challenge of finding the rebbe and then convincing him that although they were German soldiers, their mission was to help him escape. When they were finally on their way out of the city, the rebbe asked Bloch why he was rescuing him.

"When Bloch told him he was half-Jewish he asked if Bloch felt Jewish," Rigg writes. "It must have been odd to talk to this man who looked like a character out of the Bible and try to understand why he asked such a question. Surely taken aback, Bloch probably hesitated. Then he told the rebbe that he did not but that he had always been intrigued by his Jewish past. 'You have a strong Jewish spirit,' the rebbe responded."

Once the rebbe arrived in New York City, he made pleas for people to help those in Europe, but, as Rigg states, his requests reached no further than the Lubavitcher and other Orthodox communities. He sent food packages to Poland, and was active in trying to rescue his students who remained in Poland; he also worked for the rescue of other rebbes, from the Ger, Belz and Bobov dynasties.

Rigg writes that once the rebbe came to see that diplomacy wouldn't work with the Nazis, he focused on the spiritual survival of the Jews. "The difficulties they faced, Schneersohn argued, citing classical Torah texts, meant that Jews should examine their own lives to find out what they could do better or repair." Rigg notes the rebbe was critical of those Jews who weren't observant, and he also condemned those spiritual leaders who cooperated with non-observant Jews and Christians. His priority was to prepare himself and others for the imminent arrival of the Messiah.

Rigg points out the irony that while it was political action that saved the rebbe's life, he ultimately condemned that tactic. For Rigg, that the various Jewish groups couldn't work together, that American Jewish leaders lacked sense of urgency to push harder, breaks his heart.

The author recognizes that many contemporary Lubavitchers are troubled by the rebbe's views, and emphasize a different view of events endorsed by the late Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneersohn, the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe, who would comment, "To say that Jews were punished for their sins with the Holocaust is a desecration of God's name."

Rigg writes in a bold yet measured way, presenting his conclusions, and also suggesting nuanced alternatives.

As Rigg explains, neither the rebbe nor Bloch later alluded to their encounter. The rebbe never published details, nor did he describe it in his private memoirs. Bloch later asked to be sent to the Russian front as a battalion commander, and he left the Abwehr in 1943. He was discharged from service in September 1944, after Hitler ordered all "Mischlinge" army officers dismissed and earmarked for extermination. He sent his family out of Berlin in January 1945 but Bloch, still the loyal soldier, stayed to defend the city and was killed in April - one week before the war would end.

As for Canaris, who had continued his Abwehr activities, collecting intelligence for the Wehrmacht and also persuading high-ranking officers to oppose Hitler and helping Jews escape, he was dismissed from his post in February 1944. After an attempt on Hitler's life in July 1944, he was arrested, later convicted of treason and hanged by the SS in April 1945.

Rigg interviewed the grown children of Bloch, who learned through the author the full extent of their father's efforts. One daughter, now a Buddhist priest in California, told him that she always thought of her father as "that Nazi" and that he gave her someone of whom she can be proud.

Now 33, Rigg first became interested in the subject of the rebbe's escape in 1992, while a student at Yale, and he wrote a senior paper, a master's thesis and later his Ph.D. thesis at Cambridge University on soldiers of Jewish descent who served in the German military. This became his first book, "Hitler's Jewish Soldiers: The Untold Story of Nazi Racial Laws and Men of Jewish Descent in the German Military." In doing research in Germany, the author, who grew up in Protestant in the Bible Belt, discovered that his great-grandmother was Jewish, and that more than 20 relatives perished in the Holocaust. He later studied at Ohr Sameyach Yeshiva in Jerusalem, but ultimately lost interest in religion, seeing it as something that divides people.

He's not reticent about the message he'd like to get across. "If ultra-Orthodox Jews are able to work with anti-Semitic officials, who in turn worked with the Nazi intelligence service, to rescue an ultra-Orthodox rebbe, the question should be asked: What can we now do, if we put away our petty prejudices and religious differences to unite and together and help our fellow man?" Rigg says. "Each of us has an incredible opportunity to make a difference in our world, especially when we see signs of genocide. It takes a willingness to speak up, to put our resources in a cause larger than ourself."

Rigg teaches at American Military University, a distance-learning program primarily serving those in the military, and Southern Methodist University. At both institutions, he teaches, among other subjects, Holocaust history to non-Jewish students whose only prior experience with the subject has been through the film "Schindler's List." He says in his teaching, he tries to show students that history "is played out in the gray zone, it's not black and white." He encourages students to take activist roles, to show moral courage.

Bryan Mark Rigg will be speaking about "Rescued from the Reich" on Tuesday, Jan. 11 for the Leo Baeck Institute and YIVO at the Center for Jewish History, 15 W. 16th St., Manhattan, at 7:30 p.m.

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