The Rabbi Saved by Hitler’s Soldiers:
Rebbe Joseph Isaac Schneersohn and His Astonishing Rescue
By Bryan Mark Rigg
University Press of Kansas
510 pages (including notes)
On September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland and started the Second World War, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, was living in a suburb of Warsaw. On December 14, escorted by a squad of German soldiers, he and his entourage left Warsaw in a first class railway car and travelled to Berlin where they stayed overnight. The next day, still under escort, still in a first class railway car, they went to Riga, in Latvia. The Germans left them at the Latvian border. On March 4, they flew to Sweden in an 18-seat aircraft. On March 7, they boarded the Swedish liner Drottningholm and sailed to New York.
Bryan Mark Rigg is a military historian who was brought up Baptist, discovered he was of Jewish descent, and converted to Judaism. He is the author of Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers: The Untold Story of Nazi Racial Laws and Men of Jewish Descent in the German Military, a study of the role of mischlinge, men of partly Jewish ancestry who had received Aryanization certificates and then served in the German forces during the Second World War, published in 2002.
In doing his research, Rigg found references to the story of the rescue of Rabbi Schneersohn from occupied Poland by German personnel. The story “seemed too fantastic to believe,” but Rigg followed up on it. His first book on the subject, Rescued from the Reich: How One of Hitler’s Soldiers Saved the Lubavitcher Rebbe, was published by Yale University Press in 2004. This new book, The Rabbi Saved by Hitler’s Soldiers: Rebbe Joseph Isaac Schneersohn and His Astonishing Rescue, is a much-expanded version, based on additional material.
I well understand Rigg’s initial scepticism about this story. I first read about the incident in The Secret of Chabad: Inside the world’s most successful Jewish movement, a book I reviewed for the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin (May 30, 2016). The story seemed so fantastic that I didn’t mention it in the review.
The rebbe had lived in the Soviet Union, where he defied the authorities and persisted in organizing religious activity. He was jailed, and ultimately forced out of the country to Latvia, where he obtained citizenship. In 1929, he began a 10-month tour of Palestine and of the United States, where he met influential people, including U.S. president Hoover and U.S. Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, before returning to Warsaw, where he had moved.
When the war began, the rebbe had with him a number of family members, staff and followers, and his library. By this time, his health was failing. He was suffering from multiple sclerosis, and was confined to a wheelchair because of obesity.
Chabad Lubavitch members in the United States were terrified at the thought of their Rebbe falling into German hands. Chabad, in those days, was nothing like the powerful organization that exists today, but its leaders had some contacts, and the rebbe had a reputation as a religious scholar. Brandeis and others were approached, and Cordell Hull, the U.S. secretary of state, authorized the use of his name in an attempt to rescue Rabbi Schneersohn.
Robert Pell, a U.S. State Department official, had been at the Evian international conference of 1938, organized to help refugees. It accomplished nothing, but Pell had become friendly with Helmut Wohlthat, a German official. Pell wrote to him through the U. S. Embassy in Berlin, and he contacted Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence bureau.
Canaris had on his staff Major Ernst Bloch, a decorated First World War veteran, the son of a Jewish father, who had been severely wounded, and who, with Canaris’ support, had received an Aryanization certificate. He put Bloch in charge of the assignment, along with two soldiers of quarter-Jewish descent.
Rigg is a determined and thorough researcher, and a good writer. He tells with skill the story of how Bloch’s group found the rebbe in the ruins of Warsaw, won his trust, and got him past army and SS dangers.
Just as challenging, though not as dangerous, was the problem of getting visas for the rebbe and his group to enter the United States. This was a daunting task, given the anti-Semitism of many of the immigration officials, and the inefficiency of Chabad officials in providing the needed information. Again, Rigg’s research and writing skills make for a good story. Rigg is especially good on the travails of Max Rhoade, the able and well-connected Washington lawyer whom Chabad hired, who got the job done, but apparently never got paid for his work.
The story is told in the first two-thirds of the book. The rest of the book deals with the later lives of some of the key people involved in the story, and also contains some analysis.
In a chapter titled “The Rebbe and the Holocaust,” Rigg quotes many of the rebbe’s writings to show a theology, which Rigg does not accept, and which Rigg says would have made him a difficult leader for a non-Lubavitcher to work with.
For example, in 1941, the rebbe wrote in his newspaper, citing Maimonides, “When a great calamity befalls our people, it is incumbent upon us to offer prayers to the Almighty and acknowledge that the trouble is in punishment for inobservance of Torah.”
Rigg suggests that passage, and other writings of the rebbe he quotes, show that the Rebbe believed the Holocaust was God’s punishment for the Jews’ abandonment of their faith.
Rigg objects to this and quotes the rebbe’s successor, his son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, for a different opinion: “To say that those very people were deserving of what transpired, that it was punishment for their sins, heaven forbid, is unthinkable.”
In his analysis, Rigg is also critical of Rabbi Schneersohn for not assisting with any further attempts to rescue Jews from Nazi-controlled lands, and the Holocaust, after his arrival in America.
Rigg also reports he has received threats about his writing and lecturing on the subject, and bribes have been offered to him to change what he says.