by Siegmund Forst
Rabbi Michael Ber Weissmandl
5674/1903 - 5718/1957
Biographies are moving increasingly into the forefront of literature today. The reason for this seems to be the lateness in age of our culture and the complexity of our civilization. The immensity of the problems of today's world has lessened the opportunity of the average man to play a part in it. Overwhelmed by anxieties, he has apathetically handed over his problems to the professional in order to be relieved from a responsibility he can no longer endure. Hence, man has become unable to confront the steadily widening periphery of his dilemma and to react to it as an individual. Our media of communication, unprecedented in scope and intensity, spread manufactured, ready-made opinion, conditioning man to an "outer-directed" mass-product.
Man has lost significance in his own eyes and that is why biographical literature has become so interesting and important to us. Our time is hungry for the individual it can no longer produce and has to search for him and dig him out of the past. The biographical hero in literature has to be isolated from his time and disjoined from the world around him. His experiences and conflicts with life are set into a sharp contour of individualization, and the more this is the case, the more fascinating and interesting is the esthetic enjoyment. It is however not in a biographical sense in which a study of the personality of Michael Ber Weissmandl is attempted here. In the world of authentic Jewish ideas, biography as a literary exercise has no place. Here, the aim is not the isolation of the hero from his time and people; on the contrary, the interest in a hero is proportionate to the degree of intensity in which his life demonstrates and reflects the very essence of his people. His experience with life is our concern only insofar as it widens the scope of our own confrontation with the world, Our biographical dealing with a man of extraordinary caliber is, therefore, not an esthetic but rather an eminently religious experience.
With the growing distance of time, Michael Ber Weissmandl is emerging with increasing clarity as a unique historical figure. In the post-war literature dealing with the fate of Central Europeans, especially the Slovakian and Hungarian Jews, as well as in the major war-crime trials, the name of Michael Ber Weissmandl appears again and again; especially at the Kasztner and Eichmann trials in Jerusalem in 1955 and 1961, during which letters, telegrams, and memoranda written by Rabbi Weissmandl and sent to the free world between 1942 and 1945, have been read in court. The sensational testimonies have revealed as a fact that Rabbi Weissmandl opened possibilities to rescue hundreds of thousands of Jews. Michael Ber Weissmandl was the one who got into contact with two Slovakian Jews who escaped from Auschwitz and gave the first eyewitness description of the systematic extermination which was until then only a vague rumor and not really believed by anyone. Michael Ber Weissmandl was the one who sent a detailed map of the camp together with the sworn testimony of the two men to the outside world. Michael Ber Weissmandl was the one who probed the Nazi mind with a point blank offer of money. Nobody would have believed it - for $50,000, Wisliceny, Eichmann's deputy, stopped the deportations for a long period of time. This was what encouraged Rabbi Weissmandl to suggest a bold proposition - the so-called "Europa Plan," which provided to bring to a halt all deportations from all of Europe for the payment of a huge sum of money. Wisliceny himself went to Berlin and personally submitted the plan.
Responsibility for the failure of those negotiations, Michael Ber Weissmandl was convinced, rests upon the assimilated Jews in the West who contented themselves with public speeches and demonstrations. He recalled that after such a demonstration in New York, Wisliceny told him that Hitler was incensed and determined to intensify the persecution. Above all, Michael Ber Weissmandl accused the Zionist Jewish Agency in Palestine and Turkey of having frustrated his efforts. There are letters Weissmandl had the opportunity to see after the war, which give evidence - undisputable historical evidence - not only of a fatal blunder, but of deliberate and cynical frustration of his frantic appeals for money.
Brothers, children of Israel, have you all become insane? Don't you know in what hell we are living? For whom do you keep your money? Do you really want to wait until we send a special messenger to plead with you, to give us what is coming to us? To you, all our pleas don't even seem to have the effect as that of a beggar at the door; after so much urging you have thrown pennies at our feet. You are murderers! You madmen! Who is the one who gives? You who are throwing pennies, looking at us from the heights of your eminence, or we, who give blood and tears from the depths of our hearts?
And you, our Jewish brothers in all the free countries; and you, leaders of nations: How could you be silent in the face of this great murder? In it, about 600,000 Jews have already been put to death, and every day now, tens of thousands are being murdered. With their devastated hearts those murdered Jews cry to you: 'You are cruel murderers yourselves, because of your cruel silence. You have the means in your hands to avert and to stop these happenings at this very moment. For the sake of the blood of millions and the tears of hundreds of thousands, we ask you, we beg you, we demand, that you should act right now!
Selections from letters written by Rabbi M. B. Weissmandl during the war years and-cited at the trial proceedings of Grunwald-Kasztner in Jerusalem (from Shalom Rosenfeld's Criminal File No. 724 / Tel-Aviv, 1955).
One such letter decried his constant asking for money, with the argument that one cannot ask the Western Powers to accede to the transfer of money to the Nazis, when Allied blood was being shed in the struggle against them. "We also have to shed blood," the letter argues, "because it is necessary for the establishment of the Jewish Homeland - Only with blood will the Land be redeemed."
"One cow in Palestine is worth more than all the Jews in Europe" - was the immortal statement of Yitzchak Grunbaum, one of the leading figures in the Jewish Agency at that time. One must understand the motive and the nature of Rabbi Weissmandl's statements and vehement accusations. Though he addressed himself to a political group, dealing with practical issues of enormous dimensions, his motivation was not "political" - it was basically religious, because Rabbi Weissmandl was a religious man par excellence. He conceived Jewish Nationalism as the great sin of assimilation in a national disguise, as a substitution for a universal religion which, like all religions has the purpose to give sense to one's life and solve the personal and collective dilemma of man in this world. One has to understand what went on in the mind of this man who stood in the midst of the fire, waiting day after day, month after month with terrible anxiety for that answer to his hundreds of frantic letters, telegrams and messages. He could not comprehend what had happened only until it was all over. It was only after the war when the crushing realization dawned upon him that a group of people, having lost their roots, in possession of power and influence, commanding publicity, journalists, politicians and professional pulpiteers, with almost irrational delusion had substituted an ideal after their own image, for the most basic, the most elementary and vital Jewish command of that hour - to save Jewish lives.
Rabbi Weissmandl's book Min Hameitzar contains a wealth of letters and documents which by themselves tell the story of Jewry in Slovakia and of their frantic attempts to wrestle themselves out of the iron clamp of destruction. There is nothing written by a Jew during that time comparable to these letters. One has to picture in one's mind the ghastly situation in which those letters were written; the intricate and roundabout ways - and the danger involved - in hiring diplomatic couriers to deliver them and the large sums of money paid to the messengers. These attempts to arouse the free world were repeated again and again with increased anxiety and despair. One also has to imagine the consternation and the abyss which opened itself before the eyes when the messengers came back first empty handed, later with short notes from which it became clear that the reports simply were not believed and besides, no money was available anyway. How far this unbelievable conspiracy has captured the Jewish masses, and how impossible it is for any different thought to penetrate their minds, even to the point of mere evaluation, can be seen in the starry-eyed vehemence of the reaction to any reproach. With blinded eyes and closed ears, any voice raised in protest and accusation is immediately suppressed and deafened by the thousand fold cry: "Traitor," "Enemy of the Jewish People."
These facts are read with consternation and unbearable shame. How can it be explained that at a time during the last phase of the war, when the Nazis were willing to barter Jews for money, partly because of personal greed, partly because of their desire to establish contact with the Western powers which, they believed, were under Jewish influence, how was it possible, one asks, that the Jewish leaders did not move heaven and earth to save the last remnant of their brothers?
Weissmandl gives us the answer. And the answer does not deal with missed opportunities, errors of judgment, etc., as the main keys to the question. The entire wrong approach, the delusions, the horrible failure, are only results; results of the un-Jewish mentality of those Jews who had the money, the power and the apparatus in their hands. They have shunned the "old- fashioned" methods of clandestine operations and bribes as not glamorous and heroic. Demonstrations and rallies in Madison Square Garden yield incomparably more publicity - and of course there was the aim of the "Jewish Homeland," which must not be compromised by undue demands from the Allies.
All problems, including that of saving Jewish lives, had to be subordinated to that one and only goal. It was Michael Ber Weissmandl's unshakable belief, for which he claimed to have ten-fold proof, that the few avenues of rescue which opened themselves during the holocaust were deliberately ignored by the Zionist leadership because those avenues of rescue were leading to places other than Palestine, and any undertaking along that line might thwart the expectations towards the establishment of the Jewish State. This attitude of a multitude of arrogant busybodies, the self-appointed leaders and spokesmen for world Jewry during the most tragic time in our history, has put into focus the great dilemma in which the Jewish people find itself even today. An intelligentsia which has become estranged from historical and authentic Judaism, has formed itself into a latter day secularist national-political movement, which is interpreting Judaism and has usurped its representation with skill and effectiveness, utilizing Jewish suffering and persecution to intensify the notion, that only a Jewish State will "normalize" the Jewish people and solve the "Jewish question," once and for all. Michael B. Weissmandl came to America after the war, completely broken in body and in spirit - and the establishment of the State of Israel was on the agenda of the United Nations. With incessant compulsion, he hunted for documents and rummaged through the libraries and archives among the mounds of material which had been collected after the war. He was tracing his own letters and communications, some of which found their way to the highest authorities, like his proposal to bomb the rails leading to Auschwitz. Allied bombers did successfully strafe the oilfields of Ploesti, Rumania, but they let the trains to Auschwitz roll undisturbed until the last minute, a fact which the Nazis amusedly interpreted in their own way.
The more the condemning evidence mounted - that the free world stood idly by while the Jews were systematically slaughtered - the more the mystery took shape with impressive contours. When it became clear that the few diplomatic and military gestures which were made before the very end of the war by the Pope and President Roosevelt to the Regent of Hungary, and also to Tiso of Slovakia, could have saved untold lives if they were made earlier, in addition to the fatal stupidities of the Jewish leaders, the phenomenon widened to a dimension which reaches beyond ordinary comprehension. Blames and recriminations become pedestrian and somehow meaningless.
To Rabbi Weissmandl, the entire catastrophe represented a phenomenon of the highest religious validity. It is precisely this reaction of Rabbi Weissmandl as he emerged after the war and which marked his personality, which is of importance to us in a biographical study because it is a religious experience of singular significance.
We have to put Rabbi Weissmandl against the background of the catastrophic years 1941-1945, as this was the turning point in his life, and regard his remaining years in the U.S.A. as the framework of his reaction to the war experience. The personality of Rabbi Weissmandl as he emerged after the war, appears under a twofold aspect. One is the aspect of his personal tragedy which he shared with many who suffered as he had. The second aspect is the collective tragedy which was so emphatically pronounced by his total personality, an aspect which he shared with nobody. He could not forget. Particularly this is what interests us here. Is this reaction to a tragedy an incidental matter of an individual temperament, or does it have significance of a higher order of eminently Jewish religious validity? The question implies more than the investigation of a theoretical concept; it reaches deep into the "either-or" realms of our lives.
Here lies perhaps one of the most baffling phenomena in the history of Jews. It is the fact that they have entirely forgotten to ask the question "WHY?" Speaking about Jews in this context does not mean individuals or groups who have come to conclusions and solutions which lie outside the authentic mainstream of the Jewish people, like assimilation in its liberalistic-humanitarian or nationalistic manifestations. What we mean here is the Jew as the homo religiosus par excellence. How was it possible for him to forget so completely what had happened? The trials, which are occasionally held, still force the evading memory into some form of historical consciousness, just as the plays performed and the books written have added to art and literature. But what has all this to do with the question, "WHY?" which was not asked? How could we so sure-footedly step back into a reality which not long ago vanished into a phantasmic nightmare? Where is the restlessness of our soul and mind?
The question "WHY?" presupposes an eminently religious outlook. It presupposes a given order in the world and sense in life; it implies want of moral justification, and it creates an intimate mutuality and reciprocity between man and event, man and nature, and ultimately man and G-d. Seen with the eyes of the religious, man is not a product of nature, but nature is a product of man. The question "WHY?" is basically different from the question "HOW?" The question "HOW?" is the question of the scientist whose interest lies not in the event but rather in the law which is either confirmed or upset by it. The answer to the question "HOW?" is always mechanistic and causal, it does not take human consciousness into account and is therefore basically amoral. The scientific approach, since it has shrunk from universalism to specialization, is today less capable than ever to grasp a phenomenon in its totality.
The question "WHY?" is a profoundly religious question and the Jewish Question par excellence. It establishes relationship between the event and man's consciousness - and that is what counts - not the answer.
What makes the life of Michael Ber Weissmandl significant and important for us? In what way does it reach beyond the personal and enter the wide scope of norm-giving Jewish authenticity? To put it in the most simple and unmistakable terms - was Michael Ber Weissmandl as he came out after the tragedy, acting "normally? Or is it we, who have reconciled ourselves with the order of things, who represent "normalcy"? This radical question, as simple as it is, is the eminently decisive question for our lives.