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Chapter XI

Rabbi Herzog in Poland

Rabbi Herzog had not been back to Poland since he left with his family when he was 10 years old. The present day Poland was a dangerous and chaotic place. Transportation was still limited to military personnel or people with special permits. Rabbi Herzog asked UNRRA Director General Fiorello LaGuardia to provide him seats aboard an UNRRA plane that headed to Warsaw, Poland. The UNRRA plane left Prague in the evening and arrived late at night in Warsaw. There was no one at the airport to meet the rabbi. No car. no personnel. Calls to Rabbi Kahane's office were not answered. Warsaw had not been informed of the rabbi's departure or arrival. Rabbi Solomon Pinchas Wohlgelernter, who represented the Vaad Hatzala at UNRRA placed an emergency call to the U.S. Consulate in Warsaw and explained the situation. A consular car was soon on the way to the Warsaw airport. Rabbi Wohlgelernter, Rabbi Herzog's liaison officer with UNRRA headquarters, accompanied Rabbi Herzog on most of his stops in Europe. Also traveling to Poland with the rabbi was his son Yaacov D. Herzog and Rabbi Zev Gold, Rabbi Herzog's secretary.

 

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Rabbi Herzog and Rabbi Wohlgelernter at the Memorial Monument of the Ghetto of Warsaw

 

Traveling in Poland was not safe for a Jew, especially one who was as noticeable as the diminutive rabbi in his long black coat, black hat and long grey beard. Poland had just experienced one of the worst pogroms in post–war history, the Kielce pogrom. Fear was everywhere and the government was in a state of panic. Polish Jews were terrified and feared for their lives. The United States consular car brought the party to the prestigious Warszawa Hotel that was reserved by Rabbi Kahana.The Polish government, concerned about a man of Rabbi Herzog's standing, albeit ostensibly visiting Poland as a private citizen, approved the reservation. The hotel was used by the government and was located in a military security zone to protect the officials against terror attacks. Rabbi Kahana also saw to it that the rabbi was provided with a security detail. At no time was the rabbi allowed to travel unescorted. Nor was he allowed to visit freely any site he wished. The rabbi's movements were reportedly tightly organized. On his visits, he met Jews and saw the fear in their eyes.

He visited the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto and was deeply shocked. He recited some appropriate prayers and returned to the hotel to regain his composure. He then visited the Nalewki Street area, site of some legendary Jewish institutions, yeshivas and synagogues. The rabbi was dazed by the destruction in this ancient Jewish area of the city. When the rabbi spoke of the stones that held a thousand years of Jewish history, he began to weep, and had to stop to recover his composure. He said, “I came to Poland, my native country, to visit the handful of Jews that remain in Poland. Adjacent to the Ghetto was a Jewish cemetery eerily untouched by the destruction nearby. He composed a long, beautiful poem to commemorate the ghetto. On July 31, 1946. Shabbat, he attended services lead by Rabbi S. Efrati at the only synagogue left standing in Warsaw. Rabbi Herzog heard stories of Jewish Shoah survivors liberated from the labor and concentration camps, from hidden cellars and Jews returning from the Soviet Union who found themselves knocking at the doors to their old homes only to be met by hostility, and frequently abuse. If the Jew persisted, he was told to leave the premises or face the consequences. Some even advised the Jews to leave the place while they still stood on their feet. Some Jews paid no heed and paid with their lives especially in rural places He had read Judge Simon Rifkind's critical UNRRA report, and agreed that Jews were still being victimized although there had never been a reason for this treatment other than the fact that they were Jews. During this period, attacks against these Jewish survivors were a daily occurrence. Most of these events were not publicized. But they circulated amongst the Jews. Some received publicity when casualties invoiced. Sporadic public anti–Jewish disturbances or riots were enhanced by the spread of false blood libel accusations against Jews in a dozen major Polish towns across the country.

Kraków, Kielce, Bytom, Białystok, Bielawa, Częstochowa, Legnica, Otwock, Rzeszów, Sosnowiec, Szczecin, Tarnów. Acts of anti–Jewish violence were also recorded in villages and small towns of central Poland, where the overwhelming majority of attacks occurred. The anti–Jewish events usually started with accusations that Polish children were abducted by Jews for the ritual purpose of using their blood in the baking of matzot. The masses bought these stories and the police frequently stood by and let the mobs rule the situation. The Krakow pogrom began August 11, 1945, an attempt to seize a thirteen–year–old boy who was throwing stones at the synagogue was made, but he managed to escape and rushed to the nearby marketplace screaming “Help me, the Jews have tried to kill me”. Instantly a crowd assembled and marched to the nearby Kupa synagogue and started beating Jews, who had been praying at the Saturday morning Sabbath service. The Torah scrolls and prayer books were torched. Jewish men, women and children, were beaten up on the streets; their homes were broken into and robbed. Some Jews wounded during the pogrom were hospitalized and later were beaten in the hospitals again. The synagogue was torched, at least one Jewish woman named Roza Berger, an Auschwitz survivor, was killed and many Jews were in various city hospitals. The Polish police and militia actively participated in the pogrom as the investigations later proved. Poland was in the midst of a violent wave of anti–Semitism that bubbled over into the deadly Kielce pogrom on July 4, 1946, in which 41 Jews, mostly Holocaust survivors, were killed and scores injured.[1] The Jews in Kielce were accused of killing a Christian child for the blood needed to bake matzot, the unleavened bread Jews use during the Passover holiday. This “blood–libel” was readily accepted by the Polish masses who rampaged through the streets, killing any Jews they found in the city. The mob was joined by members of the Polish police and other Polish security forces, even though these forces all had to be members of the Communist Party in order to get and keep their jobs.[2]

A few Jews, long denied posts as judges or ministers, were now filling important government positions. Resentment was rapidly building against the Polish government. For the first time, Jews were in positions of influence and power. Many Poles, who had no love for Jews before the war, were now incensed that Jews had high positions in government. And since most Jews in government were Communists who espoused the beliefs of the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union, some Poles feared that this Jewish

 

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Joint Distribution Committee Workers in Poland Participate at the Funeral of the Jews Killed in the Kielce Pogrom

 

influence would only bring Poland closer to Soviet rule. The Polish Primate, Cardinal August Hlond, condemned the murder of the Jews, he denied the racist nature of these crimes. To Cardinal Hlond, the Kielce pogrom was a reaction against Jewish bureaucrats serving the Communist regime. Another Catholic leader, Cardinal Sapieha, reportedly said that the Jews had brought the violence on themselves. The Jews found themselves caught in a political game where the stakes were life and death. Special military troops were rushed to Kielce from nearby towns to restore order. The fact that the police and security forces had joined the Kielce mob created panic among the Polish Jewish survivors. Once again, men in uniforms were attacking and killing them. Jewish survivors began to question their safety in Poland. This fear spread quickly to other areas of Eastern

 

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Marshal Marian Spychalski (center)

 

Europe. The Polish government, aware of the rising anti–Semitism, was incapable of restoring order; Poland was on the brink of civil war, and refused to appear as the protector of Jews. Paralyzed, the country rapidly approached a state of complete anarchy. Sympathetic to and understanding of the Jewish plight, the Polish government saw an option that would quell the uprisings and allow the government to survive: let the Jews leave Poland. Even before the Kielce pogrom, Jews had already decided there was nothing for them in war ravaged Poland. The trickle of émigrés turned into a cascade/avalanche following the Kielce pogrom: Jews decided to leave Poland by any and all means.

 

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Yitzchak “Antek” Zuckerman

 

Spychalski, an avowed Communist and now the Polish deputy minister of defense, was ordered to conduct secret negotiations with Yitzchak or better known by his nickname “Antek” one of the leaders of the 1943 Jewish Ghetto uprising in Warsaw and currently an active member of the Central Committee of Polish Jews.

The two worked out a secret agreement that was to commence on July 27, 1946, and end about February, 1947, and would not be published by either of the parties.[3] The agreement restricted emigration only to Jews, who also were forbidden to take gold, foreign currency or personal papers when they left Poland. All travel arrangements were the responsibility of the Polish branch of the underground Bricha movement, which would also handle any and all other problems, including medical attention, food and clothing. Neither the Polish government, nor any other Polish officials were to be involved in this modern exodus. Lastly, Spychalski verbally informed

Antek that the agreement only applied to the Polish–Czech border. While Antek agreed to this last condition, he was distressed. The Brichah had long been making good use of the short but troublesome journey to the Polish–German border crossing at the port city of Szczecin (Stettin). It was troublesome because the Soviets manning checkpoints along this route, frequently stopped, searched and sometimes arrested the Jewish refugees. Now the Polish government had told Antek this shortcut was off limits. He understood the reasoning – the Poles wanted to keep the Jewish exit story a secret from both the Soviets and the British – he also knew the Soviets were aware that Jews were leaving Poland, although not the extraordinary numbers. The British would have been livid, knowing that many of the fleeing Jews would try to sneak through the blockade around Palestine. And the Poles had another reason not to upset the British. When the Polish government fled Warsaw, in 1939, in the face of the Nazi invasion, it took the Polish gold reserves, depositing them in British banks. And the gold reserves were still in London. Britain was in no hurry to return the gold and had used pretext after pretext to delay shipping the precious metal home. While the decision to let most of the Polish Jews leave was quickly turning into a matter of survival for the Polish government, the Poles had no intention of giving the British cause to keep Polish gold any longer than necessary. The Brichah agreed to funnel the massive exodus across the different borders but mainly using the Szczecin (Stettin) crossing because that exit led through the Soviet zone to Berlin, which was only a short hop to the much sought after D.P. camps in the American sector.

In 1946 alone, the Brichah led nearly 30,000 Polish Jewish refugees across the border. It used another trick: it mingled Jewish refugees on trains carrying German citizens being deported from German areas that had been given to Poland at the Potsdam Conference held in Berlin from July 17 to August 2, 1945. These trains went directly from Poland to Germany. Once the trains stopped in Germany, the Jews were gathered up by the Brichah aides and ushered to one of the D.P. camps in the American zone. After the agreement with Marshal Spychalski was finalized, Antek brought the document to the Central Committee of Polish Jews for approval. As usual, there was disagreement among the Jewish factions: the Communist and Bundist members vociferously objected to the terms. The Jewish Communists were steadily gaining strength in the Central Committee; their allies and the Bundists were also opposed to Jews leaving Poland despite all the real dangers that the Jews faced there. The Jewish Communists and Bundists were determined to build a socialist utopia even though this option or any option that called for remaining in Poland was rejected by most Jewish survivors. The Polish Jewish communists continued objecting to a Jewish emigration from Poland. They believed in a new socialist society where everyone would be equal, and argued that Jews should stay and help with the historic effort. While the actual number of Jewish communists was small, they were very vocal, influential and had the support of the Polish Communist Party. The Jewish faction of the communist committee members took the matter all the way up to the Polish Central Committee of the Communist Party. Much to the dismay of these Jewish communists, they were informed that the top officials of the Communist Party agreed with the terms struck between Spychalski and Zuckerman. After that the Jewish communists raised no more objections. The Bund had been one of the largest and best organized Jewish workers organizations in pre–warPoland. Marxist–Socialist in ideology, the Bund was anchored in a firm belief in a Yiddish–speaking cultural autonomy. Vehemently opposed to Zionism, the Bund demanded that Jews fight for their rights where they lived and continued to adhere to this view even after the war. But when the Spychalski–Zuckerman agreement was brought for a vote in their faction, those objecting to the agreement were outvoted.

Now the question of funding became crucial. The Brichah appealed to the Polish branch of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to finance the legal transport of thousands of Jews out of Poland. William Bein, head of the JDC office in Warsaw, was already paying the Brichah's expenses to sneak Jews out of Poland illegally. By the time of the Spychalski–Zuckermanan agreement, thousands of Jews had already crossed the Czech–Polish borders, 5,000 in 1945 alone, and that number was dwarfed by the number of immigrants crossing in 1946.[4] Dr. Joseph Schwartz, JDC Head in Paris, was told of the rapid increase in refugees illegally leaving Poland, now mostly across the Czech border. Schwartz answered by sending massive shipments of food, clothing and medical supplies to transit camps in Czechoslovakia where the Polish Jewish refugees stopped briefly on their way to the D.P. camps in Germany and Austria. The total Jewish population in post–war Poland of approximately 42,662 Jews in May, 1945, swelled to an estimated 240,249 in July of 1946 as Polish Jews who had fled to the Soviet Union continued to stream back, something that would continue for years. Following the terrifying events in Kielce, the Jews already in Poland and those refugees steadily arriving from the Soviet Union needed little urging to leave. 32,772 Jews illegally left Poland in August, 1946, according to Yochanan Cohen, then a Brichah official stationed in Poland. In September the number was 11,101 Jews.[5] The fear of another pogrom, a frivolous change of government policy toward the Jews or a crackdown at the borders were always dark clouds lurking in the Jewish mind. No Jews wanted to take a chance, especially after what they had endured during the Holocaust. When the news of the Kielce pogrom reached the ears of Emil Sommerstein, head of the Polish Jewish Communist Central Committee, who was on a speaking tour in London, he collapsed and was hospitalized. The members of the Communist Party had steadily weakened his position as head of the central committee. Sommerstein, who had been ill since his internment in Soviet prison camps during the war, had devoted his energies to restoring some semblance of Jewish life to postwar Poland. His efforts failed. The number of Jews leaving Poland increased daily. This great exodus was made even easier when the Polish–Czech border was opened on July 27,1946, and would remain open until 1947. Thousands of Polish Jews crossed the Polish–Czech borders at Kladzko, Walbrzych, Katowice, Krosno and Nowy Sacz The association of Polish Jewish religious communities actively encouraged Jews to leave Poland. Chief Jewish Chaplain of the Polish Army, Colonel Rabbi David Kahane, who was also the head of the Union of Rabbis in liberated Poland, urged all Polish rabbis to help the Jews leave Poland.

 

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Polish Jews Cross the Polish–Czech border in Broad Daylight

 

Rabbi Kahane was pleased finally to be in the company of Rabbi Herzog with whom, until then, he had only corresponded by letter and telegram. Sitting in the comfortable rooms of the Warszawa Hotel, the two rabbis exchanged ideas and plans. Rabbi Herzog learned more about the Jewish orphanages that had been set up by Rabbi Kahane to house the Jewish children brought out of Christian homes and institutions. Rabbi Kahane brought Rabbi Herzog up to speed on the Jewish situation in Poland, especially the on–going mass exodus of Jews.

During the conversation Rabbi Herzog reached the conclusion that the French entry permits he had obtained after hard work could now be used to great advantage. Rabbi Kahana suggested that perhaps the children could join the hoards of Jews already illegally crossing into Czechoslovakia on the way to D.P. camps in Germany, Austria and Italy. But Rabbi Herzog thought this a long, tedious, and dangerous trek for children who had already suffered so much. Why not, the rabbi asked, simply send the children directly from Poland to France by a train like the ones UNRRA used for other refugees?

Rabbi Kahana agreed that a legal train was a better option, for crossing borders illegally was no easy task. Rabbi Kahana also informed Rabbi Herzog that the number of available children and yeshiva students was below the estimated number of 1,000. Some homes had sent the children illegally across the border without waiting for the transport because they feared the worst. Later, Rabbi Kahana met with the leaders of the religious Polish Jewish community and informed them that soon a train would leave Poland for France. He asked his two subordinates, Captain Yeshayahu Drucker and Rabbi Aaron Becker, to compile a list of the children and their escorts from the different Jewish orphanages and instruct them to prepare for immediate departure. Dutifully, the two subordinates went from home to home informing the homes' directors of the plan. For many, this was welcome news. The time had finally come to bring these children out of their tenuous situation to a chance of a decent future. Rabbi Kahana also arranged for Rabbi Herzog to meet important Polish Jewish leaders, Polish government officials and members of the Polish parliament in order to further his plans for the children's departure. One meeting was between Rabbi Herzog and Poland's Prime Minister Eduard Osobka–Morawski. The meeting was cordial. Rabbi Herzog asked the Polish leader to introduce legislation that all Jewish children residing in Poland be recognized as Jews even if these children no longer lived with Jewish families or in a Jewish environment. Rabbi Herzog also requested the Polish prime minister to allow 1,000 Jewish orphans and yeshiva students to leave Poland for Palestine (pre–State of Israel). Rabbi Herzog even presented the Polish leader with requests dealing with Polish Jewish life, which the Polish leader said he could not approve if he wanted his government to survive. Prime Minister Osobka–Morawski did say that he was willing to help with issues that neither attracted publicity nor required any official change of policy. Osobka–Morawski had a few reasons for this flexibility, but mainly he wanted to improve Poland's image in the eyes of the United States in hopes of receiving foreign aid and much needed hard currency with which to help rebuild his economy and country.

Osobka–Morawski had his government order the Polish Red Cross to deal with all the necessary paper work for the transport of children . The Red Cross was also instructed to deal with the UNRRA organization. In effect, the Polish government was out of the picture. Furthermore, the Polish government covered its tracks by announcing that a train would be sent to France to bring back sick and disabled Poles stuck in France.

While the Polish government would have preferred that all the Jewish orphans leave Poland illegally as thousands of Polish Jews were doing every day, it could not refuse Rabbi Herzog's request. The entire operation was kept in the dark. Poland did not want publicity or repercussions from Russia, Britain or the United States.

Soon, Rabbi Herzog was approached by a committee headed by Mr. R. Berger, chief welfare and repatriation officer of UNRRA, the Polish Red Cross, Polish officials, Jewish officials and the American Vaad Hatzala. At the meeting Rabbi Herzog was pleased to learn that UNRRA would absorb the costs of the children's transportation, food and housing at the camp in Prague.[6] While Rabbi Herzog did not visit any Christian homes or institutions, he did try to meet with the Catholic hierarchy in Warsaw, but was not granted an interview. Accompanied by Polish security, which somewhat inhibited his movements, the rabbi also had only minimal contact with the Central Jewish Committee of Polish Jews, the group that was overwhelmingly opposed to Zionism, religious Judaism and to Jews leaving Poland. The rabbi did meet as often as he could with different groups of Jews, trying to assure them that the Jews of Palestine had not forgotten them and a home awaited them.

On August 11, 1946, Rabbi Herzog traveled to Lodz, then the largest Jewish community in Poland. On his way back to Warsaw, the rabbi decided to stop off at the Jewish cemetery in Sochaczew where a revered sage, Rabbi Avraham of Sochaczew, the author of the book Avnei Nezer, was buried. The tombstone was gone but the one for Rabbi Sochaczew's wife, daughter of the famous Rabbi of Kotzk, was there. Rabbi Herzog spent some minutes in prayer and contemplation. Meanwhile, rumors spread throughout the small city that the Jews with a rabbi were coming back to the city. Poles began to head to the cemetery, among them a group of rowdy city residents. The rabbi's security detail saw the growing and unfriendly crowd and decided to end the visit at the cemetery. The bodyguards hustled the rabbi away from the graves to the cars, and made a quick exit from the area before the Polish thugs could react. Back in Warsaw, the rabbi used Rabbi Kahana's association office to meet different rabbinical groups and organizations, listening to their problems and offering what comfort he could, sometimes in the way of financial aid. He reminded each group he met that their true home was in the Holy Land.

Rabbi Kahana had been collecting abandoned Torah scrolls from around the country and had hired scribes to repair these scrolls, which, with the permission of the Polish government, were then shipped to Palestine. Rabbi Herzog was presented with a Torah scroll rescued from the Shoah. This one, he learned, was stained with Jewish blood. Kahana also showed Rabbi Herzog other religious texts and prayer books that were being restored for shipment to the Holy Land.

 

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Rabbi David Kahana, chief army chaplain of the Polish Army (on the left in military uniform) presents Rabbi Herzog of Palestine (on the right) with a Torah scroll stained with Jewish blood.

 

Rabbi Kahana's Association of Jewish Religious Communities organized a dinner on behalf of Rabbi Herzog. At the modest dinner Rabbi Herzog gave an encouraging speech, urging the gathering to have faith that there would be a better future for them in the days and years to come, especially in the Holy Land. Rabbi Herzog was relieved when Rabbi Kahana informed him that the Polish government had provided all the necessary papers for the children's departure.[7] He also learned that the UNRRA transport committee was preparing a document detailing every aspect of the train, including who and what was to be on board. Rabbi Herzog was pleased with the news. He organized a press conference in Warsaw and addressed the English and American correspondents in Warsaw, speaking mostly about his observations of the Jewish situation in Poland. But his appearance created more of a fuss than the Polish government expected. Shortly after the conference, Polish officials urged him to leave Poland immediately. The announcement had focused too much attention on the rabbi, and the government was worried for his safety. They also wanted him out of sight to defuse any negative publicity from the publication of the rabbi's view of Poland. On August 13, 1946, for his own safety, the rabbi was whisked to the railroad station where he caught the Prague–bound train. Such was the concern for his life that Polish security guards and guards supplied by Rabbi Kahana accompanied the rabbi until the train reached the Polish–Czech border. Little did he know that even more surprises awaited him.


Footnotes

  1. Bauer, Ashes, p.81 Return
  2. Bauer, Ashes, pp80–81 Return
  3. Rabbi Kahane, After the Deluge, p. 88 Return
  4. Szulc. Sec,pp.181–183 Return
  5. Cohen, Yochanan The Great (Jewish) Escape from Poland, 1946–1947. Yad Vashem, Jerusalem. Hebrew Return
  6. Szulc, Secret, p.165 Return
  7. Szulc, Secret, p.155 Return

 

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