Editorial - October 2005
Rosh Hashanah 5766
• Solidarity and Redemption
• Quo Vadis Israel ?
• Sensitivity and Determination
• Antisemitism and Alternative History
• The Return of Antisemitism in Europe
• The Europa Plan
• The Jewish Resistance
• From Auschwitz to Urdorf
Ethic and Judaism
• Who should pray and bless ?
Dr . Efraim Zuroff
Imagine the following scenario. A Nazi-like movement led by a charismatic dictator takes power in the United States and begins to implement a program of extremely harsh anti-Semitic measures. Jews are classified along racial lines, are forced to give up their businesses, their contacts with the outside world are severely limited and thousands of young men are sent to New York and Philadelphia ostensibly for forced labor, but really to be murdered. Jewish communities all over the country are adversely affected and are struggling to survive the reign of terror and persecution. At this point, a local ultra-Orthodox rabbi and a female socialist Zionist create a group of leaders in Baltimore, a city on the East Coast with approximately 90,000 Jews, which initiates negotiations with government officials, initially to save their own community, but later to bring a total halt to the anti-Jewish persecution, and those negotiations ultimately lead to the rescue of many thousands of Jews. Sound unlikely? Perhaps, but that is precisely what happened during the Holocaust in Slovakia, a small, ostensibly non-descript Jewish community of 90,000, whose leaders, primarily ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Michael Dov Ben Weissmandl and socialist Zionist Gisi Fleischman, came up with a bold plan to try and rescue all of European Jewry under Nazi occupation.
The “Europa Plan,” as it became known, had its origin in the summer of 1942, during a break in the deportations to Poland which had commenced with the shipment of 999 young Jewish girls from Poprad to Auschwitz on March 26 and was followed by additional trains to that death camp and others sent to Lublin (initially to ghettos and later to Majdanek). During the period from late March until late July of 1942, approximately 50,000 Slovak Jews were deported to Nazi-occupied Poland, with the Slovak government paying 500 marks for each Jew deported. (In return, the Germans allowed the Slovaks to confiscate the property and virtually all the possessions of the deportees.)
The “Europa Plan” was conceived by several local Jewish leaders to attempt to bribe the Nazis into stopping the mass murder of European Jewry. Its initiators were an extremely diverse group made up of ideological foes who called themselves the “Working Group” (Pracovna skupina) or the “Alternative government” (Vedlejši Vlada). Its key members were Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandl, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi from Slovakia’s leading yeshiva, which was located in Nitra and which was headed by his father-in-law Rabbi Shmuel David Halevi Ungar; Gizi Fleischmann, a socialist Zionist social worker who represented the Joint Distribution Committee; the Zionist leader Oskar Neumann who headed the community’s youth retraining program; the assimilationist intellectual Tibor Kovac; Neolog rabbi Armin Freider and the engineer Andrej Steiner. Although they all occupied public positions in the Jewish community (with exception of Steiner), they operated together as an underground within the Ustredna Zidov (Jewish Center), the community umbrella organization forced upon the Jews by the Slovak government in late September 1940.
It was Weissmandl who originally came up with the idea of trying to bribe the Nazis in the summer of 1942 after learning that a Jew had been spared deportation after bribing Dieter Wisliceny, the Nazi advisor on Jewish affairs in the German Embassy in Bratislava, who had been chosen for the task by Adolf Eichmann, the head of Department IV-B-4 in the Reich Security Main Office Riechssicherhietshauptamt) and the coordinator of the implementation of the Final Solution. If Wisliceny had exempted a Jew from deportation in return for payment, perhaps he would be willing to consider a larger plan to save all of Slovakia’s Jews in return for ransom. According to Weissmandl’s version of the events, as recounted in his memoirs Min ha-Meitzar, he contacted Karel Hochberg, a Jewish engineer who had become Wisliceny’s assistant and who headed the Department for Special Tasks of the UZ, and told him to tell Wisliceny that a certain “Ferdinand Roth,” who represented “world Jewry,” had recently visited Bratislava to clarify the possibility of a ransom agreement to save all the Jews of Slovakia.
Hochberg went to his boss and returned shortly thereafter with a concrete offer. Wisliceny agreed to postpone the next three transports planned to leave on the following Tuesday, Friday and Tuesday, all for free. On the following Friday, a first payment of $25,000 was due. This sum would ensure seven weeks during which there would be no deportations, at the end of which a second payment of $25,000 was due. Both sums had to come from abroad and the Jews had to influence the leaders of Slovakia to drop their demands for additional deportations. The Working Group sought to implement this risky but bold attempt to save the remaining Jews in Slovakia and it continued to function as an underground unit within the UZ and on behalf of the Jewish community.
The Working Group immediately began to raise the funds for the first payment, most of which were donated by rich Slovak Jews, but these sources were insufficient for the second payment and for the bribes to the Slovaks, so Weissmandl, Fleischman and the others appealed to the representatives of the world Jewish organizations in Switzerland, who to their amazement turned them down for ideological (opposition to negotiations which the Nazis) and practical reasons (lack of funds). JDC representative Saly Mayer said that his organization would be willing to repay funds loaned to the Working Group by local Jews but only after the end of the war. Under these circumstances, the Working Group turned to Hungarian Jewry, but only the Orthodox agreed to send funds and the money they transmitted arrived after the original deadline set by Wisliceny. Weissmandel turned to convince him to postpone the date for the delivery of the money, sending two letters from “Ferdinand Roth” with such requests, but Wisliceny refused and as a result three transports of Jews left Bratislava for the East in the fall.
In the meantime, Weissmandl was arrested by the Slovaks and according to his memoirs, while in prison came up with the idea of expanding the ransom deal with the Nazis to cover all of European Jewry. Following his release, he presented his idea to his colleagues in the Working Group, who ultimately accepted it. A letter, ostensibly from Ferdinand Roth, was typed on stationery from a high-class Swiss hotel (supplied to Weissmandel by his Swiss friend Baruch Meshulem Leibowitz) indicating that “Uncle [Ferdinand Roth] was extremely pleased to hear that young Willi [Wisliceny] had passed his exams and was therefore sending him a present. If he continued this way in more advanced schools, “Uncle” will cover all his needs and make him his sole heir,” and was delivered by Hochberg to Wisliceny. The latter’s response was in principle positive, although many details remained to be working out, but the Germans were especially pleased with the apparent change in the attitude of “world Jewry” towards Germany and hoped that they would ultimately help convince the Allies to make peace with Germany and join together to fight against the Soviet Union.
The positive response from Berlin galvanized the Working Group into frenzied contact with the representatives in Switzerland of the world Jewish organizations and in Turkey of the Jewish Agency in order to update them and enlist their political and financial assistance. (The letters were smuggled by special emissaries.) The appeals sent from Slovakia were absolutely heart-rending as the initial response of the representatives in Switzerland, and especially of Saly Mayer, of the US Joint Distribution Committee, were extremely reserved. U.S law forbade negotiations with the enemy and/or the transfer of dollars to Nazi territory and in any event, the Jewish organizations did not have the huge sums (ultimately two million dollars) which Wisliceny and his bosses would certainly demand. Thus, for example, on December 23, 1942 Weissmandel wrote to the He-Halutz center in Geneva:
“We wrote you two letters to inform you that with the help of money we can save:
1) thousands upon thousands of souls here from deportation to slaughter;
2) hundreds of thousands from slaughter in the land in which they are doomed…
“We do not understand how you eat and drink, how you sleep in your beds, how you go for walks outside (and I imagine that you do all those things) while this responsibility rests upon you and we have been yelling for months and you have still not done anything…
“I am certain that after G-d’s speed salvation you will express regret because you could have saved [Jews from death] but you did not do so.
“It is deeds that we are asking for, not great deeds or deeds of personal sacrifice just deeds of handing over money, and [in this manner] thousands, tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands [of people] are dependant on money…”
Besides letters, Gizi Fleischman was allowed to travel twice to Hungary to meet with the leaders of Hungarian Jewry to enlist their assistance, but this mission as well, only met with very partial success.
In May 1943, Wisliceny gave the Working Group a concrete offer, whereby in return for two to three million dollars the Germans would stop the deportations to Poland and possibly stop the murders in Poland as well. The program would take place in the stages with the first payment of $150-200,000 due on June 10, 1943. That sum would halt all the deportations for two months during which the detail of the subsequent payments would be decided.
Needless to say, Wisliceny’s offer set in motion a renewed effort by the Working Group to convince Jewish leaders abroad to support the Europa Plan. Thus on May 11, 1943, Rabbi Weissmandel wrote that:
…”It is not for you, the readers of our letter whose good will [to help] is known, but rather upon the Jews living in the lands of rest and tranquility, to the leaders of the Jewish people, who thanks to the grace of G-d cannot visualize even in their wildest imagination what has happened to the Jewish people in the lands of blood. In reality – it is upon them that we cast this serious oath written in the blood spilt on the altar of Israel…from the millions of holy and pure victims, may G-d avenge their death, and in the bubbling blood of millions whose deaths have already been prepared by the Moloch and whose blood and the blood of their descendants must be saved.
“If you give us the money, without any negotiations, without any delay of even one minute, you will have achieved practical penance for the blood spilt.”
In response to these appeals, Saly Mayer promised on June 18, that the JDC would deposit the $200,000 necessary for the first down payment in a bank in the United States to be taken after the war, but that was the extent of the help they could provide. The members of the Working Group were shocked and disheartened by these answers, convinced as they were that the Jews in the Free World simply did not comprehend the plight of their brethren under Nazi occupation.
In late August or early September 1943, when the Working Group failed to make the payments demanded, the Nazis halted the negotiations on the “Europa Plan.” The Working Group tried to renew the negotiations in the fall, but Wisliceny made clear that if talks resumed, the concessions offered by the Nazis would be limited to the release abroad of select groups and not a total halt to the deportations.
Ultimately, the negotiations started in Bratislava served as background to the negotiations initiated by the Nazis with Hungarian Jewish leaders following the occupation of Hungary in March 1944 and the famous “blood for trucks” offer made by Eichmann to the Allies. Among the practical results of those negotiations were the rescue of at least two transports – one with 1,684 Jews from Hungary (the “Kastner transport”) and one with 1,210 Jews from Theresienstadt – both of which were rescued to Switzerland, the survival of tens of thousands of Jews from Budapest, and the Nazis’ decision not to murder all the inmates left in the camps toward the end of the war.
Relatively little has been written about the “Europa Plan” and the remarkable Slovak Jewish leaders who risked their lives to try and save all of European Jewry. Both Rabbi Weissmandl and Gizi Fleischman were deported to Auschwitz, but while the former managed to escape from the railway car (he smuggled the blade of a sword in a loaf of bread and hacked his way cut) and ultimately survived, the latter was murdered upon arrival. The legacy of their bold effort and of the unique cooperation between Jewish leaders of extremely different ideologies should be an inspiration for all of us.
Note: There are various accounts of the historical events described above, and different and conflicting chronicles of the efforts of the Working Group. Readers interested in the subject are invited to read:
Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandel, Min ha-Mietzar, Jerusalem, 1960.
Livia Rothkirchen, Churban Yahadut Slovakia, Jerusalem, 1961.
Avraham Fuchs, Karati v’ein Oneh, Jerusalem, 5743 (1983).
Yehuda Bauer, Jews for Sale?; Nazi-Jewish Negotiations 1933-1945; New Haven and London, 1994.