October 20, 2018

The Nazi Who Saved the Rebbe


“Rescued From The Reich: How One of Hitler’s Soldiers Saved the Lubavitcher Rebbe,” by Bryan Mark Rigg, Yale University Press, 2004.

When a German army officer trawled the streets of Warsaw in 1940 looking for Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, people either pleaded ignorance or ran away in fear.

But maybe they should not have been so afraid of Ernst Bloch, the German officer whose many contradictions defined a life that was, ultimately, lived in service to both the hunter and the hunted. Despite his handsome, Germanic profile — if one overlooked the disfiguring scar on his bottom lip — and the many military awards he sported on his Wermacht army uniform, Bloch was a Jew. And despite his proud devotion to the Fatherland, when Bloch eventually found the rebbe, he lied to other SS guards, concealing the rebbe from them, and then escorted Schneersohn to Latvia (instead of a concentration camp), where the rebbe and his entourage awaited safe passage to the United States.

Historian Bryan Mark Rigg tells the unlikely story of how a Jewish Nazi risked his life and career to save the Lubavitcher rebbe in the fascinating book, “Rescued from the Reich: How One of Hitler’s Soldiers Saved the Lubavitcher Rebbe.”

Rigg is a Cambridge University graduate and former marine who now teaches history at the American Military University and Southern Methodist University. He came to prominence a few years ago with the publication of “Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers: The Untold Story of Nazi Racial Laws and Men of Jewish Descent in the German Military” (University Press of Kansas, 1997), a book which documented the fate of partial Jews, or “mischlinges.”

Bloch was one such mischlinge. He had a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. He joined the German army in 1914 when he was 16 years old and by the end of World War I, his devotion to Germany was rewarded with both a Second- and First-Class Iron Cross and a Wound Badge. After the war, Bloch stayed with the army, and so capable and loyal to the cause was Bloch that in 1939 Hitler himself removed the undesirable circumstances of his birth by signing a document that bestowed “German Blood” on him.

In “Rescued From the Reich” the paradoxical nature of Bloch’s career, which culminates in his spectacular rescue of the rebbe, echoes the also contradictory larger story of the German-American cooperation needed to facilitate the rescue, and raises many questions about just how much could have been done to save more Jews in Europe.

The rescue was a result of an international lobbying effort, spurred by the fledgling Lubavitch community in the United States, which was not only anxious for the safety of the rebbe on a personal level, but concerned about the future of the Chabad movement, which it saw as dependent on the rebbe’s safe egress to the United States.

At the time, Chabad’s legal counselor in America was Sam Kramer, whose law partner was New York state Sen. Phillip Kleinfeld. Kleinfeld contacted U.S. Sen. Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.) and asked him to lobby Secretary of State Cordell Hull to help get the rebbe out. Many other prominent politicians joined the lobbying effort, such as Reps. Adolph J. Sabath (D-Ill.) and Sol Bloom (D-N.Y.), as well as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. These men lobbied Robert Pell, the assistant chief of the State Department European Affairs Division, who had German contacts. Pell contacted Helmut Wolthat, a prominent Nazi Party member and who was an expert in international industry and economics, who in turn contacted Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the Abwehr, the Nazi intelligence-gathering agency. Canaris chose Bloch for the mission.

So why did these men — both the Americans and the Germans — extend so much effort to get the rebbe out of Poland? Both groups acted not out of altruism but expediency. For the Americans, the rebbe was a significant enough Jewish leader that by rescuing him, as Rigg writes, “They could proudly illustrate their contribution to world Jewry, prove their humanitarian concern for the European Jews under Hitler and gain the support of a large group of voting Lubavitchers.” For the Germans involved, responding to the request from America (which had not yet entered the war) to rescue the rebbe was a chance “to restore a modicum of goodwill between the two nations.”

The Germans involved were also opposed to Hitler’s megalomania and racial policies.

“Governments in general are amoral,” said Rigg in a phone interview with The Journal from Texas. “They don’t act for humanitarian reasons. Most of the time governments only act because they are pushed. At the time, Roosevelt was the darling of the Jewish community and people couldn’t fathom that if he knew all about [what was happening to Jews in Europe] he wouldn’t do anything about it.”

Ultimately, the book, which also explores the more troubling aspects of Schneersohn’s leadership in the United States, such as his opposition to political efforts to save the Jews in Europe, is a clarion call for the efficacy of political action. The Schneersohn visa file at the State Department, Rigg said, was more than 200 pages thick. The files of thousands of other European Jews who applied for visas were only three pages long, as if their relatives wrote one letter, received one negative reply and then gave up the fight. The story of Schneersohn’s rescue demonstrates that anything is possible with a little effort — even Nazis working with Americans to save Jews.

“This is what we see with the rebbe,” Rigg said. “There are a lot of opportunities that come along our way — do we have the self-awareness to seize them?”