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The Satmar Rebbe and the Destruction of Hungarian Jewry: Part 1

The terrible cost of Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum’s life and actions during the Holocaust, and his later extremism

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George Mandel-Mantello greets the Satmar Rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum, when he arrives in Switzerland on the Kasztner transport from Bergen-Belsen. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Enrico Mandel-Mantello)
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This is the first of a two-part investigation into the life of the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum. Read part two here.

***

In her book Be-Seter Ha-Madrega (In the Covert of the Cliff), Haredi Holocaust historian Esther Farbstein writes, “Rabbi Yoel (Yoelish) of Satmar was unquestionably chief among leaders [of Haredi Jews in Hungary].” If Farbstein is correct in her claim, Rabbi Yoel’s conduct before, during, and after the Holocaust may explain, albeit only partially, the extraordinary devastation suffered by the Hungarian Orthodox community, which had regarded him as “chief among leaders.”

The first section of this article describes Rabbi Yoel’s life and actions during the Holocaust, both on personal and public levels, as reflected in his writings, the contemporary press, memoirs written by his Hasidim, and archival sources. In many cases, researchers note that Rabbi Yoel’s position regarding the Holocaust was extreme and exceptional compared to views held by other rabbis and spokespeople of the Haredi community. Yet the worldview he cultivated, coupled with his theological explanations of the Holocaust and its mystical meaning, drew a growing number of followers, in whose eyes he was the last remnant of a dying ideology. His anti-Zionist worldview, representing as it did to them the Eastern European “Old Home,” expunged his failures during the Holocaust. As his public stature grew, criticism from within diminished, while criticism from without was disregarded and dismissed as Zionist defamation.

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As I argue in greater detail in the following, Rabbi Yoel’s life, activities, and decisions during the Holocaust and his pressing need to explain and justify them thereafter offer a possible explanation for the extremism of his later views. Any fair examination of the historical record shows that Rabbi Yoel’s contribution to assisting Jewish refugees and to the rescue of Transylvanian Haredi Jews was negligible. Prior to the Holocaust, he ignored the dangers threatening the Jews of Transylvania and failed to engage in the preparation of rescue and aid plans. Although he became privy to reports on the extermination of the Jewish communities in Poland, given his position as a member of the Central Bureau and through his connections with the authorities, he refrained from calling on his followers to save or prepare themselves. On the contrary, he warned any would-be immigrants to Palestine or other countries that they were in danger of severely harming their Haredi way of life. Moreover, he refrained from cooperating with the Zionist—and even with the Haredi—leadership in addressing current issues or preparing for the impending threat and even opposed measures of a religious nature, such as prayer and fast days, which he feared would be perceived as a protest against the authorities.

When the danger of war became real and immediate, Rabbi Yoel did his best to equip himself and his closest circle with certificates or visas that would facilitate their escape to Palestine or the United States. At the same time, he thwarted all attempts at cooperation between the heads of the Orthodox communities and the Zionist organizations, which could have helped to rescue them. He failed to set a personal example and rejected his associates’ advice to prepare a hiding place or attempt to cross the border to Romania. Had he done so, some of his Hasidim may have done the same and thus survived.

When put to the test, he chose to save himself clandestinely after his own congregation had already been incarcerated in ghettos and to abandon his followers in the time of their harshest adversity. His conduct stands in stark contrast to that of other rabbis in his vicinity, many of whom rejected pleas to save themselves and accompanied their congregations to the transport trains, the extermination camps, and in some cases even into the gas chambers.

***

Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum (1887–1979) was the youngest son of Rabbi Hananya Yom-Tov Lipa Teitelbaum (1836–1904), chief rabbi of Sighet (Sighetul Marmaţiei, Máramarossziget), the seat of Maramures county in Hungary and rebbe of a large Hasidic court. From a young age, he became known for his intellectual capacity, but the child Yoel was not destined to succeed his father as leader of the Hasidic movement, head of the yeshiva (rabbinical seminary), and chief rabbi of Sighet because these posts were designated for his elder brother. Shortly after Rabbi Yoel’s marriage at the age of 17, his father died. In order to ensure that he would not interfere with the smooth transfer of power to his older brother, the destitute Rabbi Yoel was obliged to leave Sighet, settling in the nearby town of Satmar (Satu Mare). From then on, he worked persistently and determinedly to carve out a place for himself as a leader in the Hasidic community. Over the years, he became known for his relentlessly ambitious personality and his ultra-conservative, anti-modern and anti-Zionist views, which led him to fiercely oppose even the activities of the pan-Haredi Agudath Israel movement.

In 1934, Rabbi Yoel was appointed chief rabbi of Satmar, Romania. This appointment was preceded by six years of bitter public wrangling with adversaries who sought to prevent the appointment of the zealous rabbi. In 1937, following numerous failed attempts, Rabbi Yoel achieved his ultimate goal and was appointed to the executive committee of the Central Bureau of the Orthodox Communities in Transylvania, the body that managed and oversaw the lives of some 150,000 observant and Haredi Jews. With this appointment, Rabbi Yoel fulfilled his lifelong ambition to become the chief rabbi of a major community, head of a yeshiva, and a rebbe of a Hasidic dynasty, thus becoming a key figure with considerable influence over the Haredi Jewry of Transylvania. These achievements, however, were overshadowed by news of the growing power of the Nazi regime in Germany.

The year 1933 witnessed restrictive measures that curtailed the ability of Romanian Jews to engage in the economy, government, and public education systems. In Satmar, these measures were reflected in anti-Semitic announcements published in the local press. By December, the numerus clausus was put into effect, and the entire Jewish press was placed under censorship. In 1937, the anti-Semitic propaganda intensified, and the Jewish public was subjected to additional restrictive measures, including restrictions on Zionist activity, a reduction of funds allocated to religious needs, and a curtailment of lawyers’ professional activities.

New anti-Semitic parties took part in the elections held that year, while the Jewish party failed to win even a single seat in parliament. The elected government, headed by Octavian Goga (1881–1938), was blatantly anti-Semitic, and during its 40 days in power, which ended in February 1938, it managed to pass a large number of anti-Jewish decrees and measures. The most drastic of those was the requirement to review citizenship documents of Jews in the regions annexed to Romania after World War I, thus putting anyone who failed to prove the authenticity of said documents under threat of deportation. These measures, which violated the treaties protecting the rights of minorities, triggered an incensed international reaction and drove King Carol II of Romania to overthrow the government and proclaim himself ruler of Romania. Yet despite the king’s declarations, most of the restrictive measures against Jews remained in place.

In spite of the numerous reports of anti-Semitic occurrences in Germany and Poland, the Central Bureau, of which Rabbi Yoel was a prominent leader, took no actions to prepare for the imminent threat to Romanian Jewry. Moreover, the Bureau did nothing to try to revoke the requirement to prove Romanian citizenship, nor did it offer aid and relief to the Polish refugees. The same passive policy was adopted by several other organizations, such as the Jewish Party and the Union of Romanian Jews (Uniunea Evreilor Români). Other organizations, by contrast, undertook initiatives such as the formation of Jewish Self-Defense Brigades and a relief network for refugees, established by the Bureau of the Neolog Communities. (The Reform Movement in Hungary was called Neology.) Despite the prohibition and the risk involved, the Zionist youth movements maintained their activities, prepared for underground action, and at the same time trained pioneers for emigration to Palestine.

When the Goga government came to power in the late 1937, Rabbi Yoel decided to travel to Czechoslovakia. Fearing he may try to escape, leaders of his own community begged him not to abandon them at a time of crisis. In response, he argued that a tzadik could only perform his work in safety and, ignoring their pleas, departed as scheduled. A few weeks later, when the king dissolved the government, Rabbi Yoel returned to Satmar, and in his next sermon he justified having left his community. Although aware of the gravity of the situation, in his speech he offered no practical solutions and merely called upon his followers to put their trust in divine deliverance.

Through his involvement in rescue efforts and his connections with the Jewish leadership in Budapest, Rabbi Yoel was well aware of the danger to European Jewry in general and to the Hungarian Jews in particular. Nevertheless, he held that any initiative to revoke the anti-Jewish measures or protest against them was doomed to fail and could even exacerbate the situation. Thus, for instance, although aware of the violent activities initiated by the Romanian student organizations, some of which he experienced firsthand, he objected to the formation of the Jewish defense brigades.

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The Satmar Rebbe and the Destruction of Hungarian Jewry: Part 1

The terrible cost of Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum’s life and actions during the Holocaust, and his later extremism