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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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Following the forming of Goga’s government and the harsh measures it passed, Rabbi Yoel rejected the suggestion of Rabbi Ya’akov Elimelech Panet (1899–1944) from Dès that the two rabbis consult with each other and collaborate on a joint response. He also rejected the Central Bureau’s initiative to set a Ta’anit (a day of fast), on Rosh Hodesh (the beginning of the new Hebrew month) of Adar Aleph (February 1939) to pray for the lifting of the harsh measures. He decreed that in Satmar, the fast day would be held two weeks later, on Ta’anit Esther Haqatan (the little Fast of Esther), so as not to be perceived as a protest against the authorities. By the eve of the Jewish New Year (October 1939), the situation had become graver, and numerous refugees had arrived in the town. In his holiday sermon, Rabbi Yoel mentioned the dire circumstances of the Jewish communities in Poland, but offered his audience no practical solutions other than strict observance of the mitzvot. His own yeshiva was not spared the ravages of the worsening anti-Semitism and was attacked by Romanian soldiers.

In his January 1940 sermon, Rabbi Yoel once again addressed the severity of the circumstances, although there, too, he merely reiterated his calls for prayer and repentance. In August of the same year, the northern part of Transylvania was annexed to Hungary. Although at first, the Jews welcomed the return to the fold of the “Old Homeland,” it soon became apparent that the anti-Jewish measures in Hungary were even harsher than those in Romania. Later that year Rabbi Yoel helped prevent the deportation of a number of rabbis who did not possess the required citizenship documents. He approved the Central Bureau’s collaboration with the Hungarian Jewish Aid Bureau (Magyar Izraeliták Pártfogó Irodája), which provided aid to Jewish war refugees, and encouraged fundraising in Satmar. He furthermore permitted the use of the funds of the Transylvanian branch of Kolel Shomrei Ha-Homot (the charity fund for Hungarian Orthodox settlers in Palestine), which he headed, as due to the war they could not be transferred to Palestine.

Since its establishment in the early twentieth century, the Central Bureau of Hungary avoided joining Agudath Israel. Following Transylvania’s annexation to Hungary, Agudath Israel exerted increasing pressure on the Bureau to join it, claiming that the joint movement would find it easier to raise funds for Hungarian Jews in the United States. Some of the rabbis in the Bureau, which now included representatives of the regions annexed to Hungary during the war, among them Rabbi Yoel, opposed any change to the historical ban. Several branches of the movement, which were established despite the objections of these rabbis, subsequently engaged in the rescue of many Haredi Jews, including Rabbi Yoel himself.

When the danger became graver, Rabbi Yoel consented to cooperate with some of the Agudah’s officials, and in particular with the head of the Orthodox congregation in Budapest, Philipp (also known as Fülöp or Pinchas) Von Freudiger (1900–1976). The cooperation between the organizations in aiding the refugees drew the Ha-Mizrahi (religious-Zionist) movement and the Haredi leadership in Budapest closer. Ha-Mizrahi leaders suggested that Haredi Jews participate in the activities of the Zionist national funds and in return agreed that the religious organizations would coordinate their activities, increase the quota of certificates allocated to religious Jews, and facilitate their escape from the imminent threat of war. Following two meetings in late 1941, Rabbi Yoel ultimately decided to reject the proposed cooperation.

Rabbi Yoel helped raise funds to rescue the Jews of the Austrian region of Burgenland, who had been deported in 1943 to the Slovakian periphery. He also joined the attempts to rescue Rabbi Elhanan (Hone) Halberstam (1884–1942) of Koloshitz and Rabbi Yesh’aya Halberstam (1864–1943) of Czchów, who had been incarcerated in the Bochnia ghetto together with some 20 of their relatives. These efforts were jointly initiated by Haim Israel Eiss (1876–1943) and Ya’akov Griffel (1901–1961), representatives of the Rescue Committee (Vaad Ha-Hatsala) formed by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada (henceforth, “the Rescue Committee”) in Zurich and Istanbul, respectively.

That same year, Rabbi Yoel traveled to Budapest to attend a rabbinical gathering held to raise funds for an Orthodox aid organization for refugees. Since all the funds entrusted to Rabbi Yoel reached their destination, Eiss suggested that Rabbi Yoel establish an independent rescue organization. Griffel, too, gave his blessing and recommended that the newly formed organization also serve to transfer Jewish Agency funds to its activists throughout Hungary. Although the Jewish Agency accepted the proposal, it made its approval conditional on a signed contract with Rabbi Yoel. The rabbi’s refusal put an end to the scheme.

It was during this period that some 40 rabbis signed a memorandum by which Haredi Jews would be integrated into the Zionist organizations operating networks assisting in the escape and concealment of Jews. When Rabbi Yoel found out about this, he appealed to the Central Bureau in Budapest, which demanded a nullification of the agreement.


During the war years Rabbi Yoel made several attempts to flee from danger. In September 1939, he applied for a tourist visa to visit Palestine for a few months, but his application was rejected. Rumors of his impending trip persisted during the following years. In 1942, Rabbi Yoel was offered a spot on a list of Zionist rabbis for whom Ha-Mizrahi would obtain certificates that would enable them to immigrate to Palestine, yet he refused. In late 1943, he sent his daughter Royze to Budapest to obtain certificates for himself and his family, but her mission failed. A short while later he traveled to Budapest to try and obtain certificates by himself. Having failed, he sought the help of Joseph Eiss, son of Haim Israel Eiss from Switzerland. Eiss approached Griffel, and the certificate was delivered to the offices of the Jewish Agency in Budapest.

Although issued by the British authorities, these certificates required the approval of the Zionist organizations, which were reluctant to provide them to anti-Zionist rabbis. Therefore, approval of Rabbi Yoel’s certificate was made conditional on his signing a document that recognized the authority of the Zionist organizations in Palestine and renounced the activity of Ha-Edah Ha-Haredit (the ultra-Orthodox community) in Jerusalem, which he refused to do. Having failed in this attempt, he requested the help of Gyula Weiss, a Zionist and one of the leaders of the Neolog congregation in Cluj (Cluj-Napoca, Kolozsvár, Klausenburg). Weiss replied that in view of Rabbi Yoel’s recent anti-Zionist sermon in Oradea, he was unable to provide him with a certificate. He did, however, provide certificates for Rabbi Yoel’s daughter and son-in-law, who confirmed their repudiation of the rabbi’s anti-Zionist stance.

At the same time, his followers failed to obtain a visa for him to enter the United States. Rabbi Yoel’s attempts to leave Hungary were part of a broader general phenomenon, which attracted criticism, even then, of rabbis and other public figures fleeing the country. On the other hand, there were many other rabbis, among them Rabbi Yoel’s own relatives, who refused to save themselves and to abandon their congregations to fate.

Rumors of the fate of Poland’s Jewry reached Satmar in 1943, and many Jews began to prepare by building concealed hideouts and locating people who would agree to hide them in return for payment. Offered these alternatives, Rabbi Yoel rejected both. The principal route of escape for the Jews in northern Transylvania, then under Hungarian rule, was by crossing the border into Romania. The Zionist movements made preparations in advance to use this route and were thus able to save the lives of more than 10,000 Jews. In March 1944, a group of Hasidim from Oradea dispatched a vehicle to collect Rabbi Yoel so that he could join them in crossing the border. When he refused, the plan was aborted, dooming the entire group.

On March 19, 1944, the Nazis occupied Hungary, and shortly thereafter Adolf Eichmann began implementing the Final Solution plan for Hungary’s hundreds of thousands of Jews. On April 27, the Jews of Satmar were given three days to move into a ghetto. Subsequently, the son of Rabbi Eliezer Fisch (1880–1944) from Bixad, a close friend of Rabbi Yoel’s, offered to smuggle Rabbi Yoel to Cluj, the place of residence of businessman Yirmiyahu Tessler, one of the leaders of the Hasidic congregation. Joseph Meir Glick, Tessler’s brother-in-law and a resident of Satmar, was also made privy to the scheme. As travel on intercity roads was forbidden to Jews, it was suggested that they travel by train using forged documents and gentiles’ clothing. Joseph Meir’s brother, sent as a vanguard, arrived safely in Cluj, thus proving that the plan was feasible. Refusing to shave off his beard and pass himself off as a gentile, Rabbi Yoel rejected this option as well.

As the date set for the move to the ghetto drew nearer, Rabbi Yoel’s closest associates sought a safer way to smuggle him out. Joseph Meir bribed two junior officers, drivers of a Red Cross ambulance, who agreed to drive Jews to Cluj in return for a handsome sum. Upon receiving the news that the first group of passengers had arrived safely at its destination and was about to cross the border, Rabbi Yoel consented to the escape plan. The travelers included Rabbi Yoel, his wife, his personal assistant Joseph Dov Ashkenazi, his friend Rabbi Eliezer Fisch and his family, and several wealthy families who paid most of the costs. On the appointed night, May 3, 1944, Rabbi Yoel, Rabbi Fisch and their families boarded the ambulance followed by other passengers, some of whom were not on the original list. The vehicle set out for Cluj, where the passengers were to be smuggled under cover of darkness to the town of Turda, on the Romanian side of the border.

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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