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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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Amid the chaos of the departure, Joseph Meir, the only person who knew the way to Tessler’s house, was left behind. When his absence was noticed, it was too late to turn back, and when they arrived in Cluj in the middle of the night, the passengers were unable to locate Tessler’s home. At dawn, the drivers ordered the passengers to disembark and left them to wander the streets, trying to locate Jewish homes. Suspected of being local Jews attempting to escape before incarceration in the ghetto, they were soon arrested by the police. When Tessler found out about their arrest he hired a lawyer, but to no avail, as the next day Rabbi Yoel and his entourage were sent to the ghetto.

Conditions in the Cluj ghetto, which was located in the courtyard of a brick factory, were harsh. Despite the kosher kitchen, Rabbi Yoel asked that his food be prepared in separate vessels. He prayed in a separate minyan and refused to serve as cantor in the makeshift synagogue. He took care not to be seen in public and only conversed with a close circle of followers from the local Hasidic congregation. During his stay in the ghetto, few of its residents were made aware of his presence, and it seems that he never approached any other rabbis, not even Rabbi Akiva Glasner (1886–1956), Cluj’s chief rabbi. In view of the harsh living conditions, Rabbi Yoel asked his followers to try to transfer him to Budapest or back to the ghetto of Satmar, where Jews were housed in residential buildings, but they were unable to fulfill his requests. Upon learning of his incarceration, his close associates managed to obtain a certificate for him, but by then it could no longer be used. The first transports to Auschwitz left on May 25, 1944, a few weeks after the rabbi’s incarceration in the ghetto.

The ghetto’s inmates included several Cluj residents who had been leaders of the Jewish community in Transylvania, among them Dr. Theodor Fischer, a Jewish Party representative in the Romanian Parliament; Dr. Joseph Fischer (unrelated), head of the Neolog congregation and president of the Jewish Party in Transylvania; and Hilel Danzig, son of the rabbi of the modern congregation in Sighet. Another member of this circle was Israel (also known as Rudolf or Rezső) Kasztner, a leader of the Zionist movement and a member of the Budapest Relief and Rescue Committee (Budapesti Segélyező és Mentőbizottság). Kasztner, Dr. Joseph Fischer’s son-in-law, a resident of Budapest, and a member of the Jewish Council, was negotiating a deal with German officials whereby a group of Jews would be put on a special train and taken to a country beyond the boundaries of Nazi occupation in exchange for a hefty bribe.

Toward the finalization of the deal, a list of the passengers, including some 300 inmates of the Cluj ghetto, was compiled, and Rabbi Yoel was offered a spot on the train together with his wife and his assistant, Joseph Ashkenazi. Overcoming his misgivings about the plan and the fact that the train would be under the supervision of Zionists, Rabbi Yoel decided to embark on the journey. He reached this decision with the knowledge that no other rabbis, including his friend Rabbi Eliezer Fisch, would be considered for the list, nor would the rest of his Satmar entourage. On Friday, June 9, 1944, after the ghetto’s entire population had been transported to Poland, a train carrying 388 Jews left Cluj and arrived at its first stop, in Budapest.

***

Arriving in Budapest on Friday evening, the passengers were taken to a nearby compound, where over 1,000 other people were already waiting to board the train. Although observant passengers received food prepared in the kitchen of one of Budapest’s kosher hotels, Rabbi Yoel’s meals were delivered from the kitchen of Haim Roth, a wealthy member of the Orthodox congregation. During the waiting period, fearing what was in store, Rabbi Yoel slept with his shoes on, ready to flee at a moment’s notice. He was still deliberating about whether to board the train or remain in Budapest, but Freudiger and Roth, leaders of the Orthodox community, convinced him to travel on. They also made sure that several rabbis who were his colleagues at the Central Bureau, such as Jonathan Steiff (1877–1958), rabbi of the Orthodox congregation in Budapest, and Rabbi Shlomo Zvi Strasser (1863–1953) of Debrecen, were also added to the list of passengers.

On Friday, June 30, 1944, once negotiations with the Germans had been concluded, the passengers boarded a freight train that did not leave Budapest until the following day. The plan was for the train to cross the border; continue on its way to Hanover, Germany; and then proceed to Spain via Western Europe. The first mishap occurred within a few hours, at a stop in the border town of Mosonmagyaróvár. The transport’s directors were informed that by order of the Gestapo, the train was to be diverted to Poland. Realizing the significance of the change, the anxious passengers dispatched two men to Budapest to seek help. When told of the change, Freudiger and Roth approached Kasztner, who met with Eichmann. The latter explained that this was a mistake and demanded more money. After several days of negotiations and following the payment of additional funds, some of which were raised specifically for the rescue of Rabbi Yoel, the train continued on its journey.

At the next stop, Bratislava in Slovakia, the town rabbi, Michael Dov Weissmandel (1903–1957), bribed the station workers to delay trains carrying Jews, so that food and drink could be provided for them. He also wrote to the United States and other countries requesting international supervision to ensure the train’s safe arrival. On Thursday, July 6, 1944, the train left Bratislava for Vienna and then on to Linz. The passengers were able to disembark in Linz, where they bathed and washed their clothes. Throughout the journey, Rabbi Yoel dressed plainly, covered his bearded face with a kerchief and sat in a corner of the last car, hidden from view behind cloth sheets that hung from the ceiling. He shunned the company of the other passengers, including rabbis, and some of the passengers who knew him were impressed by his humility.

On Sunday, July 9, 1944, about a month after its departure from Cluj, the transport arrived at Bergen-Belsen, then a transit camp for Jewish and non-Jewish foreign nationals. Conditions in the camp were relatively comfortable because the detainees were to be exchanged for Germans from other countries or for collaborators and spies. The “Hungarian Group” was held in a special section, in better conditions than those of other groups. Its members were allowed to keep their personal belongings and enjoyed relative freedom. Although the group included quite a number of notable figures, Rabbi Yoel was given special consideration. The group’s physician exempted him from roll calls, and volunteers performed the tasks imposed on him.

Rabbi Yoel refrained from associating with the other rabbis and spoke only to Rabbi Jonathan Steiff, with whom he studied Torah and Talmud. He did not pray in the camp’s makeshift synagogue, and only on the Sabbath did he join a minyan to hear the Torah reading. During his stay in the camp, he never shaved and refused to consume products such as medicines, tinned sardines, and condensed milk, fearing they may not be in adherence to Jewish dietary laws. Despite the difficult circumstances, he remained as strict as ever and even confronted one of the rabbis and accused him of being overly lenient in his rulings.

Negotiations regarding the release of the detainees dragged on, as fundraising efforts in Hungary were stalled due to the war, inner conflicts among the rescue organizations, particularly in Switzerland, and delays in approving the transfer of funds raised in the United States to Germany. Such approval was required under the regulations of the British and American treasuries, which prohibited the transfer of funds to countries with which they were at war.

About two months after the train’s arrival at Bergen-Belsen, a group of 318 passengers was released. When it was discovered that Rabbi Yoel was not among them, rescue activists in Switzerland asked Kasztner to make sure that he be included in the second group to be released. At the same time, another unusable certificate was obtained for him, and rescue organizations in Switzerland appealed to Orthodox organizations in the United States on his behalf. George Mantello (1901–1992), the consul of El Salvador in Geneva, used his connections with Nazi officer Kurt Trumpi to send Rabbi Yoel medicine and other necessities.

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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