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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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On Dec. 3, 1944, the remaining passengers were released and transported by train to Bregenz, on the Swiss border. With the help of Kasztner and SS officer Herman Krumey, the final arrangements were made, and the passengers were transferred to another train, which crossed the Swiss border. Ultimately, the Swiss authorities agreed to accept the survivors and grant them refugee status, while restricting their place of residence and length of stay. The train stopped first at St. Gallen, where it was met by representatives of the various rescue organizations operating in Switzerland, who immediately recognized Rabbi Yoel’s bearded visage. The chief rabbi of the Orthodox congregation in Zurich, Rabbi Mordechai Ya’akov Breisch (1895–1976), himself a Holocaust survivor, was the first to shake his hand and present him with a note (Kvitel in Yiddish) containing a request for a blessing, thereby symbolically restoring his status as a Hasidic rebbe. News of the group’s release reached Jerusalem, where the rabbi’s daughter and son-in-law had settled after escaping Hungary across the Romanian border. The event was likewise publicized in the American Jewish press, where Rabbi Yoel’s name figured prominently. During the ensuing weeks, the story of his rescue spread to liberated Europe, and in Bucharest local rabbis held a thanksgiving meal in honor of the occasion.

Upon his arrival in Switzerland, Rabbi Yoel was accorded preferential treatment by the authorities. Since the train arrived in St. Gallen on a Friday, he was permitted to spend the Sabbath with a Jewish family, where he was provided with kosher food and elegant clothing while the rest of the group traveled on to the town of Caux. That Sunday, Rabbi Yoel traveled to Caux, but when he reached Montreux, he asked to stop there so that he could light the Hanukkah candles at the appointed time and receive students from the local yeshiva who came to meet him. The following day Rabbi Yoel rejoined the other passengers, but Mantello and Fischer intervened on his behalf, and he was permitted to stay with Moshe Gross in Geneva. By Passover, Rabbi Yoel had already rented his own apartment in Geneva, paid for with money raised by his followers in the United States. By then, he was answering queries on halakha, attending family events, and had visited the Montreux yeshiva and given a lesson to its students. On the festival of Shavu’ot, his last holiday in Switzerland, several dozens of guests attended the holiday service Rabbi Yoel led in his apartment.

Montello arranged for the publication of the rescue train affair in the Swiss press, with Rabbi Yoel’s name featured prominently. The rabbi subsequently met with the Swiss officials processing the refugees and became acquainted with the heads of local government. As he could speak neither any of the languages spoken in Switzerland nor English, a Jewish student assisted him, serving as his interpreter and conducting phone calls for him. Rabbi Yoel also met with other refugee rabbis, including Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandel, who complained bitterly about the ineffectiveness of the various Jewish rescue organizations, as well as with American government representatives, to whom he testified about conditions in the Bergen-Belsen camp.

Rabbi Yoel’s rescue efforts in Switzerland focused on tracking down Jewish children placed for adoption with Christian families and reclaiming them so they could be brought up as Haredim. To this end, he appealed to the Rescue Committee in the United States for help and tried to convince Swiss Haredi families to adopt these children. He later joined Rabbi Tuvia Lewinstein (1863–1953), chief rabbi of the Adas Jeschurun congregation in Zurich, in raising funds for the establishment of a children’s home. Impressed by this vigorous activity, representatives of Agudath Israel in Switzerland suggested that he travel to the United States to promote fundraising for the Agudah. It soon became apparent, however, that Rabbi Yoel’s distaste for non-Haredi organizations impeded his participation in the rescue operations. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s representative was dismayed by his intention to bring up the children as Haredim, while Agudath Israel’s representatives were displeased by his unwillingness to cooperate with them. Consequently, Rabbi Yoel’s main rescue goal, the establishment of an independent home for Haredi children, came to nothing.

Rabbi Yoel tried to provide aid to adult refugees and to his Hasidim in the Displaced Persons (DP) camps in Germany as well, yet there too his problematic relations with the other organizations hampered his efforts to help even his own relatives and acquaintances. He also participated in fundraising efforts to supply aid to the Romanian Jews, and on this occasion he cooperated, remarkably, with the Zionist activists he had met on the Kasztner train.

When the war ended and the full scale of the destruction of Eastern European Jewry and the Jewish orthodox world, its rabbis, and institutions was revealed, doubt was cast on the entire future of the Haredi way of life. Like other rabbis, Rabbi Yoel believed that Zionism was bound to grow stronger and restrict Haredi Jewry, especially after the establishment of the state of Israel, which now seemed closer than ever.  On the other hand, he deemed life in the United States, or any of the other Diaspora communities, unsuitable for Haredi Jews.

At the end of the war, northern Transylvania had been returned to Romanian rule, and survivors left the DP camps and hiding places and returned to their former homes. Among the returnees were rabbis such as Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum (1914–2006), Rabbi Yoel’s nephew, who sought to return to his congregation in Zenta, Yugoslavia. However, upon learning that his brother Rabbi Zalman Leib (1912–1944), former Rabbi of Sighet, had died in the Holocaust, he decided to take his place and restore religious life in that town. Other rabbis re-established the Agudath Israel movement in Romania and founded the Orthodox Central Bureau in Cluj. Numerous survivors settled in Satmar, and in just a short period their numbers reached several thousands. Within a few months several synagogues re-opened, and the orphanage, the Jewish hospital, Hevra Kadisha (Jewish burial society), and the rabbinical court were reinstated. Simultaneously, a Hasidic congregation was established, and many of its members expected Rabbi Yoel to return and revive Hasidic life in the town.

Thus, although Rabbi Yoel may well have concluded that Romania was the only place in which the traditional Haredi way of life could be revived, he chose to remain in the safety of Switzerland until it was time to leave Europe. His assertion that he was unable to return to Romania is unconvincing. He was, after all, a well-known public figure and a citizen of Romania. In fact, he had used his position and connections to request an extension of his stay in Switzerland. Presumably, had he wished to do so, he could have returned to Satmar, founded a Hasidic community, and re-established his Hasidic court. Likewise, Rabbi Yoel refrained from joining rescue efforts in the DP camps, where other rabbis were engaged in restoring survivors’ religious life and reinforcing their faith in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

When his sojourn in Switzerland came to an end, Rabbi Yoel considered emigrating to the United States or to Palestine. Eventually, he decided to settle in Jerusalem, where he attempted to establish a Hasidic court. Due to his extremist views and failure to understand post-Holocaust intra-Haredi politics, his entire venture came to naught, and he and his institutions became bankrupt. Within a year, Rabbi Yoel packed his meager belongings and sailed, humiliated and penniless, to the United States.

The publication of this two-part article is taking place 70 years after the arrival of the Kasztner train at Bergen-Belsen on July 9, 1944.

Read part two of ‘The Satmar Rebbe.’


This article is adapted from an essay that appeared in Dapim 28:2 (2014), available here, and in Menachem Keren-Kratz’s forthcoming biography, The Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum.

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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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