(November 12, 2018 / JNS) The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote this week on whether to posthumously award the Congressional Gold Medal—one of the nation’s highest civilian honors—to a rabbi who tried to save Slovakian Jews during the Holocaust.
Michael Dov Weissmandl, born in Hungary in 1903, was an Orthodox rabbi and a leader of the Bratislava Working Group, an underground organization that attempted to save Slovak and other European Jews during the years of World War II by bribing Nazi and Slovakian officials to delay deportations to concentration and death camps. He used his contacts from Great Britain to obtain visas, becoming one of the first to actively protect European Jewry.
The working group was also one of the first to highlight in writing the accounts of Auschwitz escapees in a document known as the “Auschwitz Protocols.”
Along with his family, Weissmandl was rounded up and deported to Auschwitz in 1944, though he escaped and jumped from the cattle car by sawing open the lock of the carriage with a wire he concealed in a loaf of bread.
Having lost is wife and five children in the Shoah, the rabbi arrived in the United States after the war. He remarried and had five children, though always grieved his great losses.
He soon established the first yeshivah campus in the United States: the Yeshiva of Nitra in Mount Kisco, N.Y.
Weissmandl died in 1957 at the age of 54.
“At a time when the stakes could not have been higher, Rabbi Weissmandl took brave risks, ultimately saving lives,” said Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), who introduced the bill. “It is with the utmost respect that I’ve introduced a bill to award him with a Congressional Gold Medal—the highest civilian award in the United States.”
Velázquez continued, saying, “a pioneer in the Jewish community of New York, Rabbi Weissmandl’s contributions to the city carry an unwavering legacy of strength and resilience. We must never forget the monumental risk and bravery displayed by a life dedicated to fighting intolerance and extremism.”
Jewish groups are applauding ahead of the anticipated congressional move.
“The OU endorsed this effort … [and] appreciates that Congress will give such recognition to Rabbi Weissmandl for his efforts to save so many people from the Holocaust,” Nathan Diament, the organization’s Director for Public Policy, told JNS.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, director of the global social-action agenda of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, summed up: “Rabbi Weissmandel’s courageous leadership during the Shoah and his efforts to awaken the conscious of his fellow Jews in the West to protest during that period merits such an honor.”
In 2015, a street in New York City’s Borough Park was renamed after him.