The Holocaust can never be spoken about enough. The industrial mass murder of six million Jews in a supposedly advanced civilization was unconscionable, reprehensible and unforgivable.
Amid the torture, torment and terror were sparks of light and profound humanity that inspire and transform even today. One such effort that saved tens of thousands of Jews was the rescue organization Vaad Hatzalah, led by the late Irving Bunim and Rabbi Aharon Kotler.
I had the distinct honor and privilege of spending quality time with Bunim and even more with his son, Rabbi Amos Bunim, who wrote the memoir of his father, A Fire in His Soul, in 1989, and passed away in 2011.
Unlike most of the establishment organizations at the time, Vaad Hatzalah actually produced significant results. It made a difference. It came very close to saving 600,000 Hungarian Jews. The story bears repeating.
By 1943, attempts at creating a unified American Jewish Rescue Committee had collapsed, and the Vaad Hatzalah had to redouble its efforts. As Amos Bunim states, “Of all Vaad actions during and after the war, none was more ambitious, or more tragic, than what became known as the Musy Negotiations.”
Jean-Marie Musy was a pro-Nazi former president of Switzerland who had a close relationship with S.S. Chief Heinrich Himmler. Recha Sternbuch, who lost her parents in Auschwitz, and her husband, Yitzchak Sternbuch, a manufacturer, had begun rescue activities in 1938. They miraculously developed a working relationship with Musy.
The idea of ransoming Jews really was not on the table or a modus operandi in any major way until 1944, when the Nazis began to realize that they were going to lose the war. They were already plotting their escape from Germany. The upper echelons were looking for money, positive press and escape routes.
In early November, 1944, Musy met with Himmler. The Sternbuchs had pledged one million Swiss francs ($250,000) for 600,000 Jews. Himmler made a counter offer of 300,000 Jews for 20 million francs ($5,000,000). The plan was that every month for 20 months, the Vaad would pay $250,000 and the Nazis would release 15,000 Jews. It came out to be approximately $17 per Jew.
On Dec. 5, 1944, Bunim raised $107,000 and sent it to the Sternbuchs. The following day, a train brought 1,368 Jews from Bergen Belsen to Switzerland.
Musy told Himmler that his request for $5,000,000 was unreasonable, so Himmler countered with a demand for $1,250,000 to be placed in a Swiss bank account—and he would then authorize the release of all Jews at a rate of 1,200 per week. On Feb. 5, 1945, as a sign that he was prepared to go further, Himmler released 1,210 Jews from Theresienstadt.
Bunim had to raise $1 million, an enormous sum in those days. Miraculously he did.
But raising the money was only half of the problem. The other half was being able to transfer it to American agents in Switzerland.
In order to make this happen, Bunim arranged a meeting with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. Initially, Morgenthau refused, saying, “Surely you know that the motto of the United States is ‘millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.’ ”
This is when Kotler told him in Yiddish, which was translated into English by Bunim: “You tell him. Tell him that if he cannot help rescue his fellow Jews at this time, then he is worth nothing, because one Jewish life is worth more than all the positions in Washington!”
Morgenthau put his head down on his desk. He then looked up at Kotler and told Bunim, “Tell him that I am a Jew. Tell him that I’m willing to give up my life—not just my position—for my people.”
Morgenthau allowed the transfer to take place.
Unfortunately, a Jew by the name of Saly Mayer, who ran the War Refugee Board in Switzerland, got in the way. He had a plan that would keep the Jews in the concentration camps, but under Red Cross control.
He objected to and opposed Vaad Hatzalah’s approach. He felt that using Musy as an intermediary and dealing with Himmler were anathema. A friend of Mayer’s, Nathan Schwalb, published negative reports about the Musy negotiations.
Kurt Becher, who was interested in the success of Mayer’s plan, took Schwalb’s clippings to General Ernst Kaltenbrunner, chief of Reich security, who in turn showed them to Hitler. Hitler became enraged.
This sealed the fate of 600,000 Jews. Sternbuch wrote a scathing rebuke and indictment of Mayer. Musy’s son negotiated the release of 2,000 Jewish women from Ravensbruck.
In a 32 page report, Musy wrote, “Goering admitted to me that immediately after the arrival of the train in Switzerland which he himself had accompanied, it was announced all over Germany that this liberation had been permitted on condition that 200 S.S. men would find haven in America at the end of the war. It is claimed that this news was spread by Saly Mayer.”
Although Mayer is credited with saving many Jews, he blocked Vaad Hatzalah from saving 600,000. It should be a lesson for eternity. Never again should the Jewish people have to face these colossal challenges.
Dr. Joseph Frager is a lifelong activist and physician. He is chairman of Israel advocacy for the Rabbinical Alliance of America, chairman of the executive committee of American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, and executive vice president of the Israel Heritage Foundation.