Forgotten Jewish heroes, By William Mehlman [p.16]

When will Michal Weissmandl, Gisi Fleischman, Recha Sternbuch, Hillel Kook and George Mantello get the recognition they deserve?

February 8, 2006 22:08
3 minute read.


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On January 17, an event called International Rescuers Day was held in Jerusalem to commemorate the man who snatched 130,000 Hungarian Jews out from under the wheels of Adolf Eichmann's Auschwitz transports. Sixty-one years after his abduction by Stalin's Soviet regime, 52 years after the death of Stalin, and 16 years after the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, Raoul Wallenberg's life after January 17, 1945 remains a blank page. No accounting has been demanded; none has been given. The group of Jews who were honored at the Jerusalem event, along with Wallenberg, for their outstanding actions during the Shoah have fared even worse. They are not only gone; they are not even remembered. Echoing Robert Frost's haunting poem "The Road Not Taken," one might ask: What if the lives and deeds of one of the most courageous, inspiring group of men and women any Jewish generation ever produced had been accorded the recognition they deserve? What if two generations of Jewish children in Israel and throughout the world had not been denied the priceless gift of these Jewish heroes and heroines in their school curricula, their storybooks, their museums? How much of a difference might that have made to their Jewish self-perception and sense of Jewish self-worth? We can only guess; but the fact that Michal Weissmandl, Gisi Fleischman, Recha Sternbuch, Hillel Kook and George Mantello are virtually unrecognizable names to most of us and unknown to many of our children and grandchildren hardly speaks for a people with any regard for its history. Yad Vashem's Hall of Righteous Gentiles pays rightful homage to non-Jews who rescued even a single Jewish family from Hitler's killing fields. But neither Yad Vashem nor any other Holocaust museum has yet seen fit to devote a single room or corner to Rabbi Weissmandl, the gentle talmudic scholar from Debrecen, Hungary, who, with his partner in the "Bratislava Working Group," Gizi Fleischman, stopped the Jewish transports from Slovakia. It was Weismandl who was key to the translation and dissemination of the Auschwitz Report, that harrowing testimony by two Jewish escapees from the mass murder factory that should have set alarm bells ringing around the world. Similarly absent from these commemorative sanctuaries is any account of the amazing exploits of Recha Sternbuch, the Jewish housewife and mother who smuggled hundreds of Jews across the Austrian-Swiss border and negotiated deals with the Nazis that resulted in thousands of Jewish women being freed from the Ravenswood detention camp; the German surrender intact to the Allies of four concentration camps and their Jewish prisoners; and the release of 15,000 Jews being held in Austria. ONE MIGHT reasonably have expected Hillel Kook - the nephew of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Israel's first Ashkenazi chief rabbi - and George Mantello to fare better with Holocaust museum archivists. Kook's activities focused on American public ignorance and official American indifference to the fate of European Jewry. As Peter Bergson, the nom de guerre under which he went out to do battle with these barriers to Jewish rescue, Kook and his "Bergson Group" of politicians, publicists, artists, writers, academics and businessmen emblazoned the plight of Europe's Jews across America's skies, from Capitol Hill to Wall Street, from Broadway to Hollywood. Unloved in equal measure by the White House, the State Department and the American Jewish establishment, the Bergson Group's persistence ultimately compelled US president Franklin Roosevelt to set up, in 1944, the War Refugee Board, the engine that powered Raoul Wallenberg's rescue of the remnant of Hungarian Jewry. Yet Hillel Kook is a non-person at Holocaust museums around the world. So, too, is George Mantello, alias Mandel Gyuri, the Romanian Jew who represented El Salvador in Switzerland during the fateful closing months of 1944. It was Mantello - and initially Mantello alone - who responded to Michal Weissmandl's Auschwitz Report, and whose raising of the consciousness of the Swiss public and its religious leaders to the horrors taking place at Auschwitz resulted, in large measure, in the transports from Hungary being brought to a halt. HOW AND why did the life-saving achievements of these and other major Jewish rescuers ever get excised from our Holocaust museums, our Holocaust films and many of our Holocaust school texts? Has justice been delayed to become justice permanently undone? As in the case of Raoul Wallenberg, we are still waiting for answers, 60 years after the fact. The writer is a member of the Jerusalem Working Group for Recognition of Major Jewish Rescuers During the Shoah and Israel Representative of Americans For A Safe Israel (AFSI).

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