The man who brought Herzl home

Fifty years ago, US Army chaplain Rabbi Oscar Lifshutz facilitated the return of the 'father of Zionism's' remains to Israel.

'Dear Chaplain Lifshutz, I have always admired the courage and initiative you display when working out practical solutions to the problems encountered," Maj.-Gen. Jesmond Balmer, the American deputy high commissioner for Austria, wrote in November 1949. "It has been most helpful to me to have had your expert knowledge and dependable advice in conducting refugee operations and formulating our policies in this field. The task of providing care and assistance to the 150,000 Jewish refugees who have passed through Vienna since 1946 has been tremendous. Without your generous and capable help, we could scarcely have met this responsibility." The individual so highly praised by the general, Rabbi Oscar (Mike) Lifshutz, spent 20 years in the US Army - from 1945-1965 - eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. In the early part of his career, he participated in both the birth of Israel in 1948 and the Zionist exercise of sending Theodor Herzl's remains from Vienna to Israel in 1949. He was stationed for three and a half years in Austria. Growing up in Chicago, Lifshutz's Zionist sympathies were awakened when he attended the pageant at Soldier Field in June 1933 marking the centennial of Jews of that city. To neutralize the rise of Hitler to power that very same year, Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann was brought from England to be the main speaker. In addition, a group of 3,000 Jewish young people had practiced diligently to form a resounding chorus whose singing inspired the 100,000 people who were present. A reporter from the Chicago Tribune, covering the event, wrote: "Members of Chicagoland's Jewry unrolled on Soldier Field last night a gigantic scroll emblematic of the resounding Pentateuch and thereon, they read the story, now tragic, now triumphant, of the race's march down 40 centuries to the New Palestine." The performance that night touched Lifshutz and deepened his understanding of the need of a Jewish homeland. In the 1940s he studied at the Chicago yeshiva Beit Midrash Latorah and was active in various student groups which were trying to save the remnants of eastern European Jewry. Moreover, they hoped to create a structure to assist Jews to return to their own land after hostilities concluded. Lifshutz was a member of Hashomer Hadati at that time, and many of his colleagues in the group made aliya after Israel became a state. UPON HIS ordination in the summer of 1945, he immediately entered the US Army as a chaplain and was given orders to serve in Europe. After brief tours of duty in Belgium and France, he arrived in Vienna in May 1946 and remaining there until December 1949. In Austria, the US Army had established a network of 19 DP camps to help provide survivors a "transition" to civilian life. Lifshutz worked closely with them along with his regular military duties. He was also an active participant in the Bricha, the underground movement assisting survivors in Austria, Germany and other countries reach Eretz Yisrael. Lifshutz provided the required supplies for people in these camps to create educational programs in the general and Jewish fields. He also made it possible for religious services to be held on Shabbat and holidays. Lifshutz officiated at weddings, circumcisions and funerals. "When the United Nations passed the partition plan in 1947, truly affirming the state of Israel's future existence," he once told his wife, Miriam, "I knew that I must work both with the American military staff and the leaders of the camp to assure that sufficient legal transport would exist to bring our brothers and sisters to their ancestral home." Lifshutz had played a role in seeing to it that 1,000 to 1,500 survivors were smuggled out of Austria and reached Palestine by boat as part of the ma'apilim, and by May 1948, he had been appointed as adviser for Jewish affairs by Gen. Geoffrey Keyes, the American high commissioner of the Austria area. Among his responsibilities was "formulating for the United States armed forces long range plans for displaced persons' operations and military security." That Pessah, Lifshutz organized a Seder in Vienna that brought together "American, French and British military personnel who sang their own anthems and then, together, 'Hatikva' to conclude the evening." Only a few weeks later, the hope of the Jews would be realized. "By May 18, 1948," Lifshutz recalled, "I knew something monumental had occurred, having heard a day or two earlier via army radio that the Jews now had their own state and had been attacked by several Arab countries. Up until then I had fostered the hope for freedom in the hearts of the survivors with whom I worked. In fact, little groups in clandestine rendezvous had achieved a trickle of movement by escaping and making their way to Eretz Yisrael. Every refugee had awaited his turn to run the gauntlet of border guards and police and go home. The previous situation changed in May 1948." Lifshutz learned through his Bricha sources that "Jerusalem was both the focal point of fighting and the hope for Jews the world over." "ON MAY 18," he stressed in a touching memoir, "as if handed down from Sinai, publicly throughout Vienna came the overwhelming news of the jubilant miracle - that Israel had been reborn!" On that day, Lifshutz went to visit with the leaders of Camp Riedenberg, a DP camp near Salzburg. "There was shouting and dancing in the parade area of these old and dilapidated ex-German barracks. The American military police, who formerly guarded the outside gates and policed the surrounding area, were now dancing the hora with the refugees." Unexpectedly, a jeep filled with officers drove up. Led by a colonel, the others dismounted and headed toward the flagpole. After exchanging greetings, the colonel said to Lifshutz. "This is a great day for you, Rabbi, and I am here to see to it that we are going to do things in the right way." Lifshutz remembered that morning vividly, recounting its details throughout his lifetime. "What do you have in mind, sir?" The colonel answered him without hesitation. "I am a Christian and I feel that I, too, have had a hand in helping to bring the Children of Israel to the Promised Land." Then the colonel continued in a most moving way. "I want to tell my children that I helped a people find a homeland." He went on to explain that he felt that his family should know why he had been away from home these past three years - "regaining freedom for all people." As the colonel explained his intentions, he signaled to two of his MPs to approach the base of the flagpole. The American flag was lowered. The flag bearers folded the flag, presented it to the colonel. He then gave it to the DP camp leader with these touching words. "Remember, will you, that a lot of my men fought and died to achieve this day. Here is the flag of my country, the United States of America, a symbol of freedom." Lifshutz watched as the camp leader signaled a refugee who carried a large package under his arm. He came forward, placed it in the hands of two DPs. When they opened the package, a large blue-and-white flag was revealed. They began to raise it. "As the wind got it," Lifshutz noted, "it unfurled, and there majestically flying almost within the shadow of Hitler's retreat area flew the flag of Israel in all its majestic glory. An American officer issued the command attention. Every DP in the camp grew a head taller as they sang 'Hatikva.' When the final notes of the anthem ended, I had the same feeling as if a sacred prayer had just been sung by a celestial choir." The colonel bid Lifshutz good-bye, and his officers jumped into the jeep with him and quickly drove off. "All the DPs looked up at the miracle at the top of the flagpole," Lifshutz recalled, "and every eye and cheek was wet with tears. Suddenly, I realized that I was crying myself. I was a witness to the rebirth of Israel." OVER THE next 15 months, Lifshutz was instrumental in assisting a number of DPs, families and individuals, leave the camps and immigrate to their permanent homes in Israel. However, he did not expect to be given the honor of overseeing the ceremony preceding the removal of the remains of Herzl from the Doebling cemetery in Vienna prior to their being flown to Israel for reburial. In his will, Herzl had asked that he be buried in a metal casket and that when there was a Jewish state, he be interred there. In the late 1930s there had been a lengthy correspondence between European Zionist leaders and Zionist leaders in Palestine attempting to arrange the move. The initial site was to be Haifa, for various family reasons. In May 1946 the head of the Geneva Zionist organization wrote to the American authorities in Vienna specifically requesting action on Herzl's remains. The Americans wrote back indicating that there was no problem from their side, but the British would have to give permission for reburial, which was not forthcoming. When Israel did become a state in 1948, one item to be arranged was the reburial of Herzl and his family in the soil of the new nation. In December 1948, a special committee with membership from the State of Israel and the World Zionist Organization was created to make the decision about the timing of the reburial and in what city it would be. The members of the committee chose Jerusalem, not Haifa, as the site of Herzl's eternal grave. As the deliberations concluded, the Jewish Agency announced, "It is clear that the resting place of the visionary of the state is in the capital of the state." In Vienna, where the Herzl family tombs were located, Keyes asked Lifshutz to be on call for the actual ceremony. After several postponements, August 12, 1949, was designated as the date the grave would be opened. The coffins containing the remains of Herzl, his parents and his sister were carried to the entrance of Stadttempel synagogue, where several hundred local Jewish people, young and old, came and paid honor to this great leader. Lifshutz officiated at the cemetery and the next day at the synagogue. He was joined in Vienna on August 15 by the commander of the IDF Chaplaincy Corps, Rabbi Shlomo Goren. The two were at the head of an honor guard of IDF soldiers who had come to escort Herzl to the home of which he had passionately dreamed. The coffins were placed in an El Al plane at Tulen military base and flown to Israel. On August 17, amid great celebration, Herzl was interred on the Jerusalem hilltop that now bears his name.