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Vaad Ha-Hatzalah

VAAD HA-HATZALAH, a body originally established to rescue rabbis and yeshivah students during World War II. Though originally focusing exclusively on rabbis and yeshivah students, it expanded its agenda to assist all Jews in the wake of the revelation of the Final Solution and became the representative relief agency of American Orthodox Jewry.

Established in mid-November 1939 by an emergency meeting of the *Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, then the largest and most important association of Orthodox rabbis in North America, the Vaad was initially founded to rescue the Polish rabbis and yeshivah students who had escaped to Lithuania following the German and Soviet invasions of September 1939, including the rashei yeshivah and students of leading talmudic academies such as Mir, Kletsk, Radin, Kamenets, and Baranowitz. Initially dubbed the "Emergency Committee for War-Torn Yeshivos," its leadership, headed by Rabbi Eliezer *Silver of Cincinnati, originally envisioned the relocation of the refugee yeshivot to safe havens, preferably in Palestine or the United States, as its main goal, but found itself increasingly preoccupied with maintenance as emigration from Lithuania proved extremely difficult.

As the number of refugee Polish rabbis and students in Lithuania increased and the financial burden of supporting them grew, the Vaad, which upon its foundation declared that it would seek support exclusively from Orthodox sources, sought to expand its fundraising efforts to the entire American Jewish community. This development led to serious tension between the Vaad and the *American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (and the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds) which bore communal responsibility for administering overseas relief to Jews in distress and had joined in creating the United Jewish Appeal in January 1939 to unify American Jewish fundraising for the first time ever. While ostensibly based on practical considerations affecting fundraising, the debates between the Vaad and the JDC and CJFWF also related to two extremely serious issues: rescue priority; i.e., who should be rescued first, and the attitude toward increasingly stringent U.S. regulations, which hampered rescue and relief efforts. While the leaders of the Vaad sought absolute priority for rabbis and yeshivah students, the JDC saw things differently. While the Vaad actively sought means of circumventing the spirit, and in some cases even the letter, of American regulations, which might adversely affect rescue and relief initiatives, the JDC leadership refused to approve the slightest deviation from U.S. directives.

During the initial year and a half of its existence, the Vaad concentrated its efforts on assisting the over 2,600 Polish rabbis and yeshivah students who had escaped to Lithuania and trying to arrange their emigration overseas. (When the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania in June 1940, the Vaad also sought to facilitate the emigration of Lithuanian Torah scholars, yet in most cases they were barred from leaving by the Soviet authorities.) In the summer of 1940, for example, they sought to enlist communal support for the mass transfer of all the refugee scholars to the United States, but encountered stiff opposition from Rabbi Stephen *Wise and most of the American Jewish leaders and organizations. Ultimately, the Vaad helped obtain American visas for several leading rashei yeshivah and the members of their families in the framework of a special program to rescue the scientific and cultural elite of Europe.

When a possibility for large-scale emigration from Soviet Lithuania developed in the fall of 1940 based on visas to Curaçao and Japanese transit visas, the Vaad helped fund the rail and ship tickets for numerous Torah scholars, but the bulk of the funds for the project were provided by the Joint Distribution Committee. All told, of the approximately 2,300 Polish refugees who emigrated from Lithuania to the Far East from October 1940 until the German invasion in June 1941, some 650 were rabbis and yeshivah students; many of whom were assisted by the Vaad; among the refugees were such leading rashei yeshivah as Rabbi Aaron *Kotler of Kletsk, Reuben Grazowsky of Kamenets, and Abraham Yaphin of Bialystok and communal rabbis such as David Lifshitz of Suwalk and Moses Shatzkes of Lomza, all of whom reached the United States in 1941. Together with Rabbi Abraham Kalmanowitz of Tiktin, who had arrived in America a year earlier, several of these rabbis and especially Rabbi Kotler, were to play leading roles in the activities of the Vaad. The bulk of the refugee scholars who reached the Far East, however, were sent by the Japanese to *Shanghai, where – with the exception of 29 who immigrated to Canada in the fall of 1941 with visas obtained with the help of the Vaad – they remained for the duration of the war.

Following the American entry into World War II, the Vaad concentrated primarily on providing assistance to the refugee Torah scholars in Shanghai as well as to the group of several hundred rabbis and yeshivah students in Soviet Central Asia. Many of the latter were among the thousands of Polish citizens deported by the Soviets to Siberia or to prison camps prior to the German invasion, who were released in the wake of the Sikorski-Stalin Pact of August 1941. The Vaad provided funds for both groups and sent parcels of food and clothing to the latter, enabling them to maintain their unique life-style and continue their Torah studies despite the difficult physical conditions in both places.

Following the receipt by the Vaad of news from Switzerland concerning the scope of the mass murder of European Jewry, the rabbinic rescue organization began to play a more active role in political activities designed to facilitate the rescue of Jews from German-occupied Europe. Joining forces with the leaders of American Agudat Israel, the Orthodox activists tried to promote efforts to unite American Jewry and to make rescue the community's number one priority. Rabbi Israel Rosenberg, one of the key figures in the Vaad, was among the Jewish leaders who met with President Roosevelt on December 8, 1942, to urge him to take action to save European Jewry, and the Vaad's leadership initially participated in the attempts to establish the American Jewish Conference as a representative umbrella organization for American Jewry.

The highlight of these activities was the protest march of some 400 rabbis in Washington on October 6, 1943, the only public demonstration by Jewish leaders in the American capital during the war. The march was organized together with the "Emergency Committee for the Rescue of the Jewish People of Europe," a group headed by revisionist Zionists, which led the efforts to convince the American government to establish a special rescue agency, which ultimately led to the creation of the *War Refugee Board.

In early January 1944, the Vaad officially decided that henceforth it would attempt to rescue all Jews regardless of religiosity and/or affiliation. This decision was a product of two major developments – the dissolution of the Joint Emergency Council on European Jewish Affairs and the creation by the Vaad of practical means to transfer funds to rescue activists, headed by Rabbi Michael Dov *Weissmandl, in German-occupied Europe. The former had been the only framework which included representatives of all the major Jewish organizations and could have coordinated unified political action to promote practical rescue initiatives. The creation of the latter meant that for the first time ever, the Vaad could actively support rescue activities inside German-occupied Europe. From this point on, the Vaad channeled most of its resources to assist the Jews living under German rule, initiating several rescue projects primarily through its Swiss branch (the HIJEFS relief agency headed by Recha and Isaac Sternbuch), but also via its representatives in Turkey (Jacob Griffel), Tangiers (Renee Reichman), and Sweden (Wilhelm Wolbe). The culmination of these efforts was the release to Switzerland on the night of February 6–7, 1945, of a train with 1,210 inmates from the Theresienstadt ghetto/concentration camp, a product of negotiations conducted by Swiss politician Jean-Marie Musy on the Vaad's behalf with top Nazi leaders. During the same period, the Vaad continued to send considerable sums of money to the refugee scholars in Shanghai and Central Asia, which allowed these Torah scholars, who simultaneously received aid from other Jewish organizations, to continue their studies and maintain their life-style.

After World War II, the Vaad played an active role in the spiritual rehabilitation of the survivors, continuing its operations until the early 1950s. From its establishment in 1939 until the end of 1945, the Vaad spent more than three million dollars on relief and rescue activities and in the process helped "Americanize" the American Orthodox leadership. While its insistence on according rescue efforts top priority and circumventing bureaucratic and legal obstacles has been favorably acknowledged by historians, its particularism and insistence on priority for Torah learning at the possible expense of rescue activities continue to be a source of debate and polemic in the Jewish community.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.