The Sage, the Leftist, and the Congressman



The noted sage, Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz, arrived in the United States from Lithuania (via Sweden) in April 1940 on a mission of rescue, and he quickly emerged as one of the key figures in the rescue work of Vaad Hatzalah. He worked day and night to fulfill this mitzvah, and the following story can serve as just one of many examples:


The War Refugee Board was finally established during the last period of the war, and Rav Kalmanowitz arrived in the office of John Pehle, head of the War Refugee Board, to discuss an urgent matter. It was late in the day, and Pehle was preparing to leave. “Don’t worry, Rabbi, “Pehle said, “I’ll take it up with my boss (Treasury Secretary Morgenthau) the first thing in the morning. So why don’t you sleep on it?”


“Sleep on it?” the white-bearded sage bristled. “Who can sleep at a time like this? I’ll wait here until morning.” Then Rav Kalmanowitz quietly settled into a chair next to Pehle’s desk and began reading his ever present sefer (holy book).


“But, Rabbi,” Pehle protested, not knowing how to remove the elderly sage, “you’ll be disturbing the cleaning ladies.”


“Don’t worry,” Rav Kalmanowitz answered tranquilly, “I won’t get in their way.” Then he sat back, obviously ready to spend the night if necessary.


Pehle then understood the lesson the sage was teaching, that rescue was not ordinary business. “O.K., Rabbi,” he said a bit sheepishly, “you win. Let’s go to Mr. Morgenthau right now and settle the matter.”  (This story was cited in the book, “Your Brother’s Blood,” by the noted historian on the Holocaust, Dr. David Kranzler. The story was confirmed in a taped interview with Mr. Pehle.)


To better understand the sage’s passionate dedication, we need to better understand the desperation of the Jewish men, women, and children who lived on the continent of Europe. Germany had become a powerful nation; moreover, this nation had served as an intellectual and cultural center of Europe. The culture and technology of this strong and influential nation, however, was now dedicated to the brutal persecution, degradation, and destruction of the Jewish people. In fact, the Nazis felt that even animals had more rights than Jews. For example, when the Nazis enacted laws against the Jews of Germany which deprived them of all rights, they also enacted laws which they claimed would protect the rights of animals.


The Nazis discovered that they had many supporters in their war against the Jewish people, as in most of the countries that the Germans invaded, a high percentage of the local population helped the Germans round up and murder Jews. The anti-Semitic attitude of most of the local Christian population, including the local police forces, made it extremely difficult for Jews to resist or escape.


And where could the Jews flee?  Most countries refused to accept them, and those that did admit them only allowed a small number to enter. Our suffering brothers and sisters therefore felt alone and deserted.  


Dear Friends,


Rav Kalmanowitz worked together with Jews of diverse beliefs and ideologies so that they together can fulfill the mitzvah, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16). Regarding his unifying approach, Dr. David Kranzler writes:


“One needs no better picture than to see the aged long-bearded sage Rabbi Abraham Kalmanowitz with the bare-headed atheist Jacob Pat of the Jewish Labor Committee, walking together in the garment center to collect money to send to Rabbi Weissmandl for the rescue of Polish Jewry” (ibid).


Yes, the leftist leader of the Jewish Labor Committee helped the sage in this rescue project. As Dr. Kranzler writes:


“One particular helpful group was the Jewish Labor Committee, an organization representing leftist, secular Jews in the ‘Jewish’ trade unions. Not only did the JLC join the delegations to government officials, but they were also extremely helpful in fundraising efforts. Unfortunately, though, the Jewish Labor Committee and the Bergson group (The Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe) were virtually alone in their willingness to cooperate with the Vaad on most rescue matters.” (ibid).


Most of the leaders of the Jewish establishment opposed the activism of the above groups. Some felt that it was “unpatriotic” to pressure President Roosevelt about endangered Jews or to criticize his policies in any way. The most well-known example of this attitude was the influential Jewish leader, Stephen S. Wise, who headed the American Jewish Congress. He was also known as a liberal rabbi with universal concerns. In his view, Roosevelt’s “liberal” agenda was sacred; thus, nothing – not even Jewish suffering – should be allowed to interfere in any way with Roosevelt’s agenda. In September 1940, when the State Department was hampering the flow of Emergency Visitors’ Visas to Jewish refugees in Nazi France and Soviet Lithuania, Wise sprang to the President’s defense, saying that the administration feared an influx of radicals who might embarrass the President during the coming election. “Cruel as I might seem,” he wrote, “his re-election is so much more important for everything that is worthwhile, and that counts more than the admission of a few people, however imminent their peril” (ibid). Wise, in his “liberal” desire to save the world, forgot the following teaching of our sages: “Whoever saves one life - it's as if one saved an entire world!” (Midrash Yalkut Shimoni on Exodus 2:5)


There were also a number of influential Jews in the Roosevelt administration and in other branches of the American government that did not want to get involved with efforts to rescue Jews. Some had a naive trust in Roosevelt which led them to believe that he would do everything possible to help Jews, and some felt that they were too “universal” to get involved in the suffering of their own people. (As we shall discuss in a future letter, this distorted definition of “universal” exists today, and sad examples can be found in the diaspora and even in the State of Israel.)


In their Torah-inspired activism during the Holocaust, the sages attempted to reach the hearts of influential American Jews and inspire them to join in the rescue efforts. In the previous letter, we told the story of how they reached the heart of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, and in this letter, we will tell the story of how Rav Kalmanowitz was able to reach the heart of Congressman Emanuel Celler, an influential Jewish Democrat and fan of Roosevelt. Emanuel Celler became a strong advocate for his persecuted people and helped the rescue efforts of the Vaad. In the following excerpts from Celler’s memoir, we learn about his first meeting with the Rav:




It is difficult to describe the sense of helplessness and frustration which seized one when streams of letters poured in from constituents asking for help for a sister, brother, mother, child caught up in the Nazi terror. There is one day which is marked out from all others during this period…Into my office came an old rabbi…everything about him, his hat which he didn’t remove, his long black coat and patriarchal beard, the veined hands clutching a cane, these stand before me, even to this day. Trembling and enfeebled, he had traveled from Brooklyn to Washington to talk to his Congressman. Not once did he seem conscious of his tears as he pleaded, “Don’t you see; can’t you see; won’t you see that there are millions – millions – being killed? Can’t we save some of them? Can’t you, Mr. Congressman, do something?”


…I dreamed about him that night. The old rabbi stood on a rock in the ocean, and hordes of people fought through the water to get to that rock.” (Ibid, from “You Never Leave Brooklyn,” by Emanuel Celler)




Through the power of love and through their spiritual commitment to a higher truth, Rav Kalmanowitz and his associates helped thousands of people to reach that “rock” of refuge. To learn more about their love and commitment, I recommend with all my heart a special book which tells the stories of Torah-committed rescue activists. The title is, “Your Brother’s Blood,” and the author is the noted historian, Dr.  David Kranzler. Because of the title, I initially hesitated to get this book, as I thought that the focus of the book would be on death and suffering – a focus which might drain my limited energy during a period when I have certain difficult health challenges. I am glad I overcame my hesitation, as I found a book which focuses on courage, loving, and giving – a focus which gave me additional inner strength.


The book analyzes the various reasons why most of the Jewish establishment in the free nations failed to take a strong and active approach to rescue work, but it points out that there were Jews of diverse beliefs who helped the Vaad in their rescue work. In addition, it describes the deeds of certain righteous individuals among the nations who became allies of our suffering people during this tragic period. For information, visit:


L’Chaim – To Life!

And Much Shalom,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

Hazon - Our Universal Vision