This past Shabbat Vayikra was the Shabbat of my bar mitzvah sedra as well as my late father’s 59th yahrzeit. I am the youngest of the seven Kestenbaum brothers…so this may be the last comprehensive presentation of his life and rescue efforts before, during and after the Shoah. I wrote this article not only out of kibud Av but to report on the life of a monumental Ohev Yisrael.
Some of you may have seen the recent year-long exhibit titled Against the Odds at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park. The exhibit identified five Americans who worked feverishly to help Jews and Jewish families caught in the Nazi trap before and during World War II and afterwards, when a million Jewish survivors roamed Europe wounded, homeless, displaced and with their families destroyed.
The exhibit portrayed the anti-Semitic attitude within the US State Department at the time, especially in the Immigration Department, which turned up restrictive quotas, especially those of tens of thousands of Jews seeking to escape the Nazi repression and hatred, yimach shemahm, and the coming inferno. Never forget the St. Louis ship.
It would not be a Lashon Hara on my part if I mentioned the name of Breckenridge Long of our State Dept., who turned down thousands of Jews who applied for refuge. Nor will I be incorrect in mentioning the name General George Marshall, our revered Military Chief-of-Staff during the war but one who later tried to prevail upon President Harry Truman not to recognize Israel in 1948. But Truman ignored Marshall and was the first national leader who recognized the sovereignty of Israel as the Third Jewish Commonwealth…Kol Hakavod! Nonetheless, in the late thirties and forties there was an atmosphere here of anti-Semitism in the government and in parts of the military.
Much of the secular Jewish community sought to blunt these attitudes by changing their names, their appearances. They worked hard to Americanize, even Christianize. But there were more than a few who worked to go back to our roots, to strengthen their families and communities into practices of Judaism, Yahadut, into Torah and mitzvot…and in the case of my father and uncle…to work to rescue hapless Jews and Jewish families from the clutches of the Nazis. Not many of those types…but a few. That’s partly what the exhibit was about.
I will always be proud to be the youngest son, the ben zekunim, of David Kestenbaum, Reb David ben Reb Elyahu v’Leah Rachel Kestenbaum. He was born in 1895 in Tarnov, Galicia, Poland, on the 9th of Adar Bet and moved to Leipzig, Germany, in 1914. He married at age 23 to Ella Gisella Goldman, a beautiful 13th generation German Jewish girl.
David Kestenbaum and his older brother Jacob—Uncle Yakel we called him—A”H, filed over 800 affidavits for relatives, friends, rabbeiim, yeshiva students, talmidei chachamim and others. They worked with the Vaad Hatzallah, the Committee for Jewish Rescue, and individually. An affidavit is the undertaking of financial responsibility of an immigrant so that he or she does not become a burden of the state. 800 plus is an enormous financial commitment. The Kestenbaums were doing well in the fur business in Leipzig, London and New York.
Individually, my father Dovid and Uncle Yakel worked with the US government and through contacts in neutral Switzerland and Turkey and with contacts in Scandinavia and England. At the Vaad Hatzallah his first assignment was to help rescue the 300 students and rabbeiim of the Mir Yeshiva.
The yeshiva was located in the tiny town of Mir in East Poland. In the fall of 1939 the yeshiva rabbis and students were caught in the grip of Communism after Germany and Russia agreed to divide Poland. The Yeshiva fell under the jurisdiction of Moscow and its rule to abolish religious education and practices.
RESCUE OF THE MIR YESHIVA
That fear became a panic after the Wermacht attacked the Russians in the blitzkrieg of Barbarossa. The Nazis were approaching and the Jews of Eastern Poland had to find a way out. With the help of the JDC (Joint Distrubution Committee) and the Vaad Hatzallah, some 2,000 Jews took buses, trains and walked northward, crossing the Lithuanian border to find refuge in Vilnius. With funds from the Vaad the Mir people set up their yeshiva in the city of the Vilna Gaon…but not for long…because the Nazis were making headway in their conquest of the Baltic States.
My father worked with Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz and Rav Aharon Kotler, founders of the Vaad, in plans to provide food, shelter, transportation and money to maintain the Mir people in that city. Fortunately, b’siyata dishmaya, the Japanese Consul in Vilnius, a fellow by the name of Chiune Shiguhara, felt compassion for the Jews and stamped over 3,500 transit visas, among them the entire Mir Yeshiva body. He is often referred to as the Oscar Schindler of Japan.
After the war a Mir Yeshiva musmach, Rav Hirsch Asia, who was employed in my house as family teacher, explained how the Mir students got to Shanghai. “Once we got our visas,” he said, “we boarded long cattle cars on the Trans-Siberian railway. We travelled boxed-up for 12 days to Vladivostok. From there we got on to half broken boats to sail to Japan. In Tokyo we languished in the park until the awesome figure of Rav Aharon Kotler appeared and scolded us for lying around in Japan. He ordered us to move on to China where a big building and ground space in the Hongkew section of Shanghai was awaiting our arrival.”
Rav Kotler later became the founder of the Yeshiva Gedolah in Lakewood with my father and brother’s support. Meanwhile the Vaad helped establish the Mir Yeshiva in Shanghai. Throughout the war the Vaad saw to it that the Mir Yeshiva had the support to carry on. The Mir was the only European yeshiva that survived the Holocaust intact. My father was involved in several other rescue operations as dark clouds hovered over Jewish communities in Europe.
I often questioned my father’s motive. My conclusion has been that he was a great Ohev Yisrael and was deeply believed in the mitzva of Hatzalat Nefashot—the saving of lives- and the mitzvah of Pidyon Sh’vuim—the redemption of Jewish captives. As the Pasuk warns us in Parshat Kedoshim, ”Lo ta’amod ahl dahm re’echa”…Do not stand aside while your brother’s blood is being spilled.” He understood the travail of the Jews in Galut through the ages…and volunteered his efforts and his money to observe these mitzvot.
I can recall as a boy of nine sitting on the staircase in our house on President Street in Brooklyn hearing the outcry of the men of the Vaad Hatzallah in the living room. It was frightening! They were yelling because they received cablegrams of murders, arrests, break-ins and family members hauled off for transport.
Among the Vaad Hatzallah members meeting in our house were communal leader Irving Bunim, Barton Candy CEO Stephen Klein, Rabbi Baumol of Crown Heights Yeshiva, Rabbi Shabsei Frankel and Congressman Herbert Tenzer.
From all of these meetings, the sweat and tears, our government took no serious action until the famous protest march of the Agudas Horabonim in Washington in 1943. Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau stepped in to plead with President Roosevelt to help stop the mounting mass murder of Jews, which he finally did with the founding of the so-called War Refugee Board…very late and very little. And as you know after Germany surrendered unconditionally, 22 top Nazis were tried for war crimes in Nuremberg. And there were dozens of other trials of concentration camp officials and collaborators.
(To Be Continued Next Week)