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You are here: Historical Events Fighters Against Hate The remarkable Recha and Yitzchak Sternbuch: they fought from Switzerland to save Jews in WWII

The remarkable Recha and Yitzchak Sternbuch: they fought from Switzerland to save Jews in WWII

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The Sternbuchs began their rescue activities with the arrival of a stream of refugees from Austria and Germany in 1938. Recha made contact with people in Vienna who directed the refugees in selecting the right means of escape. Then she operated a network of individual citizens, farmers, cab drivers and policemen who led the refugees by secure routes until they made it past the border to San Galen.

Yitzchak Sternbuch was a businessman in Montreux, Switzerland. His wife Recha, though a religious woman with children, and even when pregnant, between the years 1938 and 1942 would spend nights in the forest by the Austrian and French borders to assist thousand of Jewish refugees from Austria and Germany to enter Switzerland illegally. Besides the couple’s direct efforts to save Jewish refugees, they also made their home into the center of activities to save Jews in Europe during WWII.

Recha’s father was Rabbi Mordechai Rotenberg who arrived in Antwerp from Galicia to serve as the Chief Orthodox rabbi of the town. Recha was the fifth of his nine children. Recha married Isaac Sternbuch, who was the son of Naftali, who came of a family of Zorkov Hassidim from Bukovina in Russia. Naftali moved to Switzerland with his family. The Sternbuchs settled in San Galen and later in Montreux.

Recha worked with a Swiss police captain, Paul Grüninger, who helped her smuggle refugees into Switzerland. In August and September, 1938, following the Austrian Anschluss (annexation) of March, Paul Grueninger saved some 3,601 Jewish refugees from the Nazis in Austria, permitting them to enter Switzerland. At that time, Switzerland had closed its borders to refugees. He backdated passports to indicate that they had entered earlier.

The Sternbuchs had to combat not only the climate of opinion among the Swiss population and officialdom, but also the climate of opinion of Swiss Jewish leadership, who were fearful of the increased economic burden with the arrival of the refugees and of course of increased anti-Semitism in their country since the Swiss despised “Foreigners” in general and the Jews in particular.

The leaders of the Swiss Jewish community had decided to keep a low profile and not provoke anti-Semitic elements at such a difficult hour for their country, which stood in danger of war with Germany. Particularly opposed to the activities of the Sternbuchs was Saly Mayer (see picture above), head of the Federation of Congregations of Swiss Jews, who was determined to place the well being of the Swiss Jewish community at the top of his priorities. Saly Mayer, born in Switzerland in 1882, was a retired lace manufacturer. During 1936 through 1942 he was the head of the Union of Swiss Jewish Communities (SIG) and from 1940 also the JDC representative in Switzerland.

Nevertheless and despite everything, Recha continued bringing over additional Jews from Austria and Germany to Switzerland and giving visas for temporary legal residency in the country. At the end of 1938 there were eight hundred refugees in San Galen.

This fact did not sit easily with Mayer. Mayer did not baulk at returning refugees caught at the border and argued “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” and even accused Recha of disloyalty to her country. Recha made it clear to Mayer in no uncertain terms that the only thing they had to do was save homeless souls. She accused Mayer of “informing” after the latter passed a dossier about the refugees to Dr. Heinrich Rothmund, head of the Immigration Service (“Fremdenpolizei”),

Recha Sternbuch was arrested and jailed and lost her child. She was imprisoned for a short time and her trial dragged on for three years, during the course of which she was ready to tell of her exploits, but did not consent in any way shape or form to inform on her accomplices in her activities.

The Swiss feared the anger of the Germans as a result of the presence of “criminals” like Recha in their country and therefore they were keen to convict her. She was accused of bribery and being accessory to a criminal offence, which were refuted little by little by her attorney. Recha was eventually acquitted due to lack of evidence, with court costs being borne by the court and very ironically, by the prosecutor himself, who for three long years represented the Swiss government against Recha and donated a hundred Swiss Francs as a personal donation to her rescue operation.

At the same time as Recha’s imprisonment, Dr. Heinrich Rothmund, head of the Immigration Service (“Fremdenpolizei”), began legal proceedings against Paul Grueninger, San Galen Chief of Police, for assisting the illegal entry of elements hostile to Switzerland. Grueninger was dismissed in 1939, lost his pension, convicted of fraud one year later in 1940, and sentenced both to a prison term and to pay a fine of 300 francs. As an ex-convict, he found it hard to get a job but found a livelihood with the Sternbuchs.

Heinrich Rothmund who initiated the actions against Grueninger was also responsible for convincing the German government to stamp the letter “J” in red into the passports of Jews so that it would be easy to identify them at border crossings.

Thirty years later, in 1968, Grueninger was accorded the title of Righteous among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. He had testified in 1945 that Mayer, head of the Swiss Jewish community, had not saved a single Jew, and actually impeded that rescue network and led to Recha’s arrest. After his death, the St Gallen district court exonerated him in 1995.

After her release from prison Recha Sternbuch continued her activism largely alone. At great risk she smuggled forged Swiss visas to many Jews across the German and Austrian borders. Over time, she hid 30 people in her home in neutral Switzerland.

The Sternbuchs were strict Orthodox Jews, but they left the Sabbath observance of their only son’s bar mitzvah, and spent the entire day calling and badgering diplomats, police and officials until they secured the release of three illegal Jewish refugees who were about to be deported. Recha’s physical courage was astounding. Once she crossed the border into Nazi-occupied France and through the sheer force of her personality induced a brutish Gestapo commander to release twelve Jews into her custody.

Recha Sternbuch was a modest woman who did not believe that her activities, which to her were simply things that had to be done, were worthy of adulation and praise. Recha tended to complain that she had done too little. The Sternbuchs’ wide ranging rescue activity was done for no monetary reward and usually at their own expense.

Recha went on with her missions and smuggled forged visas to Austrian and Germany thereby enabling the entry of additional Jews into Switzerland. She even succeeded in releasing Jews from Dachau by means of these visas. Switzerland was for most of these Jews a staging post on their way to China or Palestine by way of Italy. There were also those who travelled to other countries by means of the visas Recha obtained from the French and Italian consulates, in which countries she even spent a few months to obtain the visas.

Picture above: Jewish refugees in the Summer Casino, Basel, Switzerland

At the end of 1941 Recha and her husband were immersed in plans of rescue and smuggling across the border. They ensured first and foremost that refugees would reach a refuge. The work did not end there because refugees caught without legal documents were placed in camps. Recha ensured their release by means of the Swiss government granting them temporary residency visas. For those she could not manage to secure the release of, Recha took care to provide kosher food and religious articles.

They began as the Swiss representatives of the Va'Ad Ha-Hatsala---the rescue committee founded in November 1939 by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada (Agudath Harabbanim). In 1941, however, they set up the "Relief Organization for Jewish Refugees in Shanghai," to help rabbis and yeshiva students who had escaped to Shanghai, China.

Afterwards, the Sternbuchs reached an agreement with the Rescue Committee in the United States to enlgarge the organization. In order to acquire greater influence, the organisation became a Committee for the Rescue of Jewish Refugees in Foreign Lands. Under that heading, they sent food parcels to the ghettos of Lodz, Krakow, Tchernastet, Warsaw, even Birkenau until half way through 1943, and to Jews enduring hardship in other countries. They also sent medical supplies, mostly to the Warsaw ghetto, where there was an outbreak of typhoid. The parcels were passed to the Nazi conquered territories from Tangier by way of Spain.

In addition, they tried to rescue Jews by obtaining Latin American passports for them; kept in close contact with Jewish leaders in occupied Hungary and Slovakia; and kept tabs on what was happening throughout occupied Europe (see below).

In 1944, when the Committee for War Refugees was founded by the United States, the organization transformed into the Swiss branch of the American Rescue Committee, and thus the Sternbuchs could receive official donations from the United States and form closer ties with the American embassy in Switzerland, which aided many rescue operations. Likewise, they could make use of their name and the jurisdiction of their organisation, either of the Rescue Committee or the Orthodox Union of Rabbis of the United States, as the occasion required.

They were allied to other parties who also put themselves into the effort with equal devotion to the task, and without whom an arena of activity of such immense scale would not have been possible.

One such person was Dr. Reuven Hecht who joined the Orthodox Sternbuchs as the organisation’s “Foreign Secretary” and came from an assimilated family in Basel. He was a Zionist Revisionist with contacts all over Europe, due to his father’s business, which was a delivery and storage company for crops throughout Europe. He held extensive information regarding German military plans as well as the condition of the Jews at all the locations. He managed to visit at each of them.

In addition, there were three outstanding key figures among the non-Swiss operatives.

Dr. Julius Kuhl was Polish Consul in Bern, Switzerland from 1938-1945. He was born to a prominent Jewish family in Sanok, Poland. Kuhl worked with help and encouragement from Polish ambassador Alexander Lados. Whenever the Sternbuchs needed help, they found an attentive ear and an outstretched hand from one of these people. Both Kuhl and Lados gave visas to a number of Jewish relief and rescue agencies working out of Europe. These precious papers enabled Jews to remain in Switzerland or emigrate to the United States, Canada, South America, Africa, Palestine and other countries. Lados was also involved in their efforts to persuade the Jewish authorities of Switzerland to increase their aid to refugees.

The consul and ambassador gave the Sternbuchs access to the Polish diplomatic pouch and they were able to send coded cables to their contacts in Va’ad Hatzalah (Rescue Committee) in the USA and Turkey. The Polish diplomatic pouch was also used to send secret messages, money to Jews in Nazi occupied Europe and as bribes for rescue. While in later years they also had access to the American diplomatic pouch, which was faster and did not cost them, still the expensive Polish connection allowed them to avoid strict American censors. The American State Department had issued orders to block messages coming from Europe regarding news of the Nazis extermination of the Jews.

The Sternbuchs also developed good connections with the Papal Nuncio to Switzerland, Monsignor Phillippe Bernardini. As head of the diplomatic corps in Switzerland and the Papal Emissary there, he could be active in many spheres. From his first meeting with Recha Sternbuch, a working relationship was established that lasted throughout the war and afterwards. He caused Recha’s name to be treated as PERSONA GRATA wherever she went and for her not to be stamped as a smuggler and criminal.

In addition, he let the Sternbuch’s make use of his church connections throughout occupied Europe, gave them access to Vatican couriers for sending money and messages to Jewish and resistance organizations in Nazi occupied Europe, helped them with Latin American passports, and assisted the release of Jews from holding camps. He intervened, personally, on behalf of the Jews of Slovakia and perhaps even caused, indirectly, to the cessation of transports. Bemardini was the one who, in mid 1944, persuaded the Swiss to halt their policy of refoulement (shipping refugees who had entered illegally back into Nazi hands) on the Italian-Swiss border.

On the 9th of October 1944, Dr. Kohl and the Sternbuchs awarded him, with rabbinic consent, a Torah scroll as token of their appreciation of all his activity and the strength he had lent them to carry on working in that he demonstrated that humane spirit had not vanished from the earth.

Recha was buried in Zurich in 1971 beside her husband. She was accompanied to her eternal rest by just a handful of people. The same modesty which characterised this woman in her life accompanied her on her last journey.

A description of some of the more central activities of the Sternbuchs is given below.

Shanghai and the Chinese Visa

In the December 1941, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, contact with the Jews of Shanghai broke off. Up to that point the yeshivas had been supported by the American Joint and since America had become an enemy, they were forced to turn for help to Switzerland.

The Sternbuchs immediately came to the rescue. Up to that point Recha and her husband financed many activities out of their own pockets and spent not inconsiderable sums, but the new mission was beyond their means and posed a financial burden too heavy for them to manage.

As a result the Sternbuchs addressed a notice to the congregants of their synagogue to donate funds to save the four hundred yeshiva scholars of the Shanghai yeshiva and their families: a total of over a thousand souls. The Jews who were called up to the Torah reading on the Sabbath were asked to give generously. The notice was signed “The Committee for Rescue of Jewish Refugees of Shanghai”, and the secretary was Recha Sternbuch.

This was the first time Recha’s name was placed before the public. The notice also mentioned that the yeshiva scholars were temporarily residing in Shanghai while fleeing Lublin, Mir, Talaz and other hostile cities while bound for the United States.

Picture above: Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria arrive at the port of Shanghai

She also obtained Chinese entry visas which enabled their holders to traverse Switzerland and Italy to ports from where they could be smuggled into Palestine. Her contact for visas was Dr. Feng Shan Ho, Chinese Consul General in Vienna from 1938-1940.

To go to China, one did not need a visa, but to get out of Germany (including annexed Austria), and to be released from a concentration camp (after Kristallnacht) one needed a visa. This is where Ho's action proved helpful. He issued visas to people so that they could with this document leave Nazi Germany, including being released from Dachau and other concentration camps. Many of the Jews who received visas from Ho did not travel to China. Once out of Germany, they headed to Cuba, Sweden, Israel (then Palestine) and other destinations.

Ho acted in contravention of instructions from his superior, the Chinese ambassador in Berlin - who told him not to issue visas. Ho disregarded this command quite an unusual step for a diplomat in 1939, a reprimand was entered in his personnel file, which some believe had to do with his act of disobedience toward a superior officer in the Foreign service. His issuance of visas to allow Jews to exit Nazi Germany in time, plus the risks to his career following this disobedience - these two major factors prompted Yad Vashem to declare him a righteous among the Nations

The Latin American Passports

During the war, Vittel, a detention center in France, held 240 Jews who possessed bogus papers issued by Latin American consuls, most of them based in Switzerland. These papers protected their owners from the full thrust of the Nazis. Besides Vittel, there were privileged holding areas at several other concentration camps, including Bergen-Belsen. There were thousands of these Latin American documents, and many more that were forged, which also protected Jews in occupied countries who were not in camps.

Yitzchak Sternbuch discovered in 1941 that a holder of Latin American papers was given special treatment in Warsaw. Through Dr. Kuhl at the Polish Embassy, Sternbuch was able to buy papers from the Paraguayan consul. Hundreds of these reached Jews in occupied lands. The documents cost between 500 and 3,000 Swiss francs each. The average price of a passport was approximately 700 Swiss francs

But in 1942, when George Mandel-Mantello became secretary-general of the Salvadoran consulate in Berne, a Rumanian businessman who was a Revisionist Zionist and an Orthodox Jew, produced Salvadoran citizenship papers gratis by the thousands – some estimates of these Salvdor Papers are as high as 10,000. They were issued to anyone who could provide an address of a Jew in occupied territory. Later, Mantello sent authorized blank forms behind the lines. As John Winant, the American Ambassador to Britain wrote, “Only the consul of San Salvador has acted from purely humanitarian motives.” The visas were passed to those who needed them by papal nuncio Bernardini’s personal messengers, who were members of the clergy.

At the probable initiative of a Jewish informer from Vittel (who had already betrayed Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto), the Swiss authorities were made aware of these dubious papers. As a result, the Germans, through the Swiss embassy in Berlin, threatened to withdraw the protection these papers represented unless the Latin American countries confirmed the documents.

Desperate pleas from Vittel were sent to Sternbuch, who contacted the Orthodox in America. Rabbis Kalmanowitz and Kotler immediately traveled to Washington, though it was Passover, and met with Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Treasury Secretary Morgenthau to get help in persuading the Latin countries to recognize the papers.

At the behest of Recha Sternbuch, the papal nuncio in Switzerland, Monsignor Fllippo Bemardini, took action to convince Latin American and Spanish diplomats there to accept the bogus citizenship papers. Bernardini helped issue visas to South American states and when German suspicions arose as to the legality of these visas, he managed to involve heads of state to confirm the authenticity of the documents.

That effort was successful, but recognition of the documents came too late for most of the Vittel Jews. In May and June of 1944, despite diplomatic efforts, two transports took most of those inmates to Auschwitz, Recha Sternbuch’s parents among them. But thousands of holders of these papers were saved, particularly in Budapest later in 1944, when Raoul Wallenberg of Sweden and Charles Lutz of the Swiss consulate put them into “protected houses.”

In contrast, Roswell McClelland, the War Refugee Board’s representative in Switzerland, was unsympathetic to the use of bogus papers. His attitude reinforced the legalistic stance of Saly Mayer, the Joint Distribution Committee’s man in Switzerland, who would have nothing to do with the Vittel affair. And when the Sternbuchs asked McClelland to ask the Swiss to end refoulement on the French-Swiss border, pointing out that Sweden allowed such Jews to stay, McClelland told Recha Sternbuch: “If you don’t like the Swiss laws, why don’t you go to Sweden?”

News of the Holocaust

On Sept. 2, 1942, a cable detailing the deportation and extermination of 100,000 Warsaw Jews was sent by Yitzhak Sternbuch in Switzerland to Jacob Rosenheim, president of World Agudath Israel, in New York via the Polish Embassy’s confidential pouch.

Warning that the same fate faced Jews throughout the Nazi-occupied countries, Sternbuch described how Jewish bodies were being used to make soap and fertilizer for German industry [later to be proven false] and begged Rosenheim to:

Do whatever you can to cause an American reaction to halt these persecutions STOP Do whatever you can to produce such a reaction stirring up statesmen the press and the community STOP Inform Wise Silver Lubavicer [sic] Einstein Klotzkin Goldmann Mann and others.7 [Those referred to were Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, president of the American and World Jewish Congresses; Abba Hillel Silver, chairman of United Palestine Appeal; J. J. Schneerson, the Hassidic Rebbe of Lubavitch; Albert Einstein; Jacob Klotzkin, philosopher; Nahum Goldmann, Jewish Agency representative in the U.S.; and Thomas Mann, a German novelist and the only non-Jew in the group.]

By 9 p.m. on Sept. 3, the day he received the cable, Rosenheim had sent its details to President Roosevelt and begun to notify the individuals mentioned. He asked Roosevelt to get all netral states to express their moral indignation and proposed retaliatory Allied action against Germany to halt the mass acres. The same day Sternbuch in Switzerland telephoned Rabbi Kalmanowitz of the Vaad in New York with his grim message.

Rabbi Kalmanowitz received a copy of the Sternbuch cable from Rosenheim on Sept. 3 and called Dr. Wise to tell him its message and request a meeting. Dr. Wise was finally persuaded, as the foremost leader of American Jewry, to call a meeting of the heads of 34 American Jewish organizations. At that meeting, on Sept. 6 at the WJC office in New York, the leadership of the entire American Jewish community was officially made aware for the first time of the charges of Nazi genocide against the Jews.

Over protests, he imposed an oath of silence on those present, to be lifted only if Sternbuch’s report was confirmed by the State Department. At the Sept. 6 meeting called by Dr. Wise, an ad-hoc committee was formed. By the end of the year, its efforts had yielded the following results:

At a press conference on Nov. 24, following verification and new information from the State Department, Dr. Wise made the first public announcement of the murder of more than 2 million Jews. Dec. 2 was declared a worldwide fast day for Jews by the Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Isaac Halevy Herzog. On Dec. 8 the committee met with Roosevelt. On Dec. 17 the Allies condemned the Nazis for murdering Jews.

This was the only time during the war that Allied statesmen publicly referred to Jewish victims as Jews and not as political refugees. This condemnation was to become the basis of the “crimes against humanity” charge against-the Nazis at the Nuremburg Trials.

The Auschwitz protocols and the proposal to bomb Auschwitz

In April 1944, two escapees from Auschwitz, Rudolph Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, arrived in Slovakia, just after the Nazis moved into Hungary. They had been at Auschwitz since the beginning, working in the administrative offices, which collected data on every aspect of the extermination process.

Vrba and Wetzler warned that Auschwitz was being enlarged to accommodate Hungary’s Jews and, under questioning by the underground, provided a 36-page statistical report on the camp’s operations that became known as the Auschwitz Protocols.

A Hebrew version was sent to all Jewish groups in Hungary and Switzerland. On May 16, the day after the Hungarian deportations to Auschwitz started, Rabbi Michael-Ber Weissmandl, co-head of the Slovakian Jewish Underground, began sending out his famous plea to bomb the camp, especially the rail lines carrying 12,000 Jews there a day. He pointed out that these rail lines were also being used to transport military personnel and material.

Among the recipients of Weissmandl’s plea were the Sternbuchs in Switzerland. The Sternbuchs, decoded the cable on May 20, 1944 and traveled to Berne on the Sabbath to see Dr. Kuh, Polish consul, who went with them late that night to the homes of the military attaches of the American, British, and Russian embassies. The attaches were sympathetic but could not sway their governments. The specific British response was that bombing was done for strategic, not humanitarian, reasons. Sternbuch asked that the message be sent to the Vaad Hatzalah via the U.S. diplomatic pouch.

Day after day, as desperate cables from Weissmandl reached Sternbuch, he forwarded them to Roswell McClelland of the WRB but never heard from the Vaad. Finally, in mid-June he sent the bombing plea via the Polish diplomatic pouch. It was the first the Vaad had heard of it.

From then until October, the vaad pleaded with the WRB and the U.S. government to bomb Auschwitz but got nowhere. On June 22, Sternbuch wrote McClelland asking why he had not received a response from the United States. McClelland never answered.

On June 19, 1944, Mantello, the Salvadoran consul-general in Switzerland, received from Budapest a copy of the complete protocols with a report on the deportations from Hungary to date and a plea to do something. Within five days, Mantello arranged with Walter Garrett, a British intelligence officer who was head of the British News Agency, to have the protocols condensed into cables, authenticated by four leading Swiss theologians, and sent to foreign press offices in Switzerland. The names of the four Swiss Theologians that signed a covering letter to the report sent to the newspapers were Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, W. A. Visser t’Hooft, and Paul Vogt.

Mantello had 25,000 copies (in brief) distributed to all the universities as well as embassies, and he created a press campaign with the help of Walter Garrett of the British News Agency. Within two weeks, the story, spelling out the murder of 1,715,000 Jews, was published in more than 400 newspapers. That the story came from Montello is clear because this number was an error in Mantello’s version of the Protocols, in contrast to the figure of 1,765,000 in the other versions.

The response was immediate and powerful. On June 26, U.S. Secretary of State Hull issued a warning. King Gustav V of Sweden sent a personal protest to Miklós Horthy, Regent of the Kingdom of Hungary, and dispatched Raoul Wallenberg on his mercy mission to Budapest. The Pope also sent a note to Horthy. For the first time the International Red Cross took an active interest in saving Jews, as did Switzerland.

Horthy stopped the Hungarian deportations on July 7, 1944 despite Nazi pressure. While smaller marches and other methods of extermination occurred thereafter, the Nazis could no longer ship thousands of Jews a day out of Hungary with impunity.


In the autumn of 1942, Rabbi Michael *Weissmandel, co-head of the "Working Group" in Slovakia, an unusual alliance between Zionists and ultra-Orthodox Jews, made an offer to Dieter Wisliceny, Eichmann's emissary to Slovakia, to ransom Jews for money and an initial bribe, whose sum total is still a matter of historical dispute but was between $20,000 and $55,000, was accepted. Soon thereafter the deportation of Slovakian Jews was halted.

However, no evidence has been uncovered that link the bribe to the halt in deportations. Indeed, Jews were later deported to Auschwitz in 1944.

This initial arrangement became the basis for the negotiations between Eichmann and the "Relief and Rescue Committee" headed by Rezsö Kasztner in Budapest in the summer of 1944. In April 5, 1944, Kasztner and Joel Brand met with Wisliceny and members of the SS. Wisliceny demanded $2 million dollars to implement in Hungary a suspension of deportations to concentration camps.

In April, 1944, a first installment of 3 million Pengos (Hungarian currency equalling about $92,000) was delivered by Kasztner to close associates of Adolph Eichmann, and on April 21, 1944, Kasztner delivered the balance of the $200,000 demanded as downpayment.

An offer was presented to allow the 600 holders of Palestine immigration certificates to leave Hungary and to permit an additional 100 to leave with them if Kasztner can provide a per capita payment of 100,000 Pengos (about $3,000 a head).

On April 25, 1944, Eichmann offered to "sell" one million Jews in exchange for certain goods to be obtained outside of Hungary.

o 10,000 trucks

o 200 tons of tea

o 800 tons of coffee

o 2 million cases of soap

o unspecified amount of tungsten

On May 15, 1944, the mass deportations of Hungarian Jews to concentration camps began.

On June 10, 1944, 388 Jews (out of 18,000 in the Kolozsvar ghetto) were brought to Budapest on a special train and placed in a "privileged camp" built in the courtyard of the Wechselmann Institute for the Deaf on Columbus Street. On June 30, 1944, The Kasztner transport (1,685 persons) leaves Budapest, including 450 inmates from a nearby labor camp who climbed aboard.

Meanwhile on July 8, 1944, the train of 1,684 Jews was moved from Budapest to Bergen-Belsen in Germany. A major factor in Mayor’s refusal to pay was his assumption that the train consisted solely of 1,200 Orthodox rabbis and leaders, instead of 1,684 Jews from all walks of life, only a fraction of them Orthodox.

In a confidential message to the Vaad (7/13/44), Sternbuch wrote: “…part of the money is used for bribes in order to rescue people. It is impossible for us to discuss such things with McClelland.” Sternbuch tried to explain that I am the very last person who would want to see those [Nazi] scoundrels get a single cent. But it is an urgent necessity, no matter how hard it is for us…we are in an awful situation and we have to suffer all that, if we care to save the life of people…

At that point, Weissmandl, to keep the negotiations going, let the Germans know that 250 trucks were available for trade in Switzerland for 40,000 Jews whose emigration to Palestine is now being planned will be allowed to depart from Hungary

Sternbuch was contacted and asked for 750,000SF ($187,500) to pay for 40 tractors, not trucks, as a down payment on the 1,684 lives. Sternbuch cabled back that he had only 150,000SF on hand and asked Saly Mayer to provide the balance from JDC funds. Mayer, however, refused to pay ransom.

Moreover, Mayer informed McClelland that Sternbuch was about to close a deal with the Nazis, and McClelland threatened Hugo Donnebaum with arrest for dealing with the enemy in heavy equipment. Donnebaum, a refugee businessman in Switzerland and an Orthodox Jew, was the Hungarian contact for the Vaad. Sternbuch was warned that if he persisted in violating the Trading with the Enemy Act, he’d be blacklisted by the U.S.

Mr. Donnenbaum was brought to the American Legation where present were McClelland, members of the Swiss police and a representative of Interkommerz, which was to have furnished the tractors. On the 17th McClelland told Recha Sternbuch that “I could not give my approval to this plan.”

Sternbuch and Donnebaum went ahead irrespective of the threats and obtained a letter of credit for 150,000SF to show the Nazis, who agreed, in late July, to continue the negotiations.

Picture above: Kasztner survivors in Switzerland

On Aug. 21, as a result of the letter of credit, 318 of the 1,684 were released and allowed to travel to Switzerland. The names of the 318 were sent to Sternbuch, who sent them on to Saly Mayer.

At McClelland’s insistence, Mayer replaced Sternbuch in the negotiations with the Nazis on Aug. 21, 1944 and a first meeting took place between Saly Mayer, Swiss representative of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in Switzerland, Kasztner, and Kurt Becher on the Bridge of St. Margarethen linking Switzerland and Austria. Mayer was not interested in release, only in keeping the Nazis talking until the war ended.

Constant prodding by the Vaad on the JDC and the WRB in the United States got them to pressure Mayor into paying for the tractors. Mayor made several payments between September 1944 and January 1945. At the same time, he and Kasztner were also trying to keep the talks on ransoming all of European Jewry going, at onepoint brandishing a bogus cable claiming that 5 million SF was available for that purpose.

By October, 1944, Sternbuch could tell Vaad Hatzalah, via the Polish cable, that the Gestapo declared that they were satisfied that the rest of the tractors were placed at their disposal, which had been demanded two months earlier. The Gestapo is preparing to send the rest of the Hungarian Jews on Bergen Belsen transport to Switzerland.

The combination of those negotiations and the tractor payments resulted in December 7, 1944, in the release of the remaining 1,366 transport members at Bergen-Belsen who arrive in Switzerland.

In fact, this rescue effort eventually saved approximately 20,000 Jews. Leiand Harrison, the U.S. minister to Switzerland, spelled it out in a cable to the WRB on Aug. 11:

…the affair of the 40 tractors which Sternbuch brought to our attention…was part of the deal [that Gyula] Link [an Orthodox merchant] with Freudiger of the Orthodox group at Budapest negotiated and relayed to Sternbuch…. on the basis of these offers the Gestapo in Budapest refrained from sending to Auschwitz…the following groups totaling 17,290 souls….1,690 [actually 1,684]…sent later to the camp of Bergen-Belsen, …approximately 15,000 [actually closer to 18,000]…sent to an unknown destination in Austria to be kept “on ice,”…and 600 persons…still confined in Budapest.


In September 1944 Recha Sternbuch made contact with Dr. Jean Marie Musy, a former Swiss president. She had discovered that Dr. Jean-Marie Musy had secured the freedom of a Jewish couple for 10,000SF from the Vittel Detention camp located in Northeastern France.

Musy (see picture above) was an avowed fascist who published a pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic newspaper called La Jeune. He was also a long­time friend of Himmler. Recha made use of the help of Bernardini, the Vatican representative, who established a connection with the Catholic Mrs. Bolomi, wife of a senior Swiss officer, who became a supporter of the effort and persuaded Musy to help.

At Recha Sternbuch’s request Musy, with help from his son Benoît Nicolas Musy, negotiated with Himmler. The Sternbuch-Musy negotiations were to last more than eight months, from September 1944 until the last days of the war.

After several meetings with Musy, Mrs. Sternbuch decided to try for the release of all Jews. Musy cabled Himmler, who agreed to a deal in principle. On Oct. 20, 1944 with his son Benoit as driver, Musy, a man in his 70s, traveled to Berlin.

The trips to Germany by Jean-Marie Musy and his son Benoît were quite dangerous. It was toward the end of the war and allied airplanes were bombing and machine-gunning the roads. The roads were infested with deserters and desperate individuals who sought to seize transport. Without regard to these multiple dangers, Benoîît Musy and his father took several trips during the time of the negotiations.

Father and son apparently acted out of a sense of Christian altruism. They never asked or received monetary compensation for their rescue endeavors. Jean-Marie Musy acknowledged his son Benoît's courage and dedication which was well deserved

In early November, 1944, Musy met with Himmler and brought him the Sternbuchs' initial offer of one million Swiss francs ($250,000) for 600,000 Jews. Himmler replied that he preferred trucks to money. Later that month, however, he made a counter offer: 300,000 Jews for 20 million francs ($5 million). The Sternbuchs knew that Roswell McClelland, the War Refugee Board representative in Switzerland, would never sanction the ransom of Jews. Still, they asked him for WRB money. McClelland refused.

Simultaneously, the Sternbuchs sent Himmler's terms to the Vaad in the States via their secret Polish diplomatic cable. The Vaad's executive committee was convened for an emergency meeting. A hush fell across the room when the cable was read aloud. The plan was electrifying: Every month for twenty months, they would pay $250,000 and the Nazis would release 15,000 Jews. It came roughly to $17 a person.

Musy was able to reduce the $5 million ransom price (20 million SF) to $1 million. For Himmler, this amount was just a guarantee that Musy and the “rabbi Jews,” as he called the Sternbuchs, were serious.

The more important consideration for him, which Musy stressed, was that Germany’s image, badly tarnished by the Auschwitz Protocols four months earlier, be restored—especially since it was losing the war.

Himmler implemented the first step with a release on Feb. 7, 1945 of 1,210 inmates from Theresienstadt, a camp in Czechoslovakia. On February 8, 1945 Swiss border guards at Constance informed Jean-Marie Musy that a train of 1,200 Jews from Theresienstadt had arrived. The Swiss people gave a cordial welcome to the deportees. More releases were promised at two week intervals.

Musy asked for five or six major American newspapers declare that in this respect Germany was very favorably inclined…. Should you fail, then don’t expect another train. Through the efforts of the Vaad and the Agudah, several major papers published the story, including The Times, The Sun, and The Herald Tribune in New York, the St. Louis Star, Detroit News, Chicago News, etc.

A similar effort with the Swiss press by Dr. Reuven Hecht, Sternbuch’s colleague, was even more successful. Dr. Hecht was the official representative of the Vaad for the press campaign.

The favorable publicity angered Mayer, who told Kurt Becher, his Gestapo liaison with Himmler: “This is eine furchtbare Schweinerei (a horribly filthy thing). The press is full of Himmler-Muesy [sic] and Muesy-Himmler [sic].” Soon stories appeared in socialist papers in Switzerland criticizing the ransom of the Theresienstadt group. They gave the old ransom price of 20,000,000SF, assailed Sternbuch for using a fascist (Musy) as his negotiator, and said Musy was involved for personal enrichment. An international radio broadcast at the time also implied that the deal involved asylum for 250 Nazis.

A second transport—1,200 more inmates from Theresienstadt and 800 from Bergen-Belsen—was ready, scheduled to leave two weeks after the first one, but it never did. Gen. Ernst Kaltenbrunner, chief of Reich security, showed Hitler the critical articles from the Swiss socialist press. It was falsely announced that the first liberation had been granted in exchange for 200 S.S. officers to find asylum in America at the end of the war. Kaltenbrunner had gotten them from Colonel Becher, Mayer’s Gestapo liaison. Hitler, enraged, ordered that “not a single Jew should be allowed to leave Germany.”

Musy went to Berlin at Sternbuch’s request to find out why the second transport was delayed. The answer he got was succinct. “It was explained to me in Berlin last week,” he wrote Sternbuch, “if no trains of Jews from the German camps arrived in Switzerland, you have Herr Saly Mayer to thank.”

Still, the Sternbuchs continued their negotiations with Himmler through the Musy’s during the last hellish weeks of the Holocaust. Of major concern was the safe transfer of the concentration camps to the Allies.

Benoit Musy made several trips to Berlin by himself to negotiate the camp transfers with his Himmler contact, Gen. Walter Schellenberg. He also visited the camps at Theresienstadt, Ravensbrook, Mauthausen, Bergen-Belsen, and Buchenwald to assure cooperation. On April 8 in Berlin, Himmler, who had agreed to stop the killing in the camps, demanded assurance that the guards wouldn’t be shot on the spot but would be tried as members of the Wehrmacht as long as they wore Wehrmacht uniforms. At Sternbuch’s request, McClelland sent this message to Washington, which quickly agreed.

Benoit Musy reported seeing a document that Hitler had demanded the evacuation of all of the concentration camp prisoners to the south of Germany. Hitler's order would mean that the prisoners would have to walk 300 to 400 kilometers, and this would have been certain death for 40% of them.

So the senior Musy and Recha Sternbuch crossed into Austria to see their Gestapo contacts and Benoit returned to Berlin. Schellenberg immediately warned all camp commanders, who generally heeded the Hitler-Kaltenbrunner line, not to disobey Himmler’s orders. As a result, a forced march from Buchenwald was halted, and Mauthausen, Bergen-Belsen, Theresienstadt, and Buchenwald, all of which Benoit had visited, were turned over to the Allies relatively intact.

Musy Sr.’s negotiations with Carl J. Burckhardt of the International Red Cross by the end of Jan. 1945, helped pave the way for the first inspections of the camps by the IRC. It also prepared the ground for the later negotiations with the Nazis by Count Bernadotte of the Swedish Red Cross and Kaltenbrunner’s meeting with IRC In March 1945. Young Musy also negotiated the safe evacuation of Ravensbrook—almost 14,000 women, 2,000 of whom were Jewish. Schellenberg, who’d been in contact with Sweden’s Count Bernadotte since the first Thereisenstadt transport was released Feb. 7, allowed most of them to go to Sweden.

Thus, while the release of all inmates was obstructed, one camp was evacuated and four others were handed over to the Allies virtually without incident, thanks to the Sternbuch-Musy efforts.

Helping Survivors after the war

After the war, Recha Sternbuch devoted herself to retrieving surviving Jewish children from non-Jewish orphanages, convents, and private homes. Looking at a map of Europe after the war, it is clear to see that there was not a single Jewish centre at which she was not involved in rescue and aid efforts. Even in countries to which access entailed many dangers and to which telegraphic connections from Switzerland did not exist, she was among the first in the providers of aid.

Papal Emissary Philippe Bernardini provided Recha with a letter of recommendation addressed to the churches, in order that they would release the children hidden in their care. Recha was introduced to the French foreign office and French government for this purpose.

At this stage she worked as a representative of the organisations of Agudat Israel in America and England as well as with all the religious groups of the free world who wanted to help the survivors.

Recha wanted to reach all the liberated camps personally in order to assess the situation and prepare a plan of action. She managed to obtain entry visas to the liberated countries even in the early stages after the war, despite the resistance of the Allied powers. She travelled by ruined roads that had been severely damaged during the war, and lodged in places that were not among the most comfortable. Her suitcases were always stuffed with goodies when she left for a certain destination and empty when she returned. She was the motivating force behind the rescue and rehabilitation network.

Conditions in Poland after the war were entirely different from those in Germany, where the allies were. Jews encountered hatred and hostility in every place. Their houses had been taken over by Polish citizens and any attempts to recover their property encountered threats and violence. After six months of the year 1946 it was clear that Jews could not stay in Poland. Another proof of the matter was the pogrom and terrible massacre at Kilza on the 4th and 5th of July in that year, when Polish security forces did nothing to prevent the violence.

It was clear to Recha that Jews had to be got out of Poland as quickly as possible. Their exit, however, encountered the difficulties raised by the new communist leadership, similar to the Soviet system. In their view, mass emigration was a stinging insult to the regime. Their claim was backed by Jewish communists who believed, naively, that life under the regime would lead to full equality and substantial improvement in the quality of life.

Recha began immediately to work toward the extraction of Jews from Poland and at the start of 1946 set off for Poland. Recha worked feverishly to obtain passports and smuggle Jews out of Poland. Likewise, they removed Jewish children from non-Jewish institutions by all sorts of stratagems after encountering entrenched opposition. The children were smuggled to Czechoslovakia after border guards were bribed to cooperate. Another group of children from the communist children’s home was smuggled and, to be precise, kidnapped from there, after efforts of persuasion were successful and the bribe given to one of the teachers effected complete cooperation. A similar action was carried out at Zakovne, where a bribe of $10,000 was given and the children transferred to France. Recha continued her rescue operations in Poland until the start of 1947, and until all those interested in getting out of Poland had done so.

From the testimony of those who worked with Recha in Poland, there emerges a figure of a superhuman woman possessed of indisputable daring and single-mindedness. A modest woman who never one indicated her own name as leading an activity, and never credited herself with any successes. Her stubbornness and devotion impressed even senior figures of the Polish authorities, who could not refuse her requests in most of the cases which she addressed to them.

On the 6th of June 1945 – immediately upon the liberation of Czechoslovakia, she sent a telegram to Max Weiss, head of the community, requesting details of the survivors. Food parcels were sent. Czechoslovakia was then a way station for all the emigrants to the land of Israel and the Western world. Survivors from Hungary, Romania and Poland – through Recha’s assistance – crossed the border there from Germany and Austria and went on to France or Israel via Italy.

At the close of the war there were approximately six thousand Jews in Austria, in concentration camps there or had arrived there with the transports of the last days of the conquest.

Recha turned to the American representatives in Switzerland, that they direct the commanders of the Austrian army to give aid to the survivors. As a result, the American military rule transferred the Jews scattered in the Alps in their thousands to empty hotels in the small towns of Dagestan and Abeniz. The Austrian government was required to supply them with food.

Recha’s activity in France was not limited to the rehabilitation of hundreds of children and provision of education for them in the faith of their fathers, she also saw that France could serve as a temporary place of refuge for Jews waiting impatiently to emigrate to Palestine or the West, who had a psychological need to leave German soil as swiftly as possible. Recha managed to obtain several hundred entry visas to France for Jews of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania.

In her own country, Switzerland, Recha was forced to go to war to save children from non-Jewish families and ensure their religious education. Towards the end of the war the Red Cross brought several thousand Jews to Switzerland, among them hundreds of children. The children were formally handed over to non-Jewish private institutions, supported by philanthropic agencies.

However, she succeeded in persuading Dr. Kopzki, the Czech ambassador, and of course the Polish ambassador Alexander Lados, to assist in the struggle. The latter approached the Red Cross and requested the Polish children and Czech, and when the children had been delivered into their hands, Recha received them, and passed them to the trusted hands of Jewish families.

Further Reading:

A Swiss Commission rehabilitates 137 people punished during WWII for helping Jews escape the Nazis.

Abdol Hossein Sardari was an Iranian diplomat who saved Jewish lives during WWII