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Many Holocaust survivors did not know Abraham Klausner, a Reform rabbi who died last week at the age of 92, but he had a profound influence on those who lived in post-war Germany and Austria.
Klausner, who was an American Jewish chaplain, arrived at Dachau during the third week in May of 1945. (He was not the first Jewish chaplain to enter the camp, as a number of Jewish papers reported.)
Convinced there would be nothing for him to do in Europe at the end of the war, he volunteered for duty in the Far East. Instead, he was assigned to the 116th Evacuation Hospital Unit at Dachau. Since he could not assist the doctors and nurses tending to the sick, he was relegated to signing death certificates and burying the dead.
Just before his unit was ordered out of the camp on June 2, 1945, a man who was so ill that he was restricted to the barracks asked in a very distinctive voice if Klausner knew his brother. He did. Chaplain Abraham Spiro, an Orthodox rabbi, had come to Europe with him on the same ship.
After reuniting the brothers, Klausner realized the need for survivors to find their families. He planned to compile and publish lists of survivors and distribute them throughout the world. Before he could implement the project, his unit was ordered out of the camp and sent to a resort a hundred miles away. The men in the unit had been in Europe since the Anzio campaign, and needed a rest. As the truck left to go back to Dachau, Klausner jumped on board. He would not abandon his fellow Jews.
This was a very chaotic period in Europe, and chaplains and other officers helped him finesse his unorthodox and unauthorized mission after his return. He immediately began working with the survivors to assemble six volumes containing lists of survivors in Bavaria. This was the first major attempt to communicate with Jews in the West.
Rabbi Klausner used the foreword of the first of the Shearith Hapletah volumes to comfort the survivors and inform them of their rights. On a special page, titled “Regarding Your Rights,” he assured the survivors that they did not have to return to their former homes; were able to decide the question of their repatriation freely and not under intimidation from the military that wanted them out of its jurisdiction; and that immigration issues would be resolved on an individual basis when the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) arrived. He pledged to do everything in his power to reunite them with their families as soon as possible.
The displaced persons (DPs) presented unique and difficult problems to the American military government, which wanted to assist them but failed to understand the specific problems liberation posed for the Jews. The military government, responsible for re-establishing communication and transport behind frontlines, not administering and governing, failed to recognize that the Jews, having been singled out for destruction, required psychological and spiritual assistance as well as material aid. Conditions in the camps were deplorable and the Jews lacked the freedom to choose their own destiny.
From the army’s perspective, the logical solution was to repatriate the DPs as soon as possible. Of the more than 200,000 European Jews who were in Germany and Austria at the end of the war, many were reluctant to go back to their “homelands,” particularly the Jews from Poland and Lithuania, a large portion of the survivors. Some of them – the exact number is unknown – went back to search for family and friends before returning to Germany.
Klausner unilaterally declared that the Jews had a right to communicate with their family and relatives. No mail service existed and civilians were prohibited from using the army postal system. Against army regulations, Klausner encouraged the Jewish displaced persons to give their mail to camp leaders who then forwarded it to him. He then sent the correspondence under his name and address to the National Jewish Welfare Board in New York to sort and mail to all parts of the world.
Knowing that the army was besieged with requests from DPs of all nationalities, Klausner offered to relieve the military of some its responsibilities for the Jews by creating separate Jewish camps. There they would be protected from harassment from non-Jewish inmates. On his own, Klausner established separate hospitals for the hundreds of Jews who were traumatized at the thought of being treated by German physicians.
With the help of Dr. Sidney (Burke) Berkowitz of the Tenth Army Hospital at Allach, Rabbi Klausner searched throughout Bavaria to find and bring back Jews who were in need of medical care. Berkowitz supplied the ambulances and helped determine who could be moved in this unofficial search. Many were so sick they were left to die.
When Klausner saw Jews at Dachau still dressed in their camp uniforms, forced to live behind barbed wire and those in other areas in Bavaria living in appalling conditions, he wrote an unauthorized report on June 24, titled “A Detailed Report on the Liberated Jew As He Now Suffers His Period Of Liberation Under the Discipline of The Armed Forces of the United States.” This prompted American Jewish leaders to ask government agencies to help improve this situation.
When Earl G. Harrison, dean of the University of Pennsylvania, went to Europe to assess the plight of the Jewish DPs, the army arranged for him to bypass the worst camps. Colonel Milton Richmond, who headed a special American military transport unit at Dachau, informed Klausner of this situation. As a result, Klausner accompanied Harrison on his tour of the camps and helped shape his itinerary and his report.
After reading Harrison’s report, President Truman created the position of adviser on Jewish affairs to the commander of the U.S. forces in Europe in August 1945 to address the needs of the Jewish DPs. This gave the Jews an advocate they desperately needed.
Realizing the need for the Jews to be recognized as a separate nationality, Rabbi Klausner convinced the Americans to allow the DPs to establish an organization to represent them in negotiations with the military. Known as the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in Bavaria, the survivors now took responsibility for their future.
Klausner’s Kol Nidre speech at the Opera House in Munich to a capacity crowd of American Jewish soldiers is remembered as an impressive and dramatic event. Next to the podium where he spoke, Klausner placed a table with a white cloth covering a plate. After describing the plight of the DPs, he uncovered it to show what the DPs ate every day. The soldiers were aghast. Klausner then asked them to urge their families to send packages. Tons of desperately needed items soon began arriving to Klausner and other Jewish chaplains.
Klausner played a role in the Brichah, the clandestine movement to smuggle Jews from the American zone of Germany into Palestine. One of these episodes involved helping the Jews of the Exodus by providing transportation, food, clothing, housing for a night, and travel documents.
When the survivors asked Klausner’s help in establishing a Yiddish publication, he agreed. Unzer Weg, viewed by many as their national newspaper, became the largest Yiddish weekly in Germany and a significant link for the survivors and world Jewry. The paper began on October 12, 1945 and by December 7, 1945 was publishing 20,000 copies.
In the first issue of Unzer Weg, Klausner was paid the highest tribute when the editor wrote: “Rabbi, friend, brother, you have become one of us.” At a time when the survivors needed someone who understood who they were, what they had experienced, and their need to control their own destiny, Klausner treated them with respect and dignity, gave them hope, and fought for their rights. He really had become one of them.
Whenever anyone characterized Rabbi Klausner as a hero or his work as heroic, he reminded them of the Jews he had to leave behind in Bavaria to die – an image that haunted him throughout his life. He had not anticipated meeting survivors, yet he became one of their greatest advocates. One chaplain called him a one-man relief agency. He was that and much more.
He had no patience for partisanship. He was a rabbi, and his congregants were the Jewish people – all of them – whether Orthodox, secular, atheist or whatever. He made no distinctions. When the Orthodox approached him for seforim – as the Klausenberger Rebbe did – or for kosher food, or for help in building a mikvah, a cheder or a shul, he found a way to provide it for them. He understood their needs.
Before Pesach 1947 some of the 1,450 Jews of the Monchenberg DP camp complained that the Orthodox could not eat the margarine proved by the JDC. When Klausner asked what they wanted instead, they said potatoes. He arranged for five tons of potatoes to be delivered to the camp.
He also provided for many Passover sedorim including those at Merxhausen, a hospital with 160 Jews suffering from tuberculosis. A number of days before the holiday, the sick sent a representative to the office of the JDC with this request: “At least do not forget us on Passover.” The JDC turned to Klausner for help. Klausner reported, “At Merxhausen, on Passover evening there was truly a Seder with all good things to eat. There was joy and there was singing – all this at the cost of 23,500 RM, or if you will, at seventy cents per person.”
It is important to note that Klausner and the other American Jewish chaplains had not been authorized or expected to work with the survivors. Their role was to attend to the religious and spiritual needs of American Jewish soldiers. Some commanding officers approved of their work with the survivors; others did not. Each chaplain had to decide the extent of his own involvement with them.
I met Rabbi Klausner in the 1970’s while researching material for my Ph.D. dissertation at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He never compared his activities with those of the other Jewish chaplains – some who also risked their careers and others who chose not to. He would not judge the latter.
Over the years we became friends – he a Reform rabbi and I an Orthodox Jew. When the Jewish people desperately needed support and encouragement, he was there for them. Under the circumstances, how could religious affiliation have any relevance?
Whenever he came to Los Angeles for work on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Academy-Awarding winning film The Long Way Home, we would eat at Leah Adler’s restaurant, theMilky Way. When the rabbi was a rabbinical student and Leah a student at the University of Cincinnati, they dated. He went on to become a rabbi and she the mother of Steven Spielberg.
Rabbi Klausner is now reunited with all the rebbes and other Jews whom he helped in post-war Europe and throughout his rabbinical career. The Klausner family wanted him buried at Arlington National Cemetery, where he belonged. Army regulations proscribe cremation, a violation of Jewish law.
Tehey nafshoh tzerurah bitzror hachayim: May his soul be bound in the bond of everlasting life.
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