A Discovery Sheds Light on Rescue Efforts During the Holocaust

Jewish refugees congregate outside of the US consulate in Marselles, southern France, circa 1941. US immigration policy had been tightened by the Immigration Act of 1924, which imposed quotas by nationality. Tragically, while the inferno in Europe was raging and Jews were desperately seeking escape routes, the quotas went unfulfilled, reflecting the national climate of isolationism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection/Eric Saul

Original documents revealed to the public for the first time—some from venerable gedolim of the twentieth century—tell of heroic efforts to save hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust.

All documents in this article are courtesy of the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust unless indicated otherwise.

 

The desperate letter from Hersh Tzvi Kanarek of Leipzig to David Kestenbaum in 1938, pleading for assistance to escape the Nazis after being driven out of Germany to Krakow, Poland.

November 30, 1938:

Honored and Beloved David Kestenbaum,

I am simply unable to describe to you the tragedy that has befallen us. I lived comfortably in Leipzig [Germany], had a good business and comfortable and well-furnished apartment. My family and I were expelled from our home, driven across the Polish border and for the last five weeks we’ve been in Krakow [Poland], homeless and without any means of support. I have to depend on the charity of strangers for the next meal, and the next [place to sleep]. I therefore turn to you for help in enabling us to come to America. Unfortunately, I have nobody else but you to turn to, my good friend, to save me.

Enough; I cannot continue writing . . .

Hersh Tzvi Kanarek

[Original in Yiddish. Translation by the Center for Holocaust Studies.]

 

Telegram sent by David Kestenbaum to the American Consul General in Warsaw, Poland, at the end of 1939:

Letter from the Mirrer Yeshivah Association thanking David Kestenbaum for executing nine affidavits on behalf of students of the Mir.

I sent an affidavit of support on December 1938, to the American Consul General in Warsaw, Poland, for the Kanarek family. . . . I am now informed that the three [Kanarek] sons  . . . are refugees. . . . residing in Vilnius, Lithuania. Due to the present conditions in Europe, I am very much concerned about their safety and would be very much obliged to you if you would grant my cousins US immigration visas. . . . so that they can live in America without fear. . . . I am sure that they will prove to be good citizens of this country.

The letters above are part of an extraordinary collection of documents that were recently re-discovered at the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in downtown Manhattan. Among the documents, found in some seventeen boxes, are original letters, affidavits, telegrams, notarized paperwork, letters to and from the US State Department and consular documents—all of them addressed either to or from David or Jacob Kestenbaum or both, two men who spent their days and nights responding to the desperate cries of European Jewry during the Holocaust. Among the documents, donated to the museum in 1981 by members of the Kestenbaum family, are letters from various gedolim, including Rabbi Chaim L. Shmuelowitz, zt”l, rosh yeshivah of the Mirrer Yeshivah; Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter, the Gerrer Rebbe, zt”l; Rabbi Shemaryahu Gourary of Chabad, zt”l; and Rabbi Aharon Kotler, zt”l, then-dean of the High Rabbinical College Etz-Chaim Kletzk who later founded and was rosh yeshivah of Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, New Jersey.

Some of the documents were on display in the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s exhibition, Against The Odds: American Jews & The Rescue Of Europe’s Refugees, 1933-1941, which ran from 2013 to 2015 and featured the heroic rescue efforts of a handful of American Jews, including the Kestenbaums. However, many of the documents, including correspondence featured in this article, have never been viewed by the public.

Just how were these boxes rediscovered? Last year, Daniela Kestenbaum, a student at Manhattan High School for Girls, began working on a genealogy project for school. She knew that her great-great grandfather, David Kestenbaum, zt”l, had been involved in saving Jews during the Holocaust, but she wanted to find actual documentation detailing his extraordinary efforts to rescue hundreds of Jews, as well as the only yeshivah whose student body survived the Holocaust intact, the Mirrer Yeshivah. At the Museum of Jewish Heritage, alongside volunteer archivist Debbi Portnoy, Daniela began to learn the incredible story of her great-great grandfather, David Kestenbaum. Here is his story.

David Kestenbaum as a young man.

Born in Tarnow, Poland, David Kestenbaum was the son of Rabbi Eliyahu and Leah Rachel. In 1914, the couple and their six children moved to Leipzig, Germany, where the rabbi and his sons opened a thriving fur business. Two of the sons immigrated: Yisrael opened a branch of Kestenbaum Fur in London and Jacob opened a branch in New York in the 1920s. David remained in Leipzig where, in 1918, he married Gisella Goldman and the couple had seven sons.

Rabbi Eliyahu was a prominent Jew and a recognized communal leader in Germany. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, David and his father were promptly arrested. The Nazis soon released Rabbi Eliyahu, but David remained imprisoned. By good fortune, David escaped—and the Nazis didn’t go after him because, miraculously, there was no record of his imprisonment. A few days later, while Rabbi Eliyahu was singing Shabbat zemirot at his table, a neighbor threw a Nazi flag onto the terrace. Later that week, the rabbi made a call to his lawyer to file a grievance. “Herr Kestenbaum,” the lawyer said, “zie haben ganishts mer keine rechts in diesem landt—You have no rights in this country.” After this incident Rabbi Eliyahu made the decision to leave Germany with his family. Bernard Kestenbaum, one of Rabbi Eliyahu’s grandchildren, recalls as a child hearing his grandfather warn his parents: “Move away without any delay. Don’t worry about your comforts or your assets. Leave everything behind.”

David and Giselle Kestenbaum and their seven sons aboard the SS Washington en route to the US in 1936. From left: Joseph, Binyamin, Leonard, Mr. Kestenbaum, Menashe, Raphael (Ray) above, Mrs. Kestenbaum, Ephraim (Menashe’s twin) and Bernard. The family settled in Brooklyn. All of the sons attended Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. Courtesy of the Collection of Ray Kestenbaum/Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust

David and Gisella fled with their family to Holland and then to Paris in 1934, as they wanted a strong Torah education for their sons. They soon realized they needed to leave Europe. Because Jacob had already immigrated to America, he was able to help bring the rest of his family to the United States. In 1936, David and his family settled in Brooklyn, New York.

At the time, the United States had a strict immigration policy, the Immigration Act of 1924, which imposed quotas by nationality. Tragically, while the inferno in Europe was raging and Jews were desperately seeking escape routes, the quotas went unfulfilled, reflecting the national climate of isolationism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

To obtain visas, refugees needed American sponsors who could issue affidavits that assured the government that they would take financial responsibility for those rescued. The affidavits required mountains of burdensome paperwork: bank records, tax returns and so on.

“Herr Kestenbaum,” the lawyer said, “zie haben ganishts mer keine rechts in diesem landt—you have no rights in this country.”

Despite the formidable challenges, David and Jacob funded and procured affidavits of support for hundreds of Jews. How did they do it? First, the Kestenbaums would receive a letter from a family desperate to flee Europe. Then they would work on obtaining affidavits and proving that they had sufficient resources to support these “relatives.” Each family that reached out to the Kestenbaums became a “cousin.” The brothers worked tirelessly to secure affidavits—even hiring a full-time employee to interface with federal agencies. Ultimately, they succeeded in signing 358 affidavits and saving the lives of hundreds of Jews.

In each letter Daniela read, in every telegram she saw, she heard agonized cries for help and desperate pleas to be saved. The pages ahead feature  a sampling of letters from various gedolim addressed to the Kestenbaums that have never been published before.

 

Rabbi Aharon Kotler, Dean
High Rabbinical College Etz-Chaim Kletzk
Jonava, Lithuania
Feb. 10, 1940

Having relocated to Jonava, Lithuania, to escape the Nazis in Poland,  Rabbi Aharon Kotler, dean of the High Rabbinical College Etz-Chaim Kletzk, wrote to the Kestenbaums in February 1940 to request assistance for his yeshivah.

Dear honorable, charitable, Torah lovers, esteeming Rabbis, treating them with kindness and supporting them, distinguished Kestenbaum brothers, may you live and prosper together with your honored families, they should live and enjoy the goodness and blessings of the Almighty forever!

With esteem and blessings!

You have most likely heard about the rescue of all the yeshivot that moved to Vilna, which is now part of Lithuania. Thank God, we have succeeded in rescuing our yeshivah and transferring it to Lithuania. Until now the yeshivah was in Vilna, but for certain reasons we moved to Jonava, a much smaller town in Lithuania, where we hope to be able, with the help of our friends, to maintain it in the Diaspora.

At the moment, we have with us 240 Torah students, may they multiply, refugees from the area occupied by Soviet Russia and Germany who are facing the most difficult and terrible conditions and suffering indescribable hardships, may Hashem have mercy on them.

In spite of that, the spiritual level of the yeshivah [has not been] diminished, and the voice of Torah [has not been] weakened by the various Diaspora events. The yeshivah is once again the source of Torah and piety, as it was in the past.

However, the financial situation of the yeshivah has recently deteriorated very much and is currently in a very difficult state that threatens its very existence. The loneliness and homelessness of the hundreds of yeshivah boys have increased the expenses of the yeshivah, and we are struggling mightily to maintain it. Were it not for the assistance of the JOINT [the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee], who knows what would have happened to the yeshivah. However, one must not forget that their assistance is steadily declining, and all together cannot cover the large expenditures we have (even) after all of the downgrading and savings.

Speaking at David Kestenbaum’s levayah in 1957, Rav Kotler, overcome with emotion, could only say: ‘He was a great tzaddik.’ He couldn’t continue further and sat down.

We must therefore turn to all friends of the yeshivah with our call for help; they should not forget the yeshivah at this time of pain and suffering. We hope that, as in the past, you will continue supporting the yeshivah and will be pleased with the opportunity of extending your help to us to the best of your abilities. In the merit of your support of Torah, you will be blessed with a long life, good fortune and prosperity and continue to be privileged with being among the Torah supporters until the coming of the Messiah, soon and in our own days. Amen!

Wishing you a kosher and joyous Passover holiday with much pleasure together with your honored families, we conclude with blessings and hope for Heavenly mercy.

Signed and rubber stamped,
Aharon Kotler

[Original in Yiddish. Translation by the Center for Holocaust Studies.]

*          *          *          *

Letter from Rabbi Chaim Shmuelowitz, dean of the Mirrer Yeshivah, to one of the Kestenbaum brothers in 1941. In the letter, Rabbi Shmuelowitz professes his gratitude to Mr. Kestenbaum for assisting the yeshivah in its escape from Nazi Europe.

Rabbi Chaim L. Shmuelowitz
Dean of the Mirrer Yeshivah
June 9, 1941

Dear honored Mr. Kestenbaum:

We want to express our thanks to you for your participation in helping the immigration of our community to America. These are terrifying times, yet you have dedicated yourself in such a noble manner for the sake of Torah. In today’s generation, you are one of the few lovers of Torah who are in the holy cause of rescuing Torah. . . . You have always done your heroic deeds completely. You are one of the elites of today’s generation who are helping the holy Tabernacle move from place to place and country to country, as it did in the desert in ancient times. We are experiencing such terrible times, and when the Torah finds its true place and the yeshivah comes to America, then from close by you will see the column of fire that illuminates the way for all of Israel, and then you will feel eternally and deeply your great part in this endeavor. . . .

We feel ourselves encouraged and comforted in such a critical moment to see among our friends and supporters such a great lover of Torah as you, and, in deepest recognition, we want to include you among our closest and dearest and declare you a gabbai of our yeshivah.

You will surely cherish the knowledge that you are recognized as one of the builders of Torah and a savior of the Jewish future; this is an everlasting tie between you and us.

May you and your family be blessed, in the merit of your work for Torah and support for Torah scholars, and may this inspire everything you do.

Signed and rubber stamped,
[Rabbi] Chaim Shmuelowitz

[Original in Yiddish. Translation by the Center for Holocaust Studies.]

*          *          *          *

Rabbi Shemaryahu Gourary, son-in-law of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, requesting Jacob Kestenbaum’s assistance in securing further affidavits.

Rabbi Shemaryahu Gourary, on behalf of student Josef Mendel Tenenbaum,
June 10, 1941

My dear [sic] Mr. [Jacob] Kestenbaum,

I wish to take this opportunity of writing to you as one of our dearest and most devoted friends to the holy cause headed by my most venerable father-in-law, the Lubavitcher Rabbi. I feel that I need not call your attention to the sad plight of our students of the world-famous Lubavitcher Yeshivoth Tomche Tmimim whom we have evacuated from Eastern Europe and brought to Japan on their way to America. There are a great number of our students now in Japan and many of them have already secured affidavits, but we still need many affidavits. We are therefore appealing to you that you kindly give us an affidavit for one of our students, and if possible, to also prevail upon some of your friends to also give such affidavits. You understand the urgency of this matter, and we therefore trust that you will kindly comply with our request in this most important and requisite request. Please have the affidavit made out to the American consul at Japan . . .

Very sincerely yours,

Rabbi S. Gourary

When the US government became suspicious of the Kestenbaums and their claim of having hundreds of cousins, the family found new ways of helping Jews escape with behind-the-scenes financial support while having others sign off on the affidavits.

The Kestenbaum brothers were also active in Vaad Hatzala, an organization originally founded to save the lives of yeshivah students, talmidei chachamim and rabbanim, which expanded to rescue as many Jews as possible from the Nazis. Together with Rabbi Aharon Kotler, zt”l, Rabbi Avraham Kalmanowitz, zt”l, Irving Bunim, zt”l, and other members of the Vaad, they rescued and provided food and shelter for 300 Mirrer Yeshivah talmidim and families until the group reached Shanghai, China. David’s sons, Bernard and Joseph, went door to door to raise money for the talmidim and their families.

Ray Kestenbaum’s two-part Jewish Voice article in 2016 about his father, David Kestenbaum.

In a 2016 article in the Jewish Voice, the youngest child of David and Gisella, Raphael “Ray” Kestenbaum, wrote, “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 Hatzala 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.” [Part 2 of Ray Kestenbaum’s article can be read here.]

At one point, Mike Tress, the national president of Agudath Israel of America, contacted the Kestenbaum brothers about affidavits on behalf of Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter, the Gerrer Rebbe and his family. They had been smuggled out of Poland and brought to Eretz Yisrael at the beginning of the war. Although the affidavits were secured in 1941, they were never used because the rebbe didn’t want to leave Jerusalem.

Even after the war, the Kestenbaum brothers were inundated with requests for affidavits and help. The family was also instrumental in establishing the Mirrer Yeshivah in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood.

“To know that the Kestenbaum name was one associated in a time of war with ‘savior’ and ‘heroism,’ a name that everyone knew they could trust, is a great source of pride for myself and my family,” said Daniela.

Speaking at David Kestenbaum’s levayah in 1957, Rav Kotler, overcome with emotion, could only say: “He was a great tzaddik.” He couldn’t continue further and sat down.

Each family that applied became a Kestenbaum “cousin”…Ultimately, they succeeded in signing 358 affidavits, sparing the lives of hundreds of people.

One of David Kestenbaum’s values was to never waste time. He was so thankful that Hashem had enabled him and his family to flee the horrors of Europe, and he therefore felt obligated to help others. In the Jewish Voice article cited earlier, Ray wrote that his father “worked tirelessly” and “was a man of broad shoulders, of statesmanship and of drive for the job ahead. Much of that drive stemmed from his profound sense of hakorat hatov, thankfulness to Hashem for the insight and ability to escape early with his family . . .”

Vaad Hatzala volunteers prepare a shipment of Pesach products for Europe, circa 1946. From left to right: Mr. Shabse Frankel, Mr. Stephen Klein, Mr. Menashe Stein and Mr. Irving Bunim. David and Jacob Kestenbaum were active members of the Vaad, in addition to their personal rescue efforts on behalf of Jews in Europe. Courtesy of Yeshiva University Museum

Sifting through the documents, Daniela wondered what had become of her great-great grandfather’s friend, Hersh Tzvi Kanarek, as well as his wife and their children. As she continued her research, she found record box 1-2, which provided the answer.

Below is the last letter written by Hersh Tzvi Kanarek, in Poland at the time, to the Kestenbaum brothers.

David and brother Jacob, may you live and prosper! Yesterday at 11:00 in the morning I received your telegram and out of joy could not sleep all night. . . . May the Almighty repay you with happiness. Following, you will find the requested information about each of our family members, myself, and my wife Dora, our three sons and our daughter, Lea.

According to what people have told me, in order to expedite matters, the affidavits should be sent to either Belgium, the Netherlands or Switzerland, and then the affidavit recipients are permitted to move there. I have no preference about any of the above countries. Perhaps you could find out . . . which of the three to choose from and make the decision about which is best for us. In the meantime, what should we do here . . . to survive, as most of our means of support were unfortunately left behind in Germany . . . .

[Original in Yiddish. Translation by the Center for Holocaust Studies.]

Although the three Kanarek boys had joined the Mirrer Yeshivah and survived the Holocaust, David’s good friend, Hersh Tzvi, his wife and their daughter did not make it out of Poland alive. In 1943, David walked one of the sons, Rabbi Yisroel Kanarek, down the aisle to his chuppah.

Throughout her year-long research project, Daniela only managed to examine a small number of boxed files. Who knows what other important documents are still waiting to be revealed?

 

Susie Garber writes for the Queens Jewish Link, Hamodia and other publications and is the author of numerous books. She would like to thank the staff of the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, and in particular, Susan Woodland, senior manager for collections and research services; Michael Morris, curatorial associate; Treva Walsh, collections project manager and Debbi Portnoy, volunteer archivist, who came up with the idea for this article.

Daniela Kestenbaum expresses thanks to Ms. Chani Gotlieb, Mrs. Shaindy Eisenberg, Rebbetzin Peshi Neuberger, Mrs. Shaindy Eisenberg and her family members for assisting her in the research. Special thanks to Ray Kestenbaum for his help in preparing this article for publication.

 

More in this Section:

The Kestenbaum Rescue Efforts: An Analysis, by R. Licht

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2019.