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The dramatic story of the rescue of a Jewish leader during World War II-and the German-Jewish soldier who led the mission
When Hitler invaded Warsaw in the fall of 1939, hundreds of thousands of civilians-many of them Jewish-were trapped in the besieged city. The Rebbe Joseph Schneersohn, the leader of the ultra-orthodox Lubavitcher Jews, was among them. Followers throughout the world were filled with anguish, unable to confirm whether he was alive or dead. Working with officials in the United States government, a group of American Jews initiated what would ultimately become one of the strangest-and most miraculous-rescues of World War II.
The escape of Rebbe Schneersohn from Warsaw has been the subject of speculation for decades. Historian Bryan Mark Rigg has now uncovered the true story of the rescue, which was propelled by a secret collaboration between American officials and leaders of German military intelligence. Amid the fog of war, a small group of dedicated German soldiers located the Rebbe and protected him from suspicious Nazis as they fled the city together. During the course of the mission, the Rebbe learned the shocking truth about the leader of the rescue operation, the decorated Wehrmacht soldier Ernst Bloch: he was himself half-Jewish, and a victim of the rising tide of German antisemitism.
A harrowing story about identity and moral responsibility, Rescued from the Reich is also a riveting narrative history of one of the most extraordinary rescue missions of World War II.
A Conversation With Bryan Mark Rigg
Q: What makes the story of Rebbe Schneersohn's rescue from Warsaw so extraordinary?
A: This is a unique case in which the American government collaborated with the Nazis to rescue one of the most ultra-orthodox Jewish rabbis in the world at the time. This story is about how these unlikely bedfellows came together to save some Jewish lives at a very particular point early in the war. A few months later this rescue almost certainly could not have occurred.
Q: For many years, the Lubavitchers had heard stories that the Rebbe was rescued by a German Jew. How did you uncover the facts to prove that this was true?
A: The Lubavitchers had believed that Ernst Bloch, the leader of the rescue mission, was a Jew concealing himself in a German military uniform, or better yet, an angel sent by God to rescue their leader. Even the few history books that mention Bloch reveal little about his background. Working with archives and a great many interviews with family members, I was able to uncover the story of Bloch's Jewish ancestry-which was known to his supervisors in the military and which was almost certainly part of the reason he was chosen for this mission.
Q: In what ways does this story make us rethink conventional wisdom about the Holocaust?
A: It complicates our understanding of the Holocaust, both in American and European history. The American government, which was painfully intransigent on immigration policy during this period, was able to assist in rescuing Jews from Hitler's Europe when pressed hard enough. More importantly, perhaps, this story complicates our understanding of the Third Reich. Bloch was surrounded by men like himself-partially Jewish, but serving proudly in the German military. They were secular for the most part-in fact, Bloch had recently been officially "aryanized" by Hitler- but they were by no means anti-semitic. One of the things I try to understand in this book is how morally and emotionally complicated military service must have been for men like Bloch.