When Risk-taking Becomes a Victim

By Joseph Hanania

Published May 06, 2005, issue of May 06, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Next week, the German people will inaugurate a Holocaust memorial of undulating concrete steles on five acres of prime Berlin real estate, just a stone’s throw from Hitler’s bunker. Perhaps it is time, then, for we Jews to also reevaluate our world view vis á vis the Holocaust.

Yes, one third of our people were systematically murdered. Yes, few would minimize the suffering of survivors or the injustices still being uncovered.

However, an overemphasis on past victimization also results in a reluctance to take risks. And sometimes, taking measured risks is necessary to secure, over the longer term, what we now merely cling on to by our fingernails. A review of Holocaust history demonstrates that those Jews who proactively took measured risks often bucked the horrific odds and saved not only their own lives, but also those of others.

Risking imprisonment by the Nazis’ allies in Hungary, the Arrow Cross Party, Jewish doctor Bela Elak insisted he had diplomatic immunity while repeatedly driving by lines of desperate Jews, pulling the worst off into his car and taking them to safe houses. Wilhelm Bachner, a Jewish engineer and manager for a Nazi firm in Warsaw, likewise provided jobs and false identity cards to 50 other Jews, saving their lives.

But it was Aron Grunhut, a wealthy goose liver merchant from Bratislava, who was surely the most visionary Jewish rescuer of all, engineering half a dozen rescues that saved more than 2,000 lives.

His most dramatic rescue began in July 1939, when he chartered two steamships to sail the Danube River from Bratislava to the Black Sea, where he had a freighter waiting to take some 1,350 refugees — plus one born at sea — on to Palestine.

So, how did Grunhut do it?

He took measured risks, most notably performing a secret mission for the former British consul to Bratislava, who was hardly a friend to Jews. In return, he obtained permission for his passengers to enter Palestine legally.

Even before his epic transport, however, Grunhut had repeatedly negotiated with adversaries to save Jewish lives.

During the winter of 1938-1939, he recruited an insider from the office of Karol Sidor, Czechoslovakia’s secretary of internal affairs, while also helping instruct Jewish youth in street fighting. Tipped off in advance, the “Maccabi Youth” successfully beat back a mob descending on Bratislava’s Jewish quarters — a vivid contrast to Jewish surprise during Germany’s larger and deadlier Kristallnacht.

Aided by that same insider, Grunhut later convinced Sidor to allow Jewish refugees to leave an icy no man’s zone and instead take shelter in a closed summer restaurant. The restaurant owners with whom he negotiated his short-term lease? Two Nazi brothers.

Grunhut also traveled to Nazi-occupied Austria, where he met with a Gestapo lawyer and secured the release of Juda Goldberger, a Bratislava clothing merchant kidnapped by a Gestapo officer who owed him money. Working with Bratislava’s chief of police, Grunhut then helped the merchant and his family flee to America on a rabbinic passport.

So radical were Grunhut’s actions that Jewish community leaders, citing his dealing with Jewish adversaries, expelled him from the Hicem migration organization in early 1939. On the day his transport was to launch, they tried to have him arrested.

When Grunhut returned to Bratislava — rather than continuing on to safety in Palestine — those same Jewish leaders organized a communal trial in which they accused Grunhut of having led his charges to exile and death. Only after receiving telegrams from passengers disembarking in Palestine did they later drop the charges — and then ask Grunhut, unfortunately too late, to organize another transport for them.

And yet, Jewish heroes such as Grunhut, Elak and Bachner have gone largely unrecognized even by Yad Vashem, whose 51-year-old charter limits it to recognizing only righteous gentiles.

Only recently have a handful of Jewish historians, most notably Sam Oliner at Humboldt State University in California, begun pushing for recognition of Jewish Holocaust heroes. This is more than just a question of historical accuracy. Such an expanded understanding is particularly relevant given the present threat faced by the Jewish state.

Grunhut would undoubtedly advocate negotiating with the enemy, relinquishing barely defensible parts of the occupied territories — and the moral and military strains they put on Israel — in return for a stronger position. His mind would concentrate like a laser, not on how to best debate biblical claims, but on how to most effectively promote Jewish interests.

Attuned to present circumstances, he would probably cite the Berlin Holocaust memorial as further evidence of a 180-degree change of attitude among Germans, while noticing that the new Palestinian leadership is making moves far beyond Yasser Arafat’s grievance-dominated thinking. He would likewise insist that Jewish leaders think “out of the box,” and thereby ensure a more secure future.

Nor would he regard such dealings as appeasement.

Indeed, Grunhut remained in Europe even as the Holocaust moved into full swing, helping charter a train in 1943 to take Jewish children from Budapest to Tehran. On the side, he paid off the engineers to detour to Palestine, thus saving another 350 Jewish lives.

Grunhut died of old age in Israel in 1974, a judicious risk taker who won big time. Now might be the time to dust off his memory, and those of Elak and Bachner, and just maybe learn from their examples.

Joseph Hanania is the author of “From the Jaws of Death,” a forthcoming book on Aron Grunhut.






Find us on Facebook!
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.