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Rabbi Wolf Gottlieb: His courage saved so many

Freema Gottlieb's father saved hundreds, maybe thousands of children from the Nazis. But he never spoke about it.

    Rabbi Wolf Gottlieb with his fiancee Betty
    Rabbi Wolf Gottlieb with his fiancee Betty Photo: Freema Gottlieb

    While cleaning my father’s apartment in Jerusalem recently, I came upon a copy of a German-language deposition he had given to Yad Vashem in March–April 1977, soon after making aliyah, to Herbert Rosenkrantz, head of the department for the investigation of Nazi war crimes.

    While I have some grasp of German, I was unable to appreciate the details. I had the transcript professionally translated, unravelling a story that he had never told me.

    In the days following the Anschluss in 1938, when the Germans marched into Vienna (to general acclaim) , my father, Wolf Gottlieb, a rabbi in his twenties, sought permission from the Nazi authorities, under Adolf Eichmann, for the community to open a special “school for emigration.”

    For Eichmann, whose sole mission in Vienna at the time was the “forced emigration” of Jewry, the idea was welcome. This proposal was worked out through channels of the Vienna Jewish Community with approval from my father’s immediate superior, Josef Lowenherz, and Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein (whose story was later told in Claude Lanzmann’s 2015 film The Last of the Unjust). My father was confirmed as principal of this school, which was a rededicated version of the Achwa Wereuth [Brotherhood and Friendship] Talmud Torah.

    This school had already been functioning under his leadership, with the same enrollment, in 1937, but had been closed by the Anschluss. Its new status turned it into a temporary safe haven from the violence of the streets, and gave pupils hope that upon graduation they would be permitted to emigrate.

    JUAL, or the Youth Aliyah School of Vienna, became the means for saving hundreds, even thousands of lives.

    Born in Plauci Mala, a shtetl in eastern Galicia, Gottlieb was part of a Jewish demographic that moved to “civilised” Vienna in 1921 rather than stay in the newly recognised Polish state.

    Though he had been a resident of Vienna from age 11, when the Nazis came to power, Galicianers like him were the first to be arrested and deported as foreigners.

    Regarded as the family “genius,” he devoted his days to Jewish studies and to playing the violin. But when his violin teacher recommended he make music his lifework, he chose Torah instead. Tutored in the German literary classics by his beloved sister Anni (who was later gassed in Auschwitz with her family), he was accepted into the University of Vienna, simultaneously attending the famed Israelitisch-Theologische-Lehranstalt.

    In 1937, he became the spiritual leader of the Zionist religious movement HaShomer Hadati, later called Bnei Akiva. After celebrating the first-year graduation of Achwa Wereuth, he used his summer break to travel to Romania to celebrate his wedding to Bracha (Betty), the daughter of Rabbi Avraham Aryeh Rosen, the Falticeni Rav, and sister of future chief rabbi Moses Rosen of Romania.The newly married couple had only just returned to Vienna when the Nazis marched in.

    He opened an office on the Prater to register the mounting number of applicants, and more spacious accommodations were made available for classes in the Tempelgasse. He was also given the gratifying task of hiring the cream of Jewish intelligentsia who had been let go from other institutions, offering his pupils a unique, all-around Jewish education. In the morning, Gottlieb and his colleagues taught theoretical subjects such as Bible, history, Talmud — in a mixed setting, highly unusual for the time. In the afternoon, during the time reserved for job training — especially in agriculture and engineering, with occasional excursions to model kibbutzim in the countryside — he got on with the work of registration and planning.

    Though the initial entry criteria for pupils required them to be both Zionist and religious; as the crisis deepened he became more flexible, accepting very observant students from Aguda, at that time non-Zionist, as well as pupils who may not have been halachically Jewish, although considered Jews by Nazi racial laws. To save lives, he was prepared to make compromises that for a future head of the beth din would have been thought unacceptable.

    His first formal contact with Youth Aliyah came in July 1938. On the Shabbat of the intermediate days of Succot, the Vienna Youth Aliyah School’s first graduation ceremony was held in form of a minchah service at the beautiful Polnische Schul, to formally bid farewell to the hundreds of pupils due to leave on aliyah for Eretz Yisrael. It would be the last service held in the Polish shul before Kristallnacht, when it was destroyed. While SS officers lounged at the back,my father spoke about the yearning for Zion in 2,000 years of Jewish prayer.

    Hardly a week later, he was arrested and held by the Gestapo over Shabbat at the Rossenauer Barracks as part of a “Polish action,” and was released only because he held a visa from the United Kingdom. Shortly after Kristallnacht, in late November/early December 1938, the first group of “his” children left, courtesy of Youth Aliyah and, latterly, Kindertransport. In his deposition to Yad Vashem, he succinctly stated that all the children with whom he personally was in contact — 640— got out, mostly for Palestine.

    “It was a time,” he tells his interviewer, “when countless individuals were doing their utmost to save lives.” In comparison with what others gave, he may have considered his own contribution minor. He linked his effort to the chain of attempts to do the best possible.

    My father had three passports. As much as he always dreamed of making aliyah, he gave away the two blanks, Palestine and the United States, to colleagues who had no such options. The UK passport he was given was in his name alone. But, he adds in his testimony, he had a personal reason for choosing Britain as his temporary promised land. That reason was the children.
 When my father realised that Youth Aliyah was unable to take in his youngest pupils, he switched their destination to the United Kingdom. He was reconciled to his own change of plans because it gave him the opportunity to keep a “fatherly eye” and be there for “his” children. He entered the United Kingdom as a refugee in March 1939, under the auspices of the Chief Rabbi’s Religious Emergency Council, a variant on Kindertransport for rabbis and religious educators.

    Soon after the outbreak of war, the British government decided London children should be evacuated. My parents looked after Rosehill, a Bnei Akiva hostel in north Wales near Abergele. The children in their care included some of the original Kindertransport group.

    He went on to minister to Glasgow’s Queens Park Hebrew Congregation from 1950 to 1976, and served as head of the Scottish Rabbinical Court. Before that he served as superintendent of Jewish education for the United Kingdom, publishing a slim volume entitled Bimei Kedem (In Days Past), containing stories of the early rabbis whose personalities display the dignity and heroism of the resistance fighters against Roman tyranny.

    In his testimony to Yad Vashem, he mentions how, into 1938, every Shabbat he would lead a small procession, carrying Torah scrolls between the two shtieblach of which he was rabbi. Ordinary Austrians watched with interest and respect. The complete change in his fellow citizens came as a shock.

    His piety consisted of a form of religious humanism, the conviction that every human being was made in God’s image, and must be treated as such, homespun wisdom deriving from Rabbi Akiva. Although Rabbi Akiva underwent great sufferings in his life, the worst may have been the fact that 24,000 of his students, because he supported the Bar Kochba uprising in 132 CE, became freedom fighters against Rome and perished. He had the resilience to continue teaching Torah to five survivors who completed the entire Talmud and ensured the spiritual survival of the Jewish people. Just as Rabbi Akiva’s disciples were his “children” in olden days, my father’s Zionist students in Shomer Hadati and the Youth Aliyah school were his modern form of “Bnei Akiva.”

    As he weaved his way every day through the green overgrowth between our house and Queens Park Synagogue in Glasgow, my father often would hum chasidic melodies. There was yearning in the words: “When the Jewish people sit and occupy themselves with the joys of Torah, the Holy One turns to His heavenly host and declares: ‘Just take a look at My children, My precious ones, how they don’t allow their sufferings to engulf them, but give themselves over to My joy! Look, look, at My children, my beloved.’”