Rabbi Michael Weissmandl: A Rabbi from Oxford’s Bodleian Library who saved Jews from the Holocaust
By Rabbi Eli Brackman
Michael Dov Weissmandl (1903–1957) was a scholar and expert of Hebrew manuscripts, who visited Oxford during the 1930’s, and played an instrumental role in attempting to save Jews from the Nazis during the Second World War.
This article will illustrate how Rabbi Weissmandl’s visits to Oxford served him his rabbinical ordination, possibly the first rabbi to be ordained from his research at the Bodleian library, and offered him the groundwork to attempt to help save tens of thousands of Jews from the Nazis in Slovakia and millions in Europe.
Rabbi Weissmandl was born in 1903 in Debrecen, Hungary, and a few years later his family moved to Tyrnau, Slovakia. In 1931, he moved to the Slovakian town of Nitra to study under the rabbi of Nitra and dean of the last surviving yeshiva in Nazi occupied Europe, Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Ungar (1886 – 1945), whose daughter he later married.
Before moving to Nitra, he studied at the yeshivah of Rabbi Joseph Zvi Dushinsky, who was chief rabbi of Galanta, Slovakia, until around the First World War. (Rabbi Dushinksy was fourth or fifth cousin to political scientist Dr. Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, currently living in Oxford.)
Rabbi Dushinksy later moved to Israel and was known for his strong opposition to Zionism, and spoke to the newly-formed United Nations against the creation of the Zionist State.
In the 1930’s, in Rabbi Weissmandl’s work in deciphering Hebrew manuscripts and comparing printed works with the manuscripts, he travelled to Oxford three times to do research at the Bodleian library collection of Hebrew manuscripts. On one occasion he helped the librarian identify the author of a new manuscript they had just acquired and been misattributed by the scholars at the library.
This scholar was most probably Eric Otto Winstedt, who was Keeper of the Oriental Collection, including the Hebrew holdings, during the 1930's. As E.O. Winstedt was principally a Latinist and Gypsologist, rather than Hebraist, Rabbi Wessmandl's assistance must have been appreciated, as well as other rabbis who visited the Bodleain library earlier, like Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.
During his visits to Oxford, he recorded variant readings from the Hebrew manuscripts as well as hundreds of unpublished rabbinic responsa which he intended to publish. As an expert of Hebrew manuscripts, he gained much respect from the librarian, allowing him considerable access, during non-visiting hours, to the Hebrew collection for his research.
It appears that Rabbi Weismandl was not uninterested in the people around him while he was in Oxford. He related that he became acquainted with a non-Jewish scholar in Oxford, who had an exceptional knowledge of Talmud, allowing him to quote entire tractates from memory. It is likely he then would have also got to know other prominent Jewish members of the university community in the 1930’s, as Sir Isaiah Berlin, who had then received a prize scholarship at All Souls College.
His work in Oxford seems to have included, among other things, preparing a new edition of Kikayon de-Yonah, a Talmudic commentary, by 16th century Rabbi Jonah T’omim, who was born in Prague and acted as rabbi in Grodno and Pinsk, Lithuania. In 1648, because of the Chmielnick pogrom, Rabbi Teomim fled to Vienna, Nikolsburg, Austria, and finally Metz, Lorraine, before he passed away in 1649.
The editing new edition of Kikayon de-Yonah seems to have been for the publishing of the 3rd edition of Kikayon de-Yonah. The first edition was edited in Amsterdam in 1690 by the son of Rabbi T’omim, Joshua, and the second printing was in 1712 at Hanau, Germany.
In less than a year, according to his biography, An Unheeded Cry (Artscroll), Rabbi Weissmandl reviewed the fifteen tractates of the Talmud included in the above-mentioned book which was ultimately printed by the governors of the Nitra Yeshivah with Rabbi Weissmandl’s notes, glosses and emendations.
At the end of the volume, Rabbi Weissmandl added notes to Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) Even Ha-Ezer (Laws of Marriage and Divorce) on the basis of a manuscript he had discovered in Oxford.
The manuscript with these notes can be in fact found listed in Adolf Neubauer’s Catalogue of the Hebrew Manuscripts in the Bodleian and in the College Libraries of Oxford (Published 1886) entry number 761:1 (p. 149): “R. Yonah T’omim’s Novellae on Ebben ha-Ezer, and some other casuistic notes.”
Thus, it appears, Rabbi Weissmandl was not just comparing the second edition of this work with the original manuscript but intended to add an unpublished manuscript of the same author that was exclusively found at the Bodleian library.
In his biography it mentions his motivation to prepare a new edition of this work was due to the fact that students were studying this work as a basic text at the Yeshiva of Nitra in Slovakia, under the tutelage of his father-in-law, Rabbi Ungar.
It is therefore possible that Rabbi Weissmandl heard that there existed this additional rare unpublished manuscript by Rabbi T’omim in Oxford and this discovery and pursuit to publish it seems to have been a central reason for his travel to Oxford.
It is, however, interesting to note that the Bodleian Library doesn't appear to have in its collection the main work by Rabbi T'omim, Kikayon D'Yonah, on the Talmud. It would therefore seem that the comparing of the published edition to the original manuscript was not the reason for his coming to Oxford when working on the third edition of Kikayon D'Yonah but rather just for the publication of the additional unpublished manuscript on Shulchan Aruch that Rabbi Weissmandl wished to add to his new edition.
Indeed, from the following story about his ordination, it is clear that he was undertaking many different Hebraic academic studies as his purpose for coming to Oxford, in addition to the expanding of the the work of Kikayon D'Yonah.
His research and intense study of unpublished Hebrew manuscripts in Oxford in fact led to his rabbinical ordination before his wedding.
In January, 1937, (14 Shevat, 5697), Rabbi Weissmandl married Bracha Rachel, the daughter of his teacher Rabbi Samuel David Ungar. For the tenaim (engagement) party, which was held some time earlier, the bridegroom had returned from England, where he had been pursuing his research in Oxford.
At the celebration, he gave a brilliant lecture which lasted for two and a half hours. In his discourse, he discussed the legal aspects of sivlonot (gifts which a man gives his future bride). At the beginning of his talk, he recounted that in Oxford he had found manuscripts containing several problems on the subject raised by an ancient Torah sage, Rabbi Simon Sharabi.
Rabbi Weissmandl intended to resolve these questions. He proceeded to explain, on the basis of the manuscript sources he had discovered, the custom of the Jews of Oberland (Upper Hungary) not to commit the engagement conditions to writing.
Rabbi David Meisels of Satoraljuajhely (northern Hungary, near the Slovak border), who was present at the celebration, was so impressed that, as a wedding gift, he granted the bridegroom rabbinical ordination in appreciation of his deep knowledge of Jewish law and scholarship of the Torah.
In 1939, Slovakia became a puppet clerofascist state from 14 March 1939 to 8 May, 1945, as an ally and client state of Nazi Germany. It appears that at the beginning of 1939, Rabbi Weissmandl was at Oxford working on the manuscripts and it would have been convenient for him to stay the war in Oxford away from harm.
It therefore astonishes one that while at Oxford, Rabbi Weissmandel volunteered on 1 September 1939, shortly after the invasion of Poland by Germany together with Slovakia, to return to Slovakia as an agent of World Agudath Israel to help rescue the Jews of Slovakia and other Jews of Europe.
It is interesting to speculate whether Cecil Roth who had just returned in 1939 to Oxford as reader in Jewish Studies was an inspiration for him to return to Slovakia to aid the Jewish community there under the Nazis. It is known that as early as 1933, Cecil Roth was vocal and active against the Nazis, as he penned a letter of protest to the London Times against Hitler's declaration to boycott Jewish establishments.
Due to Rabbi Weissmandl having spent considerable amount of time in Oxford and likely became acquainted with the British establishment, it gave him the ability to assist with attempts to save Jews from the Holocaust.
This happened when the Nazis gathered sixty rabbis from Burgenland, bordering Slovakia. Czechoslovakia refused them entry and Austria would not take them back, leaving the stranded on the border. Rabbi Weissmandl flew to England, where he was received by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Foreign Office, and succeeded in obtaining entry visas to England for the sixty rabbis, saving them from the Holocaust.
When the Nazis, aided by members of the puppet Slovak government, began its campaign against the Slovakian Jews in 1942, members of the Slovak Judenrat formed an underground organization called the Working Group. The group's main activity was to help Jews as much as possible, in part through payment of large bribes to German and Slovak officials.
This Working Group during the period of WWII was led by Rabbi Weissmandl after he moved back to Slovakia, together with Gisi Fleischmann.
The transportation of Slovak Jews was in fact halted for a long time after the Working Group arranged a $50,000 ransom deal with the Nazi SS official Dieter Wisliceny.
At Weissmandl's initiative the Working Group was also responsible for the ill-fated Europe Plan which would have seen in late 1942 large numbers of European Jews rescued from the Nazis by paying the Nazis one to two million dollars ransom to stop most transports. The Germans asked for a 10% down payment, which unfortunately was never made.
The Working Group played a central role in distribution of the "Auschwitz Report" in spring 1944, which ultimately led to its publication in Switzerland. That triggered a major Swiss grass roots protest in the Swiss press, churches and streets. It was a major factor in President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and others threatening Hungary's Fascist regent Horthy with post-war retribution if he doesn't immediately stop the transports. At the time 12,000 Jews a day were transported to Auschwitz.
In 1944, Weissmandl and his family were put on a train headed for Auschwitz. Rabbi Weissmandl escaped from the sealed train by sawing open the lock of the carriage with an emery wire he had secreted in a loaf of bread. He jumped from the moving train, breaking his leg in the process, and hid in a secret bunker in suburban Bratislava, from where he was taken by Rudolf Kasztner and his Nazi associate Kurt Becher to Switzerland.
In 1946, Rabbi Weissmandl left Switzerland for the U.S.A, where he re-established the Nitra Yeshiva.
As his former teacher Rabbi Joseph Zvi Dushinsky, Rabbi Weissmandl was also known for his strong opposition to Zionism, and also spoke to the newly-formed United Nations against the creation of the Zionist State. In his biographies it attributes this to the fact that he felt that the Zionist leadership allegedly frustrated some of his plans in rescuing Jews from Nazi Europe.
It seems that a possible reason for this was also due to his former esteemed teacher Rabbi Dushinsky’s influence, albeit for similar reasons.