Michael Dov Weissmandl: A Rabbi from Oxford’s Bodleian Library who saved Jews from the Holocaust

Wednesday, 26 April, 2017 - 9:28 pm

Weissmandl.jpgThe University of Oxford did more for Jewish refugees than any other single university in England,[1] claims recently published research by Oxford historian Laurence Brockliss. By the time the war broke out, the university had taken in no less than fifty German Jewish refugees and had given them financial support. Most of the German Jewish refugees who initially arrived were physicists and of international reputation.Weissmandl.jpg


The bringing over of refugees began when Frederick Lindemann, anticipating the purge of Jewish academics in 1933, saw an opportunity to set up Oxford, ahead of Cambridge, as a centre for low temperature physics by recruiting German Jewish academics to come to Oxford to work for the Clarendon Laboratory that he headed. This included the Breslau five: K.A.G. Mendelssohn, his assistants Francis Simon and Nicholas Kurti, and their doctoral pupils Heinz and Fritz London, as well as Heinrich Kuhn and Erwin Schrodinger. One of the first Jewish exiles to arrive in Oxford was Hans Krebs, who went on to win a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1953[2].


Despite taking in Jewish academics fleeing the Nazis, deep-seated racism and protectionism nevertheless persisted in Oxford against non-British nationals gaining posts at the university, the classicist Eduard Fränkel (Freiberg) was the only exile to gain a permanent university post, at Corpus Christi at the end of 1934. It was in 1938-9 when the university attitude mellowed to a degree. In November 1938, they were reported to have been supporting twenty-seven refugees, which was more than any other university in England, including Cambridge, besides London’s combined colleges. In the whole of France only nineteen were being looked after. Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL), established by London School of Economics (LSE) in 1933 to support academics in exile, reports that Oxford in 1938, when a number of Oxford fellows had joined the society, persuaded colleges to open their doors more widely. SPSL in 1939 announced a national appeal for funds and the Vice Chancellor of Oxford graciously allowed the Sheldonian theatre to be used as a venue for a meeting where they addressed the ‘problem of the refugee scholar’ in Oxford. At that time, nine of the men’s colleges – All Souls, St John’s, Magdalen, Merton, Christ Church, Oriel, Lincoln, Queens, Balliol, and two women societies - LMH and Somerville, were all supporting at least one scholar in exile. All Souls was supporting four academics, including lawyers Fritz Buchart, Evan Kantowitz, Martin Wolff and Max Grunhut between £300 and £400 per annum. Other colleges were giving a token contribution clarifying that they would mostly likely not increase in the future pleading poverty. Wadham, for example, gave nothing at all.


At the end of 1938, Biblical scholar Godfrey Driver of Magdalen wrote to a number of leading academics at the university suggesting that a common relief fund be created. Subsequently, in February, 1939, the University Council established the ‘Information Bureau for Refugee Studies’. The aim was to bring people to Oxford to be put to use, with the prospect of re-emigration. On 8th March, 1939, it was announced that Oxford had given more funds towards refugees (£3,765) than any British university. The beneficiaries of this effort included a range of Jewish academics[3] as well as German orientalist and pastor Paul Kahle who arrived in 1939 after being persecuted by the Nazis for his wife helping a Jewish neighbor during Kristallnacht in 1938. Kahle was subsequently dismissed from the University of Bonn in 1939 after hiring Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg as an assistant. Student refugees at Oxford included Karl Leyser, Heinz Koepller, a chemist Mrs. Jaeger, Joseph Doppler, who was killed near Dunkirk and Franz Ludwig Carsten at Wadham. This is an overview of the extent that Oxford undertook to accept Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe before the War.


Michael Dov Weissmandl


In contrast to this movement of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution of Jews in Europe in the 1930s and settling in Oxford, is the fate of an heroic individual who moved in the opposite direction: travelling from the comfort and security of Oxford into the eye of the storm, returning to his home country Slovakia to try and save as many Jews as possible from the Holocaust, despite great danger to his own life. Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandl (1903–1957) was a scholar and expert of Hebrew manuscripts, who visited Oxford during the 1930s, and played an instrumental role in attempting to save Jews from the Nazis during the Second World War. This second part of the article will illustrate how Michael Dov Weissmandl’s visits to Oxford served him his rabbinical ordination, possibly the first rabbi to be ordained from research at the Bodleian library, but also offered him the groundwork to attempt to help save tens of thousands of Jews from the Nazis in Slovakia and millions in Europe.


Michael Dov Weissmandl was born in 1903 in Debrecen, Hungary, and a few years later moved with his family to Tyrnau, Slovakia.[4] 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.[5] In the 1930s, Michael Dov Weissmandl travelled to Oxford three times to do research at the Bodleian library’s collection of Hebrew manuscripts, comparing printed works with the original manuscript. 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. On one occasion he is known to have 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 1930s. As E.O. Winstedt was principally a Latinist and Gypsologist, rather than Hebraist, Wessmandl's assistance must have been appreciated, as well as other rabbis who visited the Bodleain library earlier, like Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who also visited Oxford, referring to it in his works as the ‘City of Books’.[6] During his visits to Oxford, Michael Dov Weissmandl recorded variant readings from the Hebrew manuscripts as well as hundreds of unpublished rabbinic responsa which he intended to publish.


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. Weismandl’s 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 of the new edition of Kikayon de-Yonah seems to have been for the publishing of its 3rd edition. The first edition was edited and published in Amsterdam in 1690 by the son of Rabbi Jonah T’omim, Joshua, and the second printing was in 1712 at Hanau, Germany. In less than a year, 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[7]. 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 the publication of the additional unpublished manuscript on the Code of Jewish Law, 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), Michael Dov Weissmandl married Bracha Rachel, the daughter of his teacher Rabbi Samuel David Ungar. For the engagement (tenaim), 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 that 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. 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 acknowledgement of his deep knowledge of Jewish law and scholarship of the Torah.


Although immersed in Hebrew manuscript research and Torah study at Oxford, he was not uninterested in his surrounding and the fate of his people in Europe. While in Oxford, it is possible he became acquainted with other prominent Jewish members of the university in the 1930s, such as Sir Isaiah Berlin, who had then received a prize scholarship at All Souls College. It is unclear whether he would have met Jewish historian Cecil Roth who moved to Oxford in January 1939 as Reader in Post-Biblical Jewish Studies, having studied at Merton College for a DPhil in 1924. Zionist leader and director of Marks and Spencer, Harry Sacher supported Roth’s position, in order to provide Jewish leadership and hospitality for Oxford’s students.[8] As early as 1933, Cecil Roth was vocal against the Nazis, and penned a letter of protest to the London Times against Hitler's declaration to boycott Jewish establishments. Weissmandl would have almost definitely been aware of the debate and discussion and subsequent influx of Jewish refugee scholars to Oxford from Nazi Germany throughout the 1930s.



Despite the comfort and security of Oxford, in 1939 Michael Dov Weissmandl felt he could no longer be at peace living in Oxford working on Hebrew manuscripts while his community was in danger in Europe. Perhaps he was inspired and motivated by the efforts of the non Jewish University community in Oxford, in successfully taking in, and paying bursaries to, a significant number of Jewish academics. On 14 March 1939, Slovakia became a puppet clero-fascist client state of Germany that lasted until 8 May, 1945. Shortly after the invasion of Poland by Germany, together with the newly created Slovak Republic, on 1 September 1939, Weissmandl decided to return to Slovakia as an agent of World Agudath Israel, the political arm of Orthodox Judaism.  Agudath Israel had its support base mainly in Eastern Europe, to help rescue the Jews of Slovakia and other Jews of Europe.


Due to Michael Dov Weissmandl having spent considerable amount of time in Oxford and likely became familiar 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. 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 Catholic priest, Father Jozef Tiso, head of the Slovak government, began deportation of Slovakian Jews in March, 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. Weissmandl was a leading member of this Working Group during the period of WWII, together with his relative Gisi Fleischmann. In June, 1942, through a mediator they approached the Gestapo expert on Jewish affairs attached to the German embassy at Bratislava, Dieter Wisliceny, with a bribe of $50,000. This bribe was accepted, half of which had to be paid within two weeks, allowing the transports to stop for seven weeks. The second installment could not however be raised and three further Slovakian transports were sent to Poland in September. Finally, the funds were raised, though two further transports were sent to Poland after the money was paid. In total, 58,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz in this period, 50,000 in June and a further 8,000 in September. After that no more deportations left for two years. The delay of the 8,000 Jews was due to the initiative of Weissmandl. It is debated what role the bribe played in the stopping of the transports for the two year period, as the Prime Minister Ludin refers to Church pressure and corruption of Slovak officials through bribes exempting up to 35,000 Jews for economic reasons, as reasons for the stopping of the transports.[9] 


At Weissmandl's initiative the Working Group was also responsible for the ill-fated Europa 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 could not be raised.[10]


According to Rudolph Vrba, the Working Group played a role in the distribution of an "Auschwitz Report" in 1944. The report was an accurate account of Auschwitz and the deportation and plans for the extermination of one million Hungarian Jews. On 18 May, 1944, Weissmandl sent the report to the Jewish leaders in Turkey, Switzerland and Palestine, with a demand that was passed on to the Allies to bomb train lines to Auschwitz. Although the Allies flew over Auschwitz many times in the late Spring of 1944, the proposal to bomb Auschwitz was rejected by the British Forein Office, though supported by Churchill and similarly vetoed by Washington, due to it being regarded a ‘civilian’ target.[11] A few weeks earlier, however, on 25 April, Rudolph Vrba, another Slovakian Jew, who escaped from Auschwitz on 7th April, 1944, together with Alfred Wetzler, wrote a report about the camp, of which he was an eyewitness. Vrba claims that his report was passed on to Papal Nuncio in Slovakia, who took it to Geneva, where it was passed on to Pope Pius XII, as well as President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Papal Nuncio subsequently handed a letter from Pope Pius XII to Hungary's Fascist regent Admiral Horthy protesting the deportations of Hungarian Jewry. In addition US Secretary of State Cordell Hull threatened Horthy with post-war retribution if he doesn't immediately stop the transports. At the time 12,000 Jews a day were being transported to Auschwitz. Due to these reports the transportations were stopped whereby 400,000 Jews were killed instead of the intended million had the transports been allowed to continue. Vrba writes that he met Weissmandl in secret in Bratislava and that, in addition to his efforts with the Auschwitz report, Weissmandl singlehandedly saved hundreds of people from deportations.[12]


In August 1944, Weissmandl was captured by the S.S., together with his family, and was put on a train to Auschwitz. Weissmandl escaped from the sealed train by sawing open the lock of the carriage with an emery wire he had hidden in a loaf of stale bread.[13] 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, Weissmandl left Switzerland for America, where he remarried and re-established the Nitra Yeshiva. Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandl passed away in 1957.


While Holocaust historians question the extent of the success of Weissmandl’s efforts in terms of lives rescued on behalf of Slovakian and Hungarian Jewry, his willingness to leave the comfort and security of Oxford and return to Slovakia to make every effort to save Jews in Europe is an inspiring demonstration of placing the life of others before one’s own, considered beyond the call of duty in Jewish law. It is interesting to speculate whether he could have applied for a position at the Bodleian Library or moved to London with his family, so as not to have to return to Europe once the War broke out. As one of the great pre-War rabbis in Europe, the discussion in Jewish law regarding putting one’s life in harm’s way to save another would have no doubt been familiar to him.


Love thy neighbour


The moral imperative to help a person in need, in Jewish teaching, is based on Leviticus:[14] “Love your neighbour as yourself” and:[15] “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour”. This injunction however is restricted[16] by the further injunction: “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them”.[17] Rabbi David ben Zimra, also called by his acronym Radbaz (1479-1573), writes in a responsa[18]: “a person who endangers one’s life to save another is a pious fool”. The view of Maimonides is that one is not required to leave a city of refuge (where one is protected, according to Jewish law, from the revenge of family members of a victim who he accidentally killed), even to save the life of the entire Jewish people.[19] Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843-1926), known as Or Sameach after his commentary on Maimonides, writes[20] that the view of Maimonides is in fact that one is not required to risk one’s own life to save the life of others. This question whether one needs to risk one’s own life to save another is the subject of a dispute between the Jerusalemite and Babylonian Talmud, in which Jewish law decides according to the latter, that one need not put one’s own life at risk to save the life of another person even from certain death.[21] Rabbi Moses Ze'ev of Grodno (d. 1830) in his work Aguddat Ezov qualifies however that when in doubt whether there is actual risk one should not err on the side of caution.


In the case of Weissmandl, in September 1939, when he left Oxford for Slovakia, the War had only just broken out and the fate of the Jews of Europe was not yet sealed. The mass shootings in Eastern Europe took place in 1941 and the Wannsee Conference to discuss and implement the Final Solution took place in January, 1942. Nevertheless, from 1933 onwards when the Nazis rose to power, particularly after Kristallnacht on 9 November, 1938, and the invasion of Poland by the Nazis together with Slovakia in 1939, leaving Oxford – a place where refugees had been coming for protection – for Slovakia, to help save European Jewry was a decision that put his life at risk, even if he didn’t envision the possibility at that time of being sent to Auschwitz with his family. This was a display of immense piety, as Radbaz states:[22] Fortunate is the portion of a person who causes himself harm to save another person’s life. Whether Weissmandl saved one person or thousands, Jewish teaching considers the virtue of saving even one life the same as saving an entire world.[23] While Oxford is remembered, rightly so, positively as a place that went further than other similar institutions in the UK to save Jews fleeing Nazi Germany for safety, Weissmandl should equally be remembered as a person of enormous courage and vision who left Oxford and went beyond the call of duty to save Jews at such a tragic period in Jewish history despite great danger to his own life.



[1] Ark of Civilization: Refugee Scholars and Oxford University, 1930-1945, Ch. 3, Laurence Brockliss. The research in this paper about Jewish refugees in Oxford in the 1930s is from the above chapter, delivered at a lecture at the Oxford University Chabad Society in March, 2017.

[2] In the first two years after the Nazis came to power, six with an arts background found a home at Oxford, including political scientist and lawyer Albrecht Mendelssohn-Bartholdy at Balliol in 1934, historian Ernst Kasire and economist Jacob Marschak at All Souls, educationalist Elisabeth Blochmann at LMH, philosopher Raymond Kobansky at Oriel from January 1934, and classicist Eduard Fränkel (Freiberg), the only exile to gain a permanent university post, at Corpus Christi at the end of 1934. Oxford reader in Celtic, Paul Jacobsthal, arrived in 1935, becoming Reader of Celtic archaeology in 1937. Philologist Rudolf Pfeiffer arrived in 1937 due his Jewish wife Lili (nee Beer).

[3] Botanist Kurt Wohl arrived in March 1939. Some older refugees were unable to find a home at Oxford, like philosopher Georg Misch, who was briefly at Magdalen, and neo-Hegelian Richard Kroner, briefly at Corpus. Other academics supported by Oxford when the war broke out included lawyer Gerhard Leibholz, supported by Magdalen, professor of politics Harmon Zeigler, philologist Jacob Leib Teicher, Pedro Bosch Gimpera, Viennese surgeon Julius Schnitzler, mathematician Robert Remak and Italian historian Arnaldo Marmigliano, Philologist Paul Maas, legal scholar Fritz Pringsheim, classicist Felix Jacoby, who was supported generously by Christ Church, also arrived in 1939. Middle Eastern archaeologist Claude Schaeffer arrived in 1940 after the Fall of France. Musicologist Egon Wellesz arrived in England after the Anschluss and arrived in Oxford in 1942 after being kept as an enemy alien in the Isle of White until 1943.

[4] An Unheeded Cry (Artscroll). See this biography for many of the details mentioned in this article.

[5] Rabbi Dushinksy was fourth or fifth cousin to political scientist Dr. Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, currently residing in Oxford.


[7] 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.”

[8] The Jews of Oxford, David M. Lewis, p. 64.

[9] A History of the Holocaust, Yehuda Bauer, p. 339-340.

[10] Saving one’s own: Jewish rescuers during the Holocaust, ch. Slovakia.

[11] A History of the Holocaust, Yehuda Bauer, p. 241; 351.

[12] Escaped from Auschwitz, Rudolph Vrba, p. 274. On page 275, Vrba describes his meeting Weissmandl: “I found myself facing a tall, dark man with exceptionally vivid eyes. He was only about forty, but his heavy black beard made him look older. I felt at once that I was in the presence of a very remarkable personality, in spite of his shabby clothes, his collarless, buttonless shirt, his mu-stained trousers and battered shoes. One, I noticed, was tied with string, The other was not tied at all. He greeted me in Slovak, which amazed his students because normally he spoke only Hebrew and insisted on an interpreter translating into Hebrew anything said to him in any other language. Then, dismissing the students in his room with a gesture, he said: “So you have escaped from Auschwitz. Therefore I must address you as the Ambassador of 1,760,000 people.”

[13] Escaped from Auschwitz, Rudolph Vrba, p. 274.

[14] 19:18.

[15] Leviticus 19:16.

[16] Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 426.

[17] Leviticus 18:5.

[18] 3:627.

[19] Mishneh Torah, Laws of murder 7:8.

[20] Or Sameach commentary to Mishnah Torah (ibid).

[21] Choshen Mishpat, Pischei Teshuva 426:2.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5.


Comments on: Michael Dov Weissmandl: A Rabbi from Oxford’s Bodleian Library who saved Jews from the Holocaust
There are no comments.