Sternbuch, Rabbi Issac and Rachel, Montreux

Switzerland

Emigrating from Eastern Europe before the war, the Sternbuchs settled in Switzerland, first in St. Gallen then they moved to Montreux on Lac Leman and became Swiss citizens. Isaac Sternbuch was a businessman and a prominent orthodox rabbi, a leader in the ultra-orthodox Agudat-Israel party. His wife Recha, an energetic activisit, too worked tirelessly at saving religious Jews and scholars to assure a continuum of Torah studies in view of the extermination. The couple engaged in the rescue of rabbis and yeshiva students, supporting them by sending relief packages as well as rescue operations. They founded the Vaa’d Le’hatsala – a rescue committee for the orthodox and became the Swiss representatives of ‘The Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada.’

With these imposing credentials and generous funding, they decided to emulate and compete with the other Rescue Committee from Budapest and with secular Kastner and his Swiss contact Saly Mayer. Not to be outdone they solicited the help of a former Swiss president, Jean-Marie Musy to approach his old acquaintance Himmler and release a parallel train to the Musterzug, with orthodox passengers. The allocated budget was five million dollars and indeed a short time after, a train bearing twelve hundred rabbis, yeshiva students and their families, selected for their orthodoxy arrived in Switzerland. The logistics of the release of the train and its expedition to Switzerland were this time handled by SS-Brigadefuehrer Walter Schellenberg, head of SS Foreign Intelligence and who was eager to replace Becher as the one handling foreign SS affairs.

This free-lance operation was sprung as a total surprise on Kastner and Becher who were in the midst of delicate talks with Himmler. Suddenly, all Himmler wanted to know, was who of these Jewish groups is more important, the Orthodox Rabbi Union with all the money up front or the JOINT with Kastner and Saly Mayer and empty promises. Castigating Becher as to why he did not get latched on to it sooner and that the time may have come to chose among the Jews.  For a moment it looked as if Becher was in jeopardy, Kastner was tearing his hair out. It caused delays to the ongoing negotiations. Becher felt that the rug was pulled from under him. Becher reproached Kastner for letting him down in front of his boss; he refused to believe that Kastner knew nothing about this Musy operation. Himmler watched money thrown at him, while Kastner’s party kept making promises seemingly unable to come up with the cash. Himmler recognized an opportunity of playing one group off against the other. The Musy surprise almost turned into a catastrophe.

Kastner suggested to Sternbuch to join forces, saying how essential it is to show Himmler a united Jewish front. The Sternbuch’s however smelled victory for their cause, and refused to entertain the offer.

 

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