“I’m standing on the land that was Hashem’s messenger to save our lives”
Photos: Family archives
As they said goodbye for the last time in the small Batei Machseh apartment in Jerusalem’s Old City, they must have made an interesting contrast. The sweeping robes and tall, saintly figure of the Yerushalmi tzaddik, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, and the fashionable modern suit and European air of his young visitor, Herbert Kruskal from Frankfurt.
“Listen to your parents and return to Germany,” the aged rav told the energetic, idealistic young man he’d got to know over the past five years. “But it’s important for you to maintain your connection to Eretz Yisrael — so buy some land.”
The year was 1924, and as Herbert Kruskal, my wife’s grandfather, went off to buy a plot on Jerusalem’s barren hills and give up his dream of settling in the Holy Land, he little imagined the fateful chain of events that the tzaddik’s advice had just set in motion.
A set of giant wheels were now turning that would culminate in one of the most dramatic, little-known rescues of the Holocaust.
In June 1944, at the height of the World War II, a group of 222 Jews possessing British citizenship and land in Palestine were given permission to leave the horror of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in exchange for the same number of Nazi-affiliated Christian Templers from Palestine’s German colonies.
Because of that very land that Herbert Kruskal purchased 20 years before as a bochur, his family — including his children, my wife’s aunts and uncles — would be part of the tiny group that was escorted by their Nazi tormentors, by comfortable railcar, to freedom.
The pieces of the gigantic puzzle that is the Divine Plan are constantly being arranged, but only rarely do we get a glimpse of the picture. Yet as Herbert Kruskal told a friend who found him shortly after the war saying Tehillim on Mount Scopus, “I’m standing on the land that was Hashem’s messenger to save our lives.”
Follow Your Son
The Kruskal family’s dramatic mid-Holocaust escape was actually set in motion in late 19th-century Prussia. Herbert’s grandfather Moshe Eliyahu Kruskal was a Litvish resident of the town of Ritova, near Memel — then part of Germany and now in Lithuania, where he knew Memel’s most famous resident, Rav Yisrael Salanter.
But when the draft for his son Leo (Yehudah Leib) Kruskal (Herbert’s father) loomed, Moshe Eliyahu decided to apply for British citizenship, which at that time could be bought, and which would exempt his son from army service. This British citizenship proved to be the first chapter in the Kruskals’ story, but in the meantime, Herbert Kruskal suffered for his grandfather’s decision. In 1899, his parents Leo and Erna moved to the legendary Frankfurt-am-Main community founded by Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, and he was born a year later. But despite being German born and bred, and never having visited England, when World War I broke out, the 14-year-old was considered an enemy alien.
“My father had to report to the police every day before school during the war,” says Rabbi Aryeh Kruskal, Herbert’s son, and a longtime resident of Israel. “When he arrived, the teacher would say, half joking, ‘Here comes the dirty Englishman.’ ”
Possibly that sense of otherness, allied with a natural wanderlust that led to a globe-trotting lifestyle unusual for the time, was what brought Herbert Kruskal to the Holy Land for the first time.
Herbert was just 19 when he set sail on his maiden voyage in 1919. His picture, inscribed “C’est moi!,” shows a confident man of the world, his parents’ affluence evident in his clothes and the very fact that he owned a camera.
“He was sent by Agudah leader Rav Yaakov Rosenheim, with whom he was very close, to investigate the situation of chareidi Jewry in Eretz Yisrael,” says Rabbi Aryeh Kruskal. “It was long before the split between Agudas Yisrael and what became the Eidah Hachareidis. That’s how my father ended up being introduced to Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld.”
Disembarking in a strange new world, the young man took lodgings first in the Hotel Allenby inside Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate, and then in the Old City’s Batei Machseh enclave. He introduced himself, as instructed by the Agudah activist, to the leader of the Old Yishuv and in whose modest home in Batei Machseh he became a regular visitor.
During those years, a struggle was underway for the soul of the country — emerging from its torpor as an Ottoman backwater under the British Mandate — between the Old Yishuv and secular Zionist newcomers. Rav Sonnenfeld was fiercely opposed to the secularists whose political strength was growing in the young country. His “foreign minister” to the powers that be was Dutch-born author, activist, and baal teshuvah Dr. Jacob de Haan, a brilliant, fearless man.
De Haan’s activism was so effective that the secular leadership saw him as a threat, and decided to do away with him. He was eventually killed by a Haganah gunman in modern Israel’s first political assassination.
Introduced by Rav Sonnenfeld to de Haan, Herbert Kruskal witnessed the mudslinging that Zionist factions unleashed on the Jerusalem rabbi. “Someone came to Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld and told him, ‘The Zionists are saying that de Haan decides things and he drags you along,’” says Rabbi Aryeh Kruskal. “Rav Chaim Sonnenfeld, who was a big strong man, raised his arm and smashed it on the table, and said ‘Sheker!’ ”
Herbert Kruskal spent a lot of time with de Haan, even joining him on a visit to Palestine’s High Commissioner, the British-Jewish aristocrat Sir Herbert Samuel. De Haan, who was a correspondent of the London Daily Express, was asked by the mustachioed Englishman: “Dr. de Haan, you say that Orthodox Jewry are suffering from discrimination here. From when did this begin?”
“My father,” says Rabbi Aryeh Kruskal, “would imitate de Haan’s high voice as he answered fearlessly, ‘From the time that you became High Commissioner.’ Angered, Sir Herbert Samuel exclaimed, ‘Have you come to insult me in my own residence?’ to which de Haan replied, ‘Lord Samuel, do you think I’ve just come to drink tea and eat cake?’ ”
Early Mandate Palestine was an oriental place, as a British officer told the new arrival. “You’re in the Middle East now, and there are two rules,” the soldier told Herbert. “Don’t believe anything you hear, and even things you see with your own two eyes, only believe half.”
Kruskal was clearly taken with life in the ancient city. His camera recorded scenes that are a mixture of the historic and the familiar. White-bearded Jews seated at the foot of the Kosel; tall Arabs in Turkish fez and on donkeys outside Damascus Gate; a photo of Jaffa Street, which he inscribed “links die Post,” to the left of the impressive colonial-era post office, which still stands.
Given his upbringing, Herbert Kruskal would probably have been aware of Jerusalem’s German Colony populated by a Protestant sect called the Templers. But oblivious to the central role these ethnic Germans would later play in his life, the affluent visitor had other sights in mind.
The vibrant country captured his imagination — especially the traditional Torah education of the young boys, so different to his own back in Frankfurt. “He was very impressed by the Yerushalmim,” says Rabbi Kruskal. “He heard the Yerushalmi boys in cheder learning Chumash and Mishnayos fluently, very different from what he’d experienced back in Frankfurt. He came three or four times over the next few years, and then he decided that he wanted to stay in Eretz Yisrael.”
Visits were one thing, but their only son deciding to settle down in Jerusalem was quite another for Leo and Erna Kruskal. So, with Rav Sonnenfeld encouraging their son to stay, they travelled to Palestine in 1924 to have it out with the Yishuv leader directly.
“My father thought that Reb Yosef Chaim could persuade his parents,” says Rabbi Kruskal. “But when my grandparents came and told him why their son needed to come back, as their only son [they also had a daughter], to help with the family business, he replied with a quote based on Chazal to the effect that where the calf goes, the cow will go too — in other words, rather than Herbert returning, they could follow their son.”
Erna Kruskal was having none of it. “She was a sharp, clever woman, and she replied, ‘Rav Sonnenfeld, are you implying that I am a cow?’ ”
That decided it, but before the Kruskals left, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld gave them the piece of advice that would preserve the family two decades later. “You should have a kesher to Eretz Yisrael — so buy some land. It’s cheap now.”
Turning to Reb Moshe Porush, grandfather of today’s chareidi political dynasty, who was a real-estate agent, the Kruskals invested in a plot — the site of today’s Hyatt Hotel — at the foot of the barren Har Hatzofim — and fenced it in.
So, in his mid-twenties, Herbert Kruskal sailed back again to Germany for business, marriage — and then escape.
Memories of Darkness
“My earliest memories are of a nice life growing up as a child in Scheveningen, a seaside town in Holland,” says Rachel Posner, nee Kruskal, the oldest of Herbert and Edda Kruskal’s five children, “and I remember every day standing at appel in Bergen-Belsen.”
Born in 1937, Rachel was too young to remember the flight from Frankfurt on Kristallnacht the following year, when her father had left behind a home, car, and prosperous business.
After he returned to Germany, Herbert Kruskal had married Edda (Leah) Gradenwitz. His wife was a granddaughter of Rabbi Asher Marx of Darmstadt, one of Germany’s prominent rabbanim, and a descendant of the Baal Halevushim. But she stood out for another reason, unusual then for a woman even in highly educated Germany: She was a doctor.
“My father, who was ten years older than my mother, met her on a train,” says their youngest son, Mr. Jitzchak Kruskal. “She was devotedly caring for her elderly father, and he was very impressed.” That medical skill and kindness would save many lives in the years ahead.
With a wine-import business based in Holland, Herbert Kruskal considered himself a Dutchman, as he wrote in an account of the Bergen-Belsen years immediately after the war. That made the Netherlands a natural place of refuge for the family who’d left so much behind in Germany, unaware that the Nazis wouldn’t respect Dutch neutrality.
Joined by Leo Kruskal, Herbert’s elderly father, they came to live in Scheveningen, a seaside town that is a district of The Hague, which was home to a vibrant Jewish community. A lifelong follower of Reb Yaakov Rosenheim, Herbert immediately created a local chapter of Agudas Yisrael, and was able to dispatch parcels of flour through the German Red Cross to contacts in the ghettos of Eastern Europe.
Herbert Kruskal’s own meticulous account of those years begins in mid-1942. Under German occupation since May 1940, life in Holland became more and more precarious as Jews were sent to labor camps and for resettlement in “the East.” In September 1942, Herbert Kruskal was taken from his job at a fur plant, manufacturing caps for the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front, and sent to Westerbork, a labor camp for Dutch Jews.
“We were having our supper, the children had already been put to bed, and the bell rang,” he writes. “Two Dutch plain-clothes officers were admitted, who asked for father, explaining that all foreign Jews were to be transported to Germany via Westerbork and that we too should get ready to come along.”
He managed to negotiate a reprieve for his father, wife Edda, and the children, but it turned out to be temporary, as they all joined him shortly after. “Our minds whirled like a merry-go-round, we hardly even realized the seriousness of our position,” he writes. “I was informed that having landed here at the camp, my status as a war worker would not protect me against deportation any longer.”
Herbert Kruskal’s diary is intentionally strictly factual, omitting much of the suffering that they endured. “The facts speak for themselves,” he writes. “When telling about people being dumped into cattle cars, do I have to go into detail to describe how they looked wistfully through the holes and cracks, like sheep for the slaughter?”
But in Westerbork, he describes an active Jewish life and attempts at continued education for the children. “There was a boy who was bar mitzvah in the camp,” says Rabbi Aryeh Kruskal, “and my mother came to him and said, ‘You should know that this is the most important day in your life, so I’m giving you my bread in order that you remember it.’ ”
There in Westerbork, the Kruskals fought to save fellow Jews from being sent to Auschwitz. Knowing that deportation to the East was a death sentence, they used German “orderliness” to buy time for as many inmates as possible. “My mother used to inject people with something that simulated a fever,” recalls Rabbi Aryeh Kruskal, “and then the German authorities would delay their deportation because they would only send healthy prisoners and whole families to the death camps.”
Rav David Brodman, the long-time rabbi of the upscale Tel Aviv suburb of Savion, who passed away last month, was saved by Herbert Kruskal’s quick thinking in Westerbork. “Many years ago, Rav Brodman told me how he was already on the train to Auschwitz when my father saw him,” says Rabbi Kruskal. “Knowing that the Germans wouldn’t deport a sick prisoner for fear that he would endanger the others, he hit the young boy on the nose, causing a flow of blood. The Germans didn’t realize that it was only a nosebleed, and so they took him off the train.”
Into the Camps
The time in Westerbork was spent in unceasing attempts to leverage their British passports to leave the nightmare behind — efforts that proved futile. Incredibly, they were unaware that in December 1942, they’d been awarded forged Paraguayan visas courtesy of the “Lados Group,” a group of Polish diplomats and Jewish activists working in Bern, Switzerland, to rescue Jews.
But those flailing escape attempts proved useless; instead they were about to be moved deeper into the Nazi empire of suffering, because in April 1943, they were told that they would be sent to Bergen-Belsen.
Not much was known of their new destination, Herbert Kruskal wrote, but they were with “hearts full of vague dread.”
Bergen-Belsen wasn’t a death camp with gas chambers; it was for the “privileged’ holders of foreign passports, although at least 50,000 people died there, from torture, disease, and malnutrition.
Pesach was approaching and the difference between the camps was immediately obvious. Herbert still had the dark-flour matzos that they’d baked on the sly in Westerbork, but the rabbis in Bergen-Belsen pushed the inmates to eat whatever bread they could find on Pesach, and even composed a special prayer to be said when eating it.
Moshe Kruskal, the family’s oldest son, was only four years old in Bergen-Belsen. His first, traumatized memory is of a screaming that he can’t place.
But even with hope sinking, the Kruskals held onto their faith. Wanting her daughters to experience Shabbos even in the terrible place they now inhabited, Edda Kruskal would take threads from her camp uniform and light candles every Shabbos, screened by a row of women.
That emunah radiated to others as well. Blessed with an excellent memory, the doctor said the Haggadah on Seder night for all the women in her bunk.
“Standing outside shul in London years ago, a visitor heard the name Kruskal mentioned,” says Mr. Moshe Kruskal. “He asked, ‘Is that Kruskal who was in Bergen-Belsen? I lost both parents, and I used to stand next to your parents each Shabbos when they sang zemiros. I still sing those tunes.’ ”
It was 1944, the Allies were still far from dismantling Hitler’s empire and things looked blacker than ever. But like the intense dark before the dawn, the family’s suffering heralded a miraculous blaze of light.
Two-hundred-and-twenty-two people, including the Kruskals, were about to walk free from Bergen-Belsen at the height of the Holocaust.
Ask many of the people walking down Jerusalem’s Rechov Emek Refaim why the area is called the German Colony, or why the graveyard behind the high-walled compound contains tombstones with Gothic script, and they’d be hard-pressed to answer.
That’s because the story of the Templers, a German Christian sect who began settling Palestine in the 1860s, has been forgotten. Arriving with messianic dreams, they left their imprint all around Jerusalem with biblical verses on their houses and their distinct German architecture. Templers founded a colony near Haifa, were the first to export the Jaffa orange brand to Europe, and built German-style chalets that are today’s upscale Sarona area, next to Tel Aviv’s Azrieli towers.
But from the time that the British Mandate took control of Palestine in 1917, these ethnic Germans were under suspicion as fifth columnists. And not for nothing: Adolf Eichmann claimed, falsely, to have been born in the Templer settlement of Sarona, and with Hitler’s rise to power, many young Templer colonists became Nazis, with swastikas fluttering on Emek Refaim Street.
When war broke out, British Mandate authorities had enough of the treason under their noses and arrested the remaining Templers. From a population of 2,000, they had dwindled to 222 people, and — life for life — they were about to provide the key to rescue for a tiny group of tortured Jews.
“At the lunch roll call on April 26, 1944, it was ordered that bearers of both British citizenship and Palestine papers were to step forward. “We were about 1,200 people,” wrote Herbert Kruskal. “The camp commandant with his staff and two civilians are standing there, calling up the names. Altogether about 300 names are being called, and we try to find some system in their procedure. Finally, my name reaches my ear like the sweetest music.”
The British citizenship that Herbert Kruskal’s father had purchased decades before to avoid becoming German, at about the same time that the German Templers started to colonize Palestine, had come full circle. Family Kruskal would be saved as the two groups were exchanged.
Standing there when the names were being announced was a young girl named Suzy Birnbaum (later Leurer). A cousin of my own grandfather, she was from Berlin and had followed the same Dutch-Bergen-Belsen route as the Kruskals.
“I remember a man standing on a platform and reading through a list,” she told me recently, “and we were all expecting to hear our names. He read out the Kruskals’ names — but not ours!”
At the roll call the next morning, the “British Palestinians” were told to form a special group and prepare to leave the labor camp. In the new barracks, they were free from all work.
“We are resurrected,” Herbert Kruskal wrote. “Eating, sleeping, and leisure time. We study Hebrew, Bible, Talmud, and English. The first Sabbath gives us a foretaste of incredible liberty. Yet, only three meters apart from us, behind the barbed wire fence, we see them tormented, hustling in exhaustion, weary unto death.”
But then, on the verge of freedom, something dreadful happened: The Kruskals were told that their names would be taken off the list.
“Herr Kruskal,” a Red Cross official said to him, “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but your family is about to be taken off the list because you don’t have Palestinian citizenship. The British High Commissioner insists that only people with Palestinian, as well as British, citizenship join the list.”
Herbert Kruskal turned white and almost fainted, as the doors to freedom closed in front of his eyes.
And then suddenly he remembered Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld. “At those critical moments, I suddenly remembered Rav Sonnenfeld’s advice to buy land. I saw it as a Heavenly sign, and said to the Red Cross official: ‘If we’re being struck off the list for lack of Palestinian citizenship, I can prove that we have it, because I lived there for a few years in the 1920s, and even have documentation, currently in London, that we bought land there.’ ”
“Despite the fact that the war was still raging,” says Rabbi Kruskal, “the official was able to get hold of the deeds from Lloyds of London through my father’s cousin Leo Elton, who lived in London and had connections with the British Home Office. They sent the documentation of the land sale using diplomatic post, and my parents’ names were reinstated.”
And the good news wasn’t over. According to his diary, Herbert Kruskal asked a German official about his father, who had been sent to Vittel, France. “I hardly had a chance to pronounce my name, when he turned to me and said, ‘I am happy to tell you that you are going to meet your father in Vienna tomorrow night. He is included in this exchange group.’ We were overwhelmed with happiness.”
Ferried to Freedom
The thought that the very same railway lines that were rushing millions to their deaths in cattle cars at the height of the Holocaust provided a comfortable escape for a handful of Jewish families is hard to comprehend.
Yet on June 29, 1944, that’s exactly what happened. Seated in first and second-class carriages, they steamed across Germany. Traveling through the bombed-out Balkans, they passed Budapest, Belgrade, and Sofia. But everywhere were reminders of the Jewish tragedy they were leaving behind: As they passed through Yugoslavia, they met cattle cars laden with Jewish deportees.
“On the journey away from Bergen-Belsen, my mother’s medical skills saved lives,” says Mr. Jitzchak Kruskal. “There was one passenger who became ill, and when the train reached a station, she jumped off to find medication, at risk of being left behind by the train.”
As they crossed the Bosphorus at Istanbul to be exchanged with the Templers, writes Herbert Kruskal lyrically, “we drank in the unlimited space of the Marmara Sea, which mirrored the star-spangled firmament, the silver line of the moon.”
After a ten-day journey, they crossed from Lebanon into Palestine. But even that last stage stands out as Heaven-sent. Visiting Rosh Hanikra on the Israeli-Lebanese border a few years ago, my wife and I saw a pair of railway lines vanish into a walled-off tunnel that runs over to Lebanon through the rock face.
A video tells the story of the place, which carried the now-defunct Palestine-Syria railway, blown up by the Haganah in the War of Independence. Echoing round the cavernous space, a disembodied voice told of how this freight line was used just once to carry passengers — and we realized that we were standing on the very spot where my wife’s family made it to freedom.
As the miraculous train arrived in Haifa, remembers Moshe Kruskal, who was then almost five, the crowds were cheering. “Even at that age,” he says “I felt so important.”
If Jews are destined to wander, some wander more than others, and Herbert Kruskal’s time back in Israel didn’t last more than a few years. After building themselves up from penniless refugees and settling in Jerusalem, where Dr. Edda Kruskal resumed her medical career in the Bikur Cholim Hospital, the War of Independence brought fresh trauma.
Herbert Kruskal was shot in the back in the fighting, and his wife — busy dealing with casualties in the hospital — had had enough. Rav Sonnenfeld was no longer alive, and instead, Herbert — a true lover of Eretz Yisrael — went to Bnei Brak to consult with the Chazon Ish about leaving the country after all they’d gone through.
The family sadly packed, and Bikur Cholim Hospital also said goodbye, begging Dr. Kruskal in a letter “not to forget the poor of Jerusalem.”
As holders of British passports, they set out to England, a country that was totally unfamiliar, but where Dr. Edda Kruskal’s parents had moved after the war.
Meeting her father, Raphael Gradenwitz, for the first time in eight years, Edda turned to him and said, “Do you know what gave me the strength to carry on in those dark times? I envisioned you going to the aron hakodesh in which you kept your small Sefer Torah at home, and you said Tehillim and gave tzedakah — that’s what kept me going.”
“That,” answered her father, “is exactly what I did.”
Postscript: Thirty years after Herbert Kruskal moved away from Israel, he returned to live out his final years in Motza, a picturesque village in the entrance to Jerusalem, below what’s now Har Nof.
Ironically, his postwar home in London was on none other than Templars Avenue, a Golders Green street that seemed to echo his past. But having spent the decades after the war commuting between London and Holland, where he’d resumed his business, his life came full circle.
Because those years in Jerusalem were spent just a few mountaintops away from the imposing Diskin Orphanage, where his revered Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld had a room that he would often use for respite; just a few miles from the German Colony, whose Templer inhabitants had been exchanged for his family; and not far away from the parcel of land that had saved all of their lives. —
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 817)
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