In Praise of Rabbi Eliezer Silver: One of the Greatest Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust Era

Byline: Jan. 8th, 4:00 PM

Rabbi Eliezer Silver (1882-1968) proved to be one the greatest rescuers of European Jewry during the Holocaust. He is credited with saving many thousands of Jewish lives. Early on in 1939, Silver was one of the founding fathers of the Vaad Hatzalah (Rescue Committee), where Silver was appointed as its president. He was instrumental in rescuing the cream of European rabbinic leaders, who along with Rabbis Aaron Kotler, Abraham Kalmanowitz marched up Pennsylvanian Avenue on October 6, 1943.

While standing in front of the White House, the large Jewish entourage of over two hundred rabbis recited the Psalms and announced, “We pray and appeal to the Lord, blessed be He, that our most gracious President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, recognizing this momentous hour of history and responsibility that the Divine Presence has laid upon him, that he may save the remnant of the People of the Book, the People of Israel.”

Shortly afterward, the Jewish delegation met with Vice President Henry Wallace and a congressional delegation to make their case for European Jewry. Later, at the Lincoln Memorial, a special memorial prayer was said on behalf of the martyred Jews.  Finally, the five rabbis went to the White House to meet with the President, where the President made his famous backdoor exit rather than meeting with them. Although they did not meet with the President, the publicity of the march led to the eventual formulation of the War Refugees Board that opened the doorway to over 100,000 Jews. When one considers how many of these survivors went on to have children–not to mention grandchildren–Rabbi Silver really saved millions of lives!

After the event, Rabbi Silver succeeded in raising over $5,000,000 for the new immigrants and secured over 2,000 emergency visas for the Jewish refugees. Like Rabbi Michael Weissmandl, Rabbi Eliezer Silver utilized every means available to bribe officials in Europe and in Latin America, to help settle Jews in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Palestine.  Foreign diplomats provided the fake visas to help facilitate the rescue. He even attempted to trade concentration camp prisoners for cash and tractors, resulting in the release of hundreds of Jews from the Bergen Belsen concentration camps along with several others.

Rabbi Silver, driven by the biblical admonition against standing idly by a brother’s blood, made no apologies for violating the Trading with the Enemy Act. In one of his most famous letters, he writes:

We are ready to pay ransom for Jews and deliver them from concentration camps with the help of forged passports. We are prepared to violate many laws in order to save lives. We do not hesitate to deal with counterfeiters and passport thieves. We are ready to smuggle Jewish children over the borders, and to engage expert smugglers for this purpose, rogues whose profession this is. We are ready to smuggle money illegally into enemy territory in order to bribe those dregs of humanity, the killers of the Jewish people![1]

Even after the war was over, Rabbi Silver continued to help bring over refugees from more than eight European nations. In the end, he died penniless after using all of his monies to help pave the way for Jewish immigration to the United States and Israel, including those who were trying to flee from Communism.

[1] Amos Bunim, A Fire in His Soul: Irving M. Bunim, 1901-1980: The Man and His Impact on American Orthodox Jewry (New York: Feldheim Publishers, 1989), 136.

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