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Eliezer Silver: Rabbi rescued thousands

By Barry M. Horstman, Post staff reporter

One of the holiest men in Cincinnati dealt with some of the unholiest people on the planet to save thousands of Jewish lives during and after World War II.

As the horrors of Hitler's Third Reich spread across Europe, Rabbi Eliezer Silver of Avondale raised millions of dollars. Funneled to passport thieves, counterfeiters, smugglers and even top Nazi officers, the money went to buy not just the freedom - but the lives - of Jews in death camps and trapped behind enemy lines.

His sometimes illegal negotiations, combined with his ceaseless lobbying of the White House, the Vatican, the Kremlin and neutral governments to intercede on behalf of Europe's Jews, directly saved at least 10,000 lives and helped spare tens of thousands more.

Hundreds of the refugees whom Rabbi Silver saved ended up settling in Cincinnati. Lillian Silver of Roselawn, his daughter-in-law, recalls emotional scenes in his home in which persons who had been rescued bent to the floor to tearfully kiss Rabbi Silver's shoes in grateful thanks for their lives.

When he died in February 1968 - two weeks short of his 87th birthday and 33 years from his goal of living to Moses' 120 years - a quotation in his memorial service program aptly put his remarkable life in perspective: ''He will destroy death forever.''

Born in Lithuania in 1881, Rabbi Silver was one of two sons of parents with a centuries-old rabbinical lineage that on his mother's side could be traced back to King David.

At 25, to escape the anti-Semitism of Czarist Russia, Rabbi Silver emigrated to America with his wife in early 1907. The young couple settled in New York City, where he worked as a garment salesman and later sold insurance.

But Rabbi Silver - who had memorized entire prayer books at 5 and as a teen-ager had studied the Torah 18 hours daily - possessed an intellectual brilliance that soon led to a $6-a-week rabbi's position in Harrisburg, Pa.

Rabbi Silver's scholastic mastery drew him into leading Orthodox circles on the national level. In 1912, he was part of a delegation of rabbis that asked President William Howard Taft to void a treaty with Russia because of Russia's persecutionof Jews.

In 1914, when Rabbi Silver traveled abroad to visit his parents, he was caught in Russia as World War I broke out. Stranded for seven months by Russia's refusal to recognize an American passport issued to a Jew, he eventually crossed the border into Norway under an assumed name and returned home in 1915.

Active in relief efforts during World War I, Rabbi Silver moved in 1925 to Springfield, Mass. Four years later he was elected president of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the U.S. and Canada, in which he was to hold a leadership role for more than 30 years.

In 1931, Rabbi Silver came to Cincinnati to become the spiritual leader of an alliance of Orthodox synagogues. Cincinnati not only had the oldest organized Jewish community west of the Alleghenies, but also had been a center of Reform Judaism since the founding of Hebrew Union College in the 1870s - posing a challenge to unifying the city's Orthodox community that intrigued Rabbi Silver.

He drew national headlines when he championed the rights of Orthodox Jews to refuse to attend classes on the Sabbath at the University of Cincinnati Medical School, prevailing when UC's board of trustees overruled the faculty.

But World War II was the stage for Rabbi Silver's most memorable role.

In 1939, thousands of Jews fled from Poland to then-independent Lithuania, hoping to escape the Nazi terror. Aware that Lithuania's overflowing Jewish communities could not support the newcomers, Rabbi Silver convened an emergency meeting in November 1939 in New York City, where the Vaad Hatzala, or Rescue Committee, was formed, with Rabbi Silver as president.

While launching a fund-raising drive that raised more than $5 million, he also moved quickly to capitalize on an exemption to U.S. immigration quotas allowing entry to ministers or religious students. At his direction, synagogues in Cincinnati and across the country sent contracts to rabbis, thereby securing 2,000 emergency visas that were telegraphed to Eastern Europe.

The cumbersome visa procedures, however, could not keep pace with the increasingly desperate race against time.

Under Rabbi Silver's guidance, the Vaad turned to unorthodox - and, in some cases, illegal - channels to bring as many Jews as possible to the U.S., Canada and Palestine. Sympathetic foreign diplomats provided fake visas for perilous immigration routes; counterfeiters were paid to produce phony passports.

A Vaad representative in Switzerland even negotiated with the SS, the Nazi police force, offering to ransom concentration camp prisoners for cash and tractors - talks that freed hundreds from Bergen-Belsen and other death camps.

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.

''We are prepared to violate many laws . . . to save lives,'' he said. ''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 pur-

pose, rogues whose profession this is. We are ready to smuggle money illegally into enemy territory in order to bribe as many as necessary of the killers of the Jewish people, those dregs of humanity.''

In October 1943, as the magnitude of the Nazi atrocities was becoming shockingly clearer, Rabbi Silver organized a mass rally of more than 200 rabbis in Washington to press for more decisive action by the U.S. government to save European Jews.

On the steps of the Capitol, Vice President Henry Wallace heard Rabbi Silver's plea to deliver European Jews from extermination by ''modern Philistines.'' The meeting prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to form the War Refugee Board, which rescued tens of thousands from Hitler's ''Final Solution.''

After the war, when the Nazis' destruction of 6 million Jews became irrefutable fact, a stunned but focused Rabbi Silver - saying Jews had ''reached the chapter of 'After the Death' '' - began planning for reconstruction.

In 1946, he distributed relief funds and helped expedite visas to Jews in eight European nations - wearing, with government permission, a U.S. Army uniform for extra protection in areas where anti-Semitism was still rife. Only 5 feet 5 inches tall, he lost 35 pounds in three months overseas, a period when friends said he lived on the Torah rather than food.

''Rabbi Silver was not merely the head of Vaad Hatzala - he personified hatzala-rescue itself,'' said Dr. Isaac Lewin, himself a leader in the rescue effort. ''He lived and breathed rescue. He spent virtually every waking moment upon the sacred task.''

When donations were insufficient, Rabbi Silver often spent his own money to meet refugees' needs. In the post-war years, when he helped many Jews escape Eastern Europe before the Iron Curtain fell, he personally guaranteed countless loans - many of which he had to repay himself.

By the time of his death - after nearly 40 years as head of the Kneseth Israel Congregation here - Rabbi Silver's trademark black top hat and wispy white beard had become cherished symbols of freedom and scholarship to Jews worldwide.

After a lifetime of courage, conviction and charity, he died penniless. But, in the accounting ledger that matters most, Rabbi Silver died one of the richest men in the world - one whose brightly burning legacy will never be extinguished.

Publication date: 05-11-99

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