Beyond The Odds

Descendants of Jacob and David Kestenbaum gather at Beit Kenesset Hanasi, Jerusalem 
As family re-unions go, this has got to be unique.

I had the privilege of attending a presentation at the Beit Kenesset Hanasi in Rechavia, Jerusalem by

Bonnie Gurewitsch who is the curator of the exhibition, Against the Odds: American Jews and the Rescue of Europe's Refugees 1933-1941, now on view at the Museum of Jewish Heritage - a living Memorial to the Holocaust, in New York City.

Bonnie opened her presentation with an explanation of the astounding obstacle of bureaucracy which stood as a wall between European Jewry, and safe haven in the USA.

Strict quotas were in place, which severely restricted the total potential emigration to just tens of thousand each year.

Furthermore, these quotas were reinforced and then supplemented with draconian bureaucratic requirements - on the pretext that immigrants should not become a burden on the public purse in the USA.

Bonnie observed that these additional impediments were sometimes fueled by blatant antisemitism by US officials.

It is not known how many were rejected by US Consulates, for various reasons, whether technical or substantive, but it is estimated that 90% of applications were immediately rejected, at first review, and these rejections were not even recorded.

The idiosyncrasies and arbitrariness of these requirements meant that there were impossibly low chances of someone successfully applying for a visa to the USA without expert guidance, money and a well resourced advocate in the USA.

Bonnie gave several examples of such advocates,such as William B. Thalhimer Sr., who established a working farm project, initially to accept hundreds of Jewish agricultural students from Germany - and eventually succeeded in bringing over around 35 young German Jews, and Herman Stern, who used personal and political connections to enlist the assistance of influential figures.

"American Jews had to be resourceful and persistent in order to save those in danger, usually committing their own funds not only to guarantee that the refugees would not become “public charges” in the United States, and also to help them establish themselves once they arrived."

Bonnie also presented the experiences of the many members of the extended Lehman family, and Adolf Lorch, who helped hundreds of people reach the United States.

From a personal angle, the highlight was Bonnie's explanation of the herculean efforts of Jacob and David Kestenbaum, who worked with organizations in their Orthodox community to bring hundreds of Jews out of Europe before and after the Holocaust.

"New York fur dealers, Jacob and David Kestenbaum, earned a reputation for responding to every request they received from refugees looking for sponsorship or assistance. The brothers issued hundreds of affidavits to extended family, friends and total strangers and encouraged others to serve as sponsors."

The brothers were aided by two full time secretaries, who organized their overseas 'client' families into over 700 case files - and each case file could include a whole family.

When the Kestenbaum brothers were blacklisted by the US authorities for "having too many cousins", they used their friends and neighbours to help; furthermore, the brothers developed new routes of escape, including from Europe to Palestine, and they participated in the evacuation of the Mir and Chabad yeshivot.

The Beit Kenesset HaNassi was filled to overflowing, and around 50 of the attendees were proud descendents of Jacob and David Kestenbaum, including Jacob's son Sandy, and David's son Rav Ephraim (my father-in-law).

Although the individual heroic Jews detailed in the presentation, and others around the USA, worked tirelessly, their efforts did not always succeed.

For example, it is not known how many of the Kestenbaum brothers' 700 files, actually succeeded in reaching safety in the USA (this is currently being researched).

The grim facts were that there were only around 300,000 visas available during the whole war years for all immigrants to the USA from around the world. Out of this, due to the almost impossible bureaucracy, which only got worse as the USA entered the war in 1942, only 92,000 visas were actually issued. According to Bonnie, the majority of these were probably to Jews.

What was clear from Bonnie's presentation is that the US Government did the minimum to help Jews in peril in Europe during the pre- and War years.

In spite of the heroic and creative efforts individual Jews, like the Kestenbaum brothers and others, in part as a result of blind or hateful US Government policy, many millions of European Jews were left to their tragic fate.


  1. What a privilege to be part of the family and to witness extraordinary heroism.


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