David Kestenbaum - Saving Jews from Europe

Ray Kestenbaum
Talk at QJC about David Kestenbaum, March 12, 2016, by Ray Kestenbaum
By Kind Permission of The Author

Next Shabbat will be my bar mitzvah sedra and my late father’s 59th yahrzeit. I am the youngest of the seven Kestenbaum brothers…so this may be the last comprehensive presentation of his life and rescue efforts before, during and after the Shoah. I am doing this not only out of kibud Av but to report on the life of a monumental Ohev Yisrael.

Some of you may have seen the recent year-long exhibit titled "Against the Odds" at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park. The exhibit identified five Americans who worked feverishly to help Jews and Jewish families caught in the Nazi trap before and during World War II and afterwards, when a million Jewish survivors roamed Europe wounded, homeless, displaced and with their families destroyed.

"Against The Odds" Exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage 

The exhibit portrayed the anti-Semitic attitude within the US State Department at the time, especially in the Immigration Department, which turned up restrictive quotas, especially those of tens of thousands of Jews seeking to escape the Nazi repression and hatred, yimach shemahm, and the coming inferno. Never forget the St. Louis ship.

It would not be a Lashon Hara on my part if I mentioned the name of Breckenridge Long of our State Dept., who turned down thousands of Jews who applied for refuge. Nor will I be incorrect in mentioning the name General George Marshall, our revered Military Chief-of-Staff during the war but one who later tried to prevail upon President Harry Truman not to recognize Israel in 1948. But Truman ignored Marshall and was the first national leader who recognized the sovereignty of Israel as the Third Jewish Commonwealth…Kol Hakavod. Nonetheless, in the late thirties and forties there was an atmosphere here of anti-Semitism in the government and in parts of the military.

The non-religious Jewish community sought to blunt these attitudes by changing their names, their appearances. They worked hard to Americanize, even Christianize. But there were more than a few who worked to go back to our roots, to strengthen their families and communities into practices of Judaism, Yahadut, into Torah and mitzvot…and in the case of my father and uncle…to work to rescue hapless Jews and Jewish families from the clutches of the Nazis. Not many of those types…but a few. That’s partly what the exhibit was about.
David & Gisella Kestenbaum
I will always be proud to be the youngest son, the ben zekunim, of David Kestenbaum, Reb David ben Reb Elyahu v’Leah Rachel Kestenbaum. He was born in 1895 in Tarnov, Galicia, Poland, on the 9th of Adar Bet and moved to Leipzig, Germany, in 1914. He married at age 23 to Ella Gisella Goldman, a beautiful 13th generation German Jewish girl.

David Kestenbaum and his older brother Jacob—Uncle Yakel we called him--A”H, filed over 800 affidavits for relatives, friends, rabbeiim, yeshiva students, talmidei chachamim and others. They worked with the Vaad Hatzallah, the Committee for Jewish Rescue, and individually. An affidavit, you know, is the undertaking of financial responsibility of an immigrant so that he or she does not become a burden of the state. 800 plus is an enormous financial commitment. The Kestenbaums were doing well in the fur business in Leipzig, London and New York.

Individually, my father Dovid and Uncle Yakel worked with the US government and through contacts in neutral Switzerland and Turkey and with contacts in Scandinavia and England. At the Vaad Hatzallah his first assignment was to help rescue the 300 students and rabbeiim of the Mir Yeshiva.

The yeshiva was located in the tiny town of Mir in East Poland. In the fall of 1939 the yeshiva rabbis and students were caught under the domination of Communism after Germany and Russia agreed to divide Poland. The Yeshiva fell under the jurisdiction of Moscow and its rule to abolish religious education and practices.

That fear became a panic after the Wermacht attacked the Russians in the blitzkrieg of Barbarossa. The Nazis were approaching and the Jews of Eastern Poland had to find a way out. With the help of the JDC (Joint Distrubution Committee) and the Vaad Hatzallah, some 2,000 Jews took buses, trains and walked northward, crossing the Lithuanian border to find refuge in Vilnius. With funds from the Vaad the Mir people set up their yeshiva in the city of the Vilna Gaon…but not for long…because the Nazis were making headway in their conquest of the Baltic States.

My father worked with Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz and Rav Aharon Kotler, founders of the Vaad, in plans to provide food, shelter, transportation and money to maintain the Mir people in that city. Fortunately, b’siyata dishmaya, the Japanese Consul in Vilnius, a fellow by the name of Chiune Shiguhara, felt compassion for the Jews and stamped over 3,500 transit visas, among them the entire Mir Yeshiva body. He is often referred to as the Oscar Schindler of Japan.
The Mir Yeshiva in Shanghai 
After the war a Mir Yeshiva musmach, Rav Hirsch Asia, who was employed in my house as family teacher, explained how the Mir students got to Shanghai. “Once we got our visas,” he said, “we boarded long cattle cars on the Trans-Siberian railway. We travelled boxed-up for 12 days to Vladivostok. From there we got on to half broken boats to sail to Japan. In Tokyo we languished in the park until the awesome figure of Rav Aharon Kotler appeared and scolded us for lying around in Japan. He ordered us to move on to China where a big building and ground space in the Hongkew section of Shanghai was awaiting our arrival.”

Rav Kotler later became the founder of the Yeshiva Gedolah in Lakehood with my father and brother’s support. Meanwhile the Vaad helped establish the Mir Yeshiva in Shanghai. Throughout the war the Vaad saw to it that the Mir Yeshiva had the support to carry on. The Mir was the only European yeshiva that survived the Holocaust intact.

My father was involved in several other rescue operations as dark clouds hovered over Jewish communities in Europe.
I often questioned my father’s motive. My conclusion has been that he was a great Ohev Yisrael and was deeply believed in the mitzva of Hatzalat Nefashot—the saving of lives- and the mitzvah of Pidyon Sh’vuim—the redemption of Jewish captives. As the Pasuk warns us in Parshat Kedoshim, ”Lo ta’amod ahl dahm re’echa”…Do not stand aside while your brother’s blood is being spilled.” He understood the travail of the Jews in Galut through the ages…and volunteered his efforts and his money to be mekayem these mitzvot.

I can recall as a boy of nine sitting on the staircase in our house on President Street in Brooklyn hearing the outcry of the men of the Vaad Hatzallah in the living room. It was frightening! They were yelling because they received cablegrams of arrests, family members hauled off for transport, break-ins, murder.

Among the Vaad Hatzallah members meeting in our house—you may not recognize any of these names but I thought they should be mentioned here for the record—among the people were Irving Bunim, Barton Candy CEO Stephen Klein, Rabbi Baumol of Crown Heights Yeshiva, Rabbi Shabsei Frankel and Congressman Herbert Tenzer.
Henry Morgenstern Jr., Secretary of the Treasury under Franklin D.Roosevelt, Washington DC, USA
From all of these meetings, the sweat and tears, our government took no serious action until the famous protest march of the Agudas Horabonim in Washington in 1943. Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau stepped in to plead with President Roosevelt to help stop the mounting mass murder of Jews, which he finally did with the founding of the so-called War Refugee Board...very late and very little. And as you know after Germany surrendered unconditionally, 22 top Nazis were tried for war crimes in Nuremberg. And there were dozens of other trials of concentration camp officials and collaborators.


David Kestenbaum also had a busy family, business and philanthropic life. He and Gisella raised seven boys, all born in Leipzig, Germany, and all graduates of Mesifta Torah Vodaath. I found out that our house in Leipzig was some four five blocks from that of the Grunblatt family.

My grandparents, Elias and Leah Rachel Kestenbaum, left Tarnow for Leipzig in 1914 and got into the flourishing fur business. With their five children, they lived a productive and religious life. Son Yakel migrated to New York in 1922 and established a regional office in the fur trade while son Yisrael migrated to London and also built a fur business.

David and the boys attended two Leipzig synagogues—the Broder Shul, a narrow Orthodox synagogue attached to neighboring buildings, a shul that remained intact through Nazism and Allied bombings--and the Eitz Chaim Synagogue. Rabbi Ephraim Carlebach, grand uncle of the famous singer/guitarist Reb Shlomo Carlebach, was the spiritual leader of both these shuls. He was the mesadeh kidushin of my parents’ wedding in 1918. At the same time David was a devoted follower of the Kozhnitze Chassidic movement, Years later in Crown Heights he was an active congregant of the 7th Kozhnitzer Rebbe, the tsaddik Rabbi Israel Hopstein, on President St., Brooklyn.

The good years in Leipzig ended with the rise of Hitler and the Nazi movement, yimach sh’mam. I brought this book (show book) Lest We Forget by Shlomo Wahrman about Leipzig in the Nazi period between 1933 and ’39. You can look at it later.
Elias and his sons were closely monitoring the changes in both the German government and people’s attitudes toward Jews. David was an inveterate newspaper reader; even after arriving to the US in 1936, following his private Talmud lessons, he launched into devouring The Herald Tribune with breakfast. He kept himself informed.

Back in the early ‘30s there was no shortage of press and radio information in Leipzig to lay bare what was happening day by day. His activism at the synagogue and at organizational meetings identified him as a leader in the Leipziger kehilla.

Even before the Gestapo was set up, the German civil police arrested him in the street and brought him to the station house. It was right after Hitler came to power when he sat in the sparse station house near the city’s edge waiting to be registered. One of the cops went outside for a smoke and the other went to the bathroom. David saw his opportunity; he got up, quietly opened the screen door and walked out. The Nazis never caught him.

Meanwhile, on the Keilstrasse, Elias was on his terrace on a warm Shabbas afternoon singing zemiros. Suddenly he felt a cloth draped on his shoulders. It was the Nazi flag with the accursed swastika. After Shabbas, he called his lawyer to prefer charges on his upstairs neighbor whereupon his lawyer informed him “Herr Kestenbaum, zie haben ganishts mer keine rechts in dieses landt”…you have no more rights in this country.

It was then in 1933 after the elections that Zeida Kestenbaum knew then that it was time to leave Germany. At one point while he and Bubba Leah Rochel were in London, Gestapo thugs were waiting for them in their apartment. Zeida then gave the order to all his children to drop everything and leave Germany.

We obeyed his orders, left everything and moved to Holland and then to France. There were no suitable yeshivas in either for the boys so we migrated to England from where, in 1936, we boarded the SS Washington to New York Harbor.
The Kestenbaum Family on their way to the USA, 1936
The family moved into the house on Ave. J and Ocean Parkway, the stately house with the big stone lions in front. David was busy raising his family with Gittel, building a fur business and being active in Jewish affairs. We davened at the Young Israel of Flatbush. At the same time Reb Dovid was monitoring the ominous situation in Europe. He corresponded with cousins and friends who stayed on, urging them to get out immediately. He recalled the Chofets Chayim’s warning at a lecture in the 1920 that “there will come a time soon when a war will break out that would make the last war look like child’s play.”

With the clouds of war threatening overseas, Reb Dovid, who had once been an active Mizrachist, turned increasingly to activism in the American yeshiva movement. He saw our talmidei chachamim (torah scholars), our yeshiva students and frum people, due to their appearance, dress and lifestyle, as being the most visible targets of Hitler’s evil racial policies and pronouncements.
"Mr" Shraga Faivel Mendelowitz
In 1938 Reb Dovid met with Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz, founder of Mesifta Torah Vodaath, and began working to raise funds for the school and help build Camp Mesifta, the institution’s summer retreat in the Catskills. He also began a close association with Rav Aharon Kotler, founder of the Beth Medrash Gavoah in Lakewood, NJ, now among the world’s two largest rabbinical seminaries.
The Vaad Hatzallah functioned through the war years and the DP period (Displaced Persons) after. There was no mitzvah more urgent in the minds of David Kestenbaum and Vaad Hatzala activists than the saving of lives and the rescue of Jewish captives singled out for ghettoization, humiliation, starvation and disease, for Jews rounded up for transport to concentration and death camps.

As most of the world turned away from the deteriorating fate of the Jews, David Kestenbaum worked tirelessly to help provide affidavits to families and individuals for their rescue through the committee and on his own. He was a man of broad shoulders, of statesmanship and of drive for the job ahead. Much of that drive stemmed from his profound sense of hakorsas hatov, thankfulness to Hashem for the insight and ability to escape early with his family and warn others based on his experiences with the Germans and the prediction made long before by the Chofetz Chaim.

The most comprehensive collection of the works of rescue before, during and after the war is found at Yeshiva University’s Vaad Hatzala Collection. It summed up its contributions as follows: “The Vaad did succeed in actually bringing out thousands of Jews from concentration camps and transporting them to Switzerland in 1945, transmitting great sums of money to their agents to negotiate with German officials.”

David Kestenbaum remained active in the Vaad Hatzala until it wound down its activities in 1949. In 1952, David and Gittel travelled to the new State of Israel and soon invested in establishing a refrigerator plant in Haifa.
Rav Ephraim Kestenbaum Baking Oat Matzos
Of the seven Kestenbaum boys three are still with us. Leonard Kestenbaum of Lawrence and Yerushalayim, former President of Hapoel Hamizrachi of Crown Heights, is the true legator of the Kestenbaum chessed v’emunah. Rav Efraim Kestenbaum, a chemist and producer of oat matsos for wheat allergic people, migrated to Aretz from England some 6 years ago and now lives with parts of the Kestenbaum family in Ramat Beir Shemesh, may they all be happy and live the full life in Eretz Yisrael.

And I, a former journalist, radio newscaster and chazzan, am now a real estate agent.

David Kestenbaum passed away at age 62 in New York in March of 1957 and is buried in the family plot in the Young Israel of Flatbush tract in Beth Israel Cemetery in Elmont, Long Island, near the Queens border.

When the seven Kestenbaum boys arrived in New York Harbor in 1936, The Daily News carried a center-fold picture of the smiling family. But what they have been remembered for in the community was their activism in Jewish life and their snappy, harmonic Shabbat zemirot. The sons and grandchildren remember their father or zeidie and his devotion to each one of them. May the memory of his great works and character be a segulah, a treasure trove, to us and to Ahm Yisrael.


  1. Boooks should be written about the Kestenbaum family and made part of seminary, yeshiva plus adult study programs. Rabbi Efraim Kestenbaum once told me that he was never afraid of his hatzalat nefashot work, only afraid of failing it. He functioned as a real life spy, but saving precious lives instead of celluloid fantasies. His biography reveals too little of an unusual family with extraordinary midot and focus. That HKBH blessed the famil with huge success in its efforts is worth a long, thoughtful pause.

  2. This is amazing, I heard they did write a book about it, but it's only for the family. I would love to see it


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