The Rabbi Was A Secret Agent
The obituaries last week of Rabbi Herbert A. Friedman concentrated on his brilliant and innovate achievements within the American Jewish community, but Friedman’s finest contributions to the Jewish people were in his service as an American Army Chaplain in Berlin, where working as a Mossad agent, he spearheaded the efforts to brings tens of thousands of Jews from the Soviet occupied zone to American and British zones. This was a heroic time and his methods were far from Orthodox.
Born in New Haven 1918, he was a graduate of Yale before entering the Jewish Institute of Religion from which he was ordained as a rabbi in 1944. He was with Rabbi Stephen Wise, within hours of his receiving the famed telegram of August 29, 1942 informing him.
RECEIVED ALARMING REPORT STATING THAT IN FUEHRER’S HEADQUARTERS A PLAN HAS BEEN DISCUSSED AND BEING UNDER CONSIDERATION ACCORDING WHICH TOTAL OF JEWS IN COUNTRIES OCCUPIED CONTROLLED BY GERMANY NUMBERING THREE AND HALF TO FOUR MILLIONS SHOULD AFTER DEPORTATION AND CONCENTRATED IN EAST BE AT ONE BLOW EXTERMINATED IN ORDER RESOLVE ONCE FOR ALL JEWISH QUESTION IN EUROPE STOP ACTION IS REPORTED TO BE PLANNED FOR AUTUMN WAYS OF EXECUTION STILL DISCUSSED STOP IT HAS BEEN SPOKEN OF PRUSSIC ACID STOP IN TRANSMITTING INFORMATION WITH ALL NECESSARY RESERVATION AS EXACTITUDE CANNOT BE CONTROLLED BY US BEG TO STATE THAT INFORMER IS REPORTED HAVE CLOSE CONNECTIONS WITH HIGHEST GERMAN AUTHORITIES AND HIS REPORTS TO BE GENERALLY RELIABLE.
Wise carried that telegram in his pocket, sharing it with the few he could absolutely trust and wondering what to do with the information he received. He soon took it to the State Department, which asked him to remain quiet until they could verify the information. From August-November hundreds of thousands of Jews were shipped to their death. In November the State Department informed Wise that they could confirm his deepest fears, but when he went to the Press, the State Department would neither confirm nor deny his information. Friedman learned the perils of silence and hesitation.
He served as a chaplain with the Ninth Infantry Division in Germany, and after World War II. After a meeting with Ben Gurion in Paris, where a much wanted Ben Gurion found a haven in the Royal Monceau Hotel, British Headquarters in Paris, which had a British flag at the its entrance – the safest place is in the eye of the storm — Friedman was recruited into the Haganah as he tell its, but actually the Mossad. He was instructed to get assigned to Berlin – no easy task for an American chaplain — and he began to organize the escape into the American zone of tens of thousands of Jews trapped in the Soviet zone. These men, women and children later became Israelis rather than Soviet or Polish Jews.
He began by recruiting American Jewish soldiers asking them if they were angry at the Germans. The answer was painfully obvious.
”Do you want to do something about it?” he would ask.
“Yes” was the resounding answer.
“Then get me nylons and condoms, cigarettes and Hershey Bars and I don’t want to know how.” Remember he was still a Chaplain, still an officer.
Each night trucks filled with gas with their odometers disconnected would leave Berlin for the East, collecting and discarding their Jewish cargo into the American Zone and each morning the trucks would reappear at the Motor Pool with their odometers reconnected, their gas tanks filled, cleaned and washed, with no trace of where they had been. The entire operation was financed with these items so valuable on the Black Market. American Chaplain by day and by night, he was also a Mossad agent working for the Jews day and night.
He served as assistant advisor on Jewish affairs to General Lucius D. Clay, commander of U.S. Occupation Forces in Germany, working with Rabbi Philip Bernstein, respected Reform Rabbi from Rochester who worked heroically on behalf of the Jews. Friedman, together with Bernstein were sent to Kielce after the July 4, 1946 pogrom that claimed the lives of more than two score returning Jews. Their report indicated that Jews no longer felt safe in Poland and that they would be flooding – by legal and extra-legal means — the American zone. A decision had to be made whether to open the American zone to a new flood of Jewish Displaced Persons. General Joseph T. McNarney, who had replaced Clay, would not make that decision on his own authority. Bernstein was dispatched to Washington where he gained Truman’s personal approval, bypassing the State Department entirely – at Truman’s insistence.
Friedman also assisted in Gershom Scholem mission to Europe to collect and gather original manuscripts and the rarest of rare Jewish books that were also casualties of the destruction of the European Jews. He had them flown to Palestine, the pre-state name for Israel on the General Clay’s private plane where they were deposited at the Jewish National Library. A newspaper report linked Friedman directly to the transport and these rare and ever so valuable manuscripts and led to his honorable discharge from the Army, but one step ahead of a Court Marshall. He got the General out of his political predicament by reminding him that there was an American Consulate in Jerusalem and that these works could remain in their possession, deposited for temporary safekeeping at the Library – how temporary is temporary I leave to the reader’s imagination. Eighteen months later, they were still on Mount Scopus when the Jordanians entered the Hebrew University campus. They would be re-deposited in the National Library on the Givat Ram campus.
While serving an anti-Zionist congregation in Denver, he was active in clandestinely securing desperately needed arms for Israel. He established a series of dummy corporations and used his synagogue as cover for his clandestine activity.
Only after the establishment of the State of Israel, did Friedman “go straight” or as straight as a man of his talent and imagination could go. He became a card carrying member of the Jewish establishment, certainly among its most creative members, if not the most creative of them all.
He was one of the founders of the Israel Bond organization, invited by David Ben-Gurion to the formation meeting in Jerusalem in September 1950. In 1955, he became the executive vice chairman of the UJA national campaign and executive chairman in 1970.
Throughout three decades he was present at critical moments in the life of Jewish communities in many countries: pogroms in Morocco in 1955; flight of Hungarian and Egyptian refugees in 1956; exodus from Romania in 1957. He also studied conditions in Iran, Poland, and Tunisia. Just before the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967, he was in Israel for talks with Jewish Agency and government leaders, which resulted in the historic Israel Emergency Fund that raised millions of dollars for Israel in the fearful days preceding the war and the immediate post-war euphoria.
As Executive Vice Chairman of UJA for some 20 years, he created the UJA Young Leadership Cabinet, bringing together young men and women from all over the country and instilling within them a philosophy of Judaism and a sense of commitment. He also created a peer network among the most Jewishly philanthropic young Jews so that the superstars in each community participated in a national network – eventually of international network – where they could meet others of equal wealth, prominence and leadership potential and spur them on to ever greater achievement. He developed the UJA Overseas Mission concept, which has escorted scores of thousands of American Jews to Israel, and many thousands to the sites of the Nazi camps. He established the Israel Education Fund, which built high schools, libraries, and kindergartens throughout the country. Friedman and his family settled in Jerusalem in 1971 where he worked to establish a Jewish Exeter in Israel; it was one of the very few projects undertaken in his life in which he did not succeed – yet.
Upon returning to the U.S. in 1978, Friedman assumed the position of president of the American Friends of Tel Aviv University. At an age when many would retire, he entered an even more creative phase. He was co-founder with Leslie Wexner, the head of the Limited and a veteran of the Young Leadership Cabinet. in 1985 of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, dedicated to the education of leadership groups in Jewish communities throughout the United States, training cadres of young and promising affluent and highly positioned Jews in a two-year seminar in Jewish history and tradition so that they are prepared to assume leadership roles.
Three times in the past 23 years Los Angeles had benefited by the unique training that the Wexner Heritage Foundation supplies. A two year course in Jewish History, ancient, medieval and modern, a trip to Israel, meeting with the most pedagogically skilled of Jewish scholars, Israel and American, it offers even the most sophisticated of modern Jews from the most devout to the most secular a literacy in Jewish history and an exposure to much that is vital in the contemporary Jewish experience. LA’s best Jewish scholars have served on its faculty and everything it offers is first rate and fully funded by Les and Abigail Wexner. Friedman was its guiding force and we its beneficiaries.