The cable that arrived in the offices of the Va’ad HaHatzalah, the Rescue Committee of the American Union of Orthodox Rabbis, came from Switzerland. The sender signed their name “Sternbuch,” and the message contained an electrifying line: “Secured promise to cease extermination in concentration camps.”
Five days after Recha Sternbuch sent this cable, Heinrich Himmler ordered the end of the extermination of Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau and its 51 subcamps, and the demolition of its gas chambers and crematoria.
Until recently, historians assumed that Himmler’s motive in declaring that order was to destroy the evidence of Nazi Germany’s horrific crimes ahead of Russian advances. But the theory has its holes. The Russians were still two months away. The Nazis could have killed the remaining prisoners, eyewitnesses to their atrocities.
Recent research suggests, instead, a phenomenal story of bravery and daring, a plot to dupe Himmler, and an incredible rescue mission powered by a young Swiss-Jewish mother.
Recha Sternbuch, the woman who sent the cable, was born in Poland and grew up in Antwerp. Nothing in her early life suggested that she would go on to the feats of courage she displayed during the war. In fact, when she married Yitzchak Sternbuch and moved with him to his hometown of St. Gallen, Switzerland, it seemed she was destined for a very quiet life.
The culture shock of the move made it hard for her to find friends at first. So when, in 1933, hordes of strangers first started showing up at the Sternbuch home, the neighbors scratched their heads. The visitors themselves often seemed to think they were staying in a small hotel — sometimes for months at a time. Mattresses lined the floors, and people surrounded tables set with food as if the Sternbuchs were hosting a perpetual function. When some non-Jewish neighbors peeked in one day to see what was going on, they stared in utter bewilderment at a group of people draped in prayer shawls, chanting as if in a synagogue. It was Yom Kippur.
Who were these people? Some of the roughly 6,000 Jews who were granted asylum in Switzerland between 1933 and 1937. Recha refused to sit idly when people needed help. During those four years, she and her husband drove themselves to do everything to help people who had been through what seemed then the worst tragedy: losing their country, their homes, and their stability.
But things got worse. By 1938, the stream of refugees turned to a trickle, and then stopped — but not because the situation in Germany improved. Switzerland now refused to accept Jewish refugees who arrived without proper permits — which were virtually impossible to obtain — and sent all those between the ages of 16 and 60 back into the grasping tentacles of the Third Reich.
In response, Recha upped the action. The reticent young woman made contact with Paul Grüninger, the police commander of St. Gallen. Together, they concocted a plan. Recha provided Austrian and German Jews with routes and instructions for getting over the border. Swathed in black, she waited for them in the shadows of the forest, ready with a smile, hot coffee, and a vehicle to take them to St. Gallen hidden under a heap of produce or hay. Grüninger then stamped their visas to show, falsely, that they’d arrived before March 1938, making them legal refugees that the government couldn’t send back. He played with the data, falsified reports, and even bought winter clothing for refugees in need.
“You are charged with illegally smuggling refugees into Switzerland and acquiring forged passports, among other offenses,” a grim-faced interrogator accused. Recha raised swollen red eyes. “True,” she said quietly. “I believe a Higher Authority sanctioned my actions.”
But German authorities got wind of their prey slipping between their fingers and informed their Swiss counterparts, who dismissed Grüninger in disgrace.
Swiss police came for Recha, too. They took the young wife and mother from her family and threw her into prison. In her cell, Recha hunched over as if to protect the tiny flame of life flickering within. But the darkness that had covered the world did not leave her unscathed. Slowly, the flame flickered out. Recha had lost her unborn baby.
And yet, in the face of pain and horror so great she could barely breathe, Recha’s determination and courage only grew.
“You are charged with illegally smuggling refugees into Switzerland and acquiring forged passports, among other offenses,” a grim-faced interrogator accused.
Recha raised swollen red eyes. “True,” she said quietly. “I believe a Higher Authority sanctioned my actions.”
“Who helped you?”
At this, Recha’s eyes flashed. “Do you really expect me to denounce the fathers of these families?” she demanded.
“We’ll see what you say when the judge sentences you,” the interrogator threatened. “You’re in deep trouble.”
The judge listened silently as the two sides presented their cases. Then, citing a lack of evidence, he dismissed all charges and summoned Recha Sternbuch to his private chambers. There, he handed her 100 francs — a contribution to her rescue efforts.
In the face of this episode, Recha only grew more determined. She smuggled people over the German and Austrian borders, arranged false documents, bought Chinese entry papers that allowed refugees to cross Switzerland and Italy and smuggle themselves into Palestine, and missed her own son’s Bar Mitzvah when she took a train — on Shabbat — to rescue a group of Jews in Vichy France. The imperative of saving a life overrides almost all other laws in Judaism, and so many lives were at stake.
Recha was not concerned with legalities when it came to rescuing people. Of all the Jewish rescue groups operating in Switzerland at the time, only she took up a discreet Polish offer — access to their diplomatic pouch, which meant censors couldn’t block her messages. She alerted New York contacts to the horrors of the Holocaust, leading to increased rescue efforts. She also used this channel to send secret messages and money to Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.
But the numbers, the sheer numbers… As Recha saved thousands, the Nazis destroyed millions. What to do?
She hatched a daring plan. She had connections with ex-fascist former president of Switzerland, Jean-Marie Musy. And Musy had connections with none other than Heinrich Himmler, the architect of the Holocaust himself. She and her husband enlisted Musy’s help. It was late 1944; Himmler could see Germany’s end coming. He regretted nothing, but he did want to save himself.
Musy whispered the lie Recha had concocted: “America is interested in an alliance. They want to join forces with you against the common enemy — Stalin.”
Himmler’s eyes widened. Exactly as he’d hoped! “I’m in,” he said shortly.
“Excellent.” Musy leaned back. “But you need to stop killing the Jews. The Americans, you know… they can’t stomach it.”
Himmler nodded slowly.
This stunning deception was helped along by the Vatican and US Intelligence. Was it really the reason Himmler ordered the end of the active Holocaust? Historians don’t know for sure, but it is a likely theory.
When the war finally ended and the world curled up to lick its wounds, Recha soldiered right on, collecting children hidden in monasteries, convents, and Gentile homes, bringing them back to their people — in place of the parents who would never come for them.
Recha Sternbuch was an unlikely hero. She herself never dreamed she’d be anything other than a wife and mother. But when the world fell to pieces, she discovered within herself a fierce, burning sense of mission, and remade herself as a warrior of uncompromising courage.
Who knows what extraordinary courage lies dormant inside each of us?