The house was so crowded that it was not uncommon for refugees from Nazi-occupied territory to believe at first that Reb Yitzchok (Isaac) and Recha Sternbuch’s home in St. Gallen, Switzerland, was a small hotel—because no family home could be that open, crowded and busy. Some of the neighbors complained and wanted to know what was going on. After all, the Sternbuchs had been a quiet family, and all of a sudden there were dozens of people coming and going.
In fact, Recha Sternbuch was working tirelessly to locate temporary homes for Jewish refugees, often finding safe houses in Zürich, which was home to nearly half of Switzerland’s Jewish population at the time. Zürich was where her husband maintained his factory and business contacts, which were quite useful in helping his wife establish an underground network, along with her own extensive Agudah contacts and close ties to the city’s frum community, police and politicians.
Between 1933 and 1937, fewer than 6,000 Jews were granted refuge in Switzerland. Of these, a significant number made their way to the Sternbuchs, often staying for months at a time. One of those refugees, Zecharia Reinhold, later recalled his arrival: “When I came in, there were tables surrounded by people as if at a simchah, where they ate and drank… It was an open house…people coming and going all day… The floors were covered with mattresses… There were all kinds [of Jews], not all frum… She helped everyone.”
At one point, he recalled, the Orthodox refugees attempted to set up a temporary synagogue in a back room, but they were prevented from doing so by the less religious guests, who were worried about disturbing the neighbors and provoking an anti-Semitic backlash. Recha settled the controversy by establishing a daily minyan. Reinhold remembered the gentile neighbors coming by during Yom Kippur and staring wide-eyed at the refugees clad in talleisim: “They had never seen anything like it.”
Although it took a while for the neighbors to warm to the Sternbuchs and their strange religious ways, stories would eventually circulate of gentiles climbing trees and cutting down branches to help them cover their sukkah on Sukkos.
The accumulating dark clouds of 1938, however, meant that Recha would now have to go to the refugees and not just accommodate them when they showed up at her door. Even though she was a young mother, she spent many nights in the forest smuggling refugees over the border with Austria, trying to evade the Swiss border guards, who had orders to turn back anyone over 16 and under 60.
The Jewish refugees were given instructions about the routes and rendezvous points that would provide a safe haven in Switzerland. Once over the border, they were taken to St. Gallen. The refugees were often surprised to encounter a cheerful frum woman waiting for them with coffee and a smile. They were then spirited away in a vehicle, often under a bale of hay or a pile of produce. More often than not, Recha would be accompanied by a driver, but on many occasions she traveled alone. “When I arrived over the border, I was driven to St. Gallen by a woman dressed in black,” Recha’s sister-in-law, Gutta Sternbuch, would later recall of her experience.
The Sternbuchs’ activities weren’t limited to helping refugees; they also tried to stop the murder of Jews by the Nazis. It was the Sternbuchs who informed the world of the Nazis’ plans, sending the famous Sternbuch cable informing the Vaad in New York that the Nazis intended to kill the remaining Jews by the end of the year with poison gas.
All of these fascinating details are culled from Max Wallace’s new book, In the Name of Humanity: The Secret Deal to End the Holocaust.
Recha Sternbuch is a legendary figure, the young wife and mother who devoted herself to the rescue of Jews trapped in Nazi-occupied Europe. She was arrested for her efforts and spent several weeks in prison. Charged with illegally smuggling Jews into Switzerland and acquiring forged passports, among other offenses, she freely admitted her culpability, but she refused to name names.
“They wanted her to name her accomplices, and she refused,” writes Wallace, adding that Recha asked, “Do you really expect me to denounce the fathers of these families and bring them misfortune?” Recha felt that her activities were sanctioned by a Higher Authority. It was a matter of pikuach nefesh.
Citing “lack of evidence,” the judge dismissed all of the charges against her. Afterward, he summoned her to his chambers and handed her an envelope. Inside was a contribution of 100 francs to be used for her rescue operations. It was a poignant gesture.
In his book, the culmination of 17 years of research, Wallace argues that as much as we know about Recha’s deeds, she and other Orthodox rescuers have not been given enough credit. Searching through the archives of Yeshiva University and the War Refugee Board, he made a remarkable discovery of a previously unknown episode in the history of Orthodox Jewish rescue work; he learned that a secret deal Recha Sternbuch and her group made with Nazi SS Chief Heinrich Himmler to stop the extermination of Jews actually resulted in Himmler destroying the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
This stunning deception—Himmler was led to believe that the Western powers were interested in forging an alliance with Germany after the war to fight against Communist Russia—was aided and abetted by former Swiss president Jean-Marie Musy and even the Vatican as well as US Intelligence. As unbelievable as it seems, Wallace believes that Recha was responsible for saving over 300,000 Jewish lives.
“There’s no question about it,” he says. “There were definitely other players involved, and in the book itself I do give credit to many others. A lot of people came together around these negotiations. It’s not as if Recha Sternbuch did this single-handedly, but she certainly engineered this deception, and she was perhaps responsible for saving more Jews than anyone else.