Many Holocaust survivors did not know Rabbi Abraham Klausner, a Reform rabbi who died last week, but he had a profound influence on those who lived in post-war Germany and Austria. Klausner, who was an American Jewish chaplain, arrived at Dachau during the third week of May 1945.
Convinced there would be nothing for him to do in Europe at the end of the war, he volunteered for duty in the Far East. After being assigned to Dachau, he began signing death certificates and burying the dead.
Just before his unit was ordered out of the camp on June ‘, 1945, a man who was so ill that he was restricted to the barracks asked in a very distinctive voice if Klausner knew his brother. He did. Chaplain Abraham Spiro had come to Europe with him on the same ship.
After reuniting the brothers, Klausner realized the need for the survivors to find their families. He also recognized that he could not abandon his fellow Jews, and left his unit. This was a very chaotic period, and chaplains and other officers helped him finesse his unorthodox and unauthorized mission after his return to the camp.
He began working with the survivors to compile and publish six volumes containing lists of survivors in Bavaria and distributed them throughout the world. This was the first major attempt to communicate with Jews in the West.
Klausner comforted the survivors and informed them of their rights. He assured them that they did not have to return to their former homes, were free to decide the question of their repatriation freely and not under intimidation from the military that wanted them out of its jurisdiction, and that immigration issues would be resolved on an individual basis when representatives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee arrived.
Klausner also declared that the Jews had a right to communicate with their family and relatives. No mail service existed, and civilians were prohibited from using the army postal system. Against army regulations, Klausner encouraged the Jewish displaced persons to give their mail to camp leaders, who then forwarded it to him. He then sent the correspondence under his name and address to the National Jewish Welfare Board in New York to sort and mail to all parts of the world.
Knowing that the army was besieged with requests from DPs of all nationalities, Klausner offered to relieve the military of some its responsibilities for the Jews by creating separate Jewish camps. There they would be protected from harassment from non-Jewish inmates. Klausner also established separate hospitals for the hundreds of Jews who were traumatized by being treated by German physicians.
When Klausner saw Jews at Dachau still dressed in their camp uniforms, forced to live behind barbed wire, and those in other areas in Bavaria living in deplorable conditions, he wrote an unauthorized report on June ‘4, entitled "A Detailed Report on the Liberated Jew As He Now Suffers His Period Of Liberation Under the Discipline of The Armed Forces of the United States." This prompted American Jewish leaders to ask government agencies to help improve this situation.
When Earl G. Harrison, dean of the University of Pennsylvania, went to Europe to assess the plight of the Jewish DPs, Klausner accompanied him on his tour of the camps and helped shape his itinerary and his report.
After reading Harrison’s report, President Harry Truman created the position of adviser on Jewish affairs to the commander of the U.S. forces in Europe in August 1945, to address the needs of the Jewish DPs. This gave the Jews an advocate they desperately needed.
Realizing the need for the Jews to be recognized as a separate nationality, Klausner convinced the Americans to allow the DPs to establish an organization to represent them in negotiations with the military. Known as the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in Bavaria, the survivors now took responsibility for their future.
Klausner’s Kol Nidre speech at the Opera House in Munich to a capacity crowd of American Jewish soldiers is remembered as an impressive and dramatic event. Next to the podium where he spoke, Klausner had a table with something covered under a white cloth. After describing the plight of the DPs, he uncovered the plate to show what the DP daily rations were. He then asked the soldiers to urge their families to send packages for them. Tons of desperately needed items soon began arriving to Klausner and other Jewish chaplains.
When the survivors asked Klausner’s help in establishing Unzer Weg, which became the largest Yiddish weekly in Germany, he agreed. Viewed by many as their national newspaper, Unzer Weg became a significant link for the survivors and world Jewry.
In the first issue of Unzer Weg, Klausner was paid the highest tribute when the editor wrote, "Rabbi, friend, brother, you have become one of us." At a time when the survivors needed someone who understood who they were, what they had experienced, and their need to control their own destiny, Klausner treated them with respect and dignity. He really had become one of them.
Dr. Alex Grobman wrote about Rabbi Abraham Klausner in his book "Rekindling The Flame: American Jewish Chaplains and the Survivors of European Jewry 1944-1948" and for the new edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica. He lives in Englewood.