Recha Sternbuch was an Orthodox Jewish woman in Switzerland who saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis.
Recha was a young mother who owned a business with her husband Yitzchak in Montreux Switzerland. They were Swiss representatives of Va’ad ha-Hatsala, the rescue committee of the American Union of Orthodox Rabbis.
In 1938, while pregnant, Recha began spending nights near the Austrian border to smuggle in refugees who were being turned back by Swiss border guards. Recha befriended a Swiss police captain, Paul Gruninger, who helped her smuggle over 800 refugees from Nazi-controlled Austria into neutral Switzerland.
The Nazis discovered what Recha was doing – apparently due to a Jewish informant – and she was arrested and jailed, causing her to miscarry. Once released from prison, Recha continued her activism. She forged visas that enabled hundreds of German and Austrian Jews to escape to Switzerland. Recha also helped smuggle Jews to Palestine by way of China.
On the day of her son’s bar mitzvah, Recha heard that Jews were being deported from Vichy France. She skipped the bar mitzvah ceremony and got on a train to France where she distributed visas and money to French Jews to help them escape. As an Orthodox woman, she normally would not take a train on Shabbat, but the preservation of human life overrides virtually every other Torah commandment.
Recha sent coded cables to contacts in Jewish rescue committees in the United States and Turkey. In 1942 she sent an urgent cable alerting American Jews to the genocide taking place in Europe. She developed a relationship with the Papal Nuncio to Switzerland, Monsignor Phillippe Bernadini, and he provided her with access to Vatican couriers for sending resources to Jewish resistance organizations.
Incredibly, in 1944 Recha successfully contacted Jean Marie Musy, the former president of Switzerland and a close friend of Heinrich Himmler, a leading member of the Nazi party. Recha charmed Musy, and convinced him to negotiate with Himmler, who agreed to release Jews from concentration camps in exchange for $1 million. About 1200 Jews were freed before the exchange was shut down by Nazi collaborators in Switzerland. Recha also negotiated the release of thousands of Jews held in concentration camps in Austria.
After the war, Recha tirelessly visited Displaced Persons Camps to locate surviving Jewish children and connect them with foster and adoptive Jewish parents.
The descendants of the Jews Recha saved now number in the hundreds of thousands.
For her determination to achieve the near-impossible, we honor Recha Sternbuch as this week’s special Thursday Hero, Thanksgiving edition.
With thanks to Esriel Rappoport
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