The Rabbi Who Tracked Down Nazis
By Jordan Hiller
In the spring of 1965, about 30 members of the 500-person strong American Nazi Party discreetly met in a cramped apartment on 114th Street and Broadway in New York City. It had been two decades since the liberation of death camps throughout Eastern Europe and the horrifying apprehension of a lost six million. Nazis, their conspirators, sympathizers and passive supporters were alive and well, either in hiding and trying to avoid punishment, or—more often than not—slithering seamlessly back into society. While a handful of authentic former Nazis were gathered at the New York meeting along with like-minded individuals, so was a Jew. In fact, it was a rabbinical student—preparing to receive his ordination no more than 12 blocks away at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS)—who moved inconspicuously among them. Naturally, Barry Dov Schwartz had delivered a false name at the door while dressed in the detective’s trench coat he had purchased expressly for the occasion. To avoid eating the sandwiches and drinks he was offered, Schwartz feigned a stomach ailment, lingered in the back and waited for his moment.
When all were deemed present and the group moved to the living room to discuss the evening’s agenda, Schwartz snuck into the coat closet and rifled through each and every pocket. Opening wallets and scanning identification cards, Schwartz took down names, addresses and any other bit of information that could later help identify and track Nazis. He slipped out of the apartment unnoticed, immediately typed up a letter, and mailed the data to the man who had initially tipped him off about the meeting: Simon Wiesenthal.
“I always had a deep seeded hatred for Nazis,” Schwartz, 76 and retired after 50 years leading synagogues in New Jersey and Long Island, told me from his home in North Woodmere, New York. “I don’t know where that feeling came from. My parents were not Holocaust survivors. But ever since I was little, I was instilled with this flaming desire—not just to remember the Holocaust—I wanted to catch Nazis.” When pressed to further explain his motivation for taking such extreme actions at great personal risk, the signature smile, which perpetually plays across Schwartz’s face, disappeared. “Because, until this day,” he said, “I can’t conceive of how they got away with what they did.” After a short pause, he continued, “And when it came to anything related to Israel or defending Jews…I had no fear.” It was this innate boldness that lead Schwartz to Wiesenthal in the first place.
Ayear earlier, Rolf Hochhuth’s German drama, The Deputy, about Pope Pius XII’s relative ineffectiveness in protecting Jews being slaughtered “underneath his windows,” came to Broadway (eventually earning the 1964 Tony Award for best producer). Schwartz was then in his second year at JTS and had come into his own as a gifted writer, regularly publishing in newspapers, journals, and magazines. His topic of choice was the ongoing failure of international justice departments to locate, prosecute and hold Nazi war criminals accountable. Schwartz was breathless to expose the ongoing travesty of mass murderers walking free. One such article called The Vatican and The Holocaust, written in conjunction with acclaimed Columbia University Professor Salo Baron and published in the summer of 1964, centered on themes similar to The Deputy. “The fact that he did something,” Schwartz remarked, referring to Pope Pius, “meant that he could have done more. His defenders say he couldn’t make a public statement against the Nazis because it would jeopardize his ability to save people. They claim he hid some Jews in the Vatican. I say he could have hid more. A public statement would have saved hundreds of thousands.”
One day, shortly after the article began circulating, the phone rang. It was Zvi Kolitz, co-producer of The Deputy, with a proposal. In order to enhance and constructively focus the controversy surrounding the play, would Schwartz allow his article to be included in the playbill distributed at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre? Schwartz said of course and met Kolitz at the producer’s lavish West End Avenue apartment. Seeing how passionate and sincere Schwartz was about Nazis receiving retribution in full, Kolitz offered to connect the soon-to-be rabbi with Simon Wiesenthal, an acquaintance of Kolitz who also happened to be Schwartz’s hero.
“For someone who dreamed about hunting Nazis,” Schwartz told me, “finding out there was someone like Wiesenthal was a revelation. There was this guy—an everyman architect who left his business and wanted to devote his time to catching Nazis. Not out of revenge, but out of a sense of justice. And I had that same feeling.”
Schwartz was about to graduate JTS with excellent prospects, having been the 1965 Cyrus Adler Scholar; the award given to the top student at the seminary. Yet he wrote to Wiesenthal and offered to—at the very least—push off his rabbinical career and assist in the effort to capture Nazis.
“One day, I got a letter back,” Schwartz recalled. “[Wiesenthal] told me: ‘You continue to study Torah. We don’t need rabbis running around finding Nazis. I have people who do the capturing. But I do need people to take witness statements.’ And the term witness included both victim and perpetrator.”
Though Wiesenthal had warned the determined young rabbi to stay out of trouble, Schwartz occasionally found himself pushing the boundaries of his job description. Like on the night he infiltrated the American Nazi Party summit in New York City. And a few years later, when Schwartz traveled to New Brunswick to confront a “witness” whose name was supplied by Wiesenthal. By then, Schwartz was already serving as spiritual leader at Congregation Beth Mordecai in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Under pointed questioning from Rabbi Schwartz, the man admitted to his Nazi past.
“His name was Hyrsnik,” Schwartz proudly recollected. “I was one of the chaplains at nearby Rutgers University, so I knew the area and felt comfortable going. Years later, I got a call from the FBI asking me if it was true that I interviewed Hyrsnik. Asking me what my motive was. I was happy to tell them my motive as well as supplying a recording of the interview. They finally returned the tape to me many years later.”
Schwartz and Wiesenthal kept up their unlikely friendship until Wiesenthal passed away in 2005. “I remember the first time I met him,” Schwartz said, smiling at the memory. “It was 1966 and he told me he was coming to America. It was my first year in the military and I was driving a 1966 Mustang to get around the base—which was cool. I picked him up and took him to his hotel.”
Wiesenthal rewarded Schwartz’s commitment to the cause (and the friendship) by asking Schwartz to write the foreword to the 1976 edition of Wiesenthal’s book The Sunflower, first published in 1970. The book poses a moral and ethical question based on Wiesenthal’s life experience as a prisoner at the Lemberg Concentration Camp. A dying Nazi soldier’s final request was that a Jew be brought before him so he could ask forgiveness for his terrible crimes. The Jew randomly selected was Simon Wiesenthal and his response was silence. In the book, Wiesenthal wrestles with whether he did the right thing by walking away from the pathetic figure without answering. Was his silence too generous? Too cruel? Or the only reasonable reaction?
The current edition contains 53 responses to the dilemma from various thinkers, theologians, activists, and clergy of all religions and backgrounds.
In the foreword, Schwartz wrote:
The Sunflower is a question. It leaves us precisely where the fate of European Jewry must leave us: in a state of quandary, of bewildered uncertainty.