The Story Behind ‘The Giant’

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Of the many Holocaust-era stories of heroism and tragedy, perhaps none is as haunting as that of
Harav Michoel Ber Weissmandl, zt”l. One of the giants in the hatzalah efforts during the war, Harav Weissmandl is remembered for his heroic efforts to save Jewish lives, the staggering lengths he went to in the process, and his heartrending anguish at his inability to do more.

This year’s Project Witness documentary, ‘In the Footsteps of the Giant,’ features Harav Weissmandl and his heroic struggle to save European Jewry. A brilliant Talmudic scholar at the Nitra Yeshiva in Slovakia and an expert in ancient manuscripts, Harav Weissmandl was a gifted individual who combined his intellectual capabilities with a seemingly indefatigable capacity to help others.

Harav Weissmandl, Zt”l, is widely recognized for his hatzalah work, largely with the Working Group, an underground group in Slovakia. He readily risked his own life to save other Jews, executing audacious schemes to stop deportations of Jews from all over Europe to death camps by bribing Nazi officials. Aided by others in the Working Group, notably Harav Weissmandl’s relative, Gisi Fleischmann, he initiated the ill-fated Europa Plan, which sought to save vast numbers of Jews by bribing Nazi officials, based on the projected receipt of funds from Jews overseas. The scope of the plan reflected Harav Weissmandl’s ingenuity and innovation, but its failure reinforced his eventual disillusionment.

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Harav Weissmandl, Zt”l. (Witness to History)

Harav Weissmandl is also credited with distributing in 1944 what came to be known as the “Auschwitz Protocols,” the account of the death camp’s layout authored by two escaped Auschwitz inmates. In an effort to raise the awareness and consciousness of officials abroad, the Working Group sent the report, along with deportation plans for the extermination of 800,000 Hungarian Jews, to Jewish leaders and Allied officials, whom Harav Weissmandl entreated to bomb the train lines to Auschwitz — a plea that went unheeded.

Harav Weissmandl survived the Holocaust, but he emerged a heartbroken man. Sadly, the countless Jewish lives he saved did not seem to compensate for his sense of communal despair, which was compounded by his personal loss — the tragic murder of his wife and five children at Auschwitz. Yet he successfully rebuilt the Nitra yeshivah in Mount Kisco, New York, after the war. He remarried and had six children. However, he never recovered from the Holocaust. He passed away of heart complications at the age of 54.

Harav Michoel Ber was never appropriately recognized, not by his own community, and certainly not by the outside world. The secular historians attacked him viciously, unable to tolerate the fact that a Rav — at a most desperate time — became a leader of an underground group whose only focus was to save Jewish lives. For this reason, Mrs. Ruth Lichtenstein, publisher of Hamodia and founder and director of Project Witness, chose to showcase his story and provide a fitting tribute to what he achieved.

In an interview on the subject, Mrs. Lichtenstein points to Harav Weissmandl as being “the model of Jewish leadership based on Torah hashkafah in a most challenging time. His focus was on one thing — to save Jewish lives.” And with fewer and fewer living survivors to bear witness, she sees the imperative of highlighting that leadership. “As a community, we have never done enough to commemorate him and his heroic efforts and accomplishments in regard to the Holocaust,” she said. “We chose to do it now because it’s the last opportunity.”

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A map of Auschwitz translated into Yiddish by Harav Weissmandl based on the descriptions given by Rudolph Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, two escapees from Auschwitz. (Karasi V’ein Oneh)

If not enough is known of Harav Weissmandl, even less is known of the people who aided him in his struggles. Of those individuals who risked their lives to protect innocent Jewish victims during the Holocaust, one deserves special attention for protecting the protectors. And at the premiere of this year’s documentary, Project Witness set out to publicize and commend the rare acts of kindness and bravery that this individual displayed.

The story of Julius Natali, unknown by the general public, merits telling. Born in Vienna, Natali settled in Bratislava, where he owned a printing business. With a deep abhorrence of the fascist regime in Slovakia and widely connected to Jews through business contacts, Natali employed Jews and used his workshop to forge documents, which provided false identities to some Jews and thereby allowed them to survive. Toward the latter part of the war, when massive numbers of Jews were being deported, at the risk of his own life, Natali’s workshop turned into a “command center” to help Jewish fugitives in hiding.

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(Witness to History)

In the summer of 1944, Harav Weissmandl was captured by the SS together with his family and was placed on a train to Auschwitz. Harav Weissmandl managed to escape by sawing open a lock on the train with a saw he had hidden in a loaf of stale bread. Injured while jumping from the train, he got word to Natali from a hiding place in a village near Bratislava. Natali, at risk to his life as the Nazis were looking for him, transferred Harav Weissmandl to a safe hiding place in Bratislava and became one of his liaisons to the outside world.

In 1967, Yad Vashem awarded Natali with the Righteous Medal as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. Upon receiving the news, Natali wrote back to the Righteous Committee, “it is with great emotion” that he accepts the award, all the while feeling undeserving. “The little I did,” he wrote, “and what is left for me to do in my advanced age was always based on the conscious Christian-Jewish requirement to aid human beings in need.”

The mostly untold story of Julius Natali is eternally linked to the undertold story of Harav Weissmandl. And both warrant very public recognition.

But Project Witness went one step further and linked hakaras hatov to both heroes in a ceremony at the premiere on Wednesday evening, July 31. After an intense search, they located descendants of Natali in Vienna —two grandchildren — and brought them to the premiere to fully appreciate their grandfather’s remarkable deeds.

In a tearful presentation, Mrs. Lichtenstein introduced Natali’s grandchildren, Ursula Grob and Michael Veg. And following a thunderous standing ovation, they accepted an award on behalf of their grandfather’s heroism with emotional speeches of awe and appreciation. Project Witness also introduced Dr. Anna Halberstam Rubin, granddaughter of the Stropkover Rebbe, zt”l, a Holocaust survivor who was hidden in the Pressburg bunker with Harav Weissmandl by Natali — a rare encounter between the descendants of the rescuer and the rescued.

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Julius Natali, Bratislava, 1943. (Ursula Grob/Michael Veg)

The Search for the Descendants

In an effort to locate Julius Natali’s descendants, Project Witness contacted Mrs. Rifka Junger of Vienna, a Hamodia columnist. Adept at doing historical research through her many projects on a professional and private scale, Mrs. Junger combed through documents, fruitlessly searching city archives, museums, and even the cemetery where Natali is buried. She also contacted Yad Vashem.

Mrs. Junger knew that Natali had left behind two daughters but came up against a brick wall trying to locate them. “I realized very quickly in my research that Natali was a very quiet, unassuming man,” Mrs. Junger says. “People didn’t make a big deal about him right after the war.”

The search was akin to looking for a needle in a haystack. (Afterward, it was clear to her that Natali left Slovakia, thanks to the assistance of Rabbi Baruch Meyer, the Chabad shaliach in Slovakia.)

Almost about to give up, Mrs. Junger finally located a short article, written in 1986 and published by the Austrian Embassy in Tel Aviv, about Natali’s actions during the war and his recognition as a Righteous Among the Nations. Against hope, Mrs. Junger emailed the embassy, inquiring whether they had any knowledge of Natali’s descendants, and was rewarded with an almost immediate email in return. “The embassy confirmed having information on a granddaughter of Natali’s. Because of data security laws, they were not allowed to pass on the information, but they promised to forward my email to her.”

Mrs. Junger resigned herself to waiting, but was astounded when, only an hour later, she received an email from an overjoyed Ursula Grob. Ursula wrote that she was elated at finding someone who knew of her grandfather, because she herself had been searching for years for information about him. Ten years previously, she had emailed the Austrian Embassy in Tel Aviv in the hopes of finding details and had been disappointed to discover they had none. Because the embassy had retained her email address, they were able to put her in touch with the very people who had been seeking her.

Ursula was only five when her grandfather died, but she had been intrigued at hearing some stories of his wartime activities from her grandmother. Mrs. Junger says she wanted to hear more. “What happened to the Jews that Julius Natali saved? Did they end up marrying and having descendants of their own?”

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Julius Natali (L) receiving the Righteous Medal from Yad Vashem designating him a Righteous Among the Nations, 1967. (Ursula Grob/Michael Veg)

When Mrs. Junger and Ursula finally spoke, Ursula was overwhelmed with emotion. She told Mrs. Junger, “I am crying because I am trying to get information for 20 years and never got anywhere.” But she never gave up. After failing to find any information in Vienna, she had finally contacted the embassy in Israel, because her father had lived there.

Asked what particular information Ursula was searching for, Mrs. Junger replied, “The knowledge that people remember him. To know that there are descendants. She always wondered what happened to the people that her grandfather saved. This is what’s so important to her — to know that there are generations that came out from what he did.”

Ursula shared her experience with her brother Michael, who began to share her enthusiasm. And through Mrs. Junger, Mrs. Lichtenstein extended an invitation to both of them to be present at the Project Witness premiere. Mrs. Junger told of Ursula’s being overcome by the speed with which things transpired. “Two weeks ago she didn’t even know this exists,” she said.

Mrs. Junger says that she intends to maintain a relationship with Ursula, as does Project Witness. “I think she was missing this all her life,” Mrs. Junger says. “And she would like to stay connected. For non-Jews living in Austria, history surrounds them. They all live in houses where Yidden used to live. For an Austrian child to know that her grandfather saved people rather than killed people, I think it’s a very big deal. We all know about Oskar Schindler and other big names, but there were others who did that too. For her to carry that around, the knowledge that her grandfather actually did this — I think this is what she wanted.”

This story deserves to be told here, Mrs. Junger explains, and especially now. “Even though Natali’s work was in Slovakia, he was really Austrian. And it took Austria from 1945 to the 1990s to admit that they were involved at all. They kept saying that they were victims. They had a very late start in facing up to what they did. Since then it’s been mostly about the crimes. But there were people who risked their lives, and they’re mostly forgotten. They need to be remembered.”

Natali was well-remembered at the Project Witness premiere and several other venues in New York that Ursula and Michael attended. Meeting descendants of Holocaust survivors, who owed their lives to Natali, proved to be an emotional experience for them both. But it was even more moving for the descendants.

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A group of students of Tyrnau studying in Nitra. (Witness to History)

Dr. Anna Halberstam Rubin describes the encounter as “wonderful and outstanding.” Anna and her grandfather, who were the only ones from her family to survive, were hidden in Natali’s bunker towards the end of the war. “I was in the bunker that Natali created. There were 16 of us in the bunker. He brought us food. He supplied us with everything we needed, especially news. He was our contact with the outside world. Without him we would not have survived.”

Mr. Yanky Gellis, whose father was rescued by Natali along with other family members, recalls hearing countless stories of Natali while growing up. His father was eternally grateful and had maintained contact with Natali, visiting him in Vienna. This gratitude prompted Mr. Gellis to drive 10 hours from Toronto to meet Ursula and Michael and extend his personal hakaras hatov.

“My grandfather was in the paper business and Natali was a customer. He was a printer who at one time couldn’t pay his bills. My grandfather allowed him to continue taking paper and told him to pay when he can.” The gesture ended up producing immeasurable returns. “During the war, Natali helped my father and several other relatives and hid them in his warehouse. My father was in the bunker between six to nine months. Natali hid many others in the bunker, including Harav Michoel Weissmandl.

“Natali was a contact person. He bought food and did everything for the Jews he hid without taking money. He refused to take money for payment.”

After jumping off the train to Auschwitz and finding temporary shelter in a nearby village, Harav Michoel Ber sent a messenger with a letter to Julius Natali. One of the Gellis brothers had previously told Natali about Harav Weissmandl and asked him, when he was contacted by this Rav, to bring him immediately to the bunker. Uncertain of the identity of the sender of this letter, Natali took it to the bunker. The Jews hiding there told him that was indeed Harav Michoel Ber.

Helping any Jew evade the Nazis was an extremely dangerous proposition at the time; attempting to aid a hunted Jew like Harav Weissmandl, who had been photographed by the Nazis in 22 different pictures before being placed on the train, was particularly perilous.

Ignoring the danger to his own life, Natali immediately set out for the village where Harav Weissmandl was hiding. He carried him overnight, in the dark, for 11 kilometers, all the way to the bunker.

As the hours passed that night, the Jews hiding in the bunker feared the worst and were convinced that Harav Weissmandl had been caught and Natali arrested. And they were certain that their hiding place was about to be discovered.

The Imperative of Hakaras Hatov

As mentioned, Ursula was only five years old and Michael six when their grandfather Julius Natali passed away. As Ursula grew older, she became fascinated with some of the stories her grandmother told her about her husband’s wartime activities. She also spoke of the letters he received from survivors over the years, thanking him.

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Hiding places in the Nitra Yeshiva, indicated by numbers 1 and 2. (Witness to History)

Ultimately, Ursula grew determined to learn more about her grandfather’s heroic efforts saving Jews during the Holocaust at risk to his own life. For the past 20 years, Ursula had searched for information about her grandfather’s exploits but wasn’t able to find anything, especially in Austria, her grandfather’s birthplace.

“I knew that my grandfather was honored as one of the Righteous of the Nations at Yad Vashem. But I wanted to find out more details.”

Ursula, who works in the Austrian government Office of International Affairs dealing with asylum decisions, and her brother Michael, who works as an accountant, did find out more details. Due to Mrs. Lichtenstein’s resolve to seek out the descendants of an overlooked righteous gentile and accord him the hakaras hatov he deserved, they were brought to New York. Over the course of their visit, Natali’s two grandchildren met with descendants of the Jews their grandfather saved and encountered the far-reaching results of his heroic actions.

When asked how they felt upon getting a standing ovation from audience members at the premiere, most of whom descend from Holocaust survivors, Ursula starts to cry. “I am overwhelmed that our grandfather is seen here as a hero. I always wanted to know what happened to the Jews in America and Israel who survived because of my grandfather. But I didn’t expect such emotion when I met some of them. It’s different reading about something and experiencing it.”

Michael agrees. “We were not prepared for so much emotion. To know that my grandfather saved lives and then to actually meet these people was something completely different. It was tangible.”

One of the motivators in Ursula’s quest for answers was curiosity about her mother’s birthplace. “I knew that my aunt was born in Bratislava in 1948,” she said. “But my mother was born after her in Israel. Why? All this aroused my interest and I wanted to find out more details.”

The story of Ursula’s mother’s birthplace is part of the bigger story of Julius Natali’s most unlikely move to Israel after the war. And it is one laced with irony. At the end of the war, the governments of many Eastern and Central European countries, including Czechoslovakia, forcibly kicked out all German nationals. Many ethnic Germans died during this expulsion back to Germany and Austria. Resenting the suffering they experienced at the hands of the Germans, these governments did not differentiate between actual Nazis or Nazi sympathizers and those who actually resisted the Nazis.

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Michael W. Veg, grandson of Julius Natali, attending a Project Witness event. (Project Witness)

“It didn’t matter that my grandfather had saved Jews,” Michael said. “He was viewed as a German and told to get out of the country.” The communists took over Natali’s business. Ursula adds that “My grandfather’s printing company was occupied by the Czechs and he became only a worker.”

One of the survivors, Reb Aharon Gellis, who was saved by Natali, helped him to immigrate to Israel by providing him and his family with forged Jewish identification.

Natali lived in Israel from 1949 to 1955, where he opened a printing company together with Reb Gellis. His second daughter, Ursula and Michael’s mother, was born in Israel and given the name Erica Hershtein. Sadly, the company went bankrupt amid a backdrop of difficulties in a newborn country and Natali ended up going back to Vienna. By producing the identity papers he had hidden in Bratislava, he reestablished himself and his family under his name Natali. According to a letter Natali wrote, when he came back and was accused of carrying false identification, he explained that the man whose name he carried had been killed in Auschwitz and that he, Natali, had helped to save the man’s two children. Thus Julius Natali became Adam Hershtein.

Now that Ursula’s search has come full circle, she plans to do more research in Bratislava in the hopes of discovering more information. And she intends to spread the story about her grandfather in Vienna. “Oskar Schindler was publicized because people talked about it, and this story needs to be publicized too. It’s important to keep his memory alive and the memory of what he did. And to teach what is possible if one is willing to do something. The history of the Holocaust also needs to be taught more so that it will never be forgotten. We have to be aware of what can happen. It happened and it can happen tomorrow again.”

Michael reflects that Holocaust education has gotten better over the years, but “there can be much improvement.” He remembers learning very little about the Holocaust when he was in school. “They skipped over it. In the ’70s and ’80s there were a lot of teachers who were former Nazis who hadn’t gotten caught, and they still had Nazi sympathies. Now all classes go to Mauthausen concentration camp to get an idea of what really transpired back then.”

With anti-Semitism growing again in Europe, both of Natali’s grandchildren feel the importance of inspiring others through the message imparted by their grandfather’s work. “I’m very glad that I found out that my grandfather is a hero and that he helped others,” Ursula says. “This is my heritage. He’s my hero, and we all should try to follow in his footsteps.”

“We’re all humans,” Michael declares. “It doesn’t make a difference what your religion is, or the color of your skin or your gender. I never think that someone is better or weaker because he may look different or have blond hair and blue eyes. We may see things differently, but that’s not a reason to hate one another.”

In a final nod to the Jewish people he encountered on his trip to New York, Michael relates how captivated he was by the Jewish community. “What impressed me here is the community and how they are there for one another. Wow! This really astonished me, because I’m not used to it. We both went to Catholic schools, but the closeness and unity we see in the Jewish community here doesn’t exist there. I wish we would also stick a little bit more together. This was something very exciting to see in the Jewish community.”

“One week after the unprecedented success of the documentary on Reb Michael Ber, we see how people identify with it and how they enjoyed the reunion,” said Mrs. Lichtenstein. “That was a kiddush Hashem, a real demonstration of our gratitude and how important this is to us, as survivors. We want to show how we feel toward the Righteous Among the Nations, who literally sacrificed whatever they had to save a single Jew.”