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«Krieger v, Mittelman and Jewish Perceptions of the Refugee in the Early Cold War' JOEL SILVERMAN ON THE MORNING OFJUNE 20,195O, ACCORDING TO an ...»

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40 '.Judaism

Krieger v, Mittelman and

Jewish Perceptions of the Refugee

in the Early Cold War'



account appearing in Life magazine, Benjamin Krieger glanced out the win-

dow of his Brooklyn fish store and spotted someone he thought he knew.

He rushed out of the store, seized the startled man, and began to question

him angrily in Yiddish.

"Were you at Auschwitz?" Krieger demanded. The man, quite fright- ened, nodded his head. "At Dachau? At Miihldorf?" Again, the man nodded.

"Is your name 'Majer?'" shouted Krieger. A crowd was forming around the two men. Trembling, the man signaled yes. "Then," Krieger roared, "you are the man who killed my brother!"^ The accosted man insisted that Krieger was mistaken. Still holding the man, Krieger began to shake him violently. "You beat me that day, too!" Krieger screamed, and the crowd of about 50 onlookers started yelling at the accused man. Krieger swung his fist and connected. The man he had con- fronted fled for his life. Krieger and the angry mob chased him for two blocks and, when the man ran into a bookstore, Krieger had him cornered.

The man locked the bookstore door, but Krieger and the crowd yelled:

"Lynch him...; let us have him...."^ Fortunately for the accused, the police were soon on the scene and brought both men to the stationhouse.

The officers questioned Krieger and the man he accused, Majer Mittelman, for several hours. Mittelman maintained his innocence through- out and insisted that he had never before met Krieger or his brother. He declined to press charges against his attacker, however. With no com- plainant and lacking jurisdiction in the original crime, the police decided to drop the matter.* JOEL SILVERMAN if a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and a lecturer in English at Yale University. His dissertation examines the intersec- tion ofAmerican law, celebrity and masculinity by focusing on the life and work ofACLU attorney Morris Ernst (1888-1376).

KRIEGER V MITTELMAN : 41 As soon as he was set free, Mittelman called his attorney, who advised his client to remain silent.^ Mittelman made his living as a ritual slaughter- er, or shochet, of chickens, and was a religious functionary for ajewish con- gregation in Olyphant, Penn. His attorney feared that Mittelman's liveli- hood would suffer if Krieger's accusation became widely known.

Krieger, on the other hand, had no intention of remaining silent. On his release, he talked to the press. The next morning. New York's newspa- pers carried the story of Krieger's public denunciation. The New York Times wrote that the 42-year-old Krieger had claimed that a camp trustee had bludgeoned to death Krieger's 48-year old brother in April 1945, when all three men were captives in the Miihldorf, Germany, concentration camp.

Krieger told the Times that he planned to go to federal authorities with his complaint.** Another New York newspaper, the Daily Mirror, included a photograph that showed Krieger wearing his fish dealer's cap and apron, and displaying the numbers that the Nazis had branded on his arm. This article revealed that the police department planned to report the case to immigration authorities, since both Mittelman and Krieger were immigrants. Mittelman, now 34 years old, had come to the United States in 1947; Krieger had been in the United States for only nine months prior to the incident. The Mirror also reported that Krieger had been advised to seek help from the King's County District Attorney's office.^ Neither article offered statements from or photographs of Mittelman, who, following his attorney's counsel, avoided the media.

The Community Mobilizes Reading these articles, officials at the American Jewish Congress quickly recognized the demons Krieger's accusation could unleash. An accusation of a homicide committed by a Jew who collaborated with the Nazis could provide hate groups with fodder for their anti-Semitic propaganda. An AJCongress staffer, Phil Baum, called Krieger at his Brooklyn home, inviting him to the organization's offices to discuss his story.^ Krieger was already considering whether to press formal charges against Mittelman and so declined the invitation.^ Concerned about potential damage to the image of the Jewish community, the AJCongress convened a beit din (literally, a house of judgment, it is an arbitration board consisting of three judges) to provide both Krieger 42 '.Judaism and Mitteiman a forum in which to argue their cases. This was an unusual

move in four basic respects:

1. It likely was the first beit din in American Jewish history to confront a charge of homicide. In any case, hatei din in general had long ago ceased hearing such cases.

2. Coverage of the tribunal's proceedings was opened to the secular press.

3. The tribunal sought out the parties in the dispute, rather than being petitioned by one or both sides to hear their case.

4. Finally, while complainants were ordinarily eager to air their disputes before a beit din, it took the AJCongress two months to convince Krieger to participate. Apparently, he was still considering the possibility of going to the federal authorities with his complaint.

That Krieger was now receiving national exposure only added urgency to the AJCongress' attempts. In its July 3 issue, for example. Time magazine openly wondered whether a murderer was on the loose in the United States. "(T)here seemed no sure way of deciding whether it was a case of mistaken identity or of a murderer beyond the reach of the law," Time reported.'" The Time article also included a portrait of Krieger's neighborhood that probably troubled many American Jews. The article told of refugees who were filtering in, bringing the dress, customs and fears of the Old World's Orthodoxjews. Synagogues stand on almost every comer; the streets are full of men with long beards and skull caps; store signs are written in Hebrew, and their clerks speak Yiddish....[M]any women shave their heads, according to Orthodox custom."

Leo Pfeffer, the AJCongress' associate general counsel, later wrote that the media coverage was a major factor in the decision to hold the hearings.'^ To some in the American Jewish community, the unassimilated Benjamin Krieger was a publicity nightmare. Americanjews still associated unassimilated Jewish immigrants with the stereotypes that anti-Semites had promoted in the past. Traditionally, established American Jews feared that the strange attire, language or dress of newcomers might incur the wrath of antiSemites on all Jews.'3 The sentiment was the same as one held during the Great Depression, which caused several American Jewish organizations to silently accept U.S. immigration restrictions.'* KRIEGER V. MITTELMAN : 43 This reticence also explains why the.AJCongress emphasized that the purpose of its tribunal was "to arrive at an equitable and expeditious determination of the issues in the interest of preserving the dignity and selfrespect of the American Jewish community.'"'^ The men selected to judge Krieger's accusations were well-respected within and without the Jewish community.' The VJCongress chose Leo Pfeffer to chair the tribunal. Pfeffer, who would later argue a historic religious test case before the Supreme Court, was already a prominent lawyer by

1950. He was a member of the New York and U.S. Supreme Court bars, as well as an Orthodox Jew. The fact that he had one foot in the Orthodox community and another in the American justice system made him an ideal choice, for both religious and secular Americans would respect his decision.

His fellow judges—Rabbis Simon Federbusch and Emanuel Rackman— also straddled both thejewish and the secular communities. Federbusch, who was bom in Poland and once served as chief rabbi of Finland, was principal of Yeshiva Israel Salanter in the Bronx. Federbusch also served as a member of the Polish parliament, the Sejm, in the 1920s and, at the time of his appointment to the panel, was a member of the executive committee of the WorldJewish Congress. Rackman, in addition to being a rabbi, had both a law degree and a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University. At the time of his appointment to the panel, he was a member of the Yeshiva University faculty and a past president of the Association of Jewish Chaplains of the Armed Forces. He was also a member of the executive committee of the AJCongress.''' Choosing these three men was the AJCongress' attempt to satisfy any concems about the tribunal's legitimacy.

The Trial In the first session of the beit din, held on Oct. 10,1950, these three men heard the impassioned testimony of Benjamin Krieger. Before an audience of approximately 40 people, about half of whom were concentration camp survivors, Krieger recalled how his brother Zalman had died at the hands of a fellowJew.'^ The man who Krieger said had caused Zalman's death was a blockschreiher, or a "block clerk"—an inmate who was responsible for keeping work, food and attendance records. One of the block clerk's jobs was to check off inmates as they received their evening meal. The block clerk was not at the top of the inmate hierarchy, for he answered to a "block elder" who in tum answered to the Nazi guards.'^ Still, Krieger's attorney stressed that the block clerk did possess a certain degree of authority over his fellow inmates.

44 : Judaism Krieger quickly identified Mitteiman as the block clerk in the Miihldorf concentration camp^° who had killed Krieger's brother on a food line in the spring of 1945. Krieger, who testified that he could see and hear all that transpired, accused Mitteiman of first denying Zalman Krieger some soup and then striking him over the head with a metal soup plate when he refused to leave the line. Benjamin said he dragged his bleeding brother to the barracks, and then carried him to the camp hospital the next morning.

Three days later, Krieger said, he was told that his brother had died.^' During its cross-examination, the defense attempted to demonstrate that Krieger's memories about the death of his brother were jumbled.

Simeon Gross, one of Mittelman's attorneys, first tried to establish that Krieger could easily have mistaken Mitteiman for another block clerk. When Gross asked what it was about Mittelman's face that stuck in Krieger's memory, Krieger responded: "I recognized him by his crooked nose."^^ Gross later questioned Krieger repeatedly on key details, getting Krieger to contradict himself on a few facts, such as the exact date of the assault.^3 •pijjs ijjjg gf questioning vexed Krieger and, in the course of this first session, he often became impatient. At one point during cross-examination by Gross, Krieger suddenly removed his coat, rolled up his sleeve and displayed the numbers burnt into his arm. "Is this proof enough that I have been in a concentration camp?" he exclaimed.^* According to Loudon Wainwright, who wrote about the beit din for Life magazine, when the tribunal called for a lunch break, Krieger "pulled angrily at his cap and stalked muttering from the room."^^ Krieger's anger and outrage would soon spread to the spectators, demonstrating the volatility of the case. The defense clearly understood the dangers of attacking the credibility of a victim of the camps and, accordingly, it sought to focus narrowly on the issue of Krieger's memory. Mitteiman, the defense argued, simply was not the man who served as block clerk on the day that Zalman Krieger was bludgeoned.

During this first hearing, two defense witnesses testified that Mitteiman was physically incapacitated at the time of the assault. Jacob Grossinger, 46, said that he had been at Miihldorf and that Mitteiman had indeed been a blockschreiber.^^ Yet Grossinger also said that during most of his time at Miihldorf, Mitteiman was severely ill and kept in the barracks.^^ In addition, Grossinger said that he had never heard about Mitteiman beating anyone. This became a fundamental argument for the defense.^^ The concentration camp grapevine was strong and quick, Mittelman's lawyer would suggest, and other inmates would have heard about a murderous collaborator.

KRIEGER Y MITTELMAN : 45 If Mitteiman had been incapacitated, of course, he would have been murdered by the Nazis. To survive would have required the help of fellow inmates. Mitteiman received that help, according to the next defense witness. Rabbi Moses Hoffman, who not only corroborated Grossinger's testimony, but explained how Mitteiman survived. "[Mitteiman] was a friend of the block leaders," the witness explained. "And when the guard came through, he got up and made as if he were working."^^ So far, then, the defense had succeeded in casting doubt on Krieger's testimony by placing Mitteiman elsewhere, but it also had succeeded in confirming some of what the accuser had said—specifically, that Mitteiman in fact was a blockschreiber. The conflicting facts alternately refuting and validating Krieger's memory apparently frustrated many of the participants, and this frustration would spill out during the next session.

It may also have frustrated one of the three judges. When the tribunal opened its second hearing on Oct. 23, Rackman had been replaced by Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein, a fellow Yeshiva University faculty member and the former president of the Rabbinical Council of America.^" It is not certain why Rackman withdrew from the beit din. An Oct. 11 letter from Rackman to Pfeffer pointed to a possible difference in philosophy toward the hearings. Rackman wrote that Pfeffer "ought to speak to the parties about the possibility of finding the block leader [at Miihldorf] whose testimony would be most valuable. He probably survived and must be either Germany or Israel or America. If real effort were exerted to find him he could shed a lot of light on the case" (italics added).^' The rabbi's logic seems sound; given more time, Pfeffer's staff might have located witnesses elsewhere in the world. Time, however, was a luxury the AJCongress did not feel thejewish community could afford.

The tempo of the second hearing was slowed by the repeated emotional outbursts of distraught audience members. When Krieger again took the stand. Gross used the same strategy he had used during the first hearing. He had Krieger repeat key dates and events in order to reveal inconsistencies.

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