Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed PR photo

The Vienna conversion affair, most of which took place in the winter of 1970, was one of the most difficult polemics on the subject of conversions. Many members of the Haredi public and their rabbis opposed the religious Aliyah activists in the Jewish Agency, accusing them of wholesale conversions in violation of Halakha. The rabbis who supported these converts also received threats and were persistently attacked. From then on, any rabbi who wanted to support conversions according to the lenient halakhic opinion, had to take into account that the Haredi world would denounce him, and his good name would be irreparably slandered.

In 1969, the Iron Curtain that separated the Soviet Union from the free world was partially removed, and little by little, Jews were allowed to leave. After that, the gate was more widely opened, and for about ten years, about 200,000 new immigrants immigrated to the State of Israel. On their way to Israel, the immigrants first arrived in Vienna, the capital of Austria, and were accommodated for a while in a hotel rented by the Jewish Agency to receive them, and confirm their immigration.

With the arrival of the first immigrants to Vienna, members of the religious department of the Jewish Agency witnessed the phenomenon of mixed marriages, and consequently, also children who were not Jewish according to Halakha. It was impossible to separate the Jewish couples from their non-Jewish partners, therefore the clear policy of the Jewish Agency was to bring to Israel every Jew with his family members, even if they were not Jewish. Immediately upon their arrival in Israel, the Jews received Israeli citizenship, along with their family members. Following appeals to this policy, in 1970, the law of rights of Jewish family members was passed, including the section concerning grandchildren, and since then the Jewish Agency has been obligated to uphold this policy according to the law.

Since at this time, these were family members of Jews who decided to tie their fate with the fate of the Jewish people and immigrate to Israel, the members of the religious department at the Agency tried to convert them before they arrived in Israel. To this end, their stay in Vienna was extended, they were taught Judaism, and at the end of the process, converted.

The leaders of this plan were Rabbi Mordechai Kirschblum, Associate Chairman of the Aliyah Department at the Jewish Agency and the representative of the Mafdal religious party, together with Rabbi Shamai Ginzburg, one of the Torah luminaries of the generation. They received tacit approval for their initiative from the Chief Rabbinate, and instructed Reb Alter Meir Steinmetz to organize in the transit camp in Vienna, the study and conversion of those interested. The conversion abroad was essential, because upon coming to Israel, the immigrants were expected to assimilate into the country, without any need for conversion. In addition to this, the time spent in the transit camp was an ideal time for studying Judaism, without worries about earning a living, and other distractions.

Establishment of the Beit Din for Conversion in Vienna

Reb Alter Steinmetz acted effectively. He turned to Rabbi Dr. Akiva Eisenberg, the official Rabbi of Vienna and a Zionist activist in Austria, who was of a modern nature, and convinced him to head the conversion Beit Din. As a second judge, he recruited Rabbi Yosef Bruner, director of the Torah Talmud for boys and Beit Yaacov for girls of the Agudat Yisrael community in Vienna. He himself, was the third judge. At times, other judges participated. For any question they had, they turned to Rabbi Chaim Grinfeld, who was the rabbi of Agudat Yisrael in the city, who guided them, and supported their actions. In this way, 54 men and women were converted in Vienna between the spring of 1969, and the summer of 1970.

The Severe Attacks against the Beit Din and its subsequent closure

These conversions were done in a serious manner. The converts learned a lot of Judaism, accepted upon themselves the mitzvot, and in practice, they could even be expected to maintain a traditional lifestyle. However, according to the strict halakhic arbiters, who are of the opinion that one should not convert someone who is not expected to maintain a religious lifestyle, it was forbidden to convert them. In other words, these conversions were better than most of the conversions that were conducted in Jewish communities by the eminent rabbis who followed the lenient approach.

Despite this, the most serious claims were made against the conversions in Vienna. It was claimed that a “factory for conversions” was established there, and it was run by religious askanim (movers and shakers) from the Jewish Agency who surrendered to the secularists, and converted there “in wholesale”, in a “conveyor belt”, and that “hundreds of converts” who are nothing more than complete non-Jews, had already immigrated to Israel.

It was further claimed that after a few days of preparation, the non-Jews were begged and enticed to convert, without understanding the meaning of the matter, since the converts did not understand the language of those converting them. It was further claimed that the dayanim (judges) were frivolous, or innovators and reform who disdained halakha, or laymen who were not qualified to be rabbis but only kosher overseers who had never specialized in halakha in general, or the laws of conversion, in particular.

For months, these and other claims were made and written by famous Rabbis, Rebbes, and Heads of yeshivas. They were published in posters that were distributed in thousands of copies, and printed on the front pages of the most important newspapers in Israel, in selected brochures and books, in recorded conversations, and in radio interviews. Following this, most of the Rebbes in Israel and heads of famous yeshivas signed the most serious pashquevillim (billboard posters) against the “conversion scandal in Vienna”. Finally, the Council of the Chief Rabbinate determined that all the conversions were questionable, and would be examined by the Rabbis of the Land of Israel.

The Beit Din for conversion in Vienna was closed, and from then on, men and women married to a non-Jewish spouse and their children, immigrated to Israel without conversion.

Who is the 'Infamous' Alter Steinmetz?

When I read the serious allegations against the Vienna converts and the harsh insults against Reb Alter Steinmetz, that he was a layman an ignoramus, and without authority, decided to establish a fictitious conversion factory, deep down I got the impression that he was a Zionist religious teacher and an idealist, and that the Haredim didn’t understand that his intention was for the sake of Heaven. Recently, I told the members of the Har Bracha Institute, Rabbi Dr. Boaz Huttrer and Rabbi Tzuriel Halamish, who specialize in history, that they must find out who this Alter Steinmetz was, who, since that affair, had disappeared from the public scene.

By the Grace of God, the Treasure was Found

With the help of Heaven, the descendants of Reb Alter were located. They had established fine religious families, for example, one of his grandsons serves in a senior educational position. It turned out that from that episode until his last day, Reb Alter had been offended. Towards the end of his life, after he passed the age of eighty, he bought himself a computer, typed his life stories, attached the numerous documents and letters in his possession, and described the case of the Vienna converts in full.

The book has five hundred pages. He had planned to print it privately. In the month of July 1997, after the draft of the book had been printed in three copies, Reb Alter passed away, in a merciful death. Following that, during the troubles of moving, the computer on which the book was written was lost, as well as two printed copies. By the grace of God, the last copy remained with his daughter for some twenty-five years, and about a week ago, Rabbi Dr. Boaz Huttrer photographed the majority of it. Rabbi Tzuriel Halamish checked, and found that the documents he brought were accurate, as copies of them were found in the State Treasury, and other persons who were involved in the affair, confirmed his words.

With God’s help, I will continue to tell the story of the great controversy about the conversions of Vienna.

A Few Words about Rabbi Alter Meir Steinmetz

Rabbi Alter Meir Steinmetz ztz’l (1909-1997) was born in the town of Borsa in the district of Maramaros in Transylvania. His family was wealthy, and connected to the Vizhnitz Hasidism. He himself studied under Rabbi Menachem Mendel Hager, the Grand Rebbe of Vishuv, and was even ordained by him as a rabbi. During his studies with the Rebbe, he lived for about a year in his home, and studied with his son in a chevruta (fellowship). He also studied in yeshivot with Rabbi Mordechai Brisk in Tushand, and Rabbi Eliezer David Greenwald (the ‘Keren L’David’) in Satmar.

To help with his family’s business, he moved to Germany and continued studying Torah there in a modern Haredi community, and at the same time, he studied economics. Due to his great talent, he was fluent in six languages. After the Nazis came to power, he left Germany and returned to his parents’ home. There he continued in Zionist activity, and was one of the leaders of Hapoel Mizrachi, founded the Bnei Akiva branch, and was a member of the Torah and Avodah movement in Siget and Oradea (Grossverdein). In 1935, thanks to his resourcefulness, he was a partner in the Sitkov immigration organization, within the framework of which hundreds of families immigrated to Israel, some of them from the Maramaros district. He wrote at length about the Holocaust period in his book, beginning with the summer of 1944 when he was in the Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and other camps, and suffered severe torture.

Being a German speaker, he was appointed by the Nazis, may the name be erased, to be in charge of the camp in Mertzbachtel, and with cleverness and dedication, he managed to save hundreds of Jews from death. Forty-two members of his immediate family were murdered in the Holocaust but he survived, emaciated and sickly, and two years passed before he recovered. After the Holocaust, he was persecuted by the Communist government for being a property owner, and for being a Zionist member of the board of the Mizrahi movement in Arad. In the end, all of his family’s property was confiscated, and with great efforts, he managed to immigrate to Israel in 1950, without anything in his possession.

For more than twenty years (1952-1973) he worked as the person in charge of kashrut and religious needs in the Jewish Agency’s Immigration Department. He was the father of three children, and lived in Bnei Brak until his death. Recognizing his righteousness, and knowing the truth of the facts in the case, the Rebbe of Viznitz, Rabbi Chaim Meir Hagar ztz’l, refused to agree to join his fellow Rebbes, who signed letters against the Vienna converts.

A Little about his Dedication to Saving his Brother

When the Germans were about to retreat, the deputy director of the Mertzbachthal camp revealed to him that an order had arrived to liquidate the camp, and to march all the Jews on foot, 15 kilometers a day with all their luggage, and to shoot anyone who could not walk, and leave them on the side of the road. He also revealed that anyone who was in the clinic, which was intended for people who were about to die and was located in a small nearby village, would not be taken to the march. The Wehrmacht man warned that if they found out that he had told him about the liquidation of the camp, they would kill them both. That night, Reb Alter gathered the doctors in the camp, and at great risk to their lives, evacuated more than 400 weak people to the clinic village, and thus saved their lives.

In his book there are photographs of letters written to him after the war by Jews he saved. One wrote: “Every time, you took me out by force, and I didn’t understand why… therefore, glory to the Most High, and to you as a mitzvah messenger of the Merciful, I was saved from the gas chambers… I will never forget you.” Another person wrote to Reb Alter that he was similar to “one of the police officers of the Israelites… who were struck by the Egyptians for not torturing the Israelites, and I remember very well that you, may you live long and well, were very much in danger, blessed is your share and righteousness in this world, and in the next.”

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.