Chapter 1

Justice, justice shall you pursue

--DEUT. 16:20

 In 1944 SS Lt. Col. Adolf Eichmann approached Hungarian Jewish leaders with a proposal to spare Jewish lives in exchange for supplies and materiel needed by German forces to stave off the Third Reich's final hour. The feverish negotiations that ensued for what became known as the Blood for Goods plan were an episode of high drama, played out against the even more dramatic background of the Hungarian Holocaust. They also led to at least the short-term ruin of one reputation--that of the Jewish journalist Dr. Reszo Kastner.

The Blood for Goods rescue effort has received much fascinated attention, both from scholars and from the general public--so much so that it has been almost forgotten that Eichmann's plan was not the first effort by Jews to negotiate for Jewish lives, nor was the ransom idea originally Eichmann's. In fact, it originated with an extraordinary Slovakian rabbi named Michael Weissmandel.

Weissmandel seems to have conceived the idea that it might be possible to save large numbers of Jews through negotiation and money payments in late 1942. To test the idea, he drew up what became known as the Europa Plan. The plan's chief negotiator on the Jewish side was the remarkable woman who is the subject of this book. Gisi Fleischmann, a distinguished Zionist leader and Weissmandel’s relative by marriage, was a middle-aged woman with a giant passion for saving the lives of her fellow Jews. Recently widowed, she had two daughters in the Palestine Mandate, and missed them very much. But the needs of her community, the anguish of all the parents whose children had been torn from them, kept her in Slovakia to help.

Gisi had been involved in the rescue of Jews ever since Hitler had come to power in Germany in 1933, and was to remain involved almost to the very moment of her tragic murder at Auschwitz in October, 1944--a record of commitment equaled by few, and surpassed by fewer. She undertook her advocacy of the Europa Plan only with reluctance; but, once she had become convinced that it represented the only hope for rescuing large numbers of Jews, her promotion of the plan was ardent and eloquent.

She managed to conduct the Europa Plan negotiations in such a way that no discredit has fallen on her or her colleagues of the rescue group she headed. She was well known in the small Slovakian Jewish community, and widely esteemed. Related to everybody, or so it seemed, her personal gifts and warmth made her a kind of bridge between the Orthodox Jewry into which she had been born, and the Zionists whose cause she later espoused. Although these two groups were bitterly at odds, they were able to unite around her leadership in time of need. Respected and admired as she was, her death led her friends to grieve her as Hannah Senesch's friends lamented that gifted young woman's loss.

It is clear that in Gisi Fleischmann we come face to face with one of the greatest--and most neglected--heroic figures of the Holocaust, a woman to whom thousands of her fellow Jews and their descendants owe their lives. As noted, she began her activities very early, and stayed the course as few others managed to do. And, although the Europa Plan did not succeed, the rescue efforts continued. Even during the negotiations for the plan, Gisi and her friends were snatching children from the ghettoes of Poland and helping them along the perilous road to Palestine and safety. Yet, since the spotlight of history fell on Hungary rather than on neighboring Slovakia, today this extraordinary woman and her work have become footnotes to other stories--stories of no greater importance or drama than her own.

If one of the uses of history is to do justice, this retelling of her life is a small effort in that direction.