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Fleischmann, Gisela

(1897–1944), president of the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) in interwar Czechoslovakia and a leading activist of the Pracovna Skupina (Working Group), an informal leadership group of Slovak Jewry during World War II, who dedicated her life to rescue and welfare efforts. Born in Bratislava to an Orthodox family, Gisi (as she was known) was a relative of Rabbi Mikha’el Dov Ber Weissmandel, later her colleague in the Working Group. Instrumental in social and communal work, she became chairperson of HICEM (the combined acronym for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society [HIAS], Jewish Colonization Association [ICA], and Emigration-Direct, a German organization) and a much-trusted member of the Joint Distribution Committee and of the Zionist federation executive committees. Most notable are her efforts to render support and organize escape routes for refugees from Germany (1933), Austria (1938), and the Protektorat (1940) who were trying to work their way to safer Hungary or to Palestine.

Following the forced establishment in 1940 of a Jewish Center (Ústredňa Židov), actually a Judenrat, Fleischmann, who nevertheless supported cooperation with the center, was appointed head of its Aliyah (immigration to Palestine) department, and when immigration was forbidden she headed the social welfare department, the work of which increased daily. The Working Group was created in her office in early spring 1942; it carried out informal and illegal work, including the funding of productive Jewish labor camps, managed by the group in order to protect thousands from deportations.

The most significant activity of Fleischmann started when the first deportations to Auschwitz began in March 1942, with the Jews of Slovakia first in line. In two waves, until the end of October, 58,000 Jews, three-quarters of the community, were deported. The Working Group, joined that summer by Weissmandel, bribed Eichmann’s envoy in Slovakia, Dieter Wisliceny, with $50,000 to stop the deportations.

Fleischmann was appointed coordinator of the bribery efforts. The deportations stopped after two more transports, and were not resumed until the fall of 1944. They were halted because of a number of other reasons, mostly unknown to the Jewish public or leaders. However, Gisi and her colleagues, convinced that the bribery was instrumental, embarked on a much larger plan, calling it the Europa Plan, which would stop the deportations from all over Europe and the killing of those who had already arrived at the death camps, render aid to the survivors, and allow children, first of all, out of Europe. Wisliceny pretended to agree, after allegedly procuring Himmler’s consent, in exchange for $2–3 million—a suspiciously small sum in comparison to what the Nazi regime robbed or was about to rob. Fleischmann pleaded with Jewish leaders abroad to provide the $200,000 advance money, while keeping in touch with Wisliceny and still caring for refugees, now from Poland, and sending aid to the deportees. When the Yishuv (the Jewish community in pre-1948 Palestine) and the Joint sent the money in August 1943, Wisliceny announced an end to the negotiations.

Refusing offers to hide or leave, Fleischmann was arrested twice by the Gestapo in 1944 and finally sent to Auschwitz with a specific order not to let her back. Her unique personality is reflected in all sources: she possessed devotion, courage, leadership, a way with a variety of people, and the ability to create and keep trustworthy contacts. In short, she reflected the best of European Jewry.

Suggested Reading

Yehuda Bauer, Jews For Sale? Nazi-Jewish Negotiations, 1933–1945 (New Haven, 1994), pp. 62–101; Joan Campion, In the Lion’s Mouth: Gisi Fleischmann and the Jewish Fight for Survival (Lanham, Md., 1987); Gila Fatran, Ha-Im ma’avak ‘al hisardut: Hanhagat yehude Slovakyah ba-sho’ah, 1938–1944 (Tel Aviv, 1992); Dina Porat, The Blue and the Yellow Stars of David: The Zionist Leadership in Palestine and the Holocaust, 1939–1945 (Cambridge, Mass., 1990), pp. 174–211.