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Escape from Poland

Escape from Poland

Escape from Poland 

Rabbi Avrohom Y. Garfinkel recalled, “During the month of Kislev, we came to the house of the Rebbe. Immediately, his son-in-law, Rabbi Shmaryahu Gourary (the Rashag), who was overjoyed to see us, greeted us. He informed us about the recent positive development that the Russians had agreed to return the city of Vilna to Lithuania; all of the Lithuanian yeshiva students who were detained by the Russians during their conquest of eastern Poland were able to relocate themselves to Vilna.”

“...We were accepted into the Rebbe’s room for Yechidus. His face was joyful and radiant. He gave me his brochah that I should arrive in Vilna in peace and that I should assist in the formation of the yeshiva there. The Rebbe asked us if we were prepared to flee and to smuggle ourselves over two borders; the German-Soviet border and the Soviet-Lithuanian border. He also requested from me that I publicize to all that I would encounter on the way the Rebbe’s firm conviction that everyone should leave Poland, not seek sanctuary from the Soviet regime but rather to continue on to Vilna, Lithuania.”

“I readily agreed to leave the very next day. Rabbi Gourary gave me 100 zlotys plus an additional 50 zlotys to take along to my older brother, since my parents refused to give their consent to my plan unless we went together.”

My father left with a group of 10 bochurim from Otwock and on the way they stopped in Pragy, a small suberb of Warsaw. My father and Rabbi Greenglass were chosen to bring a Pidyon to the Rebbe to ask for a brochah for their escape.

My father, along with Rabbi Greenglass, saw the Friediker Rebbe in Warsaw on the night of Yud-Tes Kislev. The home of Rabbi Heshel Gourary, where the Rebbe stayed, had a sign on the door stating that the occupant was a Latvian citizen, not of Polish origin, with the hope it would offer those inside some sort of protection from the German onslaught.

Rabbi Greenglass disguised himself so as not to be identified by the Germans or the Poles as a Jew; my father did not. Rabbi Greenglass persisted in his disguise despite protestations by Rabbi Shmaryahu Gourary, the Rashag that “Volf, you can’t go into the Rebbe looking the way you do.” Rabbi Greenglass replied, “sometimes the Rebbe has to see me as I am.” The Rebbe gave Rabbi Greenglass a broad smile when he did indeed remove his disguise, along with the brochah that they should leave safely and arrive safely, and meet again b’simchah. The Rebbe was writing a Ma’amar of Chassidus, “Ma Mevorech” printed in Ma’amorei Chassidus 5700. On Yud-Tes Kislev my father would tell us the story, and he would say, “Even under the Germans you could see the Yom Tov of Yud-Tes Kislev was reflected in the radiance of the Rebbe’s face.

After receiving the brocahah from the Rebbe, the bochurim took a train from Warsaw to Shadlitz. They arrived after midnight, and a curfew was in effect. The Wermacht captured my father and Rabbi Greenglass at the station, and searched their belongings for money. Rabbi Greenglass had hidden his money in the spine of a Tanya. The Germans threw the Tanya around, but miraculously the money was not discovered. Indeed, this Tanya is in Rabbi Greenglass’ possession to this day.

However, the Nazis found their tefilin and asked its purpose. When my father and Rabbi Greenglass explained that it was for prayer, the Germans forced them to strip to their underwear, put on the tefilin, and shake in the freezing weather for ten minutes. Again, another miracle - they let them go.

My father and the other bochurim had to smuggle themselves through the German-Russian border of Poland and then across the Russian-Lithuanian border. They hired a non-Jewish wagon driver to take them to Zamita. For safety reasons, they split into small groups, each group experiencing miracles of their own.

From there, they hired a gentile man with a small boat to take them across the Bug River to the Soviet side of Poland. They could not enter the port, for fear of being caught by the Russians, so they zigzagged down the riverbank until they came to a place safe enough to disembark.

The group walked 100 yards or more in the freezing river and climbed a muddy, slippery hill to get into Soviet territory. It was December, there was snow and the weather was bitterly cold. Many became ill form the expedition. But it had only just begun.

Some bochurim regrouped in Bailystock, some took the train to Branowitz. Rabbi Greenglass remembered that before leaving Otwock they made one last visit at the Rebbe’s empty home and found olive oil to light the menorah for Chanukah. At one stop they met up with a few hundred refugees and when they lit the monorah, the people jumped with joy, in the midst of all the danger.

The bochurim split up into many groups. My father crossed into Lithuania with his chaver, Rabbi Mendel Tenenbaum, ob”m. Once again a gentile was hired to guide them, this time through the forest. It was so dark, so cold, and the snow so deep that my father lost his boots and had to walk without them. That night they walked, calling each other’s names so as not to lose a soul in the forest. Rabbi Mordechai Brisky remembers my father in Vilna, sick and in pain from his feet. But he never complained. He worried instead about everyone else. My father suffered all his life from frostbite on three toes from the walk that night.

Rabbi Greenglass told me his group, once inside Lithuania, went to an inn to get out of the freezing weather. As they huddled in a corner trying to get warm, a group of Lithuanian soldiers sat around toasting their New Year. One soldier noticed them and warned, “Bochurim, what are you doing here? These soldiers are on border patrol!” The group left immediately, and hired someone to take them to Kovno.

Next time we will speak about the Yeshivah in Vilna.

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