Escape to Vilna

In Vilna the Yeshiva was located in the Lubavitch shul known by the name “Aptov’s Kloysz..” It was under Rabbi Yitzchok DuBer Ushpol. In the beginning of the war Rabbi Shmuel Zalmanov and Reb Moshe Leib Rodshtein escaped from Poland to Vilna. They were involved with the Yeshiva, and they later left with him to America. Once the talmidim came to Vilna, the Friediker Rebbe sent different letters to them. 

On Teves 20, 5700 (1940), the Rebbe wrote a letter to the students exhorting them to keep the seder of the Yeshiva with the true spirit. (We have to remember that this was during the Second World War.) The Rebbe went on to say, “Talmidim, do not change your garments of the weekday or of Shabbos. Do not let go of your customs. Let us unite and go arm in arm together in the path established by the founder of Tomchei Temimim. My hope is that my request in this letter to you will be accepted with your great love and connection to me, as a decree to be fulfilled with love of the holy…. I want to know in detail how each of the students are doing….” (Igros Kodesh of the Friediker Rebbe, vol. 5, p. 14)

On Shevat 8, there was a letter written to Reb Yosef Partovich, in answer to a letter that he wrote notifying the Rebbe that he, along with Reb Menachem Mendel Tenenbaum and my father, had made it to Vilna. The Rebbe wrote to them, “Surely you are writing to your brothers (the other students) who remain in other places that they should come quickly— nothing should hold them back. They should strengthen their trust in Hashem Yisborach that He will help them, and they will make the journey successfully, and they will come to strive in Torah and Avodah. Send me exact accounts of those you wrote to; keep on writing to encourage them, because time is of the essence” (Igros Kodesh of the Friediker Rebbe, vol. 5, p. 20).

On Adar Rishon 3, the Rebbe wrote a letter to another student: “Every one of the students has to write to his friend to encourage him to come quickly, and each one should try to help to search and find the students whose addresses are unknown. They should speak to those who are hesitating to come, whatever their reasons may be. They should have mercy on their souls and they should stand strong against anything that is holding them back and come to the Yeshiva. They must also stress to those who learnt in the small Yeshivas like Chelm and Lodz, that they should come to Tomchei Temimim. Please notify me of all the news that is received regarding this matter” (Igros Kodesh of the Friediker Rebbe, vol. 5, p. 26).

The Rebbe sent many letters to various bochurim who came to learn in Yeshiva, urging them to sit and learn, keep the seder, and fulfill the requests contained in all his previous letters.

The Rashag, the Friediker Rebbe’s oldest son in law, Rabbi Shmaryahu Gurary, came to visit the Yeshiva in Vilna (from Riga, on his way to America). He demanded of the bochurim, in the name of the Friediker Rebbe, to send letters to everyone they knew, urging them to leave Poland and come to Vilna.

Rabbi Garfinkel noted that on his way to Vilna, when he crossed the border to Lithuania, whenever he knocked on the door of a Jewish home, the door was opened wide for him when they realized he was a bochur in need, notwithstanding their own destitution. They shared their last bits of food and gave away their own beds to help provide for a yeshiva bochur in need. We saw openly what the Friediker Rebbe spoke about so often in his sichos: the Lithuanian Jews’ love of Torah. 

In Poland there was a lot of open anti-Semitism and there were many troubling incidents with the Polish neighbors. My father told me that when he came to Vilna it felt very liberating to be able to walk around without anti-Semitic hatred following one’s every step. Vilna was very different from Warsaw because Vilna was more modern (in a religious sense). The bochurim came from Poland, which was a war-torn country, with food shortages etc., to a place that was like a paradise, a neutral country without the ravages of war. 

When they arrived, the bochurim involved themselves in writing letters encouraging others to come. Also, my father and Reb Yosef Weinberg started sending telegrams to the bochurim in Poland. They would sign them “Yossel Raichik,” which was a combination of their names, so that in case they were intercepted, they could not be traced to a real person. One of the questions which lay heavily on my father’s mind was who would pay for the expense of the bochurim’s escaping Poland. As mentioned in a previous article, the Friediker Rebbe gave each bochur 100 to 150 Zlotys to help them. Now, the Rebbe was in Riga on his way to America. The Friediker Rebbe responded to my father’s question with the following letter, which he wrote in Stockholm (he was there only one day) on his way to America:

The letter was sent from Stockholm to Riga, to R’ Yechezkel Feigin, who was the Friediker Rebbe’s personal secretary. He then typed up the letter and sent it on from Riga to Vilna. The stationary was cut off because my father later traveled to Russia, and while in Russia all mention of Lubavitch was taken out of their papers.

 In the first part of the letter the Rebbe acknowledges his arrival in the Yeshiva, and he wishes him that Hashem should bless him in his learning, that he should be a Yiras Shamayim, a Chosid and a Lamdan.

 On the bottom of the letter Rabbi Feigin adds...“I re ceived the answers for the letters from Stockholm. The letters itself I did not see. But it’s clear that you wrote another letter to the Rebbe, in a separate para graph there was another answer to you.” “He should write to them that they should go and ask Reb Tzvi (Hershel) Gurary, concerning their expenses. With out any demands, quietly that it shouldn’t become public knowledge. There’s a possibility that he could help them. Because I wrote to him concerning this matter.”

Reb Shlomo Hochler told me that he got a postcard from R’ Hershel Kotlarsky, that said “Our father (the Rebbe) wants you to come, nothing should hold you back from coming; for expenses go to Hershel Gurary.” He went to Hershel Gurary, who sent him to his brother in law, who in turn gave him the money to escape. One problem people faced when crossing the border was they had to trust strangers to take them across and not bring them to the Police. Another problem is that many people were left halfway through the crossing to complete it themselves, not knowing where they were or which direction they had to go in. It took time to find trustworthy people to cross you over. Often the bochurim on the Russian side had to notify the bochurim in Vilna that they were coming and that there should be someone waiting to pay for them. This was done to ensure their safety, that they would be crossed the full way, and not robbed during the trip and left alone. My father was once caught by the Lithuanian border patrol, waiting for some bochurim who were coming over. He sat two days in prison for it. When he was released he was asked what happened in prison and his answer was always “gornisht”--nothing happened. 

The last group which came over in that period of time was R’ Chaim Meir Bukiet, R’ Laibel Kramer, R’ Shlomo Hochler and R’ Moshe Leder Hendler. They crossed over on Pesach Sheni, and my father was waiting for them. The guide was a woman who wanted an exorbitant sum of money. My father said, “If you won’t bargain on the price, just take the ‘merchandise’ back!” (He said this knowing obviously that this guide wasn’t taking anyone back.) 

When the Friediker Rebbe left Poland and came to Riga on his way to America, he stayed in Riga for two and a half months, since they needed time to get the papers to come to America and his mother, Rebbitzin Shterna Sara, needed an operation. The borders between Riga (Latvia) and Vilna, Kovna (Lithuania) were open. Chassidim came to visit the Friediker Rebbe. During this time Rabbi Yehoshua Issac Baruk came to visit the Friediker Rebbe from Kovno, Lithuania. The Friediker Rebbe told him in Yechidus, “I’m appointing you to be the mashpia of the Yeshiva.” Rabbi Yehoshua Issac once farbrenged with the bochurim in Vilna. He related that when the Friediker Rebbe appointed him as mashpia he cried to the Rebbe that he was not fit for such a role. To anyone whom he met he used to relate the words which the Friediker Rebbe told him to convey to all of the chassidim: “The (Atlantic) ocean is not an ocean which divides us but an ocean that unites us. Everyone should strengthen themselves with emunah and hiskashrus as it used to be.” Often at farbrengen he recounted the last words which the Rebbe said to him, “We will meet again with Moshiach.” He said that from this he understood his future: that only when Moshiach comes will he physically see the Rebbe again.

The Yeshiva ran in a very normal state until the first day of Shavuos 1940, when the Russians marched into Lithuania and annexed it. Things started to change right away: Food became scarce, people were afraid of the communists. and everyone was looking for a way to flee.

(To Be Continued)

I would like to thank the following for their invaluable help with this article: R’ Bronstein, R’ Bryski, R’ Garfinkel, R’ Hochler, R’ Landau, R’ Weinberg.