Leaving Vilna 

As mentioned in previous articles, the Previous Rebbe requested that the Bochurim escape to Vilna in Kislev of 5700 (December ’39). Each bochur experienced hardships in the process of escaping the Nazis at the border. In the Yeshiva of Vilna, the bochurim learned under Rabbi Ushpol. Rabbi Shmuel Zalmanoff and Rabbi Rotstein came at the beginning of the war, and Rabbi Yehoshua Isaac of Kovna was made mashpiah by the Rebbe, as mentioned previously.

The Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Vilna, Lithuania tried to maintain its regular, rigorous schedule of learning and prayers. It is well to bear in mind that even if the Yeshiva students were in a relatively safe haven, their families were too often in critical circumstances in Poland. 

While in Stockholm for only one day (on the 25th of Adar I, 5700, Tuesday, March 5, 1940) the Rebbe sent my father 2 letters. (The other letter was printed previously.) This letter to my father and Rabbi Bornstein, obm, Rabbi Moshe Fedder, Rabbi Avrohom Yitchak Garfinkle instructed the bochurim to orally review their chidushim (innovations) in Niglah once a week. They were to take care, however, that this should not detract from their Chassidic studies. Reb Moshe Fedder told me that he remembers the chiddushim that my father said to this group of four.

How amazing it was that, even while escaping the war and on a one-day layover, the Rebbe gave this advice and the bochurim took it to heart with such energy under wartime conditions.

The letter was sent to Rabbi Yecheskel Faigen in Riga and he typed it (and the other letter) and sent it to Vilna. (Later these four ran the Yeshiva in Shanghai, as we will discuss, please G‑d, in the future.)

While onboard the Rottingholm on the 27th of Adar I, 5700, Thursday, March 6, 1940, the Rebbe wrote to the students of Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch, in the city of Vilna, that … I am traveling with the hope that the students, especially the older students, take upon themselves the responsibly of running the Yeshiva, the learning of Niglah Chassidus, davening, and farbrengens, and it should run in the spirit of the Yeshiva in Otvosk … and the older talmidim should run the Yeshiva physically and spiritually, and make sure everything is proper, and they should write me weekly, via air mail, regarding everything, the physical and spiritual …” This is letter 11653 in Volume 5 of the Previous Rebbe’s Letters. (In Hebrew) 

When Rabbi Ushpol, then Rabbi Shmuel Zalmanoff, and Rabbi Rotstein, left to America in the Winter of ’40, the Yeshiva was run by four or five senior bochurim including Rabbis Rodal, Weisberg, Handel and Kramer. When the Rebbe settled in America, the goal was to stay in Vilna only temporarily and then move to the States.

When in Vilna they sent food packages to their families in Poland. Rabbi Yeshia Isaac, a Lithuanian citizen, often went to the post office to ship the packages, as it was easier for him as a citizen to do so.

As related in a previous article, my father a”h, along with Rabbi Weinberg, created a “company.” To hide their identities they mixed up their names when they sent telegrams concerning the all matters relating the bochurim escaping Poland or Vilna. I found a letter from the Previous Rebbe addressed to ‘Shmuel Dovid Weinberg,’ replying to a telegram. “...that your travel should be safe, in the right path, and you should please notify me upon your arrival . . . .” This letter was sent from America after the last group of bochurim escaped to Vilna.

On Shavuos, in 1940, the Soviets stole back Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia because the Germans occupied the Baltic area. Nine months of independence came to an end, and things immediately changed in Lithuania. Food became scarce, and even basic commodities were hard to find in stores. People became very scared.

Rabbi Hendel relates that when the Russian troops occupied Vilna, he advised the bochurim to buy anything non-perishable: light bulbs, soap, and anything else. The bochurim brought all their purchases to the shul and warehoused them (where the taleism were kept) and later, if necessary, sold them, often on the black-markets. This practice was designed to have merchandise available to sell, to keep the Yeshiva bochurim clothed and fed.

In the summer of 1939, which was considered a “hot summer” due to the pending war. The Imperial Japanese government set up a consulate office in Kovna, Lithuania. At that time the Abishter planted a seed to allow Yidden to escape from Eastern Europe. This is how it worked:

Many consulates closed after the Soviets took over because the new capital was in Moscow, not Kovno. A few consulates still had their offices, but only for a few weeks during this transition period. One such office was the Japanese consulate. Refugees were going from consulate to consulate seeking a refuge. The Japanese consulate agreed to issue a transit visa if the refugees could find a destination. That was when two Dutch students from The Mir Yeshiva, who were unable to return to Amsterdam, learned that Curacao, a Dutch controlled island, allowed everyone in without a visa. 

Yet the bochurim did not just need a destination; they needed exit visas and transit visas. These were not routine matters. For one thing, they needed proof of identity, and this was difficult in itself. Some had their birth certificates or military documentation. Some escaped Poland with nothing.

It was possible to go to the Polish Government in Exile, located in the English embassy, with 2 Polish citizens to serve as witnesses. If their testimony was satisfactory, a document was issued that attested to the person’s identity and citizenship.

Some, like my father, got documentation of his identity and citizenship from the Lithuanian police. My father’s town was totally destroyed, and all of the court and legal documents were destroyed with it.

Rabbi Kramer, became the “ambassador” for the Yeshiva to deal with these matter in all of the consulates and embassies. Some yeshivas let each student deal with these matters individually, but to maintain the seder, the Lubavitch Yeshiva used Rabbi Kramer to represent the students.

Once they had obtained their identity documents, each student and refugee’s documents were stamped by the Dutch (in charge of Curacao) with the words “No Visa Required” to enter Curacao. Then, the Japanese consul, Sugihara, gave a temporary 60-day visa to travel through Japan to Curacao.

Because of the Soviet occupation, the Japanese government wanted the Lithuanian consulate to be shut down. The consol general approved the transit visa for thousands of refuges, some even without the Curacao stamp present. This act of kindness saved thousands of lives, and therefore he was reprimanded by his government for acting without authority.

Exit visas were issued by the Soviet NKVD. The officer in charge was a Jew named Rabinovitch. The idea was to take the trans-Siberian railroad to Vladivostok, and then sail to Kobe in Japan. Rabbi Landau relates that Mr. Rabinovitch came out and said, “Where are the Lubavitchers? Are they all sleeping?” Because of Rabbi Kramer, they weren’t “hanging out” in the government offices. 

 But the Rabbinic leadership was sharply divided on this approach. My father related often, and his words were full of pain, that many of the prominent leaders of the Jewish Community felt it was too dangerous to apply to the Russians for the exit visas.

There was a basis for their fears. Previously, when Yidden applied for exit visas, tragic events followed. In the winter of 1939, when Poland was split between German and Russian control, may refugees escaped to the Russian controlled areas. The Soviets promised that any Jew wishing to return home would have to register, and they would be allowed to return. The NVKD collected the paperwork, captured the applicants, and sent them (perhaps several 100,000) into exile to Siberia. Knowing this, it was not an easy decision to apply to the NKVD for exit visas. 

At that time, it looked terrible for the Jews. How could anyone have known that many of these people were actually saved from the onslaught of the Nazis. At the conclusion of the war, many of the Polish Jews who survived and Chabad Chasidim left Russia on these Polish passports.

The Rebbe communicated that they should take the visas. The Amshinover Rebbe backed the process, and he actively advised that the Yidden should exit through Russia. Many of the community leaders didn’t follow his advice. Lubavitch did, however, as did the Mirrer and Chomchei Lublin Yeshiva. Some of the other Yeshivas did as well, but many did not apply. Those able left Vilna in the winter of ‘41. The process of obtaining visas and travelling took many months.

The bochurimobserved the Yomim Noraim of 1940 in Vilna. Because of the wartime difficulties in transportation and communication, they had worked throughout the summer looking for esrogim. They sent telegrams to Rabbi Teleshevski in Finland, to Rabbi Zuber in Stockholm, Rabbi Schmerling in Switzerland, and Rabbi Korasik in Eretz Yisroel.

Four esrogim were obtained. The plan was to ”divide the City” intro quadrants, and share the 4 esrogim amongst all of the Jewish residents. Reb Velvel Brisker approached the bochurim and requested a private esrog. The bochurim initially refused. Reb Velvel replied that the previous year, when he in war-torn Warsaw, he had been sent one by the Rebbe. The bochurim immediately relented and gave him one of their four precious esrogim.

On another front, the Lubavitcher bochurim knew that Rebbe was working hard and had already secured many visas for America, and they were waiting for them in route at the American Embassy in Moscow. In our next installment, we will discuss the travel from Vilna to Moscow and beyond.