• 28 Sivan: En Route To Safety

    The miraculous and turbulent journey of the Rebbe and Rebbetzin from Nazi occupied France to safety on American shores • By Beis Moshiach Magazine • Full Article

    Menachem Ziegelbaum, Beis Moshiach

    – PART I –

    Teves 5693. Adolf Hitler, yemach shemo, leader of the Nazi party, became Chancellor and then Fuhrer of Germany in 1934. The Nazis began consolidating their power and did all they could to eradicate political freedom in Germany. In a series of political moves, laws were passed in an atmosphere of intimidation and violence that allowed the Nazis to abolish all other parties and put an end to freedom of speech and assembly in Germany.

    From the start, intensification of the anti-Jewish atmosphere was apparent on the streets. Jews became targets of many acts of violence and found themselves in a terrible state of uncertainty. This led tens of thousands of them to emigrate in the year following Hitler’s rise to power.

    The Rebbe and Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka were living in Berlin in a modest apartment, having arrived there shortly after their wedding. They sensed the change in the atmosphere. The Rebbetzin later recounted that once, as she walked with the Rebbe in the street, they encountered a group of Nazis in uniform approaching them. She was so frightened that she asked the Rebbe to hide in a nearby store but he ignored their existence and continued walking.

    A few months after Hitler rose to power, the young couple left Germany for Paris. They arrived at the beginning of Nissan 1933. Thus, they avoided all the Nazi decrees against the Jews that were issued in the days and weeks after they left.

    – PART II –

    The Rebbe continued learning Torah with enormous diligence, remaining hidden from the public eye. He also spent time at the Sorbonne University. Here and there, he was also involved in communal matters, work which was done with great dedication following instructions received from his father-in-law, the Rebbe Rayatz who was in Poland.

    As time went on, the Germans expanded their influence and the sounds of war rose from Germany, terrifying noises that did not awaken their neighbors from their tranquil slumber. The world turned upside down on 17 Elul 5699/1939, when tens of thousands of German soldiers invaded Poland, and German planes strafed Warsaw the capital. The Rebbe Rayatz, along with many Chassidim, was in occupied Warsaw under extensive bombing. The cries of “Shema Yisrael” of Jews who sensed their imminent demise echoed in his ears for a long time to come. The shelter he was in was bombed and the noise was thunderous.

    Chabad Chassidim around the world worked to rescue the Rebbe Rayatz and his family, led by Agudas Chasidei Chabad in the United States, who spared no effort to extricate the Rebbe and his family from Europe. They exerted influence in the highest corridors of power in the American government in order to obtain visas for the Rebbe and his family, as well as for his son-in-law, Ramash and Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka.

    A few months went by until their efforts were crowned with success and on 9 Adar II 1940, the Rebbe Rayatz descended the ramp of the ship Drottingholm that brought him to Pier 97 at the port on West 57th Street in New York, to the cheers of thousands of Jews who excitedly awaited him.

    Ramash and his wife did not join the Rebbe Rayatz’s retinue. They remained in Europe, in danger.

    Upon his arrival in the United States, the Rebbe Rayatz began activities to rescue as many Jews as possible from Europe. Special efforts were made to rescue Admorim, Rabbanim and his family members – two daughters and two sons-in-law.

    – PART III –

    Lengthy meetings were held in the offices of expensive lawyers in Washington and other cities which were attended by leaders of Agudas Chasidei Chabad in America. They all worked hard to get the Rebbe and his wife out of Europe. Suggestions were raised and then dismissed until it was decided to submit requests for special visas for a group of influential Jews. These were described as men of stature, spiritual leaders whose rescue was necessary for Jews the world over.

    Submitting the request for this group visa was done in Riga and included the Rebbe’s name. Next to his name his rabbinic position was noted and the fact that he was involved in public works, in addition to his work as the editor of the Torah journal HaTamim. The Rebbe was described as “a first-class thinker,” and as “someone who would contribute greatly in the field of Judaic studies.”

    The Rebbe Rayatz did not neglect his son-in-law’s spiritual needs for a moment and, along with rescue efforts, made sure that his daughter and son-in-law received matzos at their home in Paris. Three kilograms of matzos were sent via air mail, a short time before air mail service was halted from Riga to Paris.

    Days and weeks passed. More and more countries on the European continent were dragged into the bloody conflict being led by the Germans. If, at first, the French hoped that the fear of their power would inhibit the Germans, they were soon disabused of this notion. The Germans did not hesitate and began a full-scale attack against France on 2 Iyar 5700.

    This campaign lasted a month and a half and ended the “imaginary war” in which the armies of the two countries and their allies were lined up on the western front in a face-off without engaging in warfare, with each side dug in behind their fortifications; the Maginot Line on the French side and the Siegfried Line on the German side.

    The Germans carefully planned Operation Sichelschnitt (sickle stroke), which cleverly fooled the other side and were able to quickly push deep into France. Their attack inside the French cities was swift and senior Nazis, led by Hitler, were astonished by the power and strategic superiority of their army.

    One day, a refined though determined person was seen in the French army offices.

    “I would like to register for the draft,” said the man who looked Jewish and spoke fluent French. It was the Rebbe who was not actually drafted. Registering made it easier for him to walk the streets. When he was stopped by the police and asked for identification this document exonerated him from superfluous interrogation or arrest for draft evasion.

    Many Jews in France began leaving the occupied cities and fled for the south of France where they hoped to find safety. News of the Germans’ invasion of France reached the Rebbe Rayatz who was already in New York and who worried for the welfare of his daughter and son-in-law. During those fraught days, he wrote a pa’n to his father in the next world, the Rebbe Rashab in which he asked that he arouse great mercy that they be protected from all harm.

    At that time, it seemed that every day brought disastrous news. Exactly then, askanei Chabad were made aware that the American government declined to issue an approval for the middle son-in-law and his wife to emigrate to the United States, with various excuses.

    The Rebbe and Rebbetzin, still anonymous, although their closest acquaintances had some inkling of the greatness of the two, made their way southward. Before leaving Paris, the Rebbe gave a parting talk to the local Jews in which he encouraged those who remained and urged them to trust in Hashem and serve Him under all conditions.

    Before Shavuos 1940, rather than dedicate their focus on preparing for the holiday of Mattan Torah, the Rebbe and Rebbetzin had to pack their minimal belongings and go to the train station in Paris to try and leave the city. They were met with chaos and panic.  Masses of people converged on the train station. It was only because the Rebbe was registered for the army and thanks to his connections with a person who had the necessary connections that they were able to board a train headed for the south of France which was still unoccupied by the Germans.

    After a journey filled with danger at every turn, they arrived in Vichy. The sun was setting as the train whistle could be heard and the train stopped with a screech. The Rebbe and Rebbetzin, whose belongings weren’t more than a tallis and tefillin and a small suitcase, quickly got off the train. The holiday of Shavuos was beginning momentarily.

    The Rebbe left their belongings with a wagon driver, and asked him to bring it to a certain hotel as they walked for many hours since the holiday had begun.

    – PART IV –

    The Rebbe and Rebbetzin were unable to rest for long since a short while later the Germans continued their march of conquest against more and more French cities with great speed while the French army retreated. On 14 Sivan, the Nazis entered Vichy. Two days later, the French army announced that it was capitulating to the Germans. Marshal Petain signed an armistice agreement with Germany and became their puppet and collaborator. France was divided into the German occupied area, which included Paris, and the area under the rule of the new French government based in Vichy, which was called the Vichy government.

    For a few months, the Rebbe and Rebbetzin lived under the Vichy government that capitulated to murderers who had already begun implementing the Final Solution.

    Despite the difficulties of exile, the exhausting upheavals that shook body and soul, the Rebbe did not forgo any hiddur mitzva or minhag, even the enactment of his father-in-law to farbreng on Shabbos Mevorchim. Every month, on Shabbos Mevorchim, the Rebbe gathered a few local Jews or refugees and farbrenged with them.

    It was eminently clear that the Rebbe and Rebbetzin had to leave Vichy as soon as possible for who knew what the Germans would decide to do tomorrow? At the end of that summer, they set out again and from Vichy they went to Nice which was safer, under Italian rule. Italy collaborated with the Nazis but generally refused to participate in mass murder of Jews and to permit deportations.

    The Rebbe and Rebbetzin lived in Nice for eight or nine months until the beginning of the summer of 1941. For a while they lived in a room they rented in a small hotel by the name of Rochambeau which was near the train station. As it was a time of war, the Rebbe refrained from going out to the street except on Shabbos when he went to daven in the Beis Medrash in a large hotel which was full of Jewish refugees.

    – PART V –

    Throughout this time, efforts were ongoing to obtain visas for the Rebbe and Rebbetzin, both in Nice and in the United States. The Rebbe Rayatz tried in various ways to save his daughter and son-in-law as swiftly as possible from imminent danger. On a rare occasion, the Rebbe once said that the time he spent under Nazi occupation caused great aggravation to his father-in-law:

    “To my father-in-law, the children were very precious, including the sons-in-law, especially his daughter Mussia. One can only imagine the tremendous aggravation he experienced from our situation, and he worked greatly to save us.”

    The fact that they were in grave danger under Nazi occupation led to the rescue efforts being conducted with great secrecy. The letters and telegrams that the Rebbe Rayatz sent to the Rebbe and Rebbetzin were sent to someone by the name of Abram, someone who lived in Nice at the time whose full name was Dovber Abram, who delivered them to the Rebbe, as part of the attempt to hide the efforts to save the Rebbe and Rebbetzin.

    Throughout the winter of 5701, the efforts continued and, on Yud-Tes Kislev, the Rebbe Rayatz wrote a telegram to “Abram” saying that Aguch sent a “rabbinic certification” to make it easier for him to request a visa to the United States. The Rebbe sent a request to the Rebbe Rayatz to send all the visa paperwork to Marseilles. This request astonished the Rebbe Rayatz and the askanim for they knew that the Rebbe was not in Marseilles. It is possible that it was because of the warm personality of the American consul in that city who admired Jews as opposed to the American consul in Nice, who was an anti-Semite who took every opportunity to thwart the Jews.

    On 26 Adar 5701, one day after the Rebbetzin’s fortieth birthday, the Rebbetzin announced in a letter to her father and family that the consul promised them a visa. Due to the war situation, they wrote in Russian and in hints. The Rebbetzin wrote the letter:

    “… I was very happy to receive your letter from the tenth of February. This time, the letter is a bit more detailed and I am very pleased that all of you, my dear ones, are feeling well. What have you heard from the children? The American consul promised to give us a visa. When the visa arrives we will be able to take the necessary steps to receive the documents.

    “I am sorry that you have needed to exert so much effort for these visas …

    “Yours, Mussia.”

    At the end of the letter, the Rebbe added a few words, “According to our estimation, you will receive this letter close to Pesach and I send herewith best wishes for a Pesach that is happy and tranquil in every sense, for each of you in particular. With success and everything good, yours, Mendel.”

    – PART VI –

    Pesach was approaching and there were no matzos. During these war days, nobody had time to think about baking matzos or holiday supplies, but the Rebbe was certainly preoccupied with this. Specifically due to the horrors of the time, the Rebbe began thinking about solutions for how to obtain the needs for the Seder long before Pesach. The main problem was how to obtain handmade matzos that were baked with the proper hiddurim.

    In the end, a package of matzos arrived from Switzerland thanks to Mr. Bezborodka, an acquaintance of the Rebbe in Nice who, during the war years, manufactured mirrors for the French submarine fleet. For this purpose, he received special permission to travel to Switzerland for a few days. The Rebbe accompanied him to the station and asked him to obtain shmura matza for him as well as horseradish for the Seder plate.

    The fourth day of Chol HaMoed Pesach 5701/1941. The holiday of freedom. As the miracles of the exodus that took place for our ancestors in Egypt, so too, miracles took place for the Rebbe that Pesach. That day, the visas arrived and now they had to start arranging the trip to America across the Atlantic.

    After inquiries were made, they learned that ships to America were likely to leave from Lisbon, Portugal, a country that remained neutral throughout the war. In order to get to Portugal, they needed to obtain tickets for a boat ride and transit visas.

    Again, the Rebbe Rayatz launched a flurry of efforts. He sent letters, exerted pressure in several places and finally, the Rebbe and Rebbetzin received ship’s passes to Portugal as well as transit visas.

    The war, with all its horrors, had upended normal life and even a pair of tickets for trans-Atlantic travel by ship were an almost unobtainable commodity. Few were the passenger ships that sailed the sea during the war because of fear of German U-boats. Yet, miraculously, the Rebbe and Rebbetzin got a pair of tickets that were purchased for other Jews who, at the last moment, could not reach the port of departure. The names were changed to “Schneerson” and the tickets given to the Rebbe and Rebbetzin.

    Once again, an unexpected change of plans at the last moment – a panicked telegram from the Rebbe Rayatz instructing them not to board the first ship about to leave for New York but to board the second ship, also going to New York that day.

    The Rebbe and Rebbetzin boarded the Serpa Pinto that weighed anchor on the afternoon of 17 Sivan 1941. None of those on board imagined what a miracle it was for all those who did not board the first ship that morning. The passengers of the first ship were taken prisoner by the Italians and remained prisoners-of-war until the end of the war.

    From the ship, the Rebbe sent a telegram to the Rebbe Rayatz informing him of their having left the territorial waters of Europe.

    – PART VII –

    28 Sivan 5701. At 10:00 in the morning the Serpa Pinto dropped anchor at the harbor in New York. The Rebbe and Rebbetzin disembarked with just one wooden crate that contained a few belongings. They went to the arrivals hall where a surprising welcome awaited them.

    The Rebbe Rayatz, who was unable to go and welcome his daughter and son-in-law, sent a delegation to meet them which included the mashpia, Rabbi Shmuel Levitin and the three members of Aguch who worked to rescue them: Rabbi Yisrael Jacobson, director of Aguch; Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Kazarnovsky, and Rabbi Eliyahu Yochil Simpson.

    The night before, the four were asked to see the Rebbe Rayatz who appointed them as his emissaries to welcome his daughter and son-in-law. “I appoint you as shluchim to go and welcome my son-in-law who is arriving tomorrow.”

    To their great surprise, the Rebbe began to reveal the qualities of his son-in-law, “I will reveal to you who he is. He performs Tikkun Chatzos every night, he is proficient by heart in Bavli with the Ran, Rosh and Rif, in the Yerushalmi and its commentaries, in the Rambam and Likutei Torah with all the ayin’s [glosses of the Tzemach Tzedek within Likutei Torah which generally begin with the word “ayin.”].

    “And yet he goes about with a bent-down hat,” referring to the fact that Rabbanim generally wear “up-hats,” while the Rebbe wore his brim bent down.

    Likewise, the Rebbe Rayatz told them that when the Rebbe would arrive at 770, the talmidim of the yeshiva should go out to welcome him.

    The next day, the delegation went to the harbor and were happy to welcome Ramash and Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka. As the Rebbe requested, all the talmidim went out to welcome them.

    Despite the yearning, the difficulties, the long separation and the worry that gnawed away over many months, the Rebbe Rayatz was not quick to receive his daughter and son-in-law. Their meeting occurred two days later.

    Decades later, the Rebbe himself told R’ Gershon Jacobson what happened:

    “On the way, I thought about whether to see the Rebbe, my father-in-law before I went to the mikva or afterward, because of the idea of ‘grab and eat etc,’ but on the other hand, one is going to see the Rebbe …

    “It was not possible to just walk in on my father-in-law and so, when I arrived, I sent in a message and waited for the Rebbe to call for me but he did not call for me. In the meantime, I had gone to the mikva and had also davened mincha – due to the same doubt whether to daven before I went in or afterward, for I might be there for several hours. Meanwhile, I even had time to eat and I davened maariv and he still had not called for me.

    “We went up to my mother-in-law and the rest of the family was there and we farbrenged all night. Is it a small thing? The children were saved from the Nazis! … Throughout that time, the Rebbe sat in the next room and still, he did not call for us, and the next day he did not call for us either. On the third day after our arrival [30 Sivan], about midday, the Rebbe sent for us but separately, myself alone and Mussia on her own.”

    R’ Gershon Ber asked the Rebbe why the Rebbe Rayatz had waited until the third day to see them and the Rebbe said, “Perhaps it was because my father-in-law was known as a very emotional person, and one can only imagine the tremendous emotional excitement that he would have if we went in immediately and together etc. Chassidus demands that the brain rule the heart. Therefore, he waited a few days, without considering the great pain, one can imagine, that he had from having to wait a few days until he saw us.”

    – PART VIII –

    A few days later, on the eve of 2 Tammuz, the Rebbe acceded to the request of the Chassidim to honor them with his participation in a farbrengen that was held to mark his arrival. For over six hours, Chassidim and talmidim from the yeshiva in 770 crowded around him, avidly taking in every word he said. The farbrengen began at nine in the evening and more than twenty people were there including Rabbanim and elder Chassidim.

    The Rebbe entered holding a siddur and sat at the table to farbreng. The Rebbe first asked the people there to speak but they wanted to hear him. The Rebbe wanted to know whether anyone had questions in Chassidus. He also asked a few for their names and their mother’s name. After a few Chassidim asked their questions and said their names, the Rebbe spoke about “four who need to thank,” expounding on each of the four and explaining them according to Nigleh, Kabbala and Chassidus.

    He spoke about the arrest and release of the Rebbe Rayatz from prison and said that the Rebbe Rayatz said the “ha’gomel” blessing when he arrived home and not when he left prison or exile because you don’t say the blessing “until you are completely recovered,” as it it says in the laws of Birchos HaNehenin. The Rebbe connected the explanation with the names of the people at the farbrengen and answered their questions.

    When the Rebbe finished talking, once again he asked the elder Chassidim to speak. They declined and the Rebbe continued to farbreng until three in the morning, making a powerful impression on those present. In the days that followed, the Rebbe Rayatz sent letters to some prominent Chassidim and informed them that the Rebbe and Rebbetzin had safely arrived in New York. Gedolei Torah, Rabbanim and Chassidim sent telegrams and “mazal tov” letters to him.

    This day, Chof-Ches Sivan, later became a day marked by Lubavitcher Chassidim as a day in which “new channels” were opened in the work on behalf of Klal Yisrael.

    *

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