Today, Vov Adar marks fifteen years since the passing of Reb Michoel Teitelbaum, OB”M. Reb Michoel, together with his wife, Rebbetzin Esther Teitelbaum, are known to be the founders of Mossad Chinuch Oholei Torah, the largest chabad yeshiva today. What many may not know, is the long history of mesirus nefesh that Reb Michoel had back in Soviet Russia.
Below is a story of a daring rescue mission, in which Reb Michoel saved the lives of six young talmidim who were being held in a government orphanage. These young children were miraculously saved, and years later became patriarchs of well-known Chabad families, with thousands of descendants, with many of the talmidim of Oholei Torah.
These children include, R’ Heschel Ceitlin, R’ Chatzkel Brod, R’ Velvel Averbach, R’ Moshe Rubinson, R Rafael Brook and R’ Rafael Wilschansky.
In honor of Reb Michoel’s Yarzheit we are sharing with you this chapter in his life below.
A Daring Rescue Mission
On the 24th of Teves 1938 (5698), the anniversary of the passing of the Alter Rebbe, the students learning in Berditchev gathered with their teacher to mark this special occasion. Sitting quietly in the basement of the local shul, they listened intently as Rabbis Moshe Rubinson and Berel Gurevitz relayed stories of saintly personalities and inspiring Chassidim. The theme of their talk dwelt on serving Hashem with unquestioning obedience, and how King Shaul had sinned by serving Hashem strictly according to his limited intellect.
It was a warm and inviting atmosphere. The boys sang with spiritual bliss, temporarily forgetting the bitter cold outside and the fear they experienced on a daily basis. Bread, salted herring, boiled potatoes and some mashke stood on the table; the bochurim sang quietly and toasted each other l’chayim. Suddenly, in the early hours of the morning, a great crashing noise could be heard coming from the main doors of the shul. “Open the door!” someone cried from outside. The two teachers quickly dashed into an adjoining room, where large logs stood stacked for the furnace, and hid between the wood.
Suddenly the door came splintering down and a group of policemen, their revolvers drawn, rushed into the room. They stopped short in shock: there sat a bunch of teenage boys sitting around a table of food and a bottle of vodka—a seemingly innocent pastime. Staring incredulously, they turned to leave, when one of them suggested a more thorough search. In no time, they found the teachers hiding nearby.
“And what brings you here?” the police snarled.
“We were just passing by,” replied the teachers. “We noticed a light on in the shul and we found these boys eating a meal, so we asked to join them.”
The police were not so easily fooled. Later, the group learned that someone had informed the K.G.B about the planned farbrengen, and the police knew all too well what to find. After matching the number of students and teachers with their information, the police ordered the group to follow them back to the station.
The youngsters were thrown into jail, where the questioning began in earnest. The police interrogated them mercilessly for an entire month, hoping to extract information about who financed and organized the yeshiva, who gave classes, and who supplied the students with food and lodging. Yet despite their efforts, the police made little headway with the steadfast boys.
During the interrogation, some claimed they were orphans and some claimed their parents lived very far away, and the police used this alibi as ample reason to send the bochurim off to a state-run orphanage. There, the police surmised, the boys would be indoctrinated with communist ideology and swayed away from their heritage.
When news of the arrest reached Vorodnezh, the parents of Rafael Wilshansky and Rafael Brook approached Reb Michoel with a complaint: “You convinced our children to go learn in the yeshiva of Berditchev,” they said. “Now they have been arrested; do everything in your power to expedite their release.”
Reb Michoel did the unthinkable: he traveled straight to Zhitomer, near Berditchev, to locate the missing boys and organize their escape. He met beforehand with Rabbi Mordechai Laizer Laptowsky and discussed the plan of escape he had formulated; asking if it was permissible for the boys to travel on Shabbos—the day most advantageous for an escape. “Definitely!” answered Rabbi Mordechai enthusiastically. “You must travel to Berditchev and see what can be done to release them—even on Shabbos. This is true pikuach nefesh!”
With financial backing from Reb Binyomin Gorodetsky, Reb Michoel went to Berditchev and began studying the area, trying to plan a perfect escape. After all, no less than six Chassidic boys were being held forcibly in this orphanage! True, the children had resisted all efforts to brainwash them: they refused to don their hats, ate only kosher food and kept Shabbos, but every day clearly brought new dangers.
As Reb Michoel’s beard clearly identified him as a practicing Jew, making him an easy target for questioning and surveillance, he wrapped a heavy bandage around his face—in the manner of someone suffering a severe toothache. He located an elderly couple who agreed to give him lodging and began preparing his next move. Meanwhile, the boys had obtained permission to go skating at the lake, and used the opportunity to pray tearfully at the resting place of the famed Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. Imagine their surprise when two boys met Reb Michoel walking down the street! Just walking on the streets was dangerous for any person—people were being arrested and carted off to jail in broad daylight!
Signaling them to follow him, Reb Michoel went into a nearby shul and entered the ladies gallery. Shutting the door quickly behind them, the boys met with Reb Michoel and gave him a detailed description of the schedule they maintained at the orphanage. “They harass us continuously to become “normal” communists,” they said. “So far, we’ve been able to resist them.”
“Listen,” said Reb Michoel hastily. “I’ve come to help you escape; I have money to buy train tickets for all of you.”
The boys looked at him in disbelief. Escape from a government-controlled orphanage? Was such a thing possible?
“We must plan it for Shabbos,” continued Reb Michoel, ignoring their amazement. “This is pikuach nefesh that negates the sanctity of Shabbos, allowing you to keep many more Shabbosim. Your supervisors are probably more lax on Shabbos, yes?”
The boys agreed. “Most of the staff leaves on Shabbos afternoon,” they revealed. “They like to spend Sunday morning at home.”
“Excellent!” exclaimed Reb Michoel. “They will never imagine that such young boys could dare attempt to escape. You will leave innocently on Shabbos, walking in pairs, and I will map an escape route to the train station, one hidden from prying eyes.”
The pair returned to the orphanage and shared the exciting news with their friends. With a sense of heightened awareness, the boys tried figuring out the best exits and times to leave. Meanwhile, one of the group overheard a superior talking on the telephone, detailing how the government planned to transfer the boys to a much harsher orphanage, one with stricter control and harsher means. Time was of the essence.
When they met again, the boys told Reb Michoel about the upcoming transfer, and the dedicated Chassid quickly sprung into action. Feeling their resistance to desecrate the Shabbos, Reb Michoel repeated that this was, in fact, a mitzvah, for it was a matter of pikuach nefesh. “Yes,” agreed the boys. “Hopefully, the holiness of Shabbos will help our escape.”
That Shabbos, Reb Michoel awoke early, took his bag of money, and went to the train station, where he planned to by three sets of tickets—each to a totally different destination. In order to avoid detection, he tipped a station worker to enter the line six times, each time to buy a single ticket. Two were for Moscow; two for Zhlobin; and two for Kiev. Trembling and sweating, Reb Michoel took the tickets and hid in a prearranged location, behind a fence near the orphanage.
Reb Michoel had timed it so that the boys would reach the station a minute before their respective trains departed. The boys left the orphanage in pairs, following Reb Michoel through back gardens, alleyways, and over fences. Discovery could bring their deaths. They hid near the station; Reb Michoel divided the tickets between the boys; and they boarded their trains just as the departing bell rang out. In this way, Reb Michoel saved six Jewish souls from certain torture, beatings, and possible indoctrination by the communists.
As the trains pulled out of the station, Reb Michoel returned to his lodgings and waited in tense anxiety. At the close of Shabbos, he ran to the train station and fled the city, first traveling to Kiev and then to Voronezh. Arriving safely, he toasted a l’chayim with fellow Chassidim, thanking Hashem for crowning their efforts with success. Today, these six boys all have large Chassidic families, spanning many generation of Jews committed to Torah and mitzvos.