82 years ago, on Chof-Ches Sivan 5701/1941 the Rebbe and Rebbetzin arrived in the United States on the Serpa Pinto ship, after escaping Nazi-occupied Europe. Read the story of the day.
(Adapted from the book “A Day to Recall; A Day to Remember” By Rabbi Sholom Ber Avtzon)
The Rebbe’s daring escape from war-torn Europe was a miracle, worthy of its place in the annals of Chabad history. Our appreciation is only deepened when we learn that the Rebbe was actually fleeing from the Germans (may their name be erased), who were actively pursuing him specifically. Always one step ahead of the Nazis, the miracles continued even after they had made the desperate journey across Europe, and embarked on a boat to head towards America.
Through intense diplomatic efforts, especially on the part of Reb Mordechai Dubin, the Russian government reluctantly allowed the Frierdiker Rebbe and his immediate family to emigrate to Riga, Latvia. After their initial refusal, they also allowed the Rebbe, the Frierdiker Rebbe’s future son-in-law, to leave Russia as well. On Yud Daled Kislev 5689/1928, the Chasunah of the Rebbe and Rebbetzin took place in Warsaw. They returned to Berlin shortly afterward. In the early 30’s the Nazi Party began to gain power, with acts of anti-Semitism becoming increasingly rampant. In Nissan of 5693/1933, the Rebbe and Rebbetzin hurriedly left Germany. They arrived in Paris, France, a few days before Pesach. In France, the Rebbe delivered Shiurim and involved himself with some communal activities. The Jewish community of Paris recognized the Rebbe’s scholarship.
In September of 1939, Poland fell to the Germans. The Frierdiker Rebbe who had moved from Riga to Otvotsk in September of 5693/1932, was now trapped inside Poland. Immediately, the Rebbe became involved and spearheaded the campaign to save the Frierdiker Rebbe. He was in constant contact with Agudas Chassidei Chabad in America and gave them all the relevant information needed to procure visas from the State Department, allowing the Frierdiker Rebbe to come to the United States. In America, meanwhile, Agudas Chassidei Chabad decided that the Rebbe’s presence was needed in the States to effectively ensure the Frierdiker Rebbe’s escape from the Germans.
They applied for a visa for the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin, stating that the Rebbe received an engineering degree. The Rebbe would thus be able to seek employment as soon as he arrives in the United States and will not be a burden to the country. They also forwarded a copy of the affidavit from Meir B. Hartan, to the Rebbe, promising to financially support the Rebbe and his Rebbetzin until he finds a position.
Agudas Chassidei Chabad used the influence they had at the time in Washington to put pressure on the government to hasten the visa procedure. Meanwhile, the Rebbe applied for a visa from the American Consulate in Paris. Three months later, their efforts on behalf of the Frierdiker Rebbe were fruitful. At the request of the State Department, the Frierdiker Rebbe was escorted by the Germans out of Poland into (the then) neutral Latvia.
At that point, the United States also agreed to allow the Frierdiker Rebbe and his immediate family and circle to apply for special visas, on the basis that the family was an important part of Jewish tradition in Europe that should be “preserved”. Included in the list was the Rebbe, who was noted as being the editor of a scholarly journal, as well as an extraordinary thinker who would contribute greatly to Jewish Philosophy. Agudas Chassidei Chabad was hesitant at this time to pressure the State Department to grant the Rebbe a special visa. There were some discrepancies between the information they previously provided in the regular visa application and what they included now in the special visa.
In the routine application the Rebbe filled out in Paris, he was listed as a qualified electrical engineer; in the special visa, he was described as a noted Torah scholar. They feared that these “contradictions” would come to light and might delay or jeopardize the entire application, including that of the Frierdiker Rebbe. After receiving word that the Frierdiker Rebbe received his special exit visa, the attorney for Agudas Chassidei Chabad, Mr. Henry F. Butler, began to actively request the visas for the remaining members of the family, including the Rebbe and Rebbetzin, living in France, and the Frierdiker Rebbe’s youngest daughter, Rebbetzin Shaina and her husband, Reb Mendel Horenstein who had remained in Poland.
In the spring of 5700/1940, seeing that Germany was poised to attack France, the Rebbe signed up to join in the reserves of the French army. This allowed the Rebbe the relative safety of having proper identification in Paris at the time. More importantly, his enlistment I.D. eventually assisted him in his escape, from Paris to Vichy. On June 2nd, 5700/1940, Mr. Butler met with representatives of the State Department. They informed him that the request for a special visa for the Rebbe was forwarded from the American Consulate in Riga, Latvia, to the Consul in Bordeaux, France. From there it was to be sent to Paris. At the same time, the Rebbe informed the Mazkirus (secretariat) of the Frierdiker Rebbe that the request for a special visa had arrived in Paris, but there were some complications holding up the issuing of a visa.
Three days later, June 5th, the American Consulate denied the Rebbe the special visa, citing the contradiction between the description of the Rebbe as a great Torah scholar, and his own application which listed him as an engineer. The attorney immediately requested evidence from Agudas Chassidei Chabad, that notwithstanding the fact that the Rebbe has an engineering degree, he is indeed a Jewish scholar of repute, deserving of a special visa. Over the next few days, the sense of urgency deepened. The Nazis entered and conquered Paris! A French general offered the Rebbe his villa in the suburbs of Paris as a safe haven until the situation improved. The Rebbe declined the offer and chose to flee to Vichy, at that time unoccupied by the German Army.
As a precaution, they moved to a different apartment. Two days after their move, the Nazis came to the old address looking specifically for the Rebbe and Rebbetzin. A few days before Shavuos at great personal risk, the Rebbe and Rebbetzin managed to board one of the last trains leaving Paris. Successfully evading the German patrols, they arrived in Vichy on Erev Shavuos. They remained in Vichy for approximately two months. They then moved to Nice. Despite the fact that Nice was occupied by the Italian Fascist government who were allies of Germany, it was relatively safe for Jews.
Three weeks later the State Department informed Mr. Butler that the Consul in Nice intended to give the Rebbe and Rebbetzin a special visa. However, there might be difficulties in procuring an exit visa from France, as they would still have to obtain a transit visa from the country that they would actually depart from. Seven weeks later, the State Department informed Mr. Butler that the Consul in Nice has changed his mind; the Rebbe did not warrant a special visa. They based their reason for refusal on the “contradiction” of this visa request to the original application, which described the Rebbe as a qualified engineer knowledgeable in physics. However, they stated that he would probably be eligible for a regular visa. But, he would need to resubmit his application, together with a new affidavit promising financial support — since the affidavit that was provided by Meir B. Hartan was not from a close relative, nor did it specify for how long would the Rebbe be guaranteed support.
This was distressing information for all; with this unfortunate delay, how much longer could the Rebbe and Rebbetzin remain stranded in Europe, with the Germans only miles away? Mr. Butler reassured Agudas Chassidei Chabad at this time, that since the Government previously agreed to issue special visas to the entire family of the Frierdiker Rebbe, he plans on continuing to pressure the State Department — despite the refusal of the Consul in Nice — to give them to the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin. In addition to Mr. Butler, who was hired by Agudas Chassidei Chabad, the Frierdiker Rebbe asked the Chassid, Reb Asher Rabinowitz to assist them in Washington. As one of the attorneys involved with the rescue efforts of the Schneerson family, he had been instrumental in successfully helping the Frierdiker Rebbe escape war-torn Europe.
In the course of those efforts, he also developed many contacts with high officials in Washington. In a letter to Reb Asher, the Frierdiker Rebbe writes: “To my pain, with all their promises and “sweet talk”, as of yet nothing has been finalized. I am broken from this.” In order to satisfy the request of the consul in Nice, Agudas Chassidei Chabad sent a formal letter stating that the Rebbe, as one of the main leaders of the movement, was entitled to a special visa. On the 22nd of Kislev, Reb Asher Rabinowitz returned from Washington and gave the Frierdiker Rebbe a report on his efforts. The Frierdiker Rebbe wrote in a letter the following day: “While it sounds very good, I am still not comforted.”
Around the same time the Rebbe asked that his file be forwarded to the consul in Marseilles. On this side of the Atlantic, the Frierdiker Rebbe sent his son-in-law the Rashag on the 19th of Shevat to Washington to help further this inquiry. With the assistance of high-ranking officials in the State Department, the Rebbe’s file was transferred to Marseilles. The Consul in Marseilles was also informed that an affidavit was not required since as far as the State Department was concerned, financial support was guaranteed. At the time it was unclear why the Rebbe wanted to transfer his application to Marseilles and begin the process anew. After the war, it became known that the Consul in Nice consciously avoided giving visas to Jews and would use any excuse to deny one. In contrast, the Consulate in Marseilles was sympathetic towards Jews and assisted them readily. Indeed, a mere two months later, on the 26th of Adar, the Consul in Marseilles informed the Rebbe and Rebbetzin that they would be issued visas.
A month later, on the 20th of Nissan, they received the visas. Now, a new challenge faced the Rebbe and his Rebbetzin: How will they reach America? During the war, the only viable option for travel was by boat, and at that time the only port they could depart from was in Lisbon, Portugal. The Rebbe had his American visa; now he needed a transit visa from Portugal, one which will allow him to pass through the country. With the help of the Frierdiker Rebbe, they received the transit visas that allowed them to travel to Lisbon. They also managed to acquire the much-sought-after boat tickets that will safely take them to America, on one of the last boats crossing the Atlantic. The Rebbe and Rebbetzin arrived in Lisbon and prepared to travel on the ship that will finally take them to safety.
Just as they were about to board the boat, an urgent telegram from the Frierdiker Rebbe arrived, with surprising instructions: “Do not board this boat!” The Rebbe and the Rebbetzin did not hesitate for a moment. They allowed the boat to depart without them, despite the fact that this was rumored to be the last ship out of Portugal heading towards the United States. Indeed, this was a wise move; for a few days later, they heard that the boat was captured by the Italian Navy, and all of the passengers were held captive as prisoners of war! Soon after their miraculous rescue from this fate, the Rebbe was notified that yet another boat will venture across the Atlantic, making the trip to America. However, they were told of this ship’s embarking too late; all the tickets had already been purchased. Reb Mordechai Bistritzky, a Chassid, happened to have bought two of these prized tickets for his in-laws, Reb Levi and Rechoma Lugver. Unfortunately, the couple was not granted the necessary Portuguese transit visas and were unable to leave France. When Reb Mordechai heard of the Rebbe’s predicament, he gladly gave his tickets to the Rebbe.
On the 17th of Sivan, the Rebbe and Rebbetzin finally boarded the “Serpa Pinto.” Stopping first in Barcelona, Spain, the boat continued on its perilous journey to America. It was a trip the travelers would not forget, constantly fraught with the fear of being torpedoed by submarines, or bombed by the warplanes that passed overhead. One can only imagine the terror the passengers must have felt when the captain announced that they must stop in the middle of the sea because they had been spotted by the deadly German submarines! Nothing occurred at the time, Boruch Hashem, and they passed through the European war zone uneventfully. When they had reached neutral waters, the Rebbe immediately telegraphed the Frierdiker Rebbe informing him of their relative safety. Twelve days later, on Monday morning of Parshas Korach, Chof Ches Sivan, 5701, July Fourth, 1941, the boat steamed into New York’s harbor and docked at 10:30 a.m.
The Frierdiker Rebbe sent a delegation of Chassidim on his behalf to greet the Rebbe and Rebbetzin. They were: Rabbi Y. Jacobson, Rabbi S. A. Kazarnovsky, Rabbi S. Levitin and Rabbi E. Simpson. On the previous evening, the Frierdiker Rebbe had summoned these Chassidim to his room and told them: “I appoint you as my emissaries to go and greet my son-in-law, who is arriving tomorrow. I will reveal to you what sort of a person he is: every night he says Tikkun Chatzos. He is fluent in Shas and poskim; in Yerushalmi, with all of its commentaries, he knows the Rambam and the Likkutei Torah verbatim — with all of its sources. Go and greet him!”
When the Rebbe and Rebbetzin came to 770, the students of Tomchei Tmimim were waiting to greet them. Three days later, on Thursday, the Rebbe and Rebbetzin were called to the Frierdiker Rebbe’s room separately. Thursday night, after Maariv, on the eve of Bais Tammuz, the Rebbe Farbrenged with the Chassidim for the first time in America. The Farbrengen lasted for six hours. A short time later the Frierdiker Rebbe appointed the Rebbe to head his three newly established organizations. Machne Yisroel, Kehot Publication Society, and Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch.
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