Watch: A Life of Heroism, Mesirus Nefesh, and Miracles

Rabbi Dov Loketch, a rabbi and historian in Detroit, MI presents a fascinating overview of the Frierdiker Rebbe’s peril in Communist Russia and Nazi Warsaw and his miraculous rescue.

By Rabbi Dov Loketch – Rabbi of Agudas Yisroel Magen Avraham Shul, Detroit, MI

Rav Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Rebbe of Lubavitch, was born on Tamuz 12, 5640 (1880) in the town of Lubavitch. He was the only son of the fifth Rebbe, Rav Shalom Dovber Schneersohn, who was known as the “Rashab.”

Already from birth, Yosef Yitzchak was groomed to succeed his father as leader of the Lubavitch movement.

On the Altar of Mesirus Nefesh

In 1893, when Yosef Yitzchak was just thirteen years old, his father brought him to the cemetery, and they stood at the graves of the previous Rebbes of Lubavitch. The Rashab turned to his son and said, “Your namesake, Yitzchak Avinu, was bound on the Mizbei’ach, being moser nefesh, preparing to surrender his life for HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Yosef Yitzchak, I am now binding you on the Mizbei’ach, on the altar of Mesirus Nefesh, of unlimited and unbridled devotion to your people. From this day on, you must dedicate your life to Klal Yisrael.”

Two years later, when Yosef Yitzchak was just fifteen, his father appointed him to serve as his personal assistant and secretary. Despite his young age, he began filling the role of his father’s emissary to rabbinical conferences throughout Lithuania and beyond, in places such as Kovno, Vilna and St. Petersburg. Rav Yosef Yitzchak quickly emerged as an effective spokesman and ambassador for the Lubavitch movement, and for Klal Yisrael generally.

In 1897, at the age of seventeen, he married his second cousin, Nechamah Dinah Schneersohn, a great-granddaughter of the third Rebbe of Lubavitch, the Tzemach Tzedek. The couple would have three daughters.

The Rashab launched what was then a new innovation in the Lubavitch movement, founding a Yeshiva in the town of Lubavitch, which he named ‘Tomchei Temimim’. Students came from all over Russia, and they lived and ate together in the Yeshiva, in contrast to the traditional practice of lodging and eating with local Jewish families. The Rashab appointed Rav Yosef Yitzchak as the Menahel HaPoel (chief administrator) of the new institution. The Yeshiva combined classic, advanced-level Gemara learning with the study of Chassidus, particularly the Sefer HaTanya, the foundational work of Lubavitch Chassidus authored by the movement’s founder, Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi (the “Ba’al HaTanya”).

Interestingly, the Yeshiva would often bring in a leading Talmid Chacham from a typical Litvishe, Yeshiva background to deliver the highest Shiur. For example, Rav Yechezkel Abramsky4, a product of several prominent Lithuanian Yeshivos and a leading disciple of Rav Chaim of Brisk5, spent time as a Magid Shiur in one of the branches of Tomchei Temimim.

The Yeshiva was very successful, producing numerous Rabbanim as well as lay leaders, and branches of Tomchei Temimim were established in various cities throughout Russia.

The Rashab directed his attention not only to his flock’s spiritual needs, but also to their material needs. He undertook a particularly innovative project to help alleviate the Jewish community’s financial hardships, working with a number of leading industrialists to build a major textile factory in the town of Dubrovna. The facility opened in 1902, and employed 2,000 Jews.

In 1905, the First Russian Revolution erupted, bringing a wave of unrest aimed at ending the rule of the Czar. Al-though the Czarist regime succeeded in quashing the revolution, significant inroads were made in weakening support for the Czar, resulting in the establishment of the Duma, a congress that represented the people. The Czar still had the final word, but nevertheless, the Duma marked an important development, giving the people a voice in the government for the first time. This period of instability saw an uptick in pogroms and attacks against Jews. Rav Yosef Yitzchak, only in his twenties, was sent as his father’s emissary to St. Peters-burg, where he met with high-ranking government officials and appealed for increased police protection and for greater efforts to restrain the antisemitic rioters. And thus already at a very young age, Rav Yosef Yitzchak displayed the kind of Mesirus Nefesh that his father had assigned to him at his Bar Mitzvah, devoting himself tirelessly for the wellbeing of Klal Yisrael.

During the ensuing years, Rav Yosef Yitzchak continued serving this role of looking after the Jews of Russia. His wide-ranging activities led to his being arrested on four different occasions. None of these arrests led to a conviction, or even a trial, but this shows just how he had emerged as a leading activist for Jewish causes in the country.

Heroic Resistance to the Yevsektsiya

In 1920, the Rashab died, and Rav Yosef Yitzchak, at the age of forty, became the sixth Rebbe of Lubavitch.

He assumed this role during the period that followed World War I, when the Bolsheviks completed their successful revolution against the Czar and began implementing their vision for Russia, which included a fierce campaign to obliterate religious observance of any kind. The Jews of Russia suffered from extreme poverty, wrought by the constant wars that ravaged the country, and also faced the hostility of the Communist regime, particularly of the Yevsektsiya, the viciously antireligious Jewish faction of the Communist party. The Yevsektsiya invested special efforts to shut down even Jewish institutions which were not officially illegal. The government had banned formal Jewish education, but informal and private learning was allowed. The Yevsektsiya, however, consistently agitated and cast false allegations in an attempt to destroy all vestiges of Torah Judaism in Russia.

The Rebbe worked courageously to maintain Jewish life. Together with a number of other heroic figures, such as Rav Yechezkel Abramsky and Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin, he did what he could to perform weddings, arrange Gitten, build Mikvaos, and ensure the availability of Tefilin, and he ran an underground Chinuch network. These efforts were fraught with danger, and many Jews, and Rabbanim, left Russia. But the Rayatz and several others remained with their flocks in order to sustain religious life to whatever extent possible.

Seeing that the future of Russian Jewry looked uncertain, the Rebbe began expanding the Lubavitch movement be-yond Russia. He established Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim in Warsaw, Poland, and this became a major Yeshiva in the city. Additionally, he organized an Anshei Agudas Chabad in the United States. Rabbi Yisroel Jacobson, one of the Rebbe’s Chasidim, was his emissary to the United States and played a key role in the movement’s activities on these shores.

In 1923, the Rebbe assembled nine prominent Lubavitch Chasidim in St. Petersburg so they would make a formal oath in the presence of a Minyan, vowing to each other that they would all remain until they could no longer continue their underground work. He sent teachers and rabbis even to the remotest areas in Russia, and he worked arduously to obtain funds for Russia’s Jews, working with the Joint Distribution Committee, and also smuggling. Additionally, he set up a special committee to help Jews observe Shabbos.

In October, 1926, a group of Russian rabbis assembled in Korosten, Ukraine, for the purpose of lobbying for the legalization of Jewish institutions. Although the Rebbe did not attend the conference, he was nevertheless named honorary president in absentia, in light of his status as the leading figure among Russian Jewry at the time. This conference was regarded by the Yevsektsiya as an audacious expression of public defiance, further exacerbating their fury against the Rebbe.

The Yevsektsiya waged an all-out war against the Rebbe. This group felt great contempt for the Rebbe, and they hounded him relentlessly in an effort to intimidate him. The head of the Yevsektsiya, interestingly enough, was Semyon Dimanstein, who had learned in Telz and Slabodka, and had been a Lubavitcher Chasid, before abandoning his faith and joining the Communists. On one occasion, three agents stormed into the Rebbe’s Shul—when he was observing Yahrtzeit for his father—to arrest him. The Rebbe explained to them, very calmly, that under no circumstances would he discontinue his activities promoting Jewish observance. One of the agents pointed a gun at him and said, “This little toy has made many a man change his mind,” whereupon the Rebbe answered, “Your little toy can intimidate only a man who has many gods (passions) and but one world (this world). Because I have only one G-d and two worlds, I am not impressed by your little toy.”

Imprisonment and International Outcry

On Tuesday night, June 14, 1927, the Rebbe was arrested by the Soviet Secret Police and confined in the notorious Spalerno prison in Leningrad. The chairman of the Leningrad secret police was Stanislav Messing, who, like Semyon Dimanstein of the Yevsektsiya, had been a Chasid but then gave up religion and embraced Communism. Messing was virulently antireligious, and, unlike the Yevsektsiya, he had the authority to arrest the Rebbe.

The next morning, the Rebbe demanded that he be given a chance to put on Tefilin. Seeing that his request would be denied, he began putting them on, in the presence of the guards, who knocked the Rebbe down the steel staircase and confiscated the Tefilin. He was tortured and placed in solitary confinement, but he remained defiant, insisting that he had done nothing wrong and avowing to continue his religious activities.

The Soviet authorities sentenced the Rebbe to death, sparking a public outcry across the world. Just days after the Rebbe’s arrest, his son-in-law, Rav Shemaryahu Gurary (the “Rashag”), traveled to Moscow to try to intercede on the Rebbe’s behalf.

Prominent Jewish leaders who lobbied for his release included Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Chief Rabbi of Palestine, who sent an urgent telegram to the American Joint Distribution Committee, urging them to intervene. Rav Meir Hildesheimer of Berlin, son of Rav Azriel Hildesheimer, together with a leader of the Reform movement, Dr. Leo Baeck, appealed to Dr. Oskar Cohn, a prominent Jewish member of Germany’s Socialist Party, who met with Russia’s ambassador to Berlin.

In the United States, Louis Brandies, the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice, and even President Calvin Coolidge, made appeals to the Soviet authorities calling for the Rebbe’s release.

Back in Russia, the Chassidim turned to Yekaterina Peshkova, a human rights activist and wife of the famous Russian writer Maxim Gorky. She was sympathetic to the cause, and had access to the highest echelons of the Russian government, as her husband was a close friend of Stalin. Peshkova enlisted the help of Vyacheslav Menzhinsky, chairman of the Soviet Secret Police, to secure the Rebbe’s release.

The public pressure proved too much for the Soviet government to ignore. The execution of the leading Jewish religious leader in Russia, who commanded such respect and esteem across the globe, would have tarnished Russia’s reputation more than it could allow.

The authorities commuted the Rebbe’s sentence, and condemned him to ten years of labor in the Solovetsky Island prison camp. This sentence was then commuted to three years in Kostroma, a city some two hundred miles from Moscow. Stanislav Messing, the vehemently antireligious head of the Leningrad police, was angry that the Rebbe was given such a “light” sentence.

In his effort to cause the Rebbe further torment, Messing determined that the Rebbe must travel to Kostroma on Shabbos. The Rebbe adamantly refused, sensing that his public desecration of Shabbos would be seen as a victory for the Yevsektsiya and other antireligious groups. The Chassidim again appealed to Yekaterina Peshkova, who intervened on the Rebbe’s behalf and succeeded in having the exile begin on Sunday, instead of Shabbos.

On Tamuz 3 (July 3), 1927, a large group of Chassidim assembled on the platform of the Leningrad Train Station to bid the Rebbe farewell. From the train, the Rebbe ad-dressed the crowd, delivering what would become a famous speech, and what has been described as the “Gettysburg Address” for Lubavitch Chassidim:

“’May G-d be with us as He was with our ancestors; may He not forsake us nor abandon us…’ ” Only our bodies went into exile, but not our souls … We must proclaim openly before all that with regard to any matter of our religion—Torah, Mitzvos and Jewish custom—it is not subject to the opinion of others, nor can any oppressive force be used against it. We must state with the greatest and strongest Jewish stubborn-ness, with the thousands of years of Jewish Mesirus Nefesh and sacrifice: ‘Touch not My anointed ones! Do no evil to My prophets!’

“…This is our request to the Almighty: ‘May He not forsake us nor abandon us.’ G-d should give us true strength to be unintimidated by physical pain, and on the contrary, to accept it with joy, so that every punishment we receive for supporting a Cheder, for learning Torah, for performance of Mitzvos, shall increase our fortitude in the holy work of strengthening Judaism.

“We must remember that imprisonment and hard labor are only temporary things, whereas Torah, Mitzvos and the Jewish people are eternal…”

“Be Strong and Courageous”

Miraculously, after just ten days in Kostroma, the Rebbe was freed, and allowed to leave Russia, thanks to the efforts of a Lubavitcher Chasid named Mordechai Dubin, who served as a member of the Latvian Parliament. The Parliament had a pending vote on a major trade deal with Russia, and a diplomatic crisis involving Russia, England and Poland led to a great deal of controversy within Latvia regarding the deal. Dubin used this situation to his advantage, leveraging his support for the deal to secure the Russian government’s release of the Rebbe.

He traveled to Moscow to negotiate with the Soviet authorities, who reluctantly acquiesced. On Isru Chag Sukos of that year, the Rebbe and his family left Russia for Riga, the capital of Latvia.

During the train ride out of Russia, the Rebbe wrote the following letter to his Chassidim in Russia, which included the following expression of his great love and concern for them:

“As water reflects a face, my heart is awake and feels the pure sweetness and power of the inner and essential bond of the entire community of chassidim to the Tree of Life …

“Each and every one of you, you and your wives, your sons and daughters, your grandchildren—your physical wellbeing, education, conduct and spiritual direction deeply affect me to the inner core of my heart.

“My faith shall strengthen me and be my comfort, that physical distance shall never, ever separate us, G-d forbid … Each of you Chassidim, along with your families, should set your minds and hearts to strengthen the thread that binds us, which is service of G-d …

“May G-d delight my heart and yours, in seeing children and grandchildren engaging with Torah and Mitzvos, with abundant means physically and spiritually. May G-d raise the glory of Torah and the service of G-d, and the glory of our Jewish brethren, that they may live with all good, from soul to body.

“It would be very pleasurable to me to hear at every occasion of the wellbeing of all of you and your families, and what is happening with each of them, specifically and in detail. As I said, all their concerns, both physical and spiritual, reach the deep core of my heart, which is completely dedicated to your spiritual and physical good. Be strong and courageous, you and your families, to walk in the trodden path of light.

“… May it be good for you and your families forever. May Gd help us to see each other in full happiness …”

Thanks to Dubin’s efforts, the Rebbe was allowed to take with him most of his extensive library. He was an ardent bibliophile, collecting a large number of books and manuscripts, which were very precious to him, and he brought these with him out of Russia.

Eretz Yisrael and the U.S.

In 1929, after a relatively brief period in Riga, during which he opened a Yeshiva, the Rebbe traveled to Eretz Yisrael. This tour of Eretz Yisrael included a trip to Chevron, just days  before the tragic Chevron massacre on Shabbos, Av 18, 1929.

Because of his special status of distinction, he was granted permission to enter the building of Me’aras HaMachpelah, despite the long-standing policy of the Arab caretakers not to allow Jews beyond the seventh step to the compound.

After his trip to Eretz Yisrael, the Rebbe sailed to the United States, where he stayed for ten months. He received an official civic welcome upon his arrival in New York.

During these ten months, he visited Jewish communities not only in New York, but in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit and Washington, where he met with President Herbert Hoover. He expended great efforts to strengthen religious commitment among American Jewry, and to raise money for the beleaguered Jewish communities in Russia.

It was reported that during his visit to St. Louis, he was speaking in a Shul when a woman in the ladies’ section began loudly banging and shouting. She told the Rebbe that the local Mikveh was in disrepair, and the community leaders did not want to put in the money to rebuild it. Right there and then, the Rebbe made an appeal, and funds were provided for the Mikveh’s repair.

The Rebbe set sail from the United States back to Riga in the summer of 1930, not realizing that he would soon need another miracle to get him out of Europe.

Miraculous Escape From the European Inferno

In 1934, after spending a number of years in Riga, the Rebbe moved to Warsaw, Poland, a teeming city which was home to some 2.5 million Jews at that time.

While leading his institutions in Poland, the Rebbe continued raising money for the Jews back in Russia. Two years later, he moved to the resort town of Otvock, situated some fifteen miles from Warsaw. The Rebbe was in failing health, having already suffered two strokes, and also being stricken with multiple sclerosis, and so he left the crowd, noise, and commotion of Warsaw so he could benefit from the tranquility and clean, fresh air of Otvock, and he established a Yeshiva there.

Three years later, on Friday morning, September 1, 1939, World War II erupted, with German planes bombing all major Polish cities. This was a relentless assault, resulting in the collapse of countless buildings, and an estimated 30,000 deaths—before the Germans even occupied the country. The larger cities were generally considered safer than the smaller towns, as there was more infrastructure and more places to hide, and so the Rebbe made the dangerous trip from Otvock back to Warsaw.

The bombings continued until Erev Sukos. It is told that the Brisker Rav18, who was in Warsaw at this time, received word before the end of the assault that Rav Yitzchak Yosef had an Esrog for him, but he was staying in a different part of the city, well over an hour walk from the Brisker Rav. A certain Gerrer Chasid offered to take the perilous trip, eager to have the privilege of bringing an Esrog for the esteemed Brisker Rav. After thinking for a moment, the Brisker Rav decided that if somebody was willing to risk his life to enable him to perform a Mitzvah, he should not stop him.

The Chasid left at around 9:00 pm, and returned in the middle of the night, at around 4:00 am. He explained that each time he reached the place where he thought Rav Yosef Yitzchak was staying, he was told that the area was bombed and the Rebbe needed to relocate somewhere else. Time and time again, when the Chasid arrived at where he was told the Rebbe had gone, he was informed that the Rebbe was forced to move. Finally, he found the Rebbe—who had brought with him the Esrog in order to ensure that the Brisker Rav would be able to fulfill this precious Mitzvah.

Whenever the Nazis occupied a Jewish area, their first priority was to find the leaders, the influential rabbis. And so after the Germans overran Poland, the SS and the Gestapo in Warsaw set out to find the city’s leading rabbis, including Rav Yosef Yitzchak. This was no secret, and the Rebbe went into hiding. He would spend some time in one residence and then be secretly moved to another, in order to avoid detection. Meanwhile, the entire Jewish world, all around the globe, knew that the Rebbe’s life was in immediate danger and that every effort must be made to rescue him.

Rabbi Yisroel Jacobson, the Rebbe’s leading emissary in the United States, together with several members of his Shul in Brooklyn, hired a Washington lobbyist named Max Rhoade to convince American government officials to act. Rhoade lobbied Ben Cohen, an advisor to President Roosevelt, to get involved in the cause. Cohen had recalled that a diplomat named Robert Pell had attended a conference in Berlin, in 1938, and befriended a German counterpart named Helmuth Wholthat. He contacted Pell, who promptly sent a message to U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, informing him that Wholthat had assured him to help any cause of concern to American Jewry. The United States, at this point, maintained neutrality with respect to the conflict in Europe, and Germany had an interest in keeping the U.S. out of the war. (Of course, the U.S. joined the war after Japan, Germany’s ally, bombed Pearl Harbor in December, 1941.)

Wholthat saw the rescue of the Rebbe as a small price to pay for staying on good terms with the U.S. The Roosevelt Administration, meanwhile, saw this cause as a “bone” to throw to American Jews who wanted the administration to help European Jewry.

Wohlthat realized that the Gestapo and the SS, who were controlling Poland on the ground, took little interest in Germany’s complex diplomatic considerations. They would not be prepared to allow a leading rabbi go free. And so Wohlthat approached Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, or German naval intelligence, who was known not to be a particularly committed Nazi. (In fact, in 1944, after the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler, several subordinates were implicated, and although there was no evidence that Canaris was involved, he was executed because of his suspected disloyalty.)

Canaris accepted this mission, and he instructed one of his highest-ranking officers—whose father happened to have been Jewish—that, at the behest of the U.S. government, he was to arrange the rescue of the Rebbe. He said, “You’re going to go up to Warsaw and you’re going to find the most ultra-Jewish Rabbi in the world, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, and you’re going to rescue him. You can’t miss him, he looks just like Moses.” Canaris ordered the officer to avoid the Gestapo and SS, and ensure they never learn about their mission.

This officer, Ernst Bloch, traveled to Warsaw with two other officers. They went around, dressed in Nazi uniforms, asking Jews about the Rebbe’s whereabouts, but of course, everyone denied having any knowledge. Information was cabled to the U.S. from the Rebbe’s emissaries in Riga that the Rebbe was staying at 29 Bonifratereska St. Bloch and his men went to that address—only to find that the building had been destroyed.

Finally, the officers obtained more accurate information, and they knocked on the door where the Rebbe was staying. An elderly Chasid opened the door, visibly frightened, and Bloch explained to him that he and his men had received orders to bring the Rebbe out of Poland to safety. The Chasid denied any knowledge of the Rebbe’s whereabouts, and Bloch and his men left. But the Rebbe instructed his family and the others with him that if Bloch returned, they should tell him the truth. It seems that the Rebbe had received word from Riga that there were German officers assigned the mission of rescuing him.

Sure enough, Bloch returned with his men, and they knocked down the door. They told the Rebbe that he needed to make the decision of whether or not to trust them, and he said that he would go with them. The officers took his family and several others, eighteen people in all.

The next dilemma which Bloch faced was how to smuggle eighteen clearly-identifiable Chassidic Jews out of Poland. He had them board trucks, and decided he would bring them to Berlin, claiming they were his prisoners and he was on a secret mission. At every checkpoint, the SS officers were suspicious.

On one occasion, Bloch threatened the inspector, warning that he would report him to his superior. The plan worked, and they reached Berlin, where the Rebbe stayed in the Jewish Community Center. Bloch then escorted the Rebbe and his group to the Latvian border. They proceeded to Riga, where they waited until they received visas to the United States.

This next stage marked yet another formidable challenge. The U.S. had placed strict quotas on immigration, and the Rebbe was in very poor health, making him an undesirable prospect. And, the head of the State Department’s Visa Section was Breckenridge Long, an anti-Semite who advocated for very strict limitations on immigration, thereby preventing many Jews from escaping the Holocaust. Long strongly opposed granting the Rebbea visa, but the administration came under pressure from influential figures such as Justice Brandeis and Ben Cohen. Those lobbying for the issuance of a visa pointed to an exemption in the quota laws for a minister which an active congregation and a bank account with $5000. Eventually, Long reluctantly issued the visa.

The voyage across the Atlantic, too, was dangerous, as the waters were patrolled by German U-boats. Twice during the trip, German naval troops boarded the Rebbe’s ship in search for ammunition.

On Adar Bet 9, 1940, after a twelve-day voyage, the Rebbe arrived in New York Harbor, where he was greeted by a large assembly of Chassidim and prominent figures.

Bloch, the naval intelligence officer who heroically brought the Rebbe out of Poland, ended up being killed in battle against the Russian army near Berlin just before the end of the war, on April 30, 1945, the day Hitler committed suicide.

Helmut Wholthat, the German diplomat who arranged and oversaw the rescue operation, went to the United States and opened a consulting business in New York, while traveling back and forth to Germany. He never told his family about this secret operation.

The Rebbe was very ill when he arrived in New York. He stayed for some time in the Greystone Hotel where he rested and recuperated. He spent Pesach that year in Lakewood, and then, in Elul, he moved to Crown Heights, to 770 Eastern Parkway, which has, of course, been the world headquarters of Chabad ever since. During the next ten years, until his passing on Shevat 10, 1950, despite his progressively deteriorating health, he worked arduously to build the Chabad movement in the U.S. He sent emissaries throughout the country, and established a network of day schools, before Torah Umesorah began its day school program.

The Rebbe was a prolific writer. He kept a detailed diary throughout his life, and he wrote down all his Derashos. He wrote hundreds upon hundreds of Ma’amarim, essays on Chassidic thought and teachings, enough to fill several bookshelves. These texts are a cherished and seminally important part of the corpus of Chabad Torah literature.

One of the schools founded by the Rebbe was the Lubavitch Day School in Boston, which opened in 1944 with twelve students, and which I attended until sixth grade.

To download the PDF with footnotes, click here.

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