Cover Story / The Jews of China
February 3, 1998 / 7 Shevat, 5758

The Mirrer Yeshiva's Escape From Europe

By Chaim Shapiro

OF THE YESHIVOS (rabbinical academies) that escaped Nazi destruction, some made it on a grand scale -- namely to Japan. Some went to Siberia. Others were dispersed. Yeshivas Mir was saved by three people, one Jewish and two Gentiles. Thinking back, one becomes amazed at the series of acts -- minor and major -- the speed of the operation, the efficiency of activities. The puzzle-pieces fell into place, fitting with precision, as though the result of perfect planning. A series of miracles seems to emerge -- nissim gluyim (revealed miracles).

Miracle Number One: Open Borders

In 1918, when Poland and Lithuania became independent, a bitter dispute erupted between the two countries over the city of Vilna (Vilnius in Lithuanian). The Lithuanians claimed the city as their ancient capital, while the Poles also claimed the city. The League of Nations awarded the city to Lithuania. In 1920, the Polish army marched in and annexed the city to Poland. The Lithuanians then declared Kovno (Kaunas, in their tongue) as the temporary capital, and a state of war lasted between the two countries until 1938.

In September 1939, Poland was divided between Hitler and Stalin, granting the Eastern part of Poland, including Vilna, to the Soviets. They offered the Lithuanians the return of their ancient capital as part of a "mutual defense treaty," which permitted Soviet military bases inside Lithuania. The Lithuanian politicians were on the spot. No Lithuanian could resist regaining the ancient capital; on the other hand, they knew the implications of giving the Russian bear a foot in their country. Finally (on October 10, 1939), the Russians forced them to sign the treaty. And so the borders changed and were temporarily opened, and Vilna returned to Lithuania.

This miracle was utilized by all Yeshivos. Most of the Yeshivos in Eastern Poland faced a choice between physical destruction by the Germans and spiritual annihilation by the Russians. The Soviets, as sworn enemies of religion, would never permit the existence of Yeshivos. Until then there was no escape: No one could leave the Soviet Union and there was no other place to go. Suddenly the Soviet-Lithuanian border was opened and Vilna was transferred to Lithuania. All Yeshivos plus thousands of refugees immediately flooded the city. The Lithuanian authorities ordered all Yeshivos to move into Lithuania proper, to avoid overcrowding the city. Thus the Yeshiva of Mir moved to Kajdani; Kamenitz to Raseinai; Kletsk to Janovo, and so on. Then, just as quickly, the "safety hatch" closed, and the Soviet-Lithuanian border, like any other Soviet border, was sealed for good.

The Lithuanian haven was not meant to last. The Russian bear's paw gained entry -- a military bases plus a well-financed Communist Party -- and before long the bear would swallow the pigeon. So everyone concentrated on emigration, but where to? Palestine's doors were locked by the British, and only a handful of applicants received British entry certificates. The United States was shut tight, while American Jewry naively trusted their "friend" President Roosevelt, and Roosevelt's intimate Jewish friends lulled American Jewry while precious time ran out. Rumors were spread that President Roosevelt promised five thousand visas for rabbis and rabbinical students. We waited for them. And we waited. But they never arrived.

A person must have three items to travel: (a) a passport, without which one does not even exist legally; (b) an entry visa to the country of his ultimate designation; and c) a transit visa, to pass through other countries en route to the ultimate goal. Most of the roshei Yeshivos (deans) had passports, for they had traveled abroad on behalf of their Yeshivos. But the students and the faculty had none. Since Poland was occupied by Germany, the only place one could get a Polish passport was at a Polish Embassy, and because of old enmities, there was no embassy in Lithuania.

The late ga'on, Rabbi Avrohom Kalmanowitz, the "father" of the Mirrer Yeshiva, had been carrying the yeshiva on his shoulders since World War I. A seasoned world-traveler, he had no difficulty reaching America, from where he dispatched passports for his entire yeshiva. It had cost him a fortune, for the Polish embassies tripled the price of passports. And so the Mirrer Yeshiva people were equipped with passports, but had no visas.

Miracle Number Two: Transit Through Russia

No Jew was permitted to travel through Germany. A Jew could only travel through Russia. If one had a visa to America, the route was through the USSR and Japan, if he was headed for Palestine, his itinerary was the USSR and Turkey or Iran. However, Poland was in a state of war with the USSR, so logically no Polish citizen would be permitted transit via the USSR. Yet to everyone's surprise, the Russians did permit Poles to cross their country, and the Soviet consul would stamp his transit visa on a Polish passport. (They had apparently recognized a grand opportunity to dispatch spies all over the world in the flood of refugees.) However, the Soviet consul feared that some "transit passengers" might get stranded inside the USSR, and he insisted on a visa from another country before he would stamp any transit visa.

A secret printing shop began to operate in Vilna, producing British entry certificates to Palestine. It was organized by the Jabotinsky's Zionist Revisionists (later known as the Irgun, later constituting the Heirut Party in Israel -- part of Likud). They would supply false British certificates to their party members and to chalutzim (pioneers). There was also another "visa factory" which would falsify any visa for a high prices in American dollars, provided one had a passport.

Miracle Number Three: Japan Comes to Kovno

Most foreign countries maintained their diplomatic and consular offices to the three Baltic republics (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) in Riga, Latvia's capital. Travel to Latvia was prohibited, making it impossible to get the Japanese consul. Suddenly Japan opened a consulate in Kovno. Anyone who had a passport and an ultimate visa was issued transit through Japan without difficulty. When presented with a Japanese transit, the Soviet consul gladly gave him transit. The Mirrer students had passports, but no visas, and the rest of us did not even have passports! Then a number of "minor" changes took place in the little republic.

On June 14, 1940, the Soviet government accused the Lithuanian government of unfriendly acts against the Red Army bases. It demanded the establishment of a new government "more friendly" to the USSR. The next day an ultimatum was issued to include Communists in the new government. While the government accepted the ultimatum, the Red Army began to take over the country. On June 17, President Smetonas fled by plane to Germany, while Justas Paleckis, a Communist journalist, formed a new government. He immediately ordered new elections fixed to insure a Communist majority. Then on July 21, Lithuania requested admission "to the happy family of Socialist Nations under the guidance to the father of all proletarians, Comrade Stalin." On August 3, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR accepted and approved the request, proclaiming Lithuania as the sixteenth Soviet Republic. (A similar fate befell Latvia and Estonia).

Miracle Number Four: Destination Curaçao

Under Soviet rule again, we lost all hope for emigration, for no one leaves the "Soviet heaven." Yet, the Soviets still continued to issue visas; they were no longer "transit visas" but "exit visas". Apparently they had not sent out enough spies, or they had simply wanted to get rid of an undesirable element.

A rumor spread that the consul of the Netherlands was issuing visas to Curaçao, a Dutch-governed island in the West Indies. The entire Mirrer group, in possession of passports, received those "Curaçao visas." But when they came to get the Japanese transit "en route to Curaçao," they found the consulate closed, for when Lithuania became an integral part of the USSR, all diplomatic and consular activities were moved to Moscow. In fact, Holland had issued the Curaçao visas hours before closing.

Several days later a Mirrer student chanced upon an Oriental. Presuming him to be the Japanese consul, he asked him as a special favor for a transit visa through Japan on his way to Curaçao. The Japanese gentleman replied that he had been ordered to close the consulate and had already dismissed his secretary. The student then pleaded, volunteering to serve as his secretary, and to help in filling out the necessary papers. He agreed, and two boys from the Mirrer Yeshiva sat all day stamping visas for whoever presented a passport. (Some claimed later that many visas were stamped upside down, but they were honored anyway.) The Soviets continued to issue exit visas. This spurred the printers of counterfeit visas into more feverish activity than ever, for they could reproduce any visa in Latin letters, but when it came to Japanese, they were at a loss.

The British became suspicious over an increase in entries to Palestine via Syria from Vilna, and they informed the Soviets. They became furious over the prospect of a visa factory operating under their very noses. Furthermore, they themselves had issued visas on fake documents. A search began, but the "Zionist Conspiracy" could not be found. Instead they arrested my roommate from the Yeshiva of Kamenitz, Yitzchak Gelbach (Lukover). Yitzchak had illicitly published a ten-year calendar, reasoning that since we were destined to live under a Bolshevik regime, we would need a long-range luach to know when the Jewish holidays would occur. He was sentenced to ten years in a Siberian prison camp. (He was freed after the war. A Breslover chassid, he immediately ran to the kever (gravesite) of the Rebbe. He met the daughter of the only Jewish family there. He now lives in Jerusalem with children and grandchildren.)

Those from the Mirrer Yeshiva had passports to Curaçao with Japanese and Soviet visas, and were ready to leave. When they came to the Intourist office for travel arrangements, the official Soviet travel ministry at the time and the only permissible way to travel through Russia, they were told that first, the price had gone up; second, payment must be made in American dollars. Possessing even one American dollar is illegal in the Soviet Union and one can earn ten years' prison for this crime. The officials of the Intourist "promised" not to prosecute for bringing dollars (a hollow assurance); or, they insisted, "have your relatives in America cable the four hundred dollars per person." And in those days four hundred dollars was a fortune. Mir was desperate!

One yeshiva fellow who possessed a German passport with a "J" for "Jude" on it (which means second-class citizenship) mustered the audacity to complain to the German consul who was in the process of closing. The Nazi consul found it amusing to tease the Soviets on behalf of a Jew. He called up: "Don't you accept your own currency?" That Jew was the only individual to travel for rubles; all the others were forced to pay in dollars.

Within three months and with the help of the Va'ad Hatzalah -- the Orthodox-led lobbying group that attempted to twist FDR's arm in saving Jews during WWII -- Rabbi Kalmanowitz raised money for the travel expenses. Thus between January and March 1942, the students and faculty were transferred in small groups via the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Vladivostok, the Siberian port on the Pacific, where they embarked by boat to Kobe-Ku, the port of Japan. Once in Japan, they waited, hoping for entry to the United States. But on December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and the United States declared war on Japan.

Thus, the Mirrer Yeshiva and individuals  possessing Polish passports became enemies of Japan overnight. Japan's only ally was Germany, and they feared that the pathological hatred for the Jews would transfer from Berlin to Tokyo. Remarkably, the Japanese behaved correctly under the circumstances.

Rabbi Kalmanowitz had the delicate task of supplying money to the yeshiva in time of war. The anti-Japanese hysteria in America made sending funds to the enemy unthinkable, even for sustaining the yeshiva and other refugees. The need was imperative, for while the Japanese were correct and even cordial in their treatment of the Jews, they certainly would not feed them. Rabbi Kalmanowitz managed with the silent approval of the United States government to maintain the yeshiva in Japan, and then in Japanese-held Shanghai, by sending funds through Switzerland.

After the war, in September of 1946, he finally welcomed the entire yeshiva in San Francisco.

Miracle Number Five: A fervently religious Jew in Stockholm, and no Dutchman in Chita

Those of us from the Yeshiva of Kamenitz (located then in Raseinai), like all other yeshiva students, had given up any hope for emigration. The Soviets announced a deadline for accepting emigration applications. We could not even apply, for first one needed a passport and a visa, and we had neither. And even if we ever obtained passports, we could no longer get Curaçao nor Japanese visas without traveling to Moscow, and who could travel to Moscow? How we envied Mir! And how bitter we were.

Then suddenly, passports arrived from the Polish Embassy in Bern, Switzerland, mailed to us by an American Kamenitz student, with the help of the Va'ad Hatzalah. But we were still without visas, and the remaining days of registration were few. We then received letters from Stockholm, Sweden, granting us Curaçao visas. We later learned that they were sent by a rabbinic student, a refugee from Germany, who on the verge of starvation, spent his food money on the Curaçao visas, issued by the Dutch embassy in Stockholm. (He is well known today as Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, of Jerusalem, one of this generation's greatest living Jewish thinkers.)

Now that we had "proof" of intention to emigrate, we all registered with the Soviet office, presenting all documents, including the three personal photographs required. To receive the Soviet exit visa, however, we first needed the Japanese transits. So we mailed out visas and passports to the Japanese Embassy in Moscow requesting a transit. They all came back -- refused.

We were dismayed. Some attributed the refusal to the form of the Curaçao visa, an independent letter, instead of a stamp in our passports. Apparently the Japanese consul in Moscow consulted the Dutch consul who explained the defect to him -- all Curaçao "visas" were only "annotations" and not legally acceptable, thus the rejection. We reasoned that we would have to find a Japanese consul who could not consult his Dutch counterpart. Someone discovered that in the city of Chita, confident that no Dutchman would be there to "open his eyes." The consul was a gentleman, indeed, immediately mailing back a visa to everyone. Some people who received Chita visas (thanks to Rabbi Wolbe) had relatives in America who paid Intourist for their transportation, and made it to Japan. Others, myself included, were victims of the slowness of the Soviet mail, and lack of money for Intourist. When we finally were about to receive the Soviet exit visa, they closed the office. We missed the deadline.

Miracle Number Six: Safe in Siberia

Anyone who applied for emigration from the USSR was automatically an enemy of the Soviet regime, for only a fascist will leave the Communist heaven for the capitalistic hell of the outside world. And such a person is treated accordingly: Relocation to Siberia, for re-education into Soviet reality. This dreadful prospect of Siberia was hanging over our heads like a nightmare. The nine long, cold months of winter, the taiga with average temperatures of twenty-below-zero, the hard labor, prison life -- and what would become of Shabbes and kashrus? There was no way of escape, for the regime had the addresses and three photographs of each applicant. Little did we realize that this would be the biggest miracle of all. Only one week later, on a Shabbes and Sunday, June 14 and 15, all visa applicants -- bnei Torah all -- were rounded up, packed into boxcars and shipped to Siberia. Then, the following Sunday morning (June 22) the German Army attacked the Soviet Union. The Nazi war-machine pushed into Russia with full deliberate speed, all the way to Moscow. And with the same speed, only seven days ahead of the Nazi juggernaut, the boxcars with their precious cargo traveled to various prison camps in Siberia, to safety.

As anticipated, the conditions were oppressive and climate unforgiving, especially for bnei Torah who were not accustomed to physical labor, the taiga, the starvation. Yet eighty to ninety percent returned safely, saved from Auschwitz.

As I record my memories, whenever I chance across a first or second-generation Mirrer talmid (student) or a Siberian alumnus, I am reminded of the zechus (merit) of Rabbi Kalmanowitz and Rabbi Wolbe (by grace of his Curaçao visas, hundreds escaped the Nazi onslaught, finding refuge in either Siberia or Japan), and the consuls of Japan and Holland in Kovno.

I have attempted to track down these two consuls. I have not succeeded in the case of the Japanese consul, but I have discovered that the Dutchman is Mr. J. Zwartendijk, who lives now in retirement in Rotterdam. While serving as temporary consul in Kovno, he once asked permission from Her Majesty's Ambassador to Riga, Dr. I.P.J. de Decker, to issue a visa to Curaçao for a friend. When the Japanese and Soviet consul accepted his annotation, he then issued fourteen hundred more, thus saving many Jewish lives. (One visa can cover an entire family of people.) He did this totally on his own, defying orders to close shop, wholly from humane considerations. Mr. Zwartendijk will go down in our history as a noble saver of lives. May G-d bless him with long life, health and joy.

Baltimore-based historian Rabbi Chaim Shapiro has spent a lifetime chronicling the vanished world of pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe, particularly its Torah sages and their disciples. Writing from the vantage point of an eyewitness to history, he is the author of several non-fiction works on the subject.


© 1998, Agudath Israel of America. This article is reprinted with permission from the May 1973 issue of The Jewish Observer.