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Those Who Escaped, and Those Who Remained

European Orthodoxy faces the Holocaust

Glenn Dynner
May 06, 2024
Boys in Warsaw, 1938

Keystone Features/Getty Images

Boys in Warsaw, 1938

Keystone Features/Getty Images

As the storm clouds gathered, most Hasidim made the fateful decision to stay, fearing the spiritual dangers of liberal, integrated societies more than physical danger. Their fears were reinforced by their rebbes. Nevertheless, once the true scale of the danger became evident, Hasidim were ready to use every possible resource to enable their rebbes to flee. Most rebbes complied. Martyrdom, a subject which both the Hasidic historian Simon Huberband and the renowned Gerer Hasidic scholar Menachem Ziemba wrote about at length, was only to be embraced after attempts at flight, concealment, and aid to love ones.

R. Ben Tzion Halberstam, the Bobover Rebbe, exemplified the Hasidic approach to martyrdom. He had often sought to dissuade his followers from leaving Poland for lands of spiritual-intellectual “drought.” When the bombing began, however, he fled to Soviet territories with his son-in-law R. Moses Stempel, who owned an automobile. When the automobile was confiscated by Polish soldiers, they continued by horse and cart until they arrived in Lwów. Halberstam now learned that his son Hayyim Yehoshua had been deported to Siberia. When offered the chance to flee abroad, he asked, “How can I leave this place, from which I can still save my son?” When the Nazis entered the city in July 1941, he asked, “Can one really hide from the birth pangs of the Messiah?”

On July 2, 1941, as Ukrainian militia members beat him in the prison courtyard on Łącki Street, Halberstam calmly and repeatedly placed his shtreimel back on his head until he was finally shot down. Other rebbes managed to escape. The Belzer Rebbe, Aaron Rokeah, changed his name to Aaron Singer, moved to the Bochnia ghetto, and ultimately fled to Palestine by way of Hungary in 1943. His departure was explained as necessary for the “complete redemption” that would follow the current triumph of “the egotistical culture of might-is-right.” Several devotees decried his flight and later criticized his reluctance to sufficiently warn Hungarian Jews about the scale of Nazi danger and depravity. Those rebbes who managed to flee earlier were evidently less subjected to criticism. When the Germans entered Warsaw, the Gerer Rebbe went into hiding, removed his Hasidic garb, donned a Russian peasant hat, and moved to a new location each day. Toward the end of 1939, he escaped to Trieste via Krakow with the financial and diplomatic help of American Jews and, apparently, Joseph Isaac Schneersohn. He sailed to Palestine in April 1940.

Schneersohn’s own escape several months earlier is stranger than fiction. After German planes bombed Otwock, he advised his yeshiva students to leave while he fled to Warsaw, residing in the home of R. Zalman Shmotkin and, after its destruction in a bombing raid, the home of R. Yehiel Tzvi Gourary. The subsequent systematic murder of Otwock Jews by mass shootings and deportations to Treblinka was recorded in grotesque detail in the wartime diary of a Jewish policeman named Calel Perechodnik, who placed much blame on Jewish passivity. However, Schneersohn proved proactive, instructing all of his students to find a way to get to Vilna (Vilnius), then under independent Lithuanian rule.

To rescue their rebbe, American Lubavitchers activated a remarkable network of political connections that included New York state senator and judge Philip Kleinfeld, Senator Robert F. Wagner, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Representative Adolph J. Sabath, Representative Sol Bloom, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, Roosevelt’s adviser Benjamin V. Cohen, and Robert T. Pell, assistant chief of the State Department’s European Affairs Division. Pell managed to convince Helmuth Wohlthat, the chief administrator of Hermann Göring’s Four-Year Plan, that helping Schneersohn leave Poland would restore some goodwill between Germany and the United States. (The two countries were not yet at war.) A part-Jewish Nazi officer named Ernst Bloch was chosen to spearhead the rescue mission.

Bloch tracked down the Rebbe in the Warsaw Ghetto and convinced him to depart with him on December 1, 1939, assuring suspicious SS agents along the way that he had orders to take the imposing rabbi to Berlin. They arrived in the heart of the Nazi empire two weeks later. The next day, Schneersohn traveled on to Riga, Latvia, where he vowed to “not rest until I have done everything I can to rescue the precious, beloved Torah scholars, great in Torah and fear of God, so many of whom are left behind there.” On March 4, 1940, he flew to Sweden, boarded the Drottningholm, and arrived in New York harbor on March 18. It was no time to celebrate, he admonished his welcome party, for “the cries of our brothers and sisters in Poland, and of the many yeshiva students in particular, haunt me wherever I go.”

Meanwhile, the arrival of thousands of yeshiva students in Vilna had transformed the city into Europe’s new yeshiva metropolis. Schneersohn’s students continued to steal across borders with the help of money for guides and bribes collected by R. Isaac Mandelbaum of Glubok, R. Samarius Gourary, and Schneersohn himself. By January 1940, the Vilna branch of Tomkhei Temimim had enrolled 43 students. Schneersohn sent a letter urging each student “to exceed his own strength and attune his study and worship to his inner intensity.” He would eventually help evacuate around 250 Tomkhei Temimim students.

Only 61 Yeshivat Hakhmei Lublin students, about half of the student body, were able to make it to Vilna. The itinerary of a student named Moses Rothenberg illustrates the difficulties of flight from central Poland. When the bombing began, Rothenberg fled with his brother to Kolbiel, walked 55 miles to Parysów, continued to Łuków, and finally crossed into Vilna. They immediately resumed their life’s calling. “A few days later the yeshiva began to function as a Torah institution, formal lectures were given daily, etc.,” Rothenberg recalls with evident pride. “The yeshiva continued with its own customs and doctrine as in days gone by. The sound of Torah learning was heard there all day and all night.”

By November 1939, the number of yeshiva students in Vilna and environs had risen dramatically. R. Hayyim Ozer Grodzienski, the de facto leader of Lithuanian Orthodoxy, cabled an urgent appeal to the Joint Distribution Committee’s Cyrus Adler. “In Vilnius are now all the Yeshivas of former Poland; the number of the students is about 2,000, beside them there are some married students that are preparing to become Rabbis; altogether, the number of the Yeshiva’s students reaches 2100, among them are many very able and very learned men,” he informed Adler. “You, dear Professor, are known as a religious man that is very favorably disposed towards our institutions and has understanding of the fact, that beside material needs there are also spiritual needs that must be cared for because this gives the Nation strength to persevere through the hard times.” The students began receiving a weekly allowance. American Orthodox leaders established the Vaad Hatzala (Rescue Committee) to provide material aid, visas, and rail and ship tickets to yeshiva students and faculty, sometimes clashing with the Joint Distribution Committee.

A number of students managed to continue their Torah studies in clandestine ghetto spaces emulating the ancient sages who had studied secretly under constant risk of death during Roman persecutions.

By January 1940, when the Soviets finally occupied Lithuania, there were 2,336 students and rabbis in 23 yeshivas in and around Vilna, in addition to around 1,500 members of Zionist youth movements. Most Hasidic students derived from the Lubavitcher, Lublin, and Slonim yeshivas. Significantly more students derived from eastern Poland’s iconic non-Hasidic yeshivas, which tended to be situated close to the border. The Mir Yeshiva’s entire student body, 273 students, made it to Vilna. Together, the students created a “self-contained world, indifferent to physical pleasure or material deprivation,” according to Zorach Warhaftig, head of the Palestine office. “Disquieting news was met with ever-deeper concentration on the Talmud and its commentaries.”

By mid-June 1940, in accordance with the secret terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Lithuania was fully absorbed into the Soviet Union. Fewer than half of Poland’s yeshiva students had made it, mainly elite students: “Out of the 5,000 Yeshiva bachurim [students], of those yeshivot which have been evacuated to Lithuania, only 2,000 came along and 300 of the teaching staff. We wanted to point out that this was already the elite of Jewish learning that must be saved, and that their number could not be reduced any further. In addition to these yeshivot from Poland, it is necessary to save the Lithuanian yeshivot [in which] there are about 500. Everything should be done to save them, if the tradition of Jewish learning is to go on.” The memo reveals a striking priority, one which was fast becoming a matter of life and death: Male yeshiva students and teachers—not medical, law, engineering, or humanities students and teachers—were conceived as Eastern European Jewry’s unique intellectual elite and thus prioritized for rescue. Nor should we miss the gender implications: Pious, learned women—with the exception of some rabbis’ wives and daughters and a number of Bais Yaakov students and teachers—would be left behind.

Interestingly, the Nazis harbored a similar bias toward Orthodoxy. “The continued emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe spells a continued spiritual regeneration of world Jewry, as it is mainly the Eastern Jews who supply a large proportion of the rabbis, Talmud teachers, etc., owing to their orthodox-religious beliefs, and they are urgently needed by Jewish organizations active in the United States, according to their own statements,” the Reich Security Main Office explained in their October 25, 1940, ban on Jewish emigration. “Further, every orthodox Jew from Eastern Europe spells a valuable addition for these Jewish organizations in the United States in their constant efforts for the spiritual renewal of United States Jewry and its unification.” Such an influx would inspire an American Jewish struggle against Germany, the authors feared.

In December, Rabbi Stephen Wise asked Breckenridge Long of the U.S. State Department to allow 3,800 yeshiva refugees to enter the United States. Long appeared “totally dumbfounded,” asking, “Do you really mean such a figure?” Wise quickly grasped that Long was not going to be of much help. “On the contrary,” he reported back to his American Jewish colleagues, “if the whole State Department favored the taking of a ship and putting the whole 3,800 men on it, he would manage to have the ship sunk. He is the worst enemy we have.” President Roosevelt, for his part, evidently feared that an influx of Eastern European Jews would create a “Fifth Column.” Meanwhile, Schneersohn acquired visas for 156 students and rabbis from Tomkhei Temimim, offering to defray half of their transportation costs.

On January 1, 1941, Lithuania’s new Soviet leaders announced that all refugees must either choose Soviet citizenship or be declared stateless, the latter status virtually ensuring their deportation to Siberia. The Joint and Vaad Hatzala scrambled to acquire exit visas. Schneersohn constantly besieged the Joint on behalf of his yeshiva students and faculty. Rothenberg, too, worked diligently. “I arranged, with the help of the Rabbi [Simon Shalom] Kalish of Amshinov [Mszczonow], may he live a good, long life, that all our students receive all the papers that they needed: Japanese visas, Polish passports, etc.,” he would later explain. “And for those students whom I could not help that way, we arranged Swedish visas and transit permits to China. This was how all the students in our yeshiva [within Vilna] survived, except for two who remained in Vilna.”

Hundreds of yeshiva students and faculty received transit visas from the Japanese Vice Consul Chiune Sugihara. Several aspects of that extraordinary chapter bear emphasis. First, it should be reiterated that the operation was intended to save yeshiva students from Soviet, not German, rule. (The Nazis would not arrive for another six months.) Many feared that yeshiva students would be exiled to Siberia as punishment for crossing over into Poland during the Bolshevik Revolution. In addition, American leaders predicted that the Soviets would destroy all yeshivas, which had constituted “for nearly two centuries, the reservoir of Jewish cultural achievement” and produced “masters in so many fields,” secular and religious.

Sugihara managed to grant some 3,500 Japanese transit visas to Jews, against his superiors’ wishes, down to his departure on August 31, 1940. Refugees were initially sent to Kobe, Japan, but the international settlement of Shanghai rendered it preferable. Approximately 1,000 yeshiva students, faculty, and their families were rescued, though the statistics vary maddeningly. The initiative taken by Schneersohn and R. Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, principal of the Mir Yeshiva, ensured that their students were the first to be considered for U.S. visas. Schneersohn sent the Joint a list of 51 remaining Tomkhei Temimim students, but also an extensive “list of rabbis and prominent persons in German-held Poland whose immigration is of vital importance” that included many other Hasidic and non-Hasidic scholars. He appealed to Eleanor Roosevelt. It is doubtful whether these interventions had much practical effect. But Lubavitchers could take some solace in the knowledge that those who had escaped included “choice students of the famous Lubavitch institute, men of rare talents, who God willing, will establish our institution on the highest level.”

Those who could not get out of Vilna would be overtaken by a fate similar to that of yeshiva students already in Nazi-occupied Poland. In Lublin, 45 remaining Yeshivat Hakhmei Lublin students were arrested or shot as early as November 1939. They did not go quietly: A Nazi officer admitted to having met “unexpected and stubborn resistance by a large group of Jewish youths with beards and sidelocks clad in long clothing [who] fortified themselves in the large building of the yeshiva where they studied and shot at German soldiers from the windows and holes in the walls.”

The Nazis requisitioned the yeshiva building and allegedly burned much of its famous library. “For us it was a matter of special pride to destroy the Talmudic academy, which was known as the greatest in Poland,” boasted a writer for the Nazi youth newspaper Frankfurter Zeitung in 1941. “We threw the huge Talmudic library out of the building and carried the books to the market place where we set fire to them. The fire lasted twenty hours. The Lublin Jews assembled around and wept bitterly, almost silencing us with their cries. We summoned the military band, and with joyful shouts the soldiers drowned out the sounds of the Jewish cries.” However, many of the most valuable books had been concealed in private homes, transferred to the Hieronim Łopaciński Library for safekeeping, or smuggled abroad during the first months of the occupation. Books with the famous library seal continue to resurface to this day.

A Lublin graduate named Hirsh Melekh Talmud attempted to make sense of the cascading tragedy. In a letter to his student dated July 28, 1942, at which point most of the Lublin Ghetto had already been deported to Bełżec, Talmud confessed that the age-old explanation of divine retribution was insufficient given the scale of the abyss into which “thousands of us have been lost.” In a second letter, Talmud described transports of victims passing by “like sheep, filled with men, women and children.” Some would be selected for “hard labor which breaks down the body and crushes the soul until the body is destroyed.” Others would go “directly to the shadow of death, suffering terribly … and the ashes are scattered to the wind.” God was evidently watching over certain “holy ones,” for the Boyaner/Krakow Rebbe, Moses Friedman, the Lublin yeshiva’s spiritual leader, had escaped. Yet why had R. Yehoshua Boymel of Opoczno, “the beautiful, living embodiment of moral and ritual holiness,” been deported to his death, and why were other great rebbes and rabbis imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto? Perhaps the Messiah was about to appear? More likely God had abandoned the Jews, and they were left to their own devices. After his own deportation to Majdanek, according to one witness, Talmud concluded that if the Messiah did not arrive it was “a sign that there was nothing in heaven.” According to another witness, however, he composed religious calendars from memory and circulated them among Majdanek inmates.

A number of students managed to continue their Torah studies in clandestine ghetto spaces, emulating the ancient sages who had studied secretly under constant risk of death during Roman persecutions. Simon Huberband describes Gerer Hasidic youths who retained their “little silk hats, skullcaps, beards, and ear-locks,” refused bread rations in order to evade forced labor and, with familial and communal support, resumed their full-time study. Not all were so scholarly—a fellowship on 9 Miła Street was composed of 50 Gerer youths who would aggressively beg, steal, extort money, and hold beggars’ banquets accompanied by niggunim, dancing, and drinking. The Gerer Rebbe’s brother, R. Moses Betzalel, beseeched them to cease to “neglect of the Torah, defiling the honor of the Torah and of Hasidism, and diminishing the honor of my holy brother, our teacher,” reminding them that “the foundation of all foundations is the strengthening of diligent Torah study.” Yet no other study fellowship elicited such an outcry.

Clandestine yeshiva students were not, however, representative. Many youths “left the ‘straight and narrow path’ during the war and ceased being observant Hasidim,” according to Huberband. “A large part perished, some left for the countryside, and still others managed to find various kinds of employment, while remaining observant Hasidic young men.” Some became Gestapo informants. “The well-known S. rabbi’s grandson Nosn, a Hasidic young man of about 22 years,” wore three distinctive things, Huberband noted: “a beard, a long Hasidic coat and … Gestapo boots.” Joseph Ehrlich, a notorious Gestapo agent known as “Josele Kapota” on account of his long Hasidic coat, prayed regularly in the shtibl of the Trisker Rebbe, R. Menachem Nahum Twersky. “He came wearing a large prayer shawl with a broad, silver embroidered collar,” Huberband notes with disbelief. “He was called up to the reading of the Torah and made a donation of 50 złoty. The evening before the festival [Shavuot] he had sent the Rebbe 200 złoty to request his blessing.”

Huberband counted “only slightly more than 200 full-time Torah students in Warsaw,” mostly children of affluent parents or recipients of alms from wealthier students who ate at a soup kitchen for Torah scholars at 221 Gęsia Street. Yet a Joint memo dated February 5, 1942, records that the Patronage for Torah Students Committee provided 700 lunches and 1,200 Sabbath meals to yeshiva students throughout the Warsaw Ghetto. The effort proved hard to sustain. “Unfortunately, due to the difficult plight of the Jewish community in general and of Orthodox Jews in particular,” the memo’s authors admitted, “the Patronage is going through a severe crisis.”

Another patronage organization was formed in alliance with the Joint and Judenrat after the Great Deportation of summer and fall 1942, thanks to the efforts of R. Joseph Konigsberg and R. Menachem Ziemba. At its inauguration on the eighth day of Hanukkah, Ziemba compared the students to the flask of oil discovered by the Maccabees in the ancient Temple, which because of its purity was able to “light the whole world.” The patronage organization also sustained the yeshiva bunkers of R. Leib Landau and R. Aryeh Tzvi Frumer, former heads of Yeshivat Hakhmei Lublin. “Jews hid in bunkers and bolt-holes, in cellars and attics, in cold and fear, and learned Torah in depth and with dedication,” Hillel Seidman recalled. “They ignored this bitter reality to soar to the spiritual heights of Torah and fear of God.”

Seidman visited Landau’s yeshiva bunker at 35 Nalewki Street on January 10, 1943. After being led through a maze of cellars, attics, a fireplace, and down into a cellar by means of a hanging rope ladder, he beheld an extraordinary bunker equipped with electric light, gas, running water, waste disposal, and food and energy stocks. Then he encountered the inhabitants, who allegedly included Shimon Pullman, conductor of the Ghetto orchestra. Perhaps they had planned a concert for him? Instead of classical music, however, he heard “a very familiar, homey melody: Talmudic sing-song.” Seidman entered a second room and beheld a scene reminiscent of “descriptions of sages who studied Torah in caves” during periods of persecution:

Around a long table, before open Talmuds, twenty yeshiva students sit and learn heartily, concentrating, with great fervor Their faces are pale, their eyes sparkle with an otherworldly fire. Most are destitute, without parents, without family, and even without a rabbi. Yet they have one rabbi who gives a class twice a week on the laws of Kodashim, namely, the Kolobeiler Rabbi, R. Yehuda Leib Landau, the famous principal of Yeshivat Hakhmei Lublin. A shame he is not here today. He is working with thirty students on Miła Street, where he teaches day and night.

At first, Seidman learned, the secularists had “frowned on the fanatical Hasidic youths, who refused to even give up their Jewish hats and long side locks.” Now they regarded them with grudging admiration. “At least they know why they are suffering,” one of them confided.

Elements of Seidman’s diary have been questioned, and this excerpt is among the most problematic. Pullman was killed during the Great Deportation the prior August, and the notion of a secularist admitting the correctness of the Hasidic worldview is rather suspicious. Yet similarly elaborate bunkers are described by Alexander Donat, some designed by professional engineers, furnished with “beds in tiers, ample food and water, electric lights, and even radio sets,” and accessed by means of “passageways between rooms, apartments, staircases, cellars, attics, linking houses.” Donat compared the Ghetto to a “giant honeycomb.”

Seidman’s reports of clandestine Bais Yaakov girls schools are better corroborated. “Hungry, cold, destitute, working without textbooks, the teachers and children drew strength from each other,” recalls Gutta Shternbuch, a Bais Yaakov teacher. “We would speak to the girls’ souls and hearts more than to their minds.” Shternbuch’s own classes for “hundreds of girls” were held in a partially bombed-out house. “We would climb a ladder up one flight, and although this climb was a little frightening, once upstairs, after we had pulled the ladder up after us, we felt as though we were in an enchanted, protected world, where no one could reach us,” she wrote. “We were like queens, free and distant from the terrible reality of the ghetto.”

The excerpt is reprinted with minor modifications from Glenn Dynner, “The Light of Learning: Hasidism in Poland on the Eve of the Holocaust” (2023), with permission of Oxford University Press.

Glenn Dynner is the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University.