Rav Chaim Shmulevitz zt”l On His Holocaust Rescue- The Yated Speaks to Rav Meir Shmulevitz

“No. I don’t know anything about the testimony,” says Rav Meir Shmulevitz, the youngest son of the great Rav Chaim Shmulevitz zt”l. Rav Meir, a resident of the Mattersdorf neighborhood of Yerushalayim, is a talmid chochom of note, whose reputation precedes him. As we speak, he peruses a set of papers from a decades-old file taken from Yad Vashem with great interest. “These things are very well known,” he says, his gaze still fixed on the transcript of his parents’ testimony.

“Yes,” I agree, “there isn’t much new written here. Most of the details have already been published in the various books that were written about the miraculous salvation of the yeshiva. What is interesting here is the mere fact that their testimony was recorded, and that no one seems to have known about it until now.” The file was brought to light by the chareidi department at Yad Vashem, which has been developed over recent years as part of the change in the character of Yad Vashem as a whole. Perhaps this change is due to its present chairman, Rav Yisroel Meir Lau.

“My brother knows more about the history than I do,” Rav Meir remarks. “He must know about this document.” He picks up the telephone to call his brother. “Did you know that Abba and Ima gave testimony at Yad Vashem?”

His brother, Rav Avrohom Shmulevitz, a ram at the Mirrer Yeshiva, confirms that he was aware of the testimony’s existence. As far as he knows, it was presented mainly by their mother, not their father.

“Religious Reservations”

The document bears the legend, “Yad Vashem, Memorial Foundation for the Holocaust and Heroism – Department for the Collection of Testimony.” It is stamped by the Tel Aviv branch of Yad Vashem. I have attempted to find out whether it was compulsory to submit testimony to Yad Vashem, but I have not received a clear answer on the subject, even from the organization itself. Nevertheless, reading the text gives me the impression that Rav Chaim was not eager to give this testimony. Perhaps he was afraid that it would be damaging to other people, or he thought that it was too early to reveal exactly how the yeshiva had been saved; the testimony mentions the “illegal nature” of their activities.

Moreover, the interviewer, a Yad Vashem employee named Yosef Litvak, added a comment to the transcript saying, “in many cases, Rav Shmulevitz asked his wife to reply instead of him, claiming that his hearing was impaired and it was difficult for him to communicate with me.” In the comments section, the woman in charge of the department noted, “The interviewer’s summary provides an explanation for the difficulties in collecting this testimony. Biographical facts are missing due to the witnesses’ reservations for religious reasons.”

The following is printed on the cover page:

The Witnesses: Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, Rebbetzin Miriam Shmulevitz

Education and Profession: Head of Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim

Main Subject: One of the teachers in Yeshivas Mir and its head principal in , along with his wife, on the story of the departure of all the rabbonim and students of the yeshiva from Lithuania under Soviet rule, through the use of entry permits to the Dutch colony of Ouradou [sic].

Contents: The displacement of the Mirrer Yeshiva, with its faculty and students, including the witnesses, to independent Lithuania following the arrival of the Soviets in Poland in 1939, and the continuation of their studies in Kedainiai [sic]. The yeshiva’s continued existence after Lithuania became part of the Soviet Union, in separate groups in various towns (Seta, Krakimava, Kainkai [sic]), with the unofficial agreement of the Soviet authorities. Unclear details about their search for means of emigration. The departure of a portion of the yeshiva for Japan in January 1941, using visas for the Dutch colony of Curacao. The transfer of that group from Nose [sic] to Shanghai [sic], with the severance of relations between Japan and the United States in August 1941. Statistics about the Joint’s assistance to the refugees. The placement of the group from Mir, along with other refugees, in the Shanghai ghetto in 1943, and their stay there until the Japanese arrived in August 1945. The difficulties in traveling from the Far East and the prevention of emigration from Shanghai until the end of 1946. The emigration of most of the members of the yeshiva to the United States, and the emigration of the witnesses, along with a small group of students, to Israel via France. The reestablishment of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Jerusalem, under the aegis of the witness.

Names of Individuals Mentioned in the Testimony: Rabbi Eliezer Finkel, Yaakov Ederman, Eliezer Portnoy, Moshe Zupnik

Total Number of Pages: 8

Place: Jerusalem. Date: June, 1966. Interviewer: Yosef Litwack.

“My Father Did Not Tell Stories”

Rav Meir Shmulevitz, the youngest son of Rav Chaim, was born in Eretz Yisroel. His brother Rav Avrohom, who is one year older than he, was also born in Eretz Yisroel. Their elder siblings, Rav Meir relates, were born in Mir and in Shanghai. “My sister Rebbetzin Weiss was born in Shanghai, and my other sisters, Rebbetzin Partzovitz and Rebbetzin Ezrachi, were born in Mir, as was my brother Rav Refoel.”

What does the report mean when it says that there are biographical details missing due to “religious reservations?”

Rav Meir smiles. “First of all, that was the interviewer’s impression. Who says that he understood them? But I imagine that my parents preferred not to say anything when they were asked about themselves. That would be typical of them.”

The interviewer wrote in one place that your father preferred that your mother answer the questions, claiming that he was hard of hearing. The interviewer adds that he felt it was merely an excuse.

“If that is what the interviewer thought, then he was wrong again,” Rav Meir responds. “My father was indeed hard of hearing. It was much easier for my mother to tell stories. That wasn’t for him. It wasn’t for religious reasons, though. My father was not a man of stories, and he was not a person who liked to speak about history.”

Rav Meir adds, “In my opinion, my parents did not have any religious reason to keep silent. In all likelihood, they had no reason not to give testimony, but they also did not have a special reason to give it. That’s why they acted as if they were merely carrying out an obligation. They probably had no time for it. But in any event, my mother was more suited to the task. My father was not a storyteller. He never told us what happened there, not even once. But my mother did tell us.”

The next page in the file is the interviewer’s own words: “Overview of the testimony of Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz and Rebbetzin Miriam Shmulevitz regarding the episode of Curacao. Rabbi Shmulevitz, the head of Yeshivas Mir, traveled to Vilna along with hundreds of students of the yeshiva, immediately after the Soviets entered eastern Poland in the second half of September 1939. After Vilna became part of independent Lithuania, the yeshiva was located in Kaidan. Once Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union, the yeshiva dispersed to four different places in Lithuania and continued running semi-legally, meaning without a license, but with the authorities turning a blind eye, until January 1941. In January 1941, the entire yeshiva left the Soviet Union for Japan, on the basis of certificates from the Dutch consul attesting that their final destination was Curacao, where “no entry permit was necessary.” The arrangements for their departure and travel were made by a small number of people, so the rabbi does not know the details. The yeshiva’s funding during that period and afterward, throughout the war years, as well as the cost of its travel, was provided by the American Joint. The Soviet authorities received $180 per capita as a fee for an exit permit and in exchange for train tickets to Vladivostok. The members of the yeshiva remained in the Japanese port city of Kobe until the outbreak of the war between Japan and the United States, in December 1941. From that time until the end of 1946, they stayed in Shanghai. Rabbi Shmulevitz and his family, along with a group of students of the yeshiva, immigrated to Israel and founded the Mirrer Yeshiva in Jerusalem. The rest of the yeshiva emigrated from Shanghai to the United States.” This summary is followed by the signature of the interviewer and the date and place: Jerusalem, June 9, 1966.

The Yeshiva Splits Up

The document then moves on to the actual testimony of Rav Chaim Shmulevitz and his wife. It is not written as an exact quote, but it is close to exact.

“When the war broke out in September 1939, the rov and his family were in Mir, where the rov served as a rosh mesivta in the famous Yeshiva of Mir, where his father-in-law, Rabbi Eliezer Finkel (the father of Mrs. Shmulevitz) served as the rosh yeshiva. Mir is located in an area that was conquered by the Soviet army. The people in the yeshiva heard rumors that Vilna would probably be transferred by the Soviets to the control of independent Lithuania. The entire yeshiva, including its roshei yeshiva, its rabbonim, and its students, therefore relocated to Vilna.

“After Vilna was transferred to Lithuanian control, the yeshiva was located in the city of Kaidan. The group included 250 yeshiva students and eight families of the roshei yeshiva, including the families of Rabbi Finkel and Rabbi Shmulevitz. The rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Finkel, demonstrated great resourcefulness in reconnecting with the yeshiva’s sources of aid in other countries, especially in America, as well as in dealing with the local authorities. This is how the yeshiva was able to survive. The members of the yeshiva held on to their Polish passports and were considered by the Lithuanian authorities to be Polish refugees, which afforded them temporary asylum, along with tens of thousands of other Jewish refugees who came to Lithuania at that time from both parts of Poland, the portion occupied by the Germans and that occupied by the Soviets.

“When the Baltic states, including Latvia, were annexed to the Soviet Union, the entire yeshiva was ordered to leave Kaidan on the grounds that it was the district capital. The yeshiva split into four groups, which settled in the cities of Vilna, Shat, Krak, and Kirkanova. In its new locations, the separate groups continued with their Torah studies almost as usual. Even though the yeshiva was not given official permission to operate, the authorities presumably decided at that point to turn a blind eye and not to active[ly] interfere with it. It must be noted that the roshei yeshiva succeeded in providing for the material needs of the students as well, even though it entailed tremendous difficulties. It should also be noted that during that time, the authorities in Soviet Lithuania apparently continued recognizing the Polish expatriates bearing Polish passports as refugees, and they were not forced to accept Soviet citizenship. In any event, they did not demand that the people of Mir accept Soviet citizenship, and it is difficult to imagine that they were an exception. On the other hand, some refugees asked on their own volition for Soviet citizenship [presumably in light of the Soviet authorities’ treatment of Polish refugees in the Ukraine and western Belarus, interviewer’s comment]. There were also a few individuals from the Mirrer Yeshiva who received Soviet Lithuanian citizenship.”

Regarding the fact that the yeshiva was ordered to leave Kaidan because it was the district capital, the interviewer added a notation at the bottom of the page: “This order should not be seen as directed specifically against the yeshiva. This was part of a general policy adopted by the Soviet authorities in all the areas annexed after 1939 to expel any people from the district capital who were considered ‘unproductive,’ in order to clear up residential space for the many government employees who were brought from the east to staff the offices of the massive Soviet governmental apparatus that was established in these cities.” Also, regarding the fact that the yeshiva students were not forced to accept Soviet citizenship, but some asked for it of their own accord, he added, “The problem that must be explained here, and that should be brought to the attention of the historians researching this period, is that Mir is located in western Belarus, which was officially annexed to the Soviet Union following a referendum, and all of its citizens automatically acquired Soviet citizenship.”

At The NKVD Offices

The account continues, “At that time, the yeshiva began attempting to find a way to leave the Soviet Union. A number of activists kept in contact with Dr. Zerach Warhaftig (the current Minister of Religious Affairs), who headed the Eretz Yisroel Office for the brief time that Vilna was also part of independent Lithuania, and who continued seeking a way out even after it was annexed to the Soviet Union. The members of the yeshiva who handled this matter were Yaakov Ederman, Eliezer Portnoy, and Moshe Zupnik.

“Due to the illegal nature of their actions, only those three people handled all the arrangements (the contact with the Dutch consul) on behalf of the yeshiva and the arrangement of visas and other issues. The others did not know, and still do not know today, how their escape was organized. Nevertheless, in order for the Soviet authorities to issue exit permits, each individual was required to appear personally at the offices of the NKVD (the Soviet secret police). The interviews at the office were not difficult, and they had a formal character. One can assume that the secret police force was not overly rigid in this instance, because it had received instructions from the central command in Moscow to allow the refugees to leave the Soviet Union. The personal exit visas were issued at the NKVD offices in Vilna and in Kovno. Despite the authorities’ relatively cordial attitude, several dozen yeshiva students were nonetheless denied exist permits for various reasons. Among those to whom the permits were denied were those individuals who had accepted Lithuanian citizenship and given up their Polish citizenship. There is no indication that any of those members of the Mirrer Yeshiva who were not permitted to leave and who remained in Lithuania survived the war. Presumably, they were killed by the Germans and their accomplices.” These comments and conjectures, which are not marked specifically as comments of the interviewer, were actually made by Rav Chaim himself and by his rebbetzin.

“The students of Mir and the other refugees who were granted exit visas from Russia at the time included not only those with permits to go to Curacao, but also those who had entry permits for the United States or immigration permits for Eretz Yisroel. Rabbi Finkel, the rosh yeshiva, and his family received a permit to immigrate to Eretz Yisroel, and their exit visa was granted on this basis.

“The Soviet authorities received a fee of 180 dollars for each individual. The money presumably came from the Joint, via Stockholm. This sum included the fees for various documents, as well as the cost of train tickets to Vladivostok. There is a conjecture that this respectable sum in dollars was also a factor that led to the Soviet authorities’ decision in favor of the refugees.”

Why Rav Chaim Didn’t Go To America

“The people of the Mirrer Yeshiva set out for Japan in January 1941. They did not travel all together; rather, they traveled in groups of approximately 50 people each. Altogether, there were probably five, or perhaps six, groups. The trip to Vladivostok from Vilna took 12 days. From Vladivostok, they moved on to the Japanese port city of Kobe. In that city, many hundreds of refugees had gathered after arriving from the Soviet Union. Those who were ostensibly traveling to Curacao were not able to continue on their way, since they did not have entry permits for that destination. The refugees who had permits to enter the United States did continue on their way. While he was in Japan, Rabbi Shmulevitz received a permit to enter the United States along with his family, but since most of the yeshiva students had to remain in Japan, the rabbi decided not to take advantage of the permit and [remained] with his students in Japan. In their new exile, as well, the yeshiva continued to maintain its learning schedule, with the permission of the Japanese authorities. Funding for food was supplied by the Joint. The situation grew worse in August 1941, when the diplomatic ties between Japan and the United States were severed even before war broke out between them. But within a few months, the yeshiva reestablished its connection with the Joint through the Vaad Hatzolah, which was operating in Switzerland, and through a number of Jewish institutions in Argentina, and the flow of support to the yeshiva resumed. After the severing of Japan’s ties with the United States, the yeshiva was relocated by the Japanese authorities from Kobe to Shanghai.

“In 1943, all the Jewish refugees with foreign citizenship who had arrived after 1937 were placed in a ghetto. This was presumably the result of German pressure. The Jews who had been there for longer, who had fled from Russia in the first years after the Bolshevik revolution, were permitted to continue living in their residences undisturbed. The refugees who were settled in the ghetto received passports with a yellow stripe, but they were not required to wear yellow patches like the Jews in the European ghettos. Other than their residential restrictions, no other limitations were placed on them, and they were able to leave the ghetto when necessary.

“After Japan was defeated in August 1945, they were still unable to leave Shanghai, due to the lack of transportation in the Far East during the initial period after the war. Even so, a few groups of people who obtained entry permits to the United States managed to leave at various opportunities. Most of the people were forced to continue living in Shanghai until the end of 1946. The majority of the yeshiva left for the United States. A small group consisting of a minyan of yeshiva students, along with Rabbi Shmulevitz and his family, preferred to resettle in Eretz Yisroel. Rebbetzin Shmulevitz’s parents, Rabbi Finkel and his wife, along with her three brothers, were also in Israel; they had not been forced to remain in Japan, since they had permits for aliyah. The group traveled to Israel via France, where they stayed in Marseilles for two months. Rabbi Shmulevitz also visited America on behalf of the yeshiva, for the purpose of reestablishing it in Israel, before actually traveling to Israel. The yeshiva was reestablished in Jerusalem, in the neighborhood of Beis Yisroel, and Rabbi Shmulevitz today serves as its rosh yeshiva. Only about 20 of the veteran yeshiva students from Mir, who left for Vilna in 1939, are in Israel today. The rest live in the United States.”

This is the end of the testimony delivered by Rav Chaim and his wife. According to his account, they did not emigrate to America, even though they had the permits that made it possible to do so, because they did not wish to abandon their students who had to remain in Japan. In any event, this is a rare document that has been hidden away in the archives of Yad Vashem since 1966. Who knows what other documents like it may be there?

Was Curacao a fiction?

I comment to Rav Meir Shmulevitz that this document contains details that only Rav Chaim and his wife knew, such as the fact that the yeshiva traveled in six separate groups, or the reason why they themselves did not use their entry permits for the United States.

Rav Meir wishes to add some background. “Curacao was a Dutch island. Some say that it never actually existed, and that it was merely a fiction to enable the yeshiva students to receive permits to enter Japan. Japan was not interested in taking in refugees, and there was no reason for the country to agree to take them in. Bechasdei Shomayim, the Japanese agreed to permit them to enter the country, on the condition that it would not be their final destination. In response to this, the whole subject of the island of Curacao was invented; it was on that subject that the people of Yad Vashem wished to collect testimony. The stated final goal of the refugees was to reach that island, but they never really planned on going there. Curacao was simply a pretext to save them.

“It was really quite amazing. Hitler ym”s had two allies: Italy and Japan. And this country, which allied itself with Hitler, was the means through which the entire yeshiva was saved. It was clearly the Hand of Hashem. At the time, Rav Chatzkel Levenstein was concerned about going to Japan, since it was allied with the Germans. No one knew what the next day would bring.”

When Rav Finkel went to Eretz Yisroel, was your father left with all the responsibility in Mir?

“Rav Finkel went to Eretz Yisroel to make the arrangements for the yeshiva to resettle there, and then the war broke out. My father had been the rosh yeshiva in Mir even before that time, but it’s true that he wasn’t responsible for everything. Circumstances forced him to become a leader at a very young age; he was under 40, and suddenly he was responsible for the entire yeshiva. [Suddenly], he had to be the leader and make difficult decisions. Aside from that, there was the issue of finances. Until that time, he had never had anything to do with the yeshiva’s funding, and suddenly he had to manage its finances, and in wartime, no less. Having money was literally a matter of life or death. If the yeshiva didn’t have money, the bochurim would die of starvation. Once, the yeshiva received funds, and the bochurim rejoiced; they had been living with hunger, and they felt that they would now be able to be more comfortable. But my father disagreed. He felt that they should purchase a minimal amount of food to alleviate their hunger, but they had to continue living within limits and not spend too much, in order to ensure that they would have food over the following days as well. Not all the bochurim agreed with this approach, and you have to recognize that I am not referring to young boys. Some of the bochurim in the yeshiva were not much younger than my father and were great talmidei chachomim in their own right.”