Today is Yom HaShoa, and therefore an appropriate day to post an excerpt from Rabbi Dr. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff's fantastic book, From Washington Ave to Washington St, that tells the story of how the Mir Yeshiva was saved, and especially of the life-saving work of Sempo Sugihara. The excerpt below is taken from pages 24-29.
Mir was part of Poland when the German forces crossed the frontier on September 1, 1939. The Soviet armies attacked Poland’s eastern border on September 17. Within a few weeks the German and Russian forces met and their mutual partition of Poland became a reality. Almost all the major Polish yeshivot were located in eastern Poland, which was now occupied by the Soviets. Atheism and enmity toward religion were basic to the Marxist and Communist doctrines. Numerous roshei yeshiva and yeshiva students had personally experienced this harsh reality under the Communists during the post-World War I period. Many had chosen to flee to independent Poland to avoid Soviet persecution. These yeshivot were now once again under Soviet control. As detrimental as this new reality was, the situation in the German-occupied zone was infinitely worse. There the yeshivot were under Nazi dominion. The immediate reaction to these events was that the yeshivot must flee and relocate in more secure locations. Nevertheless, there was no area available that was not under Communist or Nazi domination. On October 10, 1939 the Soviets reached an agreement with the neutral Republic of Lithuania to transfer to it control over the city of Vilna. This focal center for Jewish life and its environs now passed from Polish to Lithuanian sovereignty.
These tidings precipitated excitement and anticipation among the roshei yeshiva and their students. Hurried decisions were made to depart for Vilna. Among the first to leave were the students of the Kletsk Yeshiva headed by Rabbi Aaron Kotler (October 14) and the Mir Yeshiva led by Rabbi Eliezer Yehudah Finkel (October 15). Soon hundreds more joined the mass exodus to Vilna. By the time the new border between Lithuania and Soviet-occupied Poland was formally established, there were some fifteen thousand Polish refugees, including approximately twenty-four hundred yeshiva people in the greater Vilna area. The primary responsibility for maintaining and guiding the yeshivot fell upon Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzenski. A member of the Vilna ecclesiastical court (beit din), Rabbi Grodzenski was widely considered the leading scholar-respondent-statesman of the Lithuanian Torah world. He divided the various yeshivot among the Vilna synagogues and insisted that each school retain its unique atmosphere and method of study. Despite constantly ebbing strength, the Vilna rabbi appealed to his devotees throughout the Jewish world for material sustenance for the refugees. Rabbi Grodzenski was to pass away on August 9, 1940.
While the yeshivot and the refugees were attempting to adjust to the new reality, the situation abruptly changed once again. On June 15, 1940, Russian troops entered Lithuania, and in Soviet terminology its “liberation” began. On August 3, 1940, Lithuania was officially annexed by the Soviet Union as a constitutent Soviet republic. The refugee yeshiva people once again faced the dilemma of how to leave Lithuania and escape from Communist control. The point at issue was now where to move. The gateways to the Land of Israel and the American continent were closed to the would-be escapees. Nathan Gutwirth and Leo Sternheim, two Dutch yeshiva students, applied to Jan Zwartendijk, the honorary Dutch consul in Kovno, for permission to enter one of the Dutch overseas colonies. They could not return to their homes in Holland, since it was conquered by the Germans in May 1940. Zwartendjik was anxious to help and proposed they go to Curacao, an island in the Caribbean off the coast of Venezuela. Since he was only an honorary consul, Zwartendijk turned to L.P. Decker, the Dutch ambassador to the three Baltic States, who resided in Riga (Latvia). The ambassador informed the honorary consul that Gutwirth and Sternheim did not require a visa to enter Curacao, but rather the approval of the island’s governor. Fully aware of the life-saving implications, Decker authorized Zwartendijk to write in the passports that no visa to Curacao was necessary. The actual text read: “The Dutch consulate hereby certifies that no visa is necessary for the entry of foreigners to Surinam, Curacao, and other Dutch possessions in America.”
Soon many refugees turned to the consul for a similar stamp in their passports. It was a race against the clock since the new Soviet authorities ordered the consulate to cease operations by the end of August 1940. During the almost six weeks in which Zwartendijk was able to function (July 23 to August 31), he issued around thirteen hundred such Curacao visas.
It was now necessary to select an exit route and attain the appropriate transit visas. The only possible means of reaching Curacao in the summer of 1940 had to be via the Far East since nearly all of Western Europe was occupied by the Nazis. The path of escape would be to travel across the Soviet Union and through Japan. Japanese transit visas would now have to be acquired on the basis of the Curacao destination. To obtain these Japanese visas, they approached Sempo Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Kovno. This unique humanitarian was intensely agonized by the plight of the Jewish refugees. He began issuing Japanese transport visas to all who requested them, whether or not they possessed the Curacao visas. Even after receiving an urgent cable from the Japanese Foreign Ministry to discontinue granting these visas, Sugihara continued to distribute them. He charged each applicant only two litas (approximately 33 cents) per visa. Sugihara continued issuing transit visas even from the railway car in which he departed from Lithuania on August 31, 1940.
Once the Dutch passport addendums and the Japanese transport visas were obtained, the major remaining impediment was securing Soviet exit permits. This now became a perplexing quandary for the refugees. Any attempt to leave the Soviet Union could be interpreted by the authorities as a treacherous act. The special Soviet immigration offices were opened in the facitlies of the NKVD. Some decided to continue the process and succeeded in attaining the Soviet exit permits. Among the latter was practically the entire student body of the Mir Yeshiva. The next hurdle now became securing the necessary funds for this route of escape. The tickets had to be paid for in dollars at the considerably inflated tourist rate of 170 dollars per person. Penniless refugees were now required to put together these dollars despite the fact that it was illegal to possess foreign currency in the Soviet Union. With the support of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Commitee, the Vaad Hatzalah (Emergency Committee for War-Torn Yeshivot), and relatives in the United States, the money was raised and tickets were purchased.
The initial group of refugees who succeeded in acquiring all the necessary documents left Lithuania in September 1940. They traveled by train from Minsk to Moscow. From Moscow they journeyed on the Trans-Siberian railroad to the Soviet Pacific port of Vladivostok. From there they sailed to the Japanese port of Tsuruga. Most of the Polish refugees departed from Lithuania during the months of January and February 1941.
Once in Japan, the refugees were aided by representatives of the local Jewish communities. The evacuees were settled in Kobe, Japan’s second largest port. The local Kobe comunity included about fifty Jewish families, divided almost evenly between Sephardim and Russian Ashkenazim. The local Jewish community and even the Japanese people extended a warm welcome to the more than forty-six hundred refugees who now swelled the ranks of the heretofore small tranquil Jewish community. However, the new arrivals only possessed the Japanese transit visas, which were normally valid for just seven to fifteen days. Some were able to reach their final destination in the Western Hemisphere or Australia before the outbreak of the Pacific War. However, most of the Polish refugees had no visas to other countries. Their resettlement now became the prime dilemma for the greater Kobe Jewish community. While methods were devised to extend the visas, the Nazi pressure on their Japanese allies to spread the Nazi doctrines intensified. The refugees now lived with a constant fear of denial of their visa extension, which intensified their already existing sense of insecurity.
At a meeting of rescue activists in Kobe on February 19, 1941, the consensus was that the International Settlement of the nearby port of Shanghai should be utilized as the temporary transit station instead of Japan. Shanghai was not only geographically close, but it was also a location to which Jewish refugees could still gain entry. The International Settlement of the city was governed by a municipal council comprised of the delegates of the foreign powers that then possessed extraterritorial rights in Shanghai. Approximately eleven hundred Polish refugees were transferred to Shanghai in the fall of 1941 after their prolonged Japanese residence. Among the evacuees were more than four hundred rabbis, yeshiva students, and family members. Among these, the main component was the Mir Yeshiva, which soon found a home in the Beth Aharon Synagogue on Museum Road. This synagogue had been built in the 1920s as a second house of worship for the Sephardic community. It was not fully utilized until the moment that the Mir Yeshiva established its activities in Shanghai. for close to five years, this synagogues was to resound with the voice of Torah study. While the conflagrations of war and destruction raged throughout the world, the Mirrer students intensified their studies and spiritual advancement The tribulations of the outside were downplayed and the inside of the Shanghai synagogue was permeated with the spirit of Lithuanian Torah learning and piety.