Weekly Story: ‘America Iz Nisht Anderish’

by Rabbi Sholom Avtzon

Next Shabbos is Tes Adar Sheini, the 76th anniversary of the Frierdiker Rebbe’s dramatic rescue from a burning Warsaw and his arrival in America. “America Iz Nisht Anderish” was the Frierdiker Rebbe’s statement upon his arrival in America.

Mesiras nefesh is remarkable under any circumstance; however, few, if any, reached the level of mesiras nefesh of the Frierdiker Rebbe. Throughout history, many Yidden had mesiras nefesh against oppression. However, in America, where there were no restrictions on religious observances, to many, there was no need for the ultimate sacrifice. America, as in every other country to which Jewish immigrants came, was infused with Jewish culture. Beautiful shuls were erected, hospitals were established, and Yiddish newspapers thrived. As far as they were concerned, there was a Jewish community. However, what was significantly absent were Jewish day schools and yeshivos, as most communities were satisfied with the afternoon Talmud Torahs. America therefore became known as “the land that swallows its inhabitants.” Many great rabbis came with the intention of rebuilding the Jewish communities of Europe, but did not succeed. The Frierdiker Rebbe’s declaration that “America iz nisht anderish” (America is not different), and his mesiras nefesh not to become lax even on a minhag Yisroel, changed the mindset of American Jewry. Once the Frierdiker Rebbe made this breakthrough and paved the way, many other Rabbonim also succeeded.

When the Frierdiker Rebbe first visited America in 5689 (1929),[1] he was greeted in every city he visited by thousands of Jews. Even though they came to him for various reasons, the spirit of Yiddishkeit was revived in all of them. For the chassidim[2] that were there, it rekindled their feeling of being together with the Rebbe — and they longed for him to remain. They feared that if they were separated from the Rebbe once again, their fulfillment of mitzvos might become weak.[3] This fear was further strengthened by their concern over what would happen to their children.

During his ten-month visit, and even after he returned to Europe, the chassidim repeatedly beseeched the Rebbe to settle in America. Although, at the time, the Rebbe declined the invitation, he did not entirely reject it either. Rather, he replied, “At present, America is not ready for me now; there must first be a Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim.”

The Frierdiker Rebbe then continued, in that and other letters,[4] urging the chassidim in America to prepare to open a yeshiva. He then returned to Riga, Latvia and a few years later settled in Otvotzk, Poland. However, he retained his Latvian citizenship.

On the 9th of Shevat 5699 (March, 1939), seven months before the outbreak of World War II, the ominous signs that a war might break out was hanging over Europe. The Rebbe’s secretary, Reb Yechezkel Feigin, swwhv, wrote to Rabbi Yisroel Jacobson, who at that time was the head of Agudas Chassidei Chabad in America, informing him that the Rebbe had instructed that Agudas Chassidei Chabad in America should start obtaining visas for the Rebbe, his family, and his immediate circle. These were to be available should the situation in Europe deteriorate.

Agudas Chassidei Chabad immediately began intensive lobbying to obtain all the necessary visas.

On the day the war broke out, September 1, 1939, the seventeenth of Elul 5699 (1039), the Frierdiker Rebbe and his family were in Otvotzk, Poland. Since at that time he was a Latvian citizen,[5]5 he was free to leave Poland. Yet the Frierdiker Rebbe decided to remain as long as he was able to help others. Four days later, on Tuesday, the twenty-first of Elul, the Rebbe sadly left Otvotzk for Riga, Latvia, via Warsaw. Before leaving, he blessed the community, giving them strength to endure the impending hardships. Once he reached Warsaw, however, the total collapse of the Polish army and the intensity of the German bombings and patrols made it impossible for him to continue on to Riga. He was trapped.

While the Rebbe was advised to go to the safer side of Warsaw (where there were less Jews and therefore less bombardment) the Rebbe refused. He then quoted the possuk:[6] “I am with them in their suffering.”

Chassidim who were with the Rebbe during this difficult time in Poland relate many wondrous stories. Above all, they mention in awe how the Rebbe davened the first night of Rosh HaShanah, pleading to Hashem to help the Jewish nation.

Agudas Chassidei Chabad intensified its efforts to obtain visas. In addition to hiring Mr. Max Roth, a well-connected lawyer who specialized in obtaining visas and other immigration issues, Agudas Chassidei Chabad turned to influential politicians with whom they were close to save the Rebbe. Some of them were extremely helpful in saving the Rebbe from the communists in 1927, others were inspired by their meeting with the Rebbe in 1930 when he was in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Congressman Sol Blum of New York, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee, joined in this effort to save the Frierdiker Rebbe, as did Senator Robert Wagner, Sr. of New York, who wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of State, Cordell Hull urging him to help save the Rebbe. U.S. Congressman A. Sabat of Illinois[7] also wrote Secretary of State Hull stating that the Rebbe “is not just another rabbi; he is the leader of world Jewry,” thereby warranting that the State Department make an exception and become actively involved in the rescue.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who met the Rebbe during his visit to America in 1930, used his clout and connections to help in every way possible. U.S. Senator Walsh also joined the effort. These two were inspired to do so after being approached by attorney Asher Rabinowitz, a son of the devoted chassid, Reb Dovid Moshe Rabinowitz of Boston.[8]

While the U.S. State Department agreed to assist in spiriting the Rebbe out of Poland, there were a few problems. For one, America at that time was still neutral and had a policy of not directly intervening in the events taking place in Europe. For another, no one knew exactly where the Rebbe was. And even after locating his whereabouts, Poland had to give permission for him to emigrate. Whether this permission would ever materialize was uncertain because Poland was then under German occupation.

To that end, the State Department turned to Mr. Robert Pell, the Undersecretary of State for European Affairs, who together with Mr. Rubly, was the American representative on the Intergovernmental Committee with Germany.

His German counterpart on the Intergovernmental Committee was Dr. Helmut Wohlthat, who was the ministerial director of Germany’s four-year plan. The two of them developed a strong friendship, and it was to him that Mr. Pell secretly turned in this situation.

The following is a telegram that Pell sent on October 3 to the American consul-general to Germany, Ambassador Raymond Geist:

Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, one of the leading Jewish scholars in the world and a Latvian citizen, has been trapped in Warsaw. The most influential Jewish leaders and others in this country, including the Postmaster General, Justice Brandeis and Mr. Benjamin Cohen, have asked our assistance in obtaining permission from the German Military Government of Warsaw for the safe egress of the Rabbi to Riga via Stockholm. While the [State] Department does not wish to intervene in the case of a citizen of a foreign country, you might in the course of a conversation with Wohlthat inform him as from me, and in view of our previous relationship of the interest in this country in this particular case. Wohlthat, who evidently wishes to maintain the contact with the Intergovernmental Committee, might wish to intervene with the military authorities.

The following day, October 4, Ambassador Geist spoke to Mr. Wohlthat, who, it should be noted, was not a member of the third Reich. Mr. Wohlthat jotted down the facts and promised to see what could be done.

Wohlthat immediately turned to Admiral William Canaris, head of the German Intelligence, and told him of this request. Noting that it was coming from very high places in Washington, which at that time was still dealing with Germany, Canaris decided it would be advantageous to fulfill this request and promised to do everything he could. He then instructed his assistant, Major Johann Horczak, the head of German Intelligence in Warsaw, to locate the Rebbe.

Horczak first searched for the Rebbe in Otvotzk, since, until very recently, the Rebbe had been living there. There, he found out that the Rebbe had gone to Warsaw. According to the local authorities, the Rebbe was residing in the house of Reb S. Z. Shmotkin. However, Shmotkin’s house was completely destroyed by a direct hit in a German air-raid, so Horczak informed Canaris that, as of yet, he had not found the Rebbe.

At that time, Rabbi Jacobson received a letter from the Frierdiker Rebbe’s secretary, Reb Chaim Lieberman, informing him that the Rebbe had miraculously escaped from Shmotkin’s house and was now staying in the house of Reb Tzvi Hirsch Gourarie on 29 Fraterska Boni, in Warsaw.

He passed this information on to the U.S. State Department, which passed it on to Wohlthat, who then passed it on to Horczak.

On November 25, 1939, when Horczak reached Gourarie’s house and asked if Rabbi Schneersohn was living there, the person who answered the door, not knowing who Horczak was representing and extremely fearful of why a German intelligence official was looking for the Rebbe, replied emphatically, “No!”

Horczak left but returned once more to the house to try to find the Rebbe. This time, when the same person opened the door, Horczak, knowing for a fact that the Rebbe was there, quickly saw how anxious and nervous the person was. Of course! — that was it. The entire household had no way of knowing his intentions. They probably feared the worst.

So he informed them that he had been sent there by his superiors in order to rescue the Rebbe. After demonstrating that this was the truth,[9] they then admitted that the Rebbe was indeed in this house.

Horczak informed Canaris that he had been successful in locating the Rebbe, who in turn told Wohlthat that he could pass this information along to the American Ambassador.

On Yud Zayin Kislev, 5700, November 29, 1939, Ambassador Geist sent the following telegram to Mr. Pell at the State Department:

Wohlthat’s office has just informed me that Rabbi Schneersohn has been found in Warsaw. He is recovering from an illness but will be able to travel by December 1. He can go direct Warsaw to Riga, and the German army will detail an officer to accompany him and facilitate his travel. Schneersohn is without funds and Wohlthat inquires whether his friends in the United States could transmit, through the State Department and Embassy, money for travel expenses for Schneersohn, his wife, and child. $250 would probably cover cost of comfortable travel.

Immediately, Agudas Chassidei Chabad transferred $300 to Berlin, but for some reason there was a two-week delay and it was not until Thursday, December 16 that the Rebbe was allowed to leave Warsaw and journey to Riga. Although, he now had permission to leave, what guaranteed his safety through the dangerous war zone and the ever-present checkpoint stops of the dreadful Gestapo and their treacherous collaborators?

Admiral Canaris realized more than anyone else that it would be impossible for the Rebbe to make this trip safely on his own. However, since he wanted to do a favor for the government of the United States, he came up with the following plan:

Horczak would “arrest” the Rebbe’s household, a group of fifteen people, by the command of German Intelligence headquarters. Then he would personally bring these “prisoners” to Berlin, to be interrogated about their underground activities against Germany. Once in Berlin they would be handed over to the custody of the Latvian Ambassador, thereby securing their safe passage out of Germany.

This did prove to be necessary, for they were indeed stopped and questioned by the Gestapo many times on their way to Berlin. Each time, Horczak patiently explained that he himself didn’t understand this very unusual command to bring the entire party of fifteen people[10] to be questioned in Berlin. But one did not question one’s superiors, Horczak pointed out.

What could the Gestapo do? They saw that these people were prisoners of the Abwehr (German Intelligence), and so they had no choice but to let them proceed.

Arriving in Berlin on Shabbos, the Rebbe was placed “under guard” in the Jewish community house, and on Sunday, Hei Teves, December 17, he arrived in Riga.

But Riga was only the first step in the rescue effort, and a temporary one at that, for after the capture of Poland, the Germans were steadily advancing against Latvia. Knowing that it didn’t stand a chance against the German army, Latvia turned in desperation to Russia for assistance. Russia agreed on the condition that Latvia renounce its independence and become a republic of Russia.

Neither option boded well for the Frierdiker Rebbe: not to be under the German occupation, nor under Russian sovereignty, which still regretted its decision in 1927 to free the Frierdiker Rebbe and let him leave the country.

Racing against time, efforts were intensified to receive the visas from the U.S. State Department, present them to the countries through which the Frierdiker Rebbe would have to travel en route to New York, and receive from each country Transit Tisnart (permission to travel through).

This all took eleven weeks. Finally, on Monday, 24 Adar I, March 4, 1940, the Rebbe and his family flew from Riga to Stockholm, Sweden with all the necessary papers in their hands.

That night they stayed in the Hotel Atlantic. Tuesday evening, they left Stockholm and arrived in the Swedish town of Göthborg on Wednesday morning. Thursday, at one o’clock in the afternoon, the Rebbe, his family, and a small group of his followers[11] boarded the ship Drutingholm for the shores of America.

After twelve days of eventful and somewhat stressful travel, the boat finally arrived in New York Harbor in the late afternoon on Monday, the 8th of Adar Sheni (March 19, 1940). However, by New York law, if any boat docks after 4:00 p.m., the passengers have to remain on the boat until the following morning.

Congressman Sol Blum got the immigration officials to extend every courtesy to the Frierdiker Rebbe, including exempting him from the normal questioning that every immigrant on Ellis Island had to undergo. They also allowed the Rebbe to disembark shortly before all the other eight hundred passengers.

Rabbi Jacobson was among the group who was allowed to go on a small boat and greet the Rebbe on the ship. The Rebbe then told Rabbi Jacobson that the crowd should say the blessing of Baruch mechayei hameisim, “Blessed be the One Who resurrected the dead” [Author’s Note: most probably since it was such a miracle that the Rebbe came out alive from Poland].

When the Rebbe appeared on the ramp, Chazan Shmuel Kantrof sang that blessing and the crowd broke out with cries of “Sholom Aleichem,” “Shehechiyanu” and “Mechayei Hameisim.”

The Rebbe said “Birchas HaGomel” and “HaTov V’HaMeitiv.”

As he was leaving the ship, the Rebbe stated that he didn’t come to America to rest, but rather to begin building Yiddishkeit in America. He informed the crowd that “America is nisht anderish” — America is not different, and just as Yiddishkeit blossomed in Europe, so too will it blossom in America. These words became his motto.[12]

Throughout that day, the Rebbe met with the many people who came to greet him and wish him well. Among them were two people whom the Frierdiker Rebbe considered close friends. They begged him not to open a yeshiva in America. Why? he asked. It would come to naught and cause him disgrace, they claimed, as it had done to many other illustrious people who tried but failed miserably.

Notwithstanding their objections, and fully realizing the difficulties involved, the Frierdiker Rebbe told Rabbi Jacobson that he would not go to sleep until he saw a minyan of (ten) students who would begin learning the following morning in Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim of America.

A few hours later, Rabbi Jacobson brought together the ten students who promised that they would be willing to become the first students of Tomchei Temimim of America.[13]

Thus began the Frierdiker Rebbe’s campaign to rejuvenate Yiddishkeit in America.

With being so occupied in arranging visas, etc., for the Rebbe, there had not been enough time to find a suitable apartment for him. So, two adjoining suites in the Greystone Hotel, on 91st Street and Broadway in Manhattan, were rented.

On the 5th of Av, approximately six months after the Frierdiker Rebbe’s arrival in America, Agudas Chassidei Chabad started negotiations to buy the building located at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, known around the world today as “770.” A week later, on the 12th of Av, 770 was purchased.

A few days later, the Frierdiker Rebbe came to 770 and davened Mincha and Maariv there. He then said: “The Aibishter should allow it [the building] to be a permanent dwelling for the soul, for Torah study and for prayer services, but a temporary dwelling for living purposes. For shortly we should merit to be in the Holy Land with Moshiach.”

The above article was taken from A Day To Recall, A Day To Remember – Vol. II, which is presently out of print.

The author can be contacted at avtzonbooks@gmail.com

[1] (Author’s Note: Throughout this chapter, “the Rebbe” refers to the Frierdiker Rebbe, except for footnote 8.) The Frierdiker Rebbe came to America on Yud Beis Elul, 5689 (1929) and remained there until his departure on Chof Vav Tammuz, 5690 (1930). In that time he visited the following cities: New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Chicago, Detroit, S. Louis, Milwaukee and Boston. When he was in Washington, he visited President Hoover. The Rashag accompanied him throughout the entire visit in America. He returned to Europe on Chof Alef Tammuz 5690 (1930,). While the Rebbe planted the seeds for Lubavitch to grow in America, the main purpose of his trip was to raise funds for Russian Jewry.

[2] This applies to all chassidim. However one should keep in mind that most Jewish immigrants prior to 1930 were from Russia, where most chassidim were Lubavitchers or connected to a large degree to Lubavitch.

[3] The Rebbe did not limit himself to strengthening chassidim. He strived to help Jewish communities in whatever way possible. For example, he assisted the Jewish community in S. Louis in raising the necessary funds to build their mikvah. We should note, one of the issues that the Frierdiker Rebbe constantly addressed was the topic of Taharas Hamishpachah.

[4] Igros Kodesh of the Rebbe Rayatz, vol. II, p. 267-272, letters 494-497.

[5] . His daughter Rebbetzin Shaina was also allowed to leave; however, since her husband Reb Menachem Mendel Horenstein was a Polish citizen, he was not allowed to. She therefore remained.

[6] Tehillim 91:15.

[7] At that time, New York and Chicago, Illinois were the main centers of Lubavitcher chassidim. The first politicians to be contacted were their local representatives.

[8] He was also involved in the rescue of the Rebbe and Rebbetzin.

[9] According to an article in Beis Moshiach, Horczak mentioned that he was coming on behalf of [the noted chassid, Reb] Mordechai Dubin [who was instrumental in obtaining the Rebbe’s release from his imprisonment in Russia], and Dubin’s message was that he sent [Horczak] to fulfill the Rebbe’s request of him [of once again securing his freedom].

[10] In addition to the Frierdiker Rebbe’s family (six people), there were also his secretary, Reb Yecheskel Feigin and others.

[11] In addition to the Rebbe’s family was a nurse for the Rebbe’s mother,Rebbetzin Shterna Sara, Rabbi & Mrs. Hodakov and Rabbi Nissan Mindel.

[12] See the chapter on the Frierdiker Rebbe in The Rebbeim.

[13] The students who had the great zechus of being the first students of Tomchei Temimim in America were: Mordechai Altein, Avrohom Barnetsky, Mordechai Fisher, Mendel Feldman, Shea Goodman, Sholom Gordon, Zorach Gordon, Meyer Greenberg, Yitzchok Greenberg, Avrohom Hecht, Meyer Katzoff, Yitzchok Kolodny, Berel Levy and Yitzchok Motechin. (Of the fourteen mentioned, ten were definitely there on the first day; the others came shortly afterwards.)

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