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Last Ship Out

Nosson Weiss

Poland was closed in on all sides, and independent Lithuania had been seized by the Soviets. As Europe teetered on the brink of war and destruction, an unexpected rescue possibility developed for the Torah leaders who knew that while the Nazis would destroy their bodies, the Soviets would destroy their souls. They came from Kletzk, Baranovich, and Bialystok — scurrying for passage on the last ship out of Russia. Personal memories from a forgotten era.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

To their right was the sea, and on the left — sand, as far as the eye could see. Only in their mind’s eye could they see beyond the sand to the land in which nothing is lacking. To Eretz Yisrael.

These men and boys, scholars of the European Torah world, had come from Kletzk, Baranovitch, and Bialystok, scurrying for passage on the last ship out of Odessa before the port — the last escape route out of Russia — was sealed. From Istanbul they trekked by land, through Syria and Lebanon, south to Haifa. 

It was seventy years ago, Erev Pesach 1941. The journey was finally over — the survivors on the “Rabbanim Ship” had reached the Promised Land to fulfill the promise that Torah will never be lost.

No one waited to welcome them, no photographers or reporters recorded the event, and there were no exuberant bochurim to sing “Yamim al yemei melech tosif.”

At the time, the event was almost anticlimactic. Only years later would the ship’s passengers speak of the extraordinary Providence they experienced.


Closed on All Sides

October 1939. Just two weeks after the Nazis invaded Poland from the west, the Soviets tore into the country from the east. The yeshivos of eastern Poland now found themselves under Soviet rule, and they knew that would be their end. At the time, no one imagined the horrifying scope of the mass destruction of European Jewry beginning to unfold — they were fleeing the ravages of war, not the threat of annihilation — but the rabbis and yeshivah students, many of whom had directly experienced the Soviets’ suppression of Judaism, knew their yeshivos would not survive the onslaught.

There was, however, one hope: News spread that Vilna would be annexed to independent Lithuania. And so, desperate to insure the survival of their Torah, many yeshivah students fled to Vilna.

But the days of relative quiet were short-lived. In June 1940, the Russians invaded Lithuania, and the roshei yeshivos and their students knew they would have to flee to survive. But who could obtain Palestine certificates or American visas — not to mention viable travel routes — as the war began to close in on all sides? Despite the seemingly hopeless situation, a new and unexpected rescue possibility developed.

Japanese consul Chiune Sugihara began issuing Japanese transit visas to Jews who possessed even the scantest documentation, and providentially, the Soviets agreed to issue exit permits to any Polish refugee holding a visa.

Then, once the Soviets had agreed to grant exit permits to Polish refugees with visas, those with Palestine certificates were also given a small window of time to leave. The Jewish Agency representative in Istanbul squeezed out 250 Palestine certificates from the British, and several hundred others were prepared using fake British seals, enabling the bearers of these precarious documents to travel from Vilna to Odessa via Moscow, and on to Istanbul.


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