I recently heard of a yeshiva being saved from the Holocaust through Shanghai. Is this true, and how did it happen?
Before recounting the actual history, it is important to qualify that even more significant than the interesting events is recognizing the hand of G‑d in history which orchestrated the miraculous salvation of these yeshiva students. That being said, the story is as follows:
As a result of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement in August 1939, Germany and Russia signed a non-aggression pact and subsequently invaded, divided and annexed Poland among themselves. In June 1940, Russia invaded neighboring Lithuania and annexed it as an official part of the Soviet Union as well. Hundreds of thousands of Jews thus found themselves suddenly trapped within an anti-religious, anti-Semitic, communist dictatorship which was particularly hostile to Jews and Judaism.
In this dire situation, many Jews vacillated between accepting the dangers of staying or risking the ramifications of leaving – if they could. In order to emigrate, it was necessary to acquire an exit visa from the Soviet authorities. The great communist regime in those days touted itself as the “Land of Freedom and Equality”. But in reality, it was nothing more than a huge prison. Two hundred million human beings found themselves behind the “Iron Curtain”, forcibly separated from the rest of the world. For most, acquiring an exit visa was a pipedream.
This policy had been in place for more than 20 years, since the revolution of 1917, when the communists had risen to power. The roots of the policy were anchored in the ideology that the Soviet Union was paradise. The communist state was purportedly governed by justice and equality. According to Soviet propaganda, there were no poor and no wealthy; all men were equal, content with their lives. There was no class system, no competition, no oppressors and no oppressed. The government was the “beneficent father” that had been established only to serve and benefit the people. Within this agenda, it was unfathomable and intolerable that anyone would want to leave such a “utopia”. Thus, according to the principles of the Soviet Union, citizens who wished to leave were nothing more than traitors and deserters, deserving death or exile to Siberia.
Among Jews, two small groups were exceptions:
Because of the initial alliance between Russia and Germany (until Nazi Germany later turned against and attacked Russia in June 1941), German citizens could travel freely and the Russian government granted them permission to leave, together with non-German spouses and children. Therefore, many Lithuanian or Polish Jews asked yeshiva students with German citizenship to arrange fictitious marriages. Indeed, many girls of marriageable age or widows with children were saved in this way.
Another exception was the Mir Yeshiva, which had earlier fled from Russian occupied Poland into Lithuania, and became trapped again after the Russian takeover of Lithuania. Under the pretext of being Polish refugees in flight, they claimed exemption from the Soviet prohibition on Lithuanian emigration. Against all odds, permission was given on condition that they be granted asylum in a destination country.
Characteristically, not a single western country was willing to accept this trickle of Jews that Russia was willing to let go. Yet, through a most curious course of events, the members of the Mir Yeshiva received visas from none other than the then-recently-opened Japanese embassy in Lithuania, through the good-will of Japanese consul Chiune Sugihara. What made this particularly “odd” was that Japan was saving Jews under the very nose of both the Russians and the Germans through its embassy in Russian-Lithuania (which was actually a front for espionage on Russia), while being simultaneously strongly allied to Nazi Germany!
In this way, the approximately 350 members of the Mir Yeshiva were granted permission to flee Russian-occupied Lithuania as Polish refugees, and boarded the Trans-Siberian railway, not to exile in Siberia, but to freedom in Japan! In the fall of 1940, the yeshiva departed for Vladivostok on the extreme eastern coast of Russia, and then by ship to Tsuruga, Japan. The yeshiva reopened in Kobe, Japan in March 1941. It was there, and later in Japanese-controlled Shanghai, China, that they passed the war in relative safety until moving the yeshiva to separate locations in New York and Jerusalem.
Later, the mashgiach of Mir, Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein, zt”l, recalled that extraordinary period as follows: “How much Divine counsel and planning was behind the trip from Mir to Vilna, and afterwards from Vilna to Keidan (Lithuania), and afterwards the greatest of wonders – the way we acquired the exit visas. The most wondrous thing of all, something inexplicable – that the Russians gave us permission to travel as we wished. This was completely against their nature and against their laws…yet they changed their laws and their conduct. Instead of sending ‘wicked sinners’ like us to Siberia, they were benevolent to us. They themselves didn’t understand what had come over them, as the verse states, ‘The heart of a king is like streams of water in the hand of G‑d. Wherever He wills, He will direct it’ (Mishle 21:1).”