Founders – Keren Hayeled

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The Amazing Story of how Rabbi and Rebbetzin Godlewsky were Saved from the Holocaust through Japan and China!
A Real Marriage or a Fictitious One?
  1. Historical Background

As a result of the infamous Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement, Germany and Russia signed a non-aggression pact and subsequently invaded, divided and annexed Poland among themselves. Russia then 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 thus 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 – even 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.

With Heavenly help, Japan was then open to refugees. However, first one had to escape the Russian dungeon, a hopeless proposition. The borders of the Soviet Union were closed; 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 of the leaders, who promoted the Soviet Union as a “paradise on earth.” The communist state, established to follow the famous philosophies of Marx and Engels, 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. Their very desire to leave was a declaration that the “perfect society” was not perfect, and there were cracks in the facade of the “brilliant, blissful” new world that, according to their creed, had been created. While modern, western nations view the choice to emigrate as a basic human right, in the Soviet Union, emigration equaled treason, an unforgivable sin.

Because of the initial alliance between Russia and Germany (before Germany later turned against and attacked Russia), an exception to the prohibition of emigration was made for German citizens. The Russian government granted them permission to leave, together with their families. Therefore, many Jews who had Lithuanian or Polish citizenship asked yeshiva students with German citizenship to arrange fictitious marriages with their daughters. Indeed, many girls were saved in this way.

  1. Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Godlewsky

At the beginning of the war in 1940 (5700), Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Godlewsky, zt”l, was a student of the yeshiva in the town of Telšiai Lithuania, called “Telshe” in Russian or “Telz” in Yiddish, from which the name Yeshivas Telz was derived. Since he had been born in Germany, he and his prospective family (such as a spouse, even if not a German national) would have the right to unrestricted travel.

Official document identifying R. Godlewsky as a student of Yeshivas Telz.

One day before mincha, a member of the community approached him to ask if he would be willing in principle to enter such a fictitious marriage in order to save a Lithuanian Jewish girl. He answered in the affirmative and proceeded to pray mincha. As Rabbi Godlewsky told the story, immediately after giving his agreement he had second thoughts about the possibility of “marrying” a stranger. He beseeched G-d, “Holy One, blessed be He, help me find my true match so that she should be the one I take with me!”

Wonder of wonders, right after mincha he received a telegram from his dear friend, R. Avraham Neuhaus (who later became the Rabbi’s mechutan), who had until very recently learned with him in the yeshiva and was now teaching in the “Yavneh” Beis Yakov School in Slobodka, Lithuania. The text read something like this, “I have heard that you are interested in a shidduch. I have a suggestion, a virtuous girl with wonderful midos. Come to Slobodka to meet her.” Rabbi Godlewsky approached his Rosh Yeshiva, the gaon, R. Avraham Yitzchak Bloch, ztvk”l, for advice. The rosh yeshiva gave him a warm blessing and even acquired a new hat and tie for him. Rabbi Godlewski met Miss Rachel Zissel Abramovitz in the afternoon, and they were married that very evening in the month of Adar.

Letter from the Rosh Yeshiva, R. Avraham Yitzchak Bloch, wishing mazal tov upon R. Godlewsky’s engagement.

  1. Escape to Japan with Yeshivas Mir

Yeshuas Hashem k’heref ayin – “The salvation of Hashem comes unexpectedly, in the blink of an eye.” By that time, the Mir yeshiva which had earlier fled from Russian occupied Poland into Lithuania, became trapped again after the Russian takeover of Lithuania. It was then that the Mir yeshiva was planning its famous flee from Lithuania. Under the pretext of being Polish refugees in flight, they claimed exemption from the Soviet prohibition on Lithuanian emigration.  Permission was given on condition that they receive entry in a destination country.

Through a most curios course of events, the Jewish members of the Mir Yeshiva received visas from none other than the Japanese embassy in Lithuania. What made this particularly “odd” was that Japan was saving Jews in its embassy in Lithuania, which was actually a cover to spy on Russia, while Japan was simultaneously strongly allied to Nazi Germany.  Thus, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Godlewsky, who were granted permission to travel as Germans, joined the fleeing members of the Mir, who were granted permission to flee as Polish refugees, and boarded a train of the Trans-Siberian railway on their way to Japan!

Official document, registering the marriage of Rabbi and Rebbetzin Godlewsky in Russian and Lithuanian.

The book, “Hazricha b’Peatei Kedem,” describes the miraculous events of those times, particularly how the yeshiva students, originally from Poland but now Russian citizens, received exit visas:

It is amazing to note that at first there were only a precious few who decided, perhaps as an act of desperation, to apply for permission to leave. Then, strangely enough the “crazy idea” began to spread among the yeshiva community.

Fierce resistance was not long in coming. Those who wrote their families in Poland of their plans received anxious letters from parents and relatives, who had hurriedly written to warn them of the inherent dangers. They begged and pleaded; this would surely be a suicidal journey!

Puzzlement reigned among the refugees – terrible fear on the one hand and unbridled yearning on the other. It was as if an invisible hand had cast into their hearts the insane notion that it somehow made sense to approach ferocious, wild animals for aid…

Among the wondrous events of this episode that helped tip the scales was the goral HaGR”A, performed by one of the leaders of the yeshiva world at the time, a holy, G-d-fearing talmid chachom. He decided to use this astounding tool, with the hope of receiving heavenly guidance in making the impossible choice. The goral or lot was cast using a Sefer Tanach, according to rules and traditions dating back to the days of the Vilna Gaon and his students.

Those present waited in trembling silence while the sefer was opened. The fateful moment had come. They knew that a verse was about to emerge from the Scriptures indicating with certainty the proper direction they should take. Should they sit and wait in the face of certain peril or courageously attempt to flee the Soviet Union, despite of the considerable potential danger of exposure by applying for visas?

The astonishing answer came quickly. Remarkably, the words were clear and indisputable. The lot fell on the verse, “And I will carry you on the wings of eagles and I will bring you to Me” (Shemos 19:4). The instructions were clear: “The Holy One, blessed be He, will guard you on your way. He will provide you with Divine protection and bring you safely to the decreed destination”.

Russian exit visa with Japanese stamp.

All doubts disappeared as if waved away by a magic wand. The divine directive was clear as day. Hesitation and doubt were replaced by renewed hope and enthusiasm. The members of the group that witnessed the casting of the lot were certain of the steps that Divine Providence had planned for them. The next morning they set out determinedly for the train to Kovno, Lithuania and the emigration office. The Holy One’s “wings of eagles” would be their surety, and they would merit Divine protection while in the lion’s den itself.

Early in the month of Teves, the answers began to come from the Soviet Office of Emigration. The requests for exit visas had been approved!

There are miracles that unfold slowly; the light is revealed bit by bit. On the bulletin board of the secret police in Kovno were posted the names of the first group of refugees that would receive exit visas; they were all students of Yeshivas Mir. These fortunate recipients were still trying to digest the fantastic news – to convince themselves that it was not a dream – when the next lists appeared, one after the other. Every day or two, more names were released of those whose visas had been approved. Yeshiva students streamed to the police station day and night, anxious to see whether their names were among those who had received the coveted verdict: Life!

Each one could recount his own personal miracle, which had happened before his very eyes over the course of those few harrowing weeks. The entire Mir Yeshiva, including all the rabbonim and their families – a group of about 350 people – received visas to Japan. The individual miracles accumulated into a great communal miracle, the wondrous salvation of an entire yeshiva!

Yeshivas Mir had served as the “canary in the coal mine.” The astonishing report spread like lightning throughout the areas where refugees were found. There was no need for any type of media to carry the thrilling news. Crowds of hopeful people poured into the police offices in Vilna and Kovno, praying that they would be among those to benefit from the rare and unique serendipity. It was clear to all that they had witnessed a moment of Heavenly mercy, a monumental event totally disconnected from logic and normal reality. It was as if the “laws of nature” of the Soviet Union had stopped working.

The Iron Curtain had been temporarily parted, as if lifted by a Hand on High. For a short time, the cruel principles that had guided the actions of the Communist regime for the previous 23 years were suspended. No one had ever thought it possible to leave the Soviet Union until the Hand of Providence took over. Hashem openly influenced the cruel hearts of the Russian ministers, directing their choices and their actions as if they were no more than pawns on a chessboard.

Later, the mashgiach, R. 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 Kidan, 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 these 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 streams of water in the hand of Hashem. Wherever He wills, He will direct it’ (Mishle 21:1).”

  1. Rebbetzin Rachel Zissel Godlewsky

As mentioned above, Rebbetzin Godlewsky was from the Abramovitz family of Slobodka, Lithuania. R. Eliyahu and Sarah Abramovitz were G-d-fearing, virtuous people, noteworthy in their fulfillment of the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim, welcoming guests. To make a living, they operated a bakery, but when the Communists took over they seized the business. In their cynical kindness, the commissars allowed the Abramovitzes to continue working as employees, but only until they found appropriate replacements. Their legitimately accumulated savings were heartlessly confiscated by the local Soviet workers’ council. Nevertheless, the Abramovitz family was blessed with powerful faith that gave them the necessary strength to overcome all of their troubles. They maintained the same unwavering dedication to the Torah and mitzvos as in the early days, and they continued to excel in the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim.

Every Shabbos, after Shacharis prayers, R. Eliayhu continued his practice of inviting guests to his home – not one or two, but anyone who would yield to his plea to join him for the Shabbos meal. Even during the week, he would bring travelers home, inviting them in “just for a cup of hot soup.” Huge pots were always cooking on the stove in his home with hot food ready for guests; the most remarkable pot was one designed for army use, full of nourishing hot soup. The guests who enjoyed his hospitality were sure that the soup kitchen must have been funded by some large Jewish relief organization. How astounded they were when they learned afterwards that the burden of the entire wonderful operation rested on the weak shoulders of this one brave Jew, who forged forward in spite of his tenuous financial situation. Every family member served the guests cheerfully, and when they would ask about the cost, the family would answer, “Don’t worry, we have enough”.

The future Rebbetzin Godlewsky was well-known for her acts of kindness. Even as a young girl she would collect food items in her town to distribute to the poor and needy. She continued this practice her entire life. All of the downtrodden people found in her home an open door and a listening ear. Her house was always full of unfortunate people who found relief from their misery there.

More than once she bought a new garment for herself for yom tov or a family celebration only to give it away to a poor woman. “Baruch Hashem, I have all I need,” she would say, “We must make others happy!”

When the members of the Mir yeshiva came to Slobodka, the family members gave their beds to the yeshiva students. And when this wasn’t sufficient, they made make-shift beds by taking down the doors of their house, putting them on boxes and spreading blankets over them. They themselves slept on the floor of the bakery.

Rebbetzin Godlewsky with the girls of Keren Hayeled in the early days of the institution.

May the souls of Rabbi and Rebbetzin Godlewsky be enveloped in eternal life!