Founded in 1815 in the small Polish town of Mir, just twenty miles from the Russian border, the Mirrer Yeshiva, one of the most renowned centers of Jewish higher learning in Europe, had risen to many challenges in its history—organizational,
academic, and theological. But nothing had quite prepared its 300 students and faculty members for the odyssey it was about to under take—a desperate 15,000-mile flight during World War II across Russian Siberia, Japan, and China.
In April 1939, Moses Zupnik was a 23-year-old German-born student preparing to resume his studies, which he had begun three years before, at the Mirrer Yeshiva. His studies had been interrupted by travel and work as a salesman, but now he was eager to resume the young scholar’s life with one of the towering figures of the Talmudic tradition.
However, the yeshiva, or seminary, at Mir was particularly vulnerable to the winds of war beginning to sweep through Europe. When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, the yeshiva’s staff and students as a body relocated to Vilna, in neighboring Lithuania, and from there to Kedainiai, 27 miles from Kovno.
Here Zupnik and the other young scholars resumed their studies. The interlude, however, was to be short-lived, as the Soviets occupied all of Lithuania. The yeshiva community was confronting, on the one hand, the Nazis who wanted to kill them and, on the other hand, the Soviets who would likely not let them study Torah or worship God. One wise student, Leib Malin, convincingly urged faculty and students that the hour had come to leave Europe altogether.
The Mirrer Yeshiva determined to leave as a group. Moses Zupnik and several other students traveled from Kedainiai to Kovno, which was then the provisional capital of Lithuania, to obtain the required documents for the entire student and faculty body. The paperwork problem was immense: each of the students needed a visa to exit Lithuania, a transit visa, and, finally, an entry visa to a country that would take them in. Affidavits for entry visas to the United States, funds for transportation, and support along the way also had to be in hand.
Few of the students had any of these documents, and securing them was rendered even more complicated and desperate because, except for a few students such as Zupnik, who had a Polish passport, nearly all of the students were without passports or other identifying papers.
In the summer of 1940, very few consulates remained operating in Lithuania, but there were skeleton staffs in the consulates of Great Britain, Japan, and Holland . A representative of the students, Jacob Eiderman, prevailed on the British consul in charge of Polish affairs to produce more than three hundred temporary documents in lieu of a passport. Extraordinarily, the official produced these documents, each carrying no expiration date, without ever having seen the individual students.
Now the challenge became to find a country to issue documents accepting more than three hundred people at the end of the journey. Another fortuitous connection was made. The Dutch consul in Kovno, Jan Zwartendijk, was persuaded
to stamp the passports with the phrase “Valid only for Curaçao,” thus arranging for entry for the students to the Dutch controlled island of Curaçao, in the Caribbean.
The final paperwork challenge became how to obtain transit visas from Japan, for the yeshiva’s students and teachers would have to travel through Japan—and likely remain there for some time—before going on to Curaçao.
In late summer 1940, time was especially critical because the Soviets had announced that in three weeks they would remove all the remaining consular officials from Lithuania. However, they indicated to the Mirrer community that if transit visas could be obtained from Japan, they would honor the documents and allow the Yeshiva to travel cast through Soviet territory. It was a large “if” indeed.
Taking all the documents with him, Moses Zupnik borrowed a suit from one of his rabbis and stood on line to appeal to the Japanese consul, Chiune Sugihara. Because of large crowds attempting to see Sugihara, Zupnik was unable to make his appeal.
Undeterred, he returned the following day with a friend, bribed a guard, and was brought into the consul’s offices. When he told Sugihara’s assistant that he was requesting more than three hundred transit visas , the man declared that it was impossible. Zupnik prevailed on him for a face-to-face meeting with Sugihara. At first, Sugihara questioned the plan. Then he asked for assurances that there were funds for transportation and accommodations for the long trip and the sojourn in Japan. Zupnik did his best to reassure him.
To plan and finance the institution’s escape, eminent scholar Rabbi Abraham Kalmanowitz flew via Sweden to England and then to New York. There he began to work around—and against—the clock to raise large sums of money for transportation for his hundreds of students and teachers. In New York, Rabbi Kalmanowitz successfully appealed to such sympathetic American Jews as businessman Jacob Kestenbaum, who, on an individual basis, had already been sending affidavits of support and funds for transportation to the Mirrer Yeshiva students.
Although his government advised him to reject the Mirrer Yeshiva’s request, Sugihara made a personal decision to grant the transit visas. “I cannot allow these people to die,” he said later. “Whatever punishment may be imposed upon me, I know I should follow my conscience.”
Although Sugihara had only just met Moses Zupnik, he accepted the student’s offer to assist the consular office with the issuing of visas. For the next several weeks, Zupnik worked day and night to help Sugihara’s staff to prepare and to stamp visas, not only for the Mirrer Yeshiva students but also for many other refugees. Moses Zupnik and the Mirrer Yeshiva “boys” cabled Rabbi Kalmanowitz for the travel money, and the rabbi was able to send forty thousand dollars to Kovno. In groups of forty to fifty, the students and their teachers made their way through Minsk and Moscow, and through Siberia to Vladivostok. Fifteen of their number were arrested by Russian police in Vladivostok; more money was made available for use as bribes, and the arrested were freed. They made their way with the rest of the Mirrer Yeshiva by ship to Kobe, Japan. Moses Zupnik arrived there on the first day of Hanukkah, 1940.
In Kobe, the local Sephardic community, Jews originally from Baghdad, made one of their synagogues available to the Yeshiva students, and here they were finally able to reconstitute their school and resume their studies. But the journey was by no means over.
The odyssey now took a new turn when the Japanese forced the entire Mirrer community to relocate to Shanghai. During the remaining years of the war in that Japanese-occupied city, conditions were harsh but tolerable. A leader of the local Sephardic community offered them the use of a synagogue. Rabbi Kalmanowitz was able to send funds so no member of the community starved. Moses Zupnik and the other Mirrer students set about the business of a yeshiva: they studied. Since they had brought with them on their long journey only individual tractates of the Talmud, and full sets were needed for study, they arranged for entire sets of the Talmud to be printed, as well as other necessary books. Thousands of Jewish books were thus printed in Shanghai.
When the war ended, nearly all of the yeshiva students relocated to the United States, while one group left for Israel. Thousands of miles from the town of Mir, the yeshivas were formally reconstituted in two new homes—in Brooklyn, New York, and in Jerusalem.
In 1984, Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem awarded Chiune Sugihara the title “Righteous Among the Nations” for his courageous assistance to the Mirrer Yeshiva and other Jewish refugees during World War II.