Beginning in the tiny Galician town of Belz, Rabbi Aharon Rokeach, better known as the Belzer Rebbe, maintained his chassidic court despite the constant danger. At first, Belz was too insignificant to be awarded German scrutiny. Nonetheless, the Rebbe followed events closely, and when word came on Hoshanna Rabba that the Germans would be invading Belz the next day, he made preparations and issued instructions.
Despite the sheer panic that had seized his flock, the Belzer Rebbe calmly declared that a Day of Judgment was clearly at hand, and that full Jewish life must be practiced as long as humanly possible. To that end, he decreed that the traditional hakafos would take place that night. He ordered that wagons be loaded with everyone’s possessions, so that after the hakafos, they could all take flight.
The Chassidim rushed to do his bidding. And when that night’s emotional service was concluded, the Rebbe removed his elaborate holiday shtreimel and donned his weekday hat. “Let us put on our Exile clothing!” he declared; and with that, he and virtually all the remaining Jews of Belz, fled across the border to the Russian-occupied zone of Poland.
The Germans were incensed that the intrepid spiritual leader of Belz – known as “the Wonder Rebbe” – along withhis followers, had escaped from their clutches. They would attempt to vent their fury upon the Belzer synagogue; but this, too, inexplicably failed. For some bizarre reason, the dynamite they set would not detonate, and their torches did not succeed in destroying the building.
SS troops unable to burn down a synagogue – how could this be? This daily ritual had become a hallmark of the Nazi invasion.
Every time-tested method of wrecking and incineration was employed to no avail. In mounting fury, the Gestapo turned to the Jews themselves. The handful of unfortunates who had remained deep in hiding inside Belz were rooted out and commanded to pull apart their precious shul, brick by brick. At gunpoint, in an acrid bath of their own sweat and tears, this is what they did.
Their captors may have had their own explanations as to why standard methods of destruction proved ineffective on the Belzer shul but the Chassidim of Belz knew the truth. The legendary founder of the dynasty, Rabbi Shalom of Belz (known as the SarShalom),had personally helped build the magnificent structure, which was dedicated in 1843 and resembled an ancient fortress – with walls that were three feet thick and a seating capacity of 5,000 worshippers.
The Sar Shalom had decreed that the soaring structure be built strictly at the hands of Jewish artisans and laborers, who carried out the project with the ultimate devotion, sacrifice and tenderness. And so it was part of their beloved Rebbe’s plan – indeed, the Divine plan – that it could only be disassembled by Jews.
The Belzer Rebbe escaped from Belz to the Russian-controlled town of Skul, where the local rabbi was his nephew. The young scholar did all he could to accommodate his uncle, and the Russians did all they could to make life miserable – including their attempt to catch the Belzer Rebbe on a host of espionage, sabotage and speculation violations.
The scrutiny the Russians placed on the Rebbe all but eliminated his ability to converse with his Chassidim. Anything he said could be twisted and construed as confirmation of seditious behavior, and NKVD spies were everywhere.
After eight months in Skul, the Russians terminated their “hospitality” and offered their standard choice to hapless refugees: adoption of Russian citizenship or expulsion. The Jews shunned citizenship of a country that banned religion, rendering them candidates for Siberian exile.
Those refusing Russian citizenship were carted off to prison camps in freezing, desolate locations – convincing them that they had made the biggest mistake of their lives. Factually, the majority of those that were sent to Siberia managed to survive the war, as they were out of “Final Solution” range.
THE Belzer Rebbe wandered from town to town after Skul, welcomed nowhere until he arrived in Premishlan. There he was afforded a modicum of comfort until the Germans attacked Russia. Premishlan fell immediately, and the Nazis wasted no time setting about their priorities. Every Jew that was discovered, including the Rebbe’s oldest son, Moshe – a brilliant and revered sage – was herded into the local synagogue and the door was sealed. In one great blaze, the living and written Torah scrolls ascended Heavenward.
The Belzer Rebbe remained in hiding as feverish activity was launched to spirit him out of the region. A lot of money changed hands, and a Polish nobleman who was an official for the Germans was bribed to take the Rebbe, his brother Mordechai (the Bilgereier Rav) and attendant Nachman Hirsh to a safer location.
The Pole insisted that the passengers remove their beards and payos before boarding his car in order to disguise their identity. Other precautions were also adopted, and the foursome drove off in the middle of the night, encountering miracle after miracle. German border police, Gestapo officers and other militia were drunk, sleeping or otherwise engaged at each step along the way, enabling the car to pass from point to point undetected.
They drove through the night until the driver dozed off, resulting in an accident that totaled the car, but left the passengers with light, albeit painful, injuries. And then -unbelievably – abandoned on a desolate road in the midst of Nazi-controlled territory in the early hours of the morning, alternate transportation and lodging were acquired.
Word reached the Tarnov ghetto that the Rebbe was injured, and a team was activated to dress his wounds and whisk him off to the tiny village of Vicziza. It was hoped that the insignificance of this obscure town would afford a modicum of shelter. This tiny village, however, had a major problem named “Spitz.”
Although Jewish, Spitz had sold his soul to the Gestapo, and it was assumed that he would reveal the Rebbe’s hiding places. The opposite, however, was the case. Spitz secured work permits for the Belzer Rebbe and his brother – documents tantamount to a new lease on life.
As this was transpiring, enterprising Eliezar Landau assumed the leadership of the slave labor camp in the Bochniya ghetto, some 35 kilometers southeast of Krakow. Landau’s sole motivation was to save the lives of his brethren, and he was modestly successful at this goal – acquiring valuable Nazi connections along the way.
Landau figured that as long as Jews were providing a valuable service, they would – at least temporarily – be kept alive. He also reasoned that the Rebbe would be far better off under his control in Bochniya than under the aegis of a Gestapo collaborator.
The Belzer Rebbe was protected under Landau’s watchful eye and crucial bribes deftly applying his connections to smuggle the Rebbe in and out of Bochniya whenever an Aktion was planned or the conditions proved too dangerous to remain there.
Yet this was but a temporary solution, as Bochniya would undoubtedly be liquidated as all the ghettos before it. An immediate plan would have to be activated to whisk the Rebbe out of harm’s way.
Rabbi Michoel Baer Weissmandl, one of the most famous and saintly heroes of the Holocaust, developed an arduous escape route that entailed traversing the Carpathian Mountains. Simultaneously, a Hungarian army officer was hired for $5,000 to implement a different scheme. The Rebbe opted for the second plan, which would involve him and his brother posing as Hungarian generals being driven home to Budapest.
The masquerade worked without a hitch all the way to Hungary. Other contingencies would have to be implemented to get the Rebbe from what eventually became Nazi-occupied Hungary to the Land of Israel.
Chodesh tov – have a pleasant month!
Rabbi Hanoch Teller