Forty years ago, sitting in my office in Washington on a Thursday, I was jolted by a telephone call that informed me that my mother, a”h, was suddenly taken from us during a visit she and my father, zt”l, made to Yerushalayim. Because El Al unexpectedly advanced its flight to Israel that night, I could not even attend her levaya. My farewell came 30 days later at the hakamas matzeva on Har Hazeisim.
Growing up in our home in New York, I knew she had countless friends who admired and loved her. But I was astounded to hear from much younger folks how her warmth and sage advice had influenced their lives. She embodied the line of Eishet Chayil that reads, “Piha patcha b’chachma.”
All who knew her benefited from her wisdom. In fact, her wisdom saved thousands of Jewish lives. Because of her foresight and determination, our immediate family escaped the worst of the Shoah, and there are now thousands of Jews living in the United States, Europe, and Israel who owe their lives to my mother’s persistence. She was too modest during her all-too-brief lifetime, however, to seek public acclaim for what she had accomplished.
She was born in Baligrod, Poland, in 1911 to Naftali Sternheim and Rachel Lieber Sternheim. Naftali left Galicia at a young age and took up residence in Amsterdam. He prospered there so grandly that he and his family were awarded Dutch citizenship – no mean feat at the time.
Naftali remained a totally frum Jew and gave both his daughter (known then as Pepi) and her younger brother Leo (Levi) thorough Torah educations. My mother studied at “Asher’s,” the well-known Jewish European boarding school for girls. She also received a rounded secular education, even taking classes as the University of Berlin. She spoke Dutch and German fluently.
While in Amsterdam, Naftali Sternheim remained kept abreast of news in Galician Poland. He admired what he read of the accomplishments of Aharon Lewin, Hy”d – the rabbi of Rzeszow (“Reisha”) – who had been elected by the Jews of Poland to the Polish legislature (the “Sejm”) and whose published original Torah lessons and responsa had achieved international renown. (Rav Lewin was the author of HaDrash VeHa’iyun, Birchas Aharon, Avnei Chafetz, and other works.)
Naftali Sternheim knew that the Reisha Rav had a son Yitzchak who, besides being a talmid chacham, had earned a reputation at a young age by authoring articles in Polish, Hebrew, and Yiddish, and by studying for a law degree at the University of Lvov.
Rav Meir Shapiro, zt”l – the originator of Daf Yomi – visited Amsterdam on a fund-raising trip for his path-breaking Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin. When he met Naftali Sternheim (who doubtless gave him a substantial contribution), Naftali told him he had an accomplished daughter who would be a proper match for the Reisha Rav’s brilliant son.
Rav Meir Shapiro and the Reisha Rav were very close. Both had been elected to the Sejm, and they were in frequent contact. When he returned from his trip, Rav Shapiro suggested the shidduch to Rav Aharon Lewin.
Rav Shapiro was tragically niftar at an early age and never made it to my parents’ chassunah. After their marriage, my parents settled in Lodz because Naftali Sternheim had invested in textile mills there. Soon after they took residence there, my father, already renowned, was elected by the Jews of Lodz to the City Council. (He recounted his experiences confronting the Lodz Council’s notorious anti-Semites in his essays titled “MiBoker LaErev” published by Mossad HaRav Kook.) I was born in Lodz in January 1936.
My mother was an avid reader in Dutch and German. (Since my father didn’t know Dutch and my mother spoke no Polish before her marriage, their common language – until they both learned English – was German.) She followed closely what was happening in Germany as Hitler assumed power.
In the fall of 1939, months after Kristallnacht, the press speculated that Hitler might invade Poland. Exemplifying the admirable path that Rabbi Shimon extols in Pirkei Avot, “roeh es ha-nolad – properly anticipating the future,” she foretold that a Nazi invasion of Poland would be a catastrophe for Jews. I often heard in my youth that my mother made my father promise that, notwithstanding his official position in Lodz, he would, if Hitler invaded, immediately transport our entire family eastward.
The Sternheim family were visiting my parents in Lodz on September 1, the date of Hitler’s invasion. My parents decided we should all travel immediately by train to the border with Lithuania, cross it, and take refuge in Vilna. (It took only one week for the Nazis to reach Lodz.)
Naftali Sternheim thought he should first return to Amsterdam to collect diamonds he had there and then join us in Lithuania. He took a commercial flight to Amsterdam. Relatives reported to me years later that they witnessed diamonds sewn into the lining of his coat in Amsterdam. He then took a train that was believed to stop at a Swiss border point where Jews could be smuggled into Switzerland.
He never rejoined the family, however. He was delivered by Swiss border guards to the Germans and murdered in Auschwitz. My brother Naftali, born in the United States, and now a talmid chacham active in teaching Torah and community service in Boro Park, is named after him.
From the contested Polish-Lithuanian border point, my parents, my grandmother and uncle, and I walked through a forest into Lithuania. I often heard in my childhood that, as a three-year-old, I was carried through the woods in the middle of the night and warned that wolves would devour me if I made a sound. I obeyed and remained silent. And so we arrived in Vilna, joining the many Polish Jews who had fled Poland as soon as Hitler invaded.
It was in Lithuania that my mother’s foresight and persistence led to a major breakthrough that is now recognized by historians. Seeing the “nolad” – what was in store – she sensed that Hitler’s appetite wouldn’t be sated with Poland and that Lithuania would soon come under his rule. She therefore began searching for some other destination for our family.
There was, however, no country in 1940 that was ready to issue visas to Jews fleeing Poland. Furthermore, by marrying a Polish citizen, my mother had lost her Dutch nationality and was now a Polish citizen. Her mother and brother Leo, however, remained Dutch citizens, so my mother approached the Dutch honorary consul in Kaunas (“Kovno”), a businessman named Jan Zwartendijk. (Kovno was a short distance from Vilna.) Could we travel to the Dutch East Indies, to Java, which seemed in 1940 to be a harbor safe from the Nazis?
On instructions from his superior in the Netherlands’ foreign office, Zwartendijk told my mother that only Dutch citizens had the legal right to enter the Dutch colony. Foreigners would not be issued visas because conditions in the Dutch East Indies were unsettled. Only my grandmother and uncle would be admitted.
My mother pursued her goal. The Dutch ambassador in Riga was L.P.J. deDecker. She wrote a letter to him, explaining our plight and asking him whether Polish citizens related to Dutch citizens could be admitted to the Dutch colony. DeDecker replied that the Netherlands had stopped issuing visas to the Dutch East Indies. My mother persisted in a second letter. She was, after all, a former Dutch citizen. Was there no Dutch colony where she would be welcome?
DeDecker answered her letter. The Dutch West Indies, including Curacao, could allow her entry if she received permission from the governor of Curacao. Here my mother’s ingenuity again came into play. She asked deDecker in a third letter whether he would endorse her Polish passport with the declaration that no visa was needed for entry to Surinam or Curacao, but omit any reference to the need for authorization of the governor. DeDecker replied that she should send him her passport. She did.
Polish passport No. 907496, issued to Pessla Lewin, came back to Vilna by mail with an endorsement of the Dutch ambassador dated July 11, 1940, declaring in French that the admission of foreigners to Surinam, Curacao, and other Dutch possessions “en Amerique” (in America) did not require a visa. (Photos of the relevant pages are reproduced on page 221 of my father’s book Remember the Days of Old published in 1994. The original passport is lost.)
My mother then traveled to Kovno with her endorsed Polish passport and our valid Lithuanian safe-conduct travel document, a “Leidimas.” She asked honorary consul Zwartendijk to copy deDecker’s declaration onto the “Leidimas.” Viewing it as an instruction from his superior – the Dutch ambassador in the region – Zwartendijk copied the notation verbatim on July 22, 1940.
My mother and her brother Leo then proceeded to the Japanese consul in Kovno, Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara. On July 26, 1940, Consul Sugihara wrote, in Japanese characters, on my parents’ “Leidimas” and on the travel documents of my grandmother and uncle, the first Japanese transit visas issued to Jews fleeing Poland purportedly en route to the Dutch West Indies.
The list maintained in the Tokyo foreign ministry of Sugihara visas lists as No. 16, 17, and 18 visas issued to Rachel Sternheim (my grandmother), citizen of the Netherlands, Isak Levin (my father), citizen of Poland, and Levi Sternheim (my uncle), citizen of the Netherlands.
My father’s visa included my mother and me as a four-year-old nestled on her shoulder. I still have my parents’ “Leidimas,” and it will remain a family treasure. (When Nobuki Sugihara, Chiune Sugihara’s only living son, visited New York two years ago, I showed it to him at a public gathering. Japanese news photographers snapped our picture exhibiting it, and Nobuki took a photo of it for his own records.)
The refugee Jews in Vilna, including future Israeli Minister of Religion Zerach Warhaftig, promptly heard of this avenue of escape from my uncle Leo, whose chavrusa at the Telshe Yeshiva was Nathan Gutwirth. They hurried to Kovno where, according to the autobiography of Sugihara’s wife, a crowd of Jews surrounded the Japanese consulate on July 27, 1940, the day after our visas were issued.
Sugihara was instructed by the Japanese foreign ministry not to issue these transit visas, but he did so in violation of that instruction, qualifying him as a Yad Vashem “Righteous Gentile.” Jan Zwartendijk, who endorsed many travel documents with deDecker’s language (albeit with a rubber-stamp so that he didn’t have to write each long-hand), was also accorded that title when many Sugihara beneficiaries, including me, wrote to Yad Vashem.
In total, over the course of a month, before being recalled from his post at the end of August, Sugihara wrote in Japanese characters 2,139 transit visas for Jews seeking shelter from the Nazis.
Many of these visas were, as was ours, for a family. It is fair to say that at least 6,000 refugees were rescued with Sugihara visas. Now – 80 years later, counting descendants of Sugihara beneficiaries who had large families – there may be more than 100,000 Jewish lives that can be credited to the Zwartendijk-Sugihara effort.
Our family traveled from Vilna to Moscow and then, by the Trans-Siberian Railroad, to Vladivostok. The Soviet paradise miraculously honored Sugihara’s visas and allowed us and other Jewish refugees (which included, according to my father’s report, 350 rabbinical students and 85 Mirrer Yeshiva rabbis and talmidim) to go by ship to Japan.
My father reports that the Jewish community of Kobe then had about 70 families. They formed a committee to care for the refugees and rented homes in which the refugees could stay. Many more recipients of Sugihara visas soon followed.
My earliest memory is of Japan, living in an apartment that had been leased for refugee Jews. We were there only a few months before my father received permission for our immediate family to come to the United States. Agudath Israel and Chabad had both put him on a list of distinguished rabbis.
My grandmother and uncle were denied entry to the United States, and they traveled to the Dutch East Indies. My grandmother survived the war in a Japanese enemy alien camp, but my uncle died wearing a Dutch military uniform on an island off the coast.
My mother settled comfortably into the United States. She loved America for its freedom and culture. She quickly embraced its language, its literature, and its museums, while retaining the commitment to Torah and mitzvos that she had learned at home and that was encouraged by my father, a central figure in the Agudath Israel World Organization. She methodically wrote out and studied English-language phrases and idioms in order to converse comfortably in English.
She never boasted of her heroic efforts that had saved thousands of Jewish lives. She left the limelight to my father, who wrote vigorously in Yiddish about “Churban Europa,” edited seven volumes in Hebrew titled “Eleh Ezkerah” containing the biographies of kedoshim, and fought tirelessly for every Jewish cause both during the war and in the decades that followed.
Although my mother often recounted our foray through the forest from Poland to Lithuania, she never detailed her conversations with Zwartendijk or Sugihara. I foolishly never asked. Years after she was gone, my father first described, in one of his many published books, the wisdom, ingenuity, and persistence of Peppy Lewin, a”h, that should forever be chronicled in Jewish history books.