One of the leading chasidic rebbes in pre-war Europe was R’ Avraham Mordechai Alter, zt”l, also known as the Imrei Emes, the third Rebbe of the dynasty of Ger. The Imrei Emes held this position from 1905 until his death in 1948. He was one of the founders of the Agudas Yisroel in Poland and was influential in establishing a network of Jewish schools there. It is claimed that at one time he led over 200,000 chasidim. During World War II, R’ Avraham Mordechai was a prime target of the Nazi authorities in Poland. Through a miraculous chain of events, he managed to escape Warsaw at the outset of the war and reached Italy. From there, he boarded a ship bound for Palestine in 1940 with several of his sons and began to slowly rebuild his chasidic dynasty.
The months he spent hiding in the Warsaw Ghetto were fraught with great peril, but once the Gerrer Rebbe was ingeniously whisked out of the city of Warsaw, from right under the nose of the Gestapo, he managed to cross over the border from Poland into Italy, where his escaping group was able to rest in the port city of Trieste. But they were not totally “out of the woods,” so to speak, yet. In Trieste, the Rebbe and his family had to wait for British immigration certificates that would allow them entry into Palestine – documents that should already have arrived. However, a month after the outbreak of the war, the British had halted the granting of certificates to Jewish immigrants coming from Nazi-held territory. Their absurd pretext was that such immigrants might be Nazi spies.
Two days after their arrival in Italy, on Erev Shabbos, R’ Yitzchok Meir Levin zt”l, the renowned Agudist and son-in-law of the Rebbe, sent a telegram to a group of rescue activists in Yerushalayim informing them that the certificates for passage had not been received. The telegram arrived on Shabbos, and the Gerrer chasidim who received it walked to the home of the chief rabbi of Palestine, R’ Yitzchok Isaac Herzog, zt”l, and asked him if he could possibly intervene on behalf of the Imrei Emes and his family.
Of course R’ Herzog agreed, and early the following morning he went directly to the home of the British high commissioner for Palestine. With great emotion, he explained that his teacher, the Gerrer Rebbe, a leader of hundreds of thousands, had escaped from Nazi-occupied Poland and was at present in Italy. R’ Herzog requested that the high commissioner make an exception and issue the 10 entry certificates needed for the Rebbe and his entire family.
The high commissioner listened sympathetically to R’ Herzog and said that if it was up to him he would issue the certificates immediately. But since it was Sunday, the office was closed and there was no one to type up the certificates. First thing Monday morning, he said with a patronizing smile, he would be glad to do whatever he could to help.
R’ Herzog smiled back and said, “That’s not a problem. If you don’t have anyone to type up the certificates, I’ll type them up myself!” And to the utter astonishment of the high commissioner, the dignified-looking chief rabbi sat down at the desk and, for the next hour, proceeded to peck at the typewriter keys until all 10 certificates were completed.
It was no easy feat to get the certificates to Italy under the precarious conditions of the time. During the next two weeks many telegrams were sent back and forth between Trieste and Jerusalem, as information was exchanged about the whereabouts of the entry certificates.
Finally, just before the holiday of Pesach, several of the visas arrived, including that of the Imrei Emes. It was decided that any further delay was dangerous, and those who had received their immigration certificates should board the next ship and leave immediately. Even the fact that the next ship, the Marco Polo, was scheduled to sail on Chol Hamoed Pesach, and that it was small and uncomfortable, did not matter.
Thus the Gerrer Rebbe and all those who already had immigration certificates boarded the Marco Polo during Chol Hamoed. Twenty-four days after leaving Warsaw, the Imrei Emes reached the shores of Eretz Yisrael.