The city of Nice lies on France’s Mediterranean coast. In ordinary years it is a pleasant seaside resort, but during WWII it was flooded with refugees, many of them Jews, fleeing the Nazi war machine.

The Zrakloplin Hotel was occupied almost entirely by Jewish refugees. Despite the shortage of space, they set aside one room to serve as a BeisMidrash. Yaakov Moshe, the son of one of the local Rabbis, would often visit that BeisMidrash on Shabbos, happy to become acquainted with Jews from other regions.

One Shabbos afternoon, he noticed that while the entire congregation had sat down for the ShaloshSeudos meal, a person who he had not seen before remained standing by the window reciting Tehillim.

His countenance was dignified and his expression, calm. With intense concentration, but with no outward signs of emotion, he read King David’s words of praise and supplication.

For several weeks the scene repeated itself. Yaakov Moshe would arrive at the BeisMidrash late Shabbos afternoon and watch the visitor’s composed recitation of Tehillim. In a world turned topsy-turvy by violence and war, here was a man who remained tranquil. Apparently, he was also a refugee. Why else would he be in Nice? But he did not appear disturbed or flustered. On the contrary, he radiated the confidence and serenity that stems from inner peace.

Yaakov Moshe drew strength from watching him. After several weeks, he inquired about his identity and was told that the visitor was the son-in-law of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Tidal Waves of Transition

The Nazi invasion of Poland in 5699 (1939) plunged the entire Jewish world into turmoil and disarray. Not only did six million lose their lives, but the entire face of the Jewish community changed. The shtetl andthe other insular Jewish communities of Eastern Europe disappeared and, most significantly, the way of thinking that had defined Jewish life for centuries became a thing of the past.

In particular, the Lubavitch movement was in the midst of a transition. Shortly after the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (the Rebbe Rayatz), left Russia in 5688 (1927), he settled in Poland. There he dedicated his efforts to founding yeshivos and schools. In this manner, he created a new Lubavitch center and energized Polish Jewry as a whole. And then came the Nazi invasion. Only a handful of his students remained.

Similarly, for the Rebbe as an individual, this was a period of metamorphosis. After his marriage to Rebbitzin Chayah Mushka, the Previous Rebbe’s daughter, in 5689 (1928), he had led a private life, first settling in Berlin, and then, with the Nazis’ ascent to power, moving to Paris. Although studying in university, his energies were primarily devoted to deepening his own Torah studies outside the spotlight of the chassidic community. As the Germans advanced toward France, all this came to an end.

Ultimately, from the ashes of the holocaust, fresh vibrancy arose. The Jewish community established new centers, primarily in America. Lubavitch, under the guidance of the Previous Rebbe, played a major role in inspiring these efforts. For his clarion call, “America is not different,” spurred the establishment of Torah institutions that would reach out to Jews in all phases of American life. And to a large extent, the success of this endeavor was nurtured by the Rebbe who upon his arrival in the U.S. assumed a leadership role, heading the outreach efforts of the Lubavitcher movement under the Previous Rebbe’s direction, and, eventually ascending to the leadership of the community in 5710 (1950).

Kabbalah and Chassidus explain that every process of radical transition has three phases: yesh, ayin, and yesh. We begin with an entity. There is a retraction to a state of void, and then a new entity emerges. Now, the state of void is not utter emptiness. Instead, it is a time when everything reverts to the essence. In an individual sense, as one form is being shed and another is still to be assumed, a person’s inner core — a level above both yesh and ayin — comes out.

The Rebbe points to such a process in a letter he wrote to Dov Padover, one of the refugees with whom the Rebbe shared experiences in Vichy and Nice in these war-torn years.

When a person is uprooted from the setting to which he has become acclimated, in the time before he becomes accustomed to his new situation and responsibilities, he reveals patterns of behavior that reflect his inner nature without the ornaments and embellishments that society demands.

Very frequently, these patterns of behavior reveal the hidden good within this person, a good that perhaps he himself was not aware of because it was covered with a layer of conventional manners. He will be fortunate if he does not allow these patterns of behavior to become hidden again when he reaches a tranquil situation.

Such spiritual concepts apply — and to a much greater extent (qualitatively and quantitatively) — when a person is found in a situation which requires mesirus nefesh. For hidden and essential powers are revealed in such a situation and it becomes possible to change one’s life from one extreme to the other.1

In light of the above, the few details we have of the Rebbe’s life during this epoch are telling. In a stable, ordered setting, a person sets goals for his Divine service and strives to achieve them, acting according to the dictates of reason and logic. In a time of crisis, his conduct stems from a source deeper than the mind. He acts in a particular manner, because this is who he is. He could not think of acting in any other way.

Between Warsaw and Paris

The Nazi invasion of Poland in the month of Elul, 5699 (1939), catapulted the international Lubavitch community into urgent activity. The Previous Rebbe (the Rebbe Rayatz), was staying in Warsaw at the time and his very life was in danger. Immediately, efforts were undertaken to rescue him from the battle-scarred city and enable his emigration to the U.S.

At the outset, the Rebbe served as the intermediary between the Previous Rebbe and the chassidic community in New York, relaying information and urging the chassidim to intensify their efforts.2 Afterwards, the connection between Warsaw and Paris ceased and the Rebbe had no direct source of information concerning the Previous Rebbe.

At this time, the Rebbe also applied for immigration to the U.S. on his own behalf. Nevertheless, there were certain details that created difficulties, e.g., from the time the Rebbe and the Rebbitzin left Russia, neither of them had carried a passport from another country. For this reason, the committee dealing with these matters decided to concentrate on receiving a visa for the Previous Rebbe first and only later to focus on obtaining one for the Rebbe.

The Previous Rebbe received his immigration visa on 4 Adar I, 5700 (1940). He set sail for the U.S. 20 days later. One of the last things he did before he departed was to arrange for matzos to be sent to the Rebbe in Paris. Upon his arrival in America on 9 Adar II, together with the endeavors he undertook to save as many Jews as possible from Europe, he began an intensive campaign to enable his son-in-law, the Rebbe, to immigrate to America as soon as possible.

Under the Nazi’s Hand

These efforts took on pressing importance when, after their conquest of Poland, the Nazis turned their armies toward France. At that time, the French government issued a call for every able-bodied man to register for army service. The Rebbe reported to the draft office and was given a certificate attesting to his willingness to serve. Although he was never summoned for military duty, this certificate proved very useful. For he was frequently stopped in the street and asked to prove his identity and to show that he was not a draft-evader.

When the Nazis entered Paris, they immediately ordered a census of all the inhabitants, including information regarding their race and religion. When they came to the Rebbe’s apartment, he was not home. Since their intent was obvious, when asked regarding their religion, one of the people staying in the apartment answered, “Orthodox.” This was not a lie, because it could have been interpreted as “Orthodox Jews.” Nevertheless, the implication was “Russian Orthodox .” When the Rebbe returned and heard of this, he hurried to the census office and asked to correct the matter by adding the word “Jew.”

The Rebbe sought to leave Paris where the Nazis had vigorously imposed their rule. One of his acquaintances, a general in the French army, offered to let him stay in a castle outside the city’s suburbs. The Rebbe, however, declined the proposal, explaining that the Nazis’ rule over Paris would be longer and more difficult than people conceived. Instead, he and the Rebbitzin fled to Vichy, which was still under French control, departing on the last train to leave Paris.

They arrived shortly before sunset on the day before Shavuos. Unable to reach their hotel before the holiday, the Rebbe sent their belongings with a taxi and he and the Rebbitzin made their way by foot, a journey of several hours.

They stayed in Vichy only for a few months. Afterwards, the Rebbe chose to continue to Nice which was under Italian rule. Although allies of the Nazis, the Italians showed more understanding toward the Jews and many were able to live there in relative security.

A Temporary Haven

The Rebbe and the Rebbitzin lived in Nice for almost nine months. There they were able return to a stable daily routine and intensify their efforts to emigrate to the U.S.

As mentioned, Nice had become a center for refugees and many were left without shelter. Although the Rebbe had few resources at his disposal, he did his utmost to aid others who were less fortunate. For example, to receive entry into a hotel, one would have to show that he possessed at least $100. Although the Rebbe himself had little money, he would go out to the streets and advance a family the needed sum so that they could enter a hotel. After the family was admitted, they would return the $100 to the Rebbe who would go out to the street again to find others.

On another occasion, the Italian authorities forbade the private ownership of gold. Whoever possessed gold was required to sell it to the government — needless to say, at a severe loss.

One refugee appealed to the Rebbe for help. He had a significant store of gold. “Would the Rebbe keep his gold for him?” He explained that he was known as a wealthy man and his room would certainly be searched. By contrast, no one would suspect the Rebbe of possessing gold.

The Rebbe agreed. Some time later, the authorities began to search the refugees’ dwellings. The Rebbitzin feared that holding the man’s fortune might endanger their own lives, for possession of gold was a capital offense. "Perhaps we should transfer it elsewhere,” she suggested anxiously.

“No,” the Rebbe replied. “This is Jewish money. We will not touch it.”

On one occasion, the Rebbitzin3 commented that in the war years, she and the Rebbe were required “to show great mesirus nefesh (self-sacrifice) for the observance of the mitzvos.” In many instances, the Rebbe’s commitment went beyond the letter of the law, entailing risks that the halachah does not require. For example, in Tishrei 5701 (1940), the Rebbe inquired about the possibility of finding an esrog mehudar, a halachicallyexcellent esrog, in Nice. When he discovered that none was available, he entered into a learned discussion with one of the local Rabbis regarding whether one is permitted to risk one’s life to observe a positive mitzvah. Obviously, there is no obligation to do so; the question was whether a person is permitted to take the risk or not.

Shortly afterwards, that Rabbi became aware that for the Rebbe, the matter had not been merely an abstract inquiry. The Rebbe was absent from the city for several days. He returned with a glowing smile, carrying two esrogim, one for himself and one for the Rabbi with whom he had discussed the issue. He had journeyed to villages near the war zone in Italy, and there he had found esrogim. Similarly, for the Pesach seder, theRebbe made a long and dangerous train journey to procure onions to use as karpas for the seder plate.

Arranging Immigration

During this entire time, serious efforts were being made to procure immigration visas for the Rebbe and the Rebbitzin. The Previous Rebbe urged the lawyers and the other members of the chassidic community to make every effort to bring the Rebbe to America. An appeal was made to the State Department to grant the Rebbe a special immigration visa as a distinguished Jewish thinker and communal leader.

The Rebbe’s file was first handled by the American consulate in Paris. They were reluctant to grant the Rebbe special status, noting that his curriculum vitae mentioned that he had been educated as an engineer. The chassidic community approached the State Department again, providing additional details to strengthen his claim for unique status.

The Rebbe’s journeys from Paris to Vichy and then to Nice made the process of receiving the visas more difficult. Frequently, it was necessary for the communication between the Rebbe and his father-in-law and the chassidim in New York to be conducted in code. This process extended over a year.

Towards the end of his stay in France, the Rebbe transferred his files from Nice to Marseilles. The precise reason for the shift is unknown, but it appears that the Consul General in Nice was antisemitic and hindered the progress of Jewish emigration. In Marseilles, by contrast, the Consul General was sympathetic and enabled visas to be granted with greater ease.

On 26 Adar, 5701 (1941), the Rebbitzin wrote her father a letter stating that the American Consul had promised to provide them with visas and on 20 Nissan, the visas were actually received.

The Final Stages of the Journey

Once the visas were received, the Rebbe and the Rebbitzin were to proceed to Portugal where they would depart for the U.S. Procuring transit visas from France to Portugal was also somewhat of a challenge, but ultimately they were obtained.

When the Rebbe and the Rebbitzin arrived in Portugal and were about to board the ship for the U.S., they received an urgent telegram from the Previous Rebbe. The short and startling message was: “Do not board the ship.”

Without the slightest hesitation, the Rebbe cancelled their reservations and waited for further instructions. Later, it was discovered that the ship had been captured by the Italian Navy and its passengers detained until the end of the war.

One chassid remarked: “In my eyes, the most fascinating aspect of this incident is not the farsightedness of the Previous Rebbe, but the Rebbe’s unquestioning acceptance of his directive. There was no way he could have known whether there would be another ship to the States or whether he would be able to arrange passage on it. Nevertheless, he heeded his father-in-law’s instructions without a trace of doubt.”

Afterwards, efforts were made to find new tickets. This was also a difficulty because the war had caused a reduction in passenger travel. Moreover, the Nazi U-boats had attacked many transatlantic ships and numerous sailings had been cancelled. Spaces on a ship were thus very difficult to find.

Thanks to unique Divine providence, this hurdle was also overcome. R. Mordechai Bistritsky had two tickets that he had purchased for his in-laws. They, however, had been denied transit visas to Portugal and would not be able to make the journey. Mindful of the Previous Rebbe’s concern for his son-in-law, he offered to give him the tickets. And so, on the 17th of Sivan, the Rebbe and the Rebbitzin departed Europe on board the Sorpa Pinta.

The voyage was very dangerous, for the German navy pursued the ship and fired upon it. Thank G‑d, it was not harmed. Eleven days later the ship docked in the U.S.

Greeting the Rebbe

Despite the Previous Rebbe’s joy at the Rebbe’s arrival, his poor health prevented him from coming to greet the Rebbe personally. Instead, he delegated four of his elder chassidim: R. Yisrael Jacobson, R. Shmuel Levitin, R. Eliyahu Simpson, and R. Shlomo Aharon Kazarnovsky. By way of introduction, he told them: “I will reveal to you who he is. He recites Tikkun Chatzos every night. He is proficient in the [Talmud] Bavli by heart, together with [the glosses of] Ran, Rosh, and Rif, the [Talmud] Yerushalmi together with its commentaries, Rambam, and Likkutei Torah with all its references. Go and greet him.”

(Significantly, the Previous Rebbe himself did not call the Rebbe for a private meeting until the third day after the Rebbe’s arrival. The Rebbe later explained4 that because the Previous Rebbe was very emotionally sensitive, he was afraid that he would be overcome by excitement. Despite this fact, on 28 Sivan, he sent letters announcing the Rebbe’s arrival to the lawyers who had worked for his immigration and likewise to several American Rabbinic leaders.)

The Rebbe’s First Farbrengen at 770

On Beis Tammuz, the chassidic brotherhood held a farbrengen to welcome the Rebbe. At the beginning, the Rebbe asked the elder chassidim to speak, but they demurred, requesting that the Rebbe deliver a talk. The Rebbe asked if any of those assembled had questions in Chassidus. Several volunteered their queries. The Rebbe asked the names and the names of the mothers of those assembled. He then proceeded to discuss the teaching: “Four are required to offer thankful acknowledgment,”5 explaining it in the light of Nigleh, Kabbalah, and Chassidus. In the course of doing so, he answered the questions the chassidim had raised and explained the significance of their names.

In the midst of his remarks, he turned to a group of American yeshivah students whom he had met briefly on their way to Otvotzk to study at Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim, saying: “We can connect the above to the subjects we discussed when we met in France.” The farbrengen lasted approximately six hours, creating a powerful impression on all the assembled.

This established a pattern for the years that followed. Our Rabbis explain that the Torah was not given in “the lower hemisphere.”6 The upper hemisphere was sanctified from above. The sanctification of the lower hemisphere, by contrast, was left to man. It is his responsibility to take the Torah and communicate it to these parts of the world, transforming them into a dwelling for G‑d. The arrival of the Rebbe on 28 Sivan serves as one of the landmarks in this endeavor, heralding the age when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d,” with the coming of Mashiach.