In 1941, with an increasingly dark and dangerous cloud forming over the Jewish People, particularly those within reach of Hitler and his advancing army, the Rebbe escaped Europe to join his father-in-law, R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, in America.

Prior to their immigration, the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin lived in France as the German expansion across the continent was taking place, experiencing mortal anxieties of a people under siege.

During this tense and turbulent time, the Rebbe had many encounters and experiences that left an indelible mark on others, as well as on himself, as we can see from the following episode.

On the third night of Chanukah, 1944, the Rebbe sat down to write a revealing letter1 in response to a former wartime acquaintance from his new home in Brooklyn, NY. In it, we are given a view into the mind of the Rebbe, as he describes the spiritual impact of his experience as a displaced person in Europe during World War II:

Your letter awakened memories of the time we were together in Vichy and Nice, under difficult and alien conditions.

From the time when a person is uprooted from his habitual environment until he grows accustomed to the demands and conditions of his new place, in this interim, there come to light certain traits of his inner character as they are in their purity, undistorted by the expectations of society.

Often, these traits reveal hidden virtues of this person—virtues that may have been hidden even from himself under the layers of “manners” and social conventions. Fortunate is the person who does not allow these traits to disappear when he subsequently settles down and finds tranquility.

Unexpected obstacles and emergencies have the potential to bring out the best or worst in a person. When all of their stabilizing support systems, including the ever-present pressure of their peers, are stripped away, they are presented with a golden opportunity—a litmus test to see who they really are and what they really believe.

The paragraph above is the kind of statement that can be very difficult to say or hear, depending on the nature of the situation. The worse the situation, the harder it is to offer or accept such a “silver-lining” interpretation, unless the one offering it has actually lived through that same situation. Then their testimony serves to bear miraculous witness to the potential strength of the human spirit and cannot be dismissed as just another hollow platitude to assuage someone else’s suffering, of which they know nothing.

This is precisely what we have in the case of this letter—a revelatory report from the frontlines of the battle between life and death, good and evil, order and chaos, soul-devotion and self-preservation. The person who emerges from this letter is defined by a steadfast commitment to higher values, a profound faith in Divine Providence, and unflinching self-reflection, even in the worst of circumstances. They are also willing to learn from and find the positive in any situation, no matter how bad. This is the essence of the Rebbe.

In heart-breaking story after heart-warming story from this unfathomable period in the Rebbe’s life, we consistently encounter the same thing: A man on a mission to help his fellow Jews and to stay connected to G‑d and Torah on the deepest level, no matter what stood in his way. We are thus able to learn not just from what the Rebbe said, but from how he lived and what he did.

The First “Dollars” Campaign

Along with millions of other frightened Jews across Europe, the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin were uprooted from their home during World War II. First, in 1933, shortly after the Nazis assumed power in Germany, they moved from Berlin to Paris. Then, in June, 1940, they fled Paris upon the German invasion, arriving safely in Vichy.

Nevertheless, it was only relatively safe; life anywhere in Nazi-occupied Europe was extremely unpredictable and dangerous for Jews. The hotels in Vichy did not welcome the influx of helpless refugees with open arms. In fact, to even walk through the door of a hotel, a guest had to prove that he or she possessed at least 100 dollars; a sum far beyond the scant means of most refugees.

The Rebbe had a single 100 dollar bill, which he did not hesitate to put to good use in service of others in need. He would venture out to the teeming streets seeking unmoored refugees and families with nowhere to go. Happily handing over the bill of “admittance,” he would then direct them to the hotel where he was staying. After they were admitted, they would stealthily slip the bill back to the Rebbe unnoticed, only for the Rebbe to hastily return to the streets filled with souls in transit, seeking safety from the storm.2

This story is an example of mesirat nefesh, “putting one’s life on the line” for a holy cause. Not satisfied with securing his own safety, the Rebbe repeatedly risked his life and freedom for the sake of other Jews. The Rebbe’s inspired practice of sacred activism in the face of imminent danger certainly provided people with a glimmer of hope, as well as a shining example of what the human spirit can accomplish when motivated by love.

Always a Jew

Here is yet another instance3 where the Rebbe exhibited an exceptional degree of mesirat nefesh—this time for the sake of remaining proudly Jewish, even in the face of danger and intimidation. This is a quality the Rebbe sought to impress upon others throughout the rest of his life.

While in Southern France during the war, R. Yehuda Aryeh Lieberman befriended the Rebbe and would often walk with him to shul. As mentioned, Southern France was then ruled by the Vichy government—a Nazi puppet government, which was, for the time being, tolerant of Jews at best. Eventually, a law was passed that required every person to register with the new government and disclose his or her religion. Essentially, this was a law intended to make it easier for the Nazis to locate every Jew.

Shortly after the rule was enacted, Rabbi Lieberman and the Rebbe went together to register at the government office. According to Rabbi Lieberman, when the officer saw the Rebbe, he simply wrote down “religious.” Ever attentive, the Rebbe noticed this and insisted that they list him as a “Religious Jew,” even though he put himself in great danger by doing so, because it would make it easier for the Nazis to, G‑d forbid, locate and identify him.

Rabbi Lieberman couldn’t believe it. The Rebbe refused to be disassociated from his Jewish identity, the plight of his people, and from G‑d for even an instant, even at the expense of his own life and safety.

We Called Him Monsieur

R. Dovid Aaron Neuman currently lives with his family in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. He was interviewed in November, 2013, and shared the following remarkable story which happened during the war.

“…In the midst of all this chaos and upheaval, my family was forced to split up…. I was sent to an orphanage in Marseilles. The orphanage housed some forty or maybe fifty children, many of them as young as three and four years old. Some of them knew that their parents had been killed; others didn’t know what became of them. Often, you would hear children crying, calling out for their parents who were not there to answer. As the days wore on, the situation grew more and more desperate, and food became more and more scarce. Many a day we went hungry.

“And then, in the beginning of the summer of 1941, a man came to the rescue. We did not know his name; we just called him “Monsieur,” which is French for “Mister.” Every day, Monsieur would arrive with bags of bread—the long French baguettes—and tuna or sardines, sometimes potatoes as well. He would stay until every child had eaten.

Some of the kids were so despondent that they didn’t want to eat. He used to put those children on his lap, tell them a story, sing to them, and feed them by hand. He made sure everyone was fed. With some of the kids, he’d sit next to them on the floor and cajole them to eat, even feeding them with a spoon, if need be. He was like a father to these sad little children.

He knew every child by name, even though we didn’t know his. We loved him and looked forward to his coming.

Monsieur came back day after day for several weeks. And I would say that many of the children who lived in the orphanage at that time owe their lives to him. If not for him, I, for one, wouldn’t be here.

Eventually the war ended, and I was reunited with my family. We left Europe and began our lives anew. In 1957, I came to live in New York, and that’s when my uncle suggested that I meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Of course I agreed and scheduled a time for an audience with the Rebbe’s secretary.

At the appointed date, I came to the Chabad Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway and sat down to wait. I read some Psalms and watched the parade of men and women from all walks of life who had come to see the Rebbe. Finally, I was told it was my turn, and I walked into the Rebbe’s office.

He was smiling, and immediately greeted me: “Dos iz Dovidele!—It’s Dovidele!”

I thought, “How does he know my name?” And then I nearly fainted. I was looking at Monsieur. The Rebbe was Monsieur! And he had recognized me before I had recognized him. It was unbelievable.”4

In such acts of care and consolation we are able to see signs of the Rebbe’s emerging role as a spiritual provider and protector of the Jewish People

Was it character traits like these that the Rebbe was referring to in his letter above that revealed themselves in the midst of such madness?

The fact that the Rebbe recognized this boy, now a man, over 15 years later immediately upon introduction, speaks volumes for the Rebbe’s unfailing presence of mind and profundity of heart. To keep the face and name of a single orphaned child alive in one’s memory over years of war and across oceans of history is nothing short of breathtaking.

Journey to Calabria

The Rebbe was not only concerned with caring for Jewish bodies during this time, he was just as concerned for Jewish souls. As we will see, he was willing to risk his life to uphold the Torah and mitzvot at the highest possible level, no matter the cost. Even while in imminent danger, the Rebbe refused to diminish his spiritual integrity and religious observance even one iota.

R. Menachem Tiechtel was originally from Belgium. With the onset of the war, at the age of 18, he fled to Vichy, France, where he worried and waited alongside so many other desperate Jews. It was there that he crossed paths with the Rebbe and witnessed this story.

Chabad Chasidim are very particular about the kind of etrog they use for the mitzvah of the four species during the festival of Sukkot. Specifically, they prefer etrogim from Calabria, Italy. As the festival approached, the Rebbe expressed interest in crossing the border to procure one of these special fruits.

During this tumultuous time, every Jew had to be “invisible,” for fear of arrest, abduction, or worse. Under such circumstances, crossing the border was an unthinkable danger; being caught by border guards would mean certain death.

Suddenly, the Rebbe disappeared. When he just as suddenly returned a few days later, his face was beaming. He had, against all odds and advice, crossed the border and made it back with an etrog in hand! Not only did the Rebbe himself get to fulfill the mitzvah at the highest possible level, he was very happy to enable a multitude of Jews in Vichy to do the same.5

The Rebbe’s Notebooks

Throughout the Rebbe’s voluminous correspondences and personal annotations to various Chasidic texts, there may be found occasional references to what he referred to as his reshimot—“journals” or “notebooks.” For many years, no one knew exactly what reshimot the Rebbe was referring to. A month after the Rebbe’s passing, the mystery was solved when three such notebooks were discovered in a drawer in his room.6

The entries in these journals date between the years 1928, the year of the Rebbe’s marriage, and 1950, the year of his father-in-law’s passing, which was followed by his assumption of the leadership of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. These 22 years were certainly formative for the Rebbe. Additionally, as this was a time before he took on his public role, these notebooks provide us with an intimate window into the Rebbe’s inner life and worldview.

During this period, the Rebbe kept these notebooks with him at all times, jotting down the scholarly and sublime products of his mind, even in the most precarious of circumstances—including his evacuation from Berlin in 1933, his escape from Nazi-occupied Paris in 1940, and his subsequent wanderings as a refugee in Vichy France and Fascist Spain. One entry, for example, is dated the evening before he boarded the ship that was to rescue him from Nazi-occupied Europe in Lisbon, in June of 1941.

It is mind-boggling and truly humbling to consider that the Rebbe remained so consciously committed and creatively connected to Torah study throughout such terrifying and turbulent times. This story gives new urgency and meaning to the oft-quoted verse: She (Torah) is a tree of life to those who grasp onto her.7

Each of the above stories offers a different example of the Rebbe’s living response to his own very human struggles, transitions, emergencies, and unrest. Rooted in his belief in the Divine purpose and goodness behind every event and experience, no matter how unsettling, the Rebbe saw in every moment a Divine calling and opportunity, and thus an ability to make a difference.

It is up to each of us to strive toward living these truths in our own lives.