Zerach Warhaftig – The right leader at the right place at the right time

Zerach Warhaftig (February  2, 1906 – September 26, 2002), born in Volkovysk in the Russian Empire (today Vaŭkavysk, Belarus). He was initially educated by his father and later studied at various Lithuanian yeshivot in eastern Europe. Warhaftig was an ordained rabbi, and he also received a doctorate in law from the University of Warsaw. He began practicing law in Warsaw in 1933. He was active in the religious-Zionist Mizrahi movement, and held posts in various Zionist institutions in Poland. From 1936-39, he was a delegate to the Zionist Congress.  

At the commencement  of WWII, Germany invaded the western Poland, while the Soviets captured eastern Poland. Lithuania on the northern border of Poland remained neutral and independent. During this period, Zerach Warhaftig, a religious orthodox zionist, was the head of the Polish Rescue Committee. An organization which was committed to rescue Jews. The organization operated in the orthodox Jewish circles in Poland. Zerach remained in Warsaw until the last moment and then, together with his wife, he crossed the border to Lithuania, just before the city fell into the hands of the Nazis. He took with him several hundreds British certificates for immigration to Israel. Zerach Warhaftig said that it was difficult for him to leave behind thousands of Jews, which he felt responsible for as the head of the Polish Rescue Committee, but he knew that he could do a lot more to save Jews if he operated from an area which was outside Nazi control.

The short-lived, independent, Lithuania was good to the Jews; it granted refugees entrance and allowed them to work.

During this period, many of the Jewish leaders who realized that it was just a matter of time before Lithuania became under Nazi or Soviet control, left the country. Zerach Warhaftig, although he himself had plenty of legitimate British travel certificates to Israel, remained with his wife in Lithuania in order to help other Jews escape.

First, Zerach went to Vilnius (Vilna ), a city with a rich Jewish history and many Yeshivot (religious Jewish schools). Thousands of Polish Jewish refugees were already in the city. A group of activists, religious zionists, joined him and they became the rescue center for Jews. Zerach distributed the British immigration certificates that he brought to hundreds of people who used them to immigrate to Israel through Sweden. He called all the Jews in Lithuania to get Polish passports and leave Europe immediately. He met with the heads of all the Yeshivot, urging them to live Europe, but because of the bad experience the yeshivot had in WWI, when they moved from one place to another, while mistreated by the Germans and the Russians, this time, they decided to stay put.

Zerach Warhaftig tried to convince the heads of the yeshivot that it was only a matter of time before Lithuania was captured by the Germans (who would kill all the Jews), or by the Russians (who would send all the religious Jews to Siberia). He was not able to convince them. He moved to Kaunas (Kovno), which was Lithuania’s capital at the time, to be near the foreign embassies in order to get visas for Jews, so they could exit Europe.

Zerach Warhaftig and his team knew that they were running out of time. They worked hard to get as many religious Jews out of Europe, before it was too late. They forged and handed out fake visas. For fear of being captured and imprisoned, Zerach and his team did not keep an office; they  distributed the certificates from benches in public parks, and constantly moved from one place to another.

Zerach Warhaftig was finally succeeded in convincing the leaders of one Yeshiva, the Mir yeshiva, to apply for Polish passports in the British embassy in Kaunas. The Mir yeshiva was the only large European yeshiva that survived the war intact, preserving the culture, the knowledge, and teaching methods of the the great European yeshivot.

In July 1940,  Lithuania gave up its independence and joined the Soviet Union. Time was running out for the Jews. As described in the article Jan Zwartendijk – Righteous Among the Nations,  Zerach found an escape route from Europe through Russia to Japan.

To get a Soviet exit authorization was impossible. As a last resort, Zerach forwarded a list of 2,000 names of religious and secular Jews to Stalin, asking his permission for the Jews to travel across the USSR from west to east and then exit the country. It was a risky a request since it gave the Soviets a list of names, which they could have considered troublemakers and arrest. However, a miracle happened; the Soviets issued exit visas to everyone on the list.

Zerach organized the exit of thousands of people, by first sending them on the trans-Siberian train to Vladivostok, and then paying for ships to transport them to Japan. He himself stayed with his wife and newborn son in Lithuania until October, while continuing to send Jews to Japan. He and his family escaped Europe only after he learned that the NKVD (earlier version of the Soviet KGB secret police) was looking for him. In Japan, Zerach Warhaftig continued to visit foreign embassies again and again in effort to secure exit visas for Jews.

On 5 June 1941 the Warhaftigs left Yokohama on the Japanese ocean liner Hikawa Maru. On 17 June they landed at Vancouver, Canada.  After the war he visited refugee camps in Germany several times looking for Jewish children in monasteries, orphanages and with Christian families in order to return them to the Jewish People. In 1947 Warhaftig immigrated to Israel. He Founded the Department of Law and Justice in the National Council. As a member of the Provisional State Council he wrote its Constitution. He was one of the 37 signatories to the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948.

In 1948 he established and directed the Institute for the Research of Jewish Law in the Justice Ministry. In 1949 he was elected to the first Knesset. Many of his legislative initiatives had to do with placing Jewish Law into Israeli Law   

In 1948-1963 he taught Jewish Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In the 1951 Warhaftig was appointed Deputy Minister of Religions. After the 1961 elections he was appointed Minister of Religions, a position he held until 1974.

Warhaftig created Israel’s rabbinical court system, established legislation making the observance of Jewish holidays and dietary laws compulsory, and provided exemption from military service for Talmudic religious students. He is credited with establishing a constitutional compromise between synagogue and state. In 1950 he wrote the law of return, which allows all Jews to settle in Israel. He supported rights for non-Jewish Israelis. In 1967 he drafted an edict providing for religious autonomy and protecting Muslim and Christian as well as Jewish holy sites.

In June 1967, after the six-day war, Warhaftig wrote a decree guaranteeing religious autonomy for Jews, Muslims and Christians in the newly Israeli-administered Jerusalem, and drafted a constitutionally binding edict protecting their respective holy sites. The decree came in the form of an important letter, presented to the United Nations by the Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban, pledging guarantees of religious autonomy for the three great faiths. He insisted that the Temple Mount was Jewish property. Yet, he banned Jews from entering the site not to offend Muslim worshipers.

Warhaftig was among the founders of Bar-Ilan University and its Law Faculty.  In 1974 he was the chairman of the Administrative Committee of the University. In 1981 he retired from the Kneset.

Related articles: 

Jan Zwartendijk – Righteous Among the Nations

Chiune Sugihara – Righteous Among the Nations

An Journey with Zerach Warhaftig into his world  in Erope of WW2 (in Hebrew)