The eighth of Shevat marks the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Menachem Shmuel Dovid Raichik, the first Lubavitch emissary to Los Angeles. Before accepting this noble assignment in 1949, Rabbi Raichik endured years of Mesiras Nefesh. He narrowly escaped Poland shortly after the outbreak of World War II. His route to safety took almost seven years as he fled to Lithuania, then Russia, Japan, and Shanghai, China. After finally arriving in the United States in 1946, he tirelessly dedicated the next fifty years of his life to strengthening Yiddishkeit. Those who knew him recall his gentle humility, Ahavas Yisroel, and selfless dedication to this mission.
R’ Menachem Shmuel Dovid Raichik was born on the 2nd of Nisan, 5678 (March 15, 1918) in the Polish town of Mlawa, (pronounced “Melava”) which is approximately 65 miles northwest of Warsaw. Like most towns in Poland, the Nazis eventually destroyed Mlawa. They forced the Jewish community to build a ghetto there in 1941. Mlawa also served as a repair center for German tanks preparing for the invasion of Russia. Nearly 6,500 Jews lived in Mlawa before the war, but only about 50 survived.
Rabbi Raichik’s father, Reb Shimon, was a devoted chasid of the Amshinover Rebbe, Rabbi Shimon Sholom Kalish. After young R’ Shmuel Dovid completed his mesivta years in Mlawa, his father sought the Amshinover’s advice on where to send Shmuel Dovid for the next stage of his yeshiva studies. The Amshinover lived in Otwock (pronounced “Otvutzk”), Poland, and he suggested that R’ Shmuel Dovid enroll in the Lubavitch Yeshiva, Tomchei Temim, which was located in Otwock. The Amshinover promised to look out for young Shmuel Dovid, and he kept this promise in the tumultuous years ahead.
R’ Shmuel Dovid arrived in Otwock in 1936. Admission to the yeshiva was very competitive, and the students toiled in both Talmud and Chasidus day and night. Otwock was a woodsy town with fresh air and beautiful landscape, and the students enjoyed this serene environment in between their studies. They also were privileged to receive many prominent gedolim who visited the yeshiva and the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, known as the Rayatz.
The serenity and kedusha that R’ Shmuel Dovid and his fellow students enjoyed came to a crashing halt on September 1, 1939. The Nazi invasion of Poland had begun, and German bombs interrupted the yeshiva’s preparations for the approaching yomim noraim. The students could see German bombers pummeling the Polish countryside, and the Nazi soldiers were not far behind. The Rayatz had to evacuate to Warsaw, and R’ Shmuel Dovid personally escorted him to a waiting taxi. It was a painful moment, but the yeshiva students would eventually reunite with the Rayatz again.
Escape From Poland
The outbreak of war disrupted the yeshiva, and after the yomim noraim, many students tried to return to their families. By this time, the Nazis had already occupied R’ Shmuel Dovid’s hometown of Mlawa, so he remained in Otwock until he and his colleagues could find a safer location. The students did not have to wait long. Lithuania had declared independence, and those living under Nazi occupation were invited to seek refuge there. The Rayatz instructed the yeshiva students to flee to Vilna, and in December 1939, R’ Shmuel Dovid and his colleagues began their escape. On the way to Vilna, R’ Shmuel Dovid and his colleague R’ Volf Greenglass visited the Rayatz in Warsaw. The Rayatz gave the group his blessings for safe travels to Vilna, and he also provided them with money for the route. The Rayatz fled to the United States in 1940, and R’ Shmuel Dovid would not reunite with him until 1946.
As they clandestinely moved towards Lithuania, they arrived in the city of Shadlitz. They arrived at nighttime, and were promptly arrested by the Wehrmacht for violating the town’s curfew. After forcing the students to stand for hours in the freezing cold weather wearing their Tefillin, the group was miraculously released. They then smuggled themselves across the German border in the middle of the night. As they approached the Lithuanian border, they hired a small boat to transport them across the Bug River, into Lithuania.
The group finally crossed into Lithuania on the third of Teves, 5640. They had all walked for miles in the freezing mud, and R’ Shmuel Dovid suffered from frostbite for the rest of his life as a result of this experience. On the way to Vilna, Jewish homes along the route opened their homes to the students. The raging war could not extinguish the Lithuanian Jews’ Ahavas Yisroel.
Upon arriving in Vilna, the Rayatz telegrammed the students and asked them to urge all who could to flee to Vilna. R’ Shmuel Dovid copiously followed these instructions. Through all hours of the night, he waited by the border and assisted people in crossing the border into Lithuania, a “crime” for which he was once arrested. Years later, whenever he was asked about what transpired in prison, he answered with a simple “gurnisht”—nothing!
R’ Shmuel Dovid and the yeshiva group enjoyed relative peace until Shavuos 1940. Around that time, the Russians invaded Lithuania, and all civil liberties were revoked. The students learned that Japan had established a consulate in Kovno. For a limited time, the consulate granted temporary visas for people seeking to travel to Japan. The goal was to travel with the group to Japan, and remain there until securing visas to the United States. Their travel visas to Japan were granted, and they left Lithuania in Shvat, 1941. But their journey was far from over.
Trek To Kobe, Japan
The route to Japan required an exhausting trip through the Russian tundra on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. After passing through Moscow and several other cities, the group boarded a ship in Vladivostok, Russia. Once the Japan-bound ship reached international waters, an announcement was made, and all aboard rejoiced at this great news. The ship docked in the port city of Nagasaki, Japan. The students were amazed at the plethora of fruits and vegetables, staples they had not seen for many months. They finally arrived in Kobe, Japan in February 1941.
The students found a thriving Jewish community in Kobe. There were several shuls, a strong community infrastructure, and other yeshivos recently transplanted from Europe. In Kobe, R’ Shmuel Dovid and the group reunited with the Amshinover Rebbe, who had also escaped Poland. The Amshinover took responsibility for thousands of yeshiva refugees in the city. The students spent Pesach in Kobe, and the Rav of Shanghai, Rabbi Meir Ashkenazi, sent them Matzos for the holiday.
Although only in Kobe for a short period, the conditions there were very difficult. Many students became ill as they adapted to the Japanese, rice-based diet. They soon received word that the American government ceased granting entry visas, and their Japanese travel visas expired. They were stuck. In the summer of 1941, the Japanese government expelled thousands of yeshiva students, including R’ Shmuel Dovid and his colleagues, to the neutral city of Shanghai, China.
When R’ Shmuel Dovid and his colleagues arrived in Shanghai, they once again found an established Jewish community led by the Lubavitch Rabbi Meir Ashkenazi. Rabbi Ashkenazi undertook great efforts to help rescue and provide for the exiled European yeshiva students. Some of the other European yeshivos that relocated to Shanghai included Kamenetz, Kletzk, Lublin, and Mir. The Rosh Yeshiva of Mir, Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz, helped R’ Shmuel Dovid and his yeshiva colleagues. R’ Shmuel Dovid remained close with Rabbi Shmuelevitz for many years, and examples of Rabbi Shmuelevitz’s assistance to thousands of other yeshiva students are well documented.
Japan had allied with Germany, and this meant more troubles for the Jews living in Shanghai. The Nazis insisted that Japan deport all Jews; instead, Japan expelled them to a poorer section of the city. It was at this time that the famous interaction occurred between the Amshinover Rebbe and the Japanese governor. When asked why the Germans hated the Jews, the Amshinover quickly replied that the Germans hate all Orientals from the East, and not just the Jews.
For the next two years, R’ Shmuel Dovid oversaw the daily functioning of the yeshiva. He worked closely with Rabbi Ashkenazi, and provided him a daily report on the yeshiva’s finances. R’ Shmuel Dovid also cultivated close relationships with Shanghai’s business community to raise money for the yeshiva. But as much as he tried to maintain order in the yeshiva, the physical conditions deteriorated. Some of the students died from malnutrition, and others became ill adjusting to their meager diets. The stifling heat and humidity, and reports from Europe continued to affect the yeshiva’s morale.
In late 1944, American forces began the bombing of strategic Japanese-occupied cities, including Shanghai. The students tried to learn in their makeshift bomb shelter as they heard bombs exploding around them. When Japan surrendered in August 1945, American soldiers began arriving in Shanghai. Some of these soldiers were Jewish, and they took great pride liberating the city and speaking Yiddish with R’ Shmuel Dovid and his colleagues. With the Japanese defeat, the students’ goal of reaching the United States became attainable, and they once again applied for American visas.
The American government granted the yeshiva students’ applications. R’ Shmuel Dovid and the Lubavitch yeshiva boarded the USS General Meigs and left Shanghai on July 4, 1946. They arrived in San Francisco two weeks later. Their arduous, seven-year trek to safety had ended, but R’ Shmuel Dovid’s life’s mission was just beginning.
When the yeshiva students arrived in San Francisco, they immediately telegrammed the Rayatz. He instructed them to split into groups and travel to different communities across the country. The Rayatz wanted the students to discuss their wartime experiences, and deliver old-world words of inspiration to American Jewish communities. R’ Shmuel Dovid would perform this duty in many cities for decades to come.
R’ Shmuel Dovid reached New York, and spent Rosh Hashana 5707 (1946) with the Rayatz. The Rayatz advised him to continue traveling around the country to strengthen existing communities and to plant seeds for new ones to grow. On a barebones diet of sardines, fruits, and vegetables, R’ Shmuel Dovid traversed the country and visited Talmud Torahs and Shuls in cities like Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. In the winter of 1948, he married Lea Rapoport, another Polish Holocaust survivor, and barely six weeks later, the Rayatz sent them to Los Angeles as his first “shluchim” to the city.
The Rayatz passed away in 1950. When the Rebbe assumed the leadership the next year, he instructed the Raichiks to spread their influence to other communities besides Los Angeles. Rabbi Raichik often traveled for months at a time pursuing this goal and fulfilling this obligation. The Raichik home was always open to visitors, guests, and those seeking advice. Whether it was the President of Israel, Zalman Shazar, or a Jewish business owner on Fairfax, all who encountered Rabbi Raichik felt his warmth and sincerity.
Rabbi Raichik never tired of his lifelong mission of strengthening Yiddishkeit in America. He passed away on the 8th of Shevat, 5758 (1998), with his Rebbetzin and children by his side. His children and grandchildren followed his example, and today they serve as Rabbonim, shluchim, and leaders of their respective communities across the globe. Los Angeles continues to benefit and derive inspiration from the life and works of Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Raichik, a true Chasid and Ahavas Yisroel Jew who lived a life of Mesiras Nefesh.