Life-or-death Applications to Hebrew University Exhibited

Thousands of young European Jews applied to Hebrew University in the 1930s and 1940s in hopes that acceptance would entitle them to a permit to move to pre-state Israel, then controlled by the British, and thereby save their lives

Letters from the Hebrew University archive.
Hebrew University Archive

Two letters written almost 80 years ago that were recently discovered in the Hebrew University archives read like a thriller with a tragic ending. The sender, a 23-year-old Polish Jew, asked the university to admit him and thereby save his life.

“I’m simply begging you, send me a student certificate, because I’m standing on the brink of an abyss,” Tanchum Rabinowitz wrote in Hebrew in 1941. “Don’t be formalists. I’ll pay you and the homeland and science with my blood, but don’t let me fall.”

He signed the letter, “Awaiting your help by telegraph, with faith nevertheless.”

To really understand Israel and the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

Rabinowitz was one of thousands of young European Jews who applied to Hebrew University in the 1930s and 1940s in hopes that acceptance would entitle them to a permit to move to pre-state Israel, then controlled by the British, and thereby save their lives.

The application of Tanchum Rabinowitz to Hebrew University.
Hebrew University Archive

His letters were recently discovered and researched by Bilha Shilo, PHD student at Hebrew University, who was a member of a project to catalogue and preserve the university’s archives. Adi Livni, coordinator of the project, says: “We dusted off the archive material, which had been preserved in unspeakable conditions, and suddenly we found these documents, which had been laconically catalogued under the title ‘student applications,’” she said.

Some of the letters will form part of an exhibit opening on Tuesday at the National Library, titled “Uprooted: The German-Jewish Scholars of the Hebrew University.” According to the exhibit’s curator, Ada Vardi, “Behind this dry story hides a very lively one, of intellectual life in the European Jewish world at the last moment before its downfall.”

‘Like a letter in a bottle’

Rabinowitz’s letters stand out among the exhibit’s documents, in part because of his writing talents and elevated language. “I’m already weary, even though I’m 23 years old,” he wrote. “I’m sending this letter without knowing if it will reach you, like a drowning man sinking into the ooze with a letter in a bottle,” he wrote.

He was born in Stolpce (then in Poland but now in Belarus) and headed his town’s chapter of Beitar, a rightist Zionist movement. He graduated from a Hebrew high school in Vilna, then fled to the Soviet Union when World War II broke out, taking only what he could carry in his knapsack – “my diploma, the only asset that remains to me on my way to Zion,” he wrote.

In 1940, while still a refugee in the Soviet Union, he sent his first application to Hebrew University, including “all the documents needed to get a student certificate – a notarized copy of my diploma from my Hebrew high school, an application, photographs and a curriculum vitae,” he wrote.

In response, the university wrote that it was willing to accept him, but only if he sent two years’ worth of tuition plus “a real guarantee” that he could support himself during his studies – demands he couldn’t possibly meet.

He eventually crossed into the Soviet Union and entered Japan thanks to the visa that he, like some 2,200 other Jews, received from Japan’s consul in Kovno, Chiune Sugihara, who was later recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations. From Japan, Rabinowitz sent the university another letter.

“Dear friends! I am, to my great anguish, a refugee once again. ... In fleeing from the Soviets, I left everything at home; I took only my matriculation certificate, so I could contact you, and this was my only hope.”

He added that he had trouble believing the university “would leave a man to his fate” just because of tuition, which he couldn’t possibly pay in advance. “I risked my life on my way to Zion. ... I beg you, please. ... Behold me here, lonesome and wretched, and to whom shall I turn for help if not you?”

In its response, the university said it had no immigration certificates available at the moment and could process his application only after it got another batch. Nevertheless, it attached a certificate of acceptance to the university, in hopes that this would help prevent his expulsion from Japan.

But the letter ended in a chilling fashion. “Meanwhile, please inform us by return mail if you can obtain the resources in Japan for your journey from there to the Land of Israel. There’s no point in sending a permit to someone who has no chance of getting here.”

The minutes of the university’s pedagogical secretariat, which discussed Rabinowitz’s application, shed additional light. “We don’t have even a single immigration permit available,” they say. “But we want to help him and will do what we can to save him. ... We’ll try to obtain resources for this purpose from the national institutions, but it isn’t easy, because the number of needy people is very great and the resources are minuscule.”

Relaxing the rules

During those years, the university became a kind of rescue committee rather than a strictly academic institution, Vardi and Livni said. In bureaucratic language, the archival documents show its efforts to help desperate applicants, as well as the difficulties it encountered.

Despite the real distress emerging from the applications, Hebrew University had to cope with rules set by the British Mandatory authorities, which limited the number of student certificates and set criteria like age and marital status for receiving them. At the same time, the university, founded in 1925, also had to maintain its academic standards and ensure that students had the money to pay for their studies.

In 1941, Rabinowitz did make it to pre-state Israel, though it’s not clear whether he did so via a student certificate or some other method. He joined the British army’s Jewish Brigade and was sent to fight in Italy.

In 1945, while returning from a patrol, he was “accidentally shot in the leg,” according to the terse description on the Yizkor website for Israel’s fallen soldiers. He died of his wounds and was buried in Italy, having indeed paid his homeland with his blood, as he promised in his letter to the university. Most of his family was murdered in the Holocaust; only his eldest sister survived.

The university did sometimes relax its criteria and accept students who didn’t meet all the requirements. Haya Grossman, a partisan who eventually become a member of Knesset, is one example. “I’m a refugee in Lithuania and ready to immigrate as soon as possible,” she wrote in her application, sent in April 1940.

But the matriculation certificate from her Hebrew high school in Bialystok, which she included with her application, showed that she was a mediocre student. Overall, she was merely “satisfactory,” and that was also her grade in most individual subjects. Only for physical education and behavior did she earn a “very good.”

The university thus decided to accept her, but not as a regular student – a tactic it employed increasingly after the war broke out, “to arrange immigration permits even for candidates who didn’t meet the academic requirements,” according to the exhibit’s notes. Her documents were found and resaerched by Yael Levi, PHD student in Hebrew university.

Hilda Bardach, a medical student at the University of Vienna, applied to Hebrew University immediately after the Anschluss in 1938. Her uncle, a pediatrician in Tel Aviv, did everything he could to help her – paying her tuition, promising to support her during her studies and lobbying university officials to accept her.

In a letter to one professor, he wrote that Bardach had received an expulsion order, and if she didn’t leave Austrian promptly, she was in danger of being sent to an internment camp – “the significance of which I don’t need to explain,” he added.

His letters were forwarded to the university administration, accompanied by a note from one professor: “Please read this bitter cry.” But Bardach was sent away empty handed. “We can’t get any more permits now,” the university wrote.

Fortunately, she eventually found refuge in New Zealand. But fate didn’t smile on many of the other desperate students who were turned away.

“Most didn’t succeed in realizing their hope,” Vardi said. “Their applications remain as a last testament to their desire to live, their fears and their refugeehood as they tried to escape Europe.”