In the aftermath of World War II, Rebbe Eliezer Zusia Portugal, the Skulener Rebbe, saved thousands of war refugees and orphans, as recorded here.

Nothing could stand in the way of his fulfilling his mission to rescue Jews who were in need. He assisted Soviet Jews who had smuggled themselves across the border in to Romania.In Czernowitz, which was under Soviet dominion, he assisted Soviet Jews who had smuggled themselves across the border in to Romania. It was much easier there to get papers to enable them to go on to America or Israel. Whenever these Jews were caught, they were immediately found guilty. The punishment was imprisonment in Siberia or a quick bullet to the head. The Rebbe was indefatigable: “I will get them out—regardless!” he exclaimed.

The colonel who was in charge of the border guards lived in Czernowitz and knew the Skulener well. The rebbe had won him over many a time with heartrending entreaties on behalf of his brethren. The last time he was there the colonel had told him, “This is the very last time you will bother me. If you come again on behalf of your Jews, I will kill you!”

Nonetheless, when the Skulener was notified about a family of nine people that had been captured, he immediately undertook the daunting and dangerous task of rescuing them. Nothing worked, not even a hefty bribe. They were adamant: these people were to serve as an example for others.

There was only one avenue left to be employed: he would go to the colonel and beg, regardless of the imminent personal danger involved. Jewish lives were at stake, and that was more important than his own life.

His family begged him not to go. “How can you risk your life like this?” they asked. He responded, “It is not clear that he will take out his wrath against me, but one thing is for sure—their lot is sealed unless I am able to do something on their behalf.”

The Skulener approached the colonel’s house with trepidation, climbed up the steps and knocked on the door. With the little strength he had left, he once again climbed the stairs and knocked on the colonel’s door.When the colonel saw who stood at his doorstep, he was overcome with anger. He grabbed the rebbe and threw him down the stairs. The Skulener was hurt badly, yet with extreme difficulty he was able to get up. With the little strength he had left, he once again climbed the stairs and knocked on the colonel’s door.

The colonel opened the door and could not believe his eyes. There stood the Skulener Rebbe, dirty, bloodied, clothes torn—but with defiance in his eyes. “I must speak to you, Colonel!” the Skulener said, with tears streaming down his face. The colonel listened; the Rebbe begged, he cried, as he depicted the bitter plight of this hapless family. The colonel’s hardened heart could not ignore the selfless pleas, the heartfelt emotion of the Skulener Rebbe. His devotion to others at the expense of his own wellbeing finally overcame the colonel’s resistance. The family was freed.

Connection to Weekly Reading: rescuing captives (Numbers 21:1–3)

Adapted, contracted and supplemented from the impressive anthology of linked sources at // and with some added information compiled by Dr. Yisroel Susskind, a highly regarded therapist living in Monsey, New York. (See also #561 in the Story Series on Ascent’s website.)

Biographical note:
Rebbe Eliezer Zusia Portugal [1 Cheshvan 5659 (1898)–29 Av 5742 (1982)], the Skulener Rebbe, immigrated to the U.S. in 1960, after imprisonment in Romania and international efforts to secure his release. He is the author of Noam Eliezer and Kedushas Eliezer, and was a prominent follower of the Shtefaneshter Rebbe, but is best known for his superhuman efforts to rescue Jewish orphans and refugees in Eastern Europe before, during and after World War II and his continuing support of them. Those who merited to be in his presence were astonished by the length of his prayers and the beauty and intensity of the tunes that he composed, many of which have become internationally famous today.

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