Moshe Bernfeld – Part 2: Border Patrol and the Expired Passport

The following story happened to my great-great grandfather’s brother, Moshe Bernfeld during a time of political turmoil and instability. The story is based upon information extracted from his son, Simon Bernfeld’s autobiography. Historical facts are also included.

In 1863, there was a Polish uprising against the Russian leadership because the citizens of the Kingdom of Poland wanted independence and social reform. While political unrest occurred, people still had the freedom to travel from one location to the next. In fact, many relied on travel for their livelihood. When a person needed to cross borders, proper travel documents were strictly enforced.

Occasionally, Moshe would leave home for an extended period in order to teach. This time, an acquaintance recommended a job for him and he was happy to accept the offer. The acquaintance used to deal with a merchant in Russia. The merchant asked the acquaintance if he could find a teacher for his only son. The deal was made and Moshe arranged to work with his son for six months.

In October, 1863, he left Stanislawow and went to the merchant’s home in the town of Zhvanets, located in the Podolia province of Russia (today part of Ukraine). It was quite a distance away. Today, the 174 km trip would only take three hours by car but back in the days of horse and carriage transport, an overnight stay would have been required before reaching the final destination the next day. Moshe stopped for the night in the town of Zaleszczyki where his brother, Rabbi Aryeh Leib lived. The next day, he continued on his way to Zhvanets.

Moshe decided that he would settle in Zhvanets until the Passover holiday in April. In early 1864, a few months into his stay, there was a siege in Galicia which temporarily suspended civil liberties. Due to the Polish separation from Russia, the Austrian government was afraid the revolt would reach and spread through Galicia. Although it never happened, travel was a concern.

Moshe had applied for a six month passport so that he would be home in time for his holiday. He thought that this would give him enough time until Passover but he forgot that the year 5624 on the Hebrew calendar was a leap year and therefore, he didn’t account for an additional lunar month.

The difference between the Gregorian solar calendar and the Hebrew lunar calendar is explained as follows. According to Wikipedia, “The solar year is about eleven days longer than twelve lunar months. The Bible does not directly mention the addition of “embolismic” or intercalary months. However, without the insertion of embolismic months, Jewish festivals would gradually shift outside of the seasons required by the Torah. This has been ruled as implying a requirement for the insertion of embolismic months to reconcile the lunar cycles to the seasons, which are integral to solar yearly cycles.” The Hebrew calendar is interesting and complex. You can read more about it here.

While Moshe was returning home, he approached the border through the town of Sadagora.

Sadagora Horse Transport

Sadagora Horse Transport

The transportation Moshe used may have looked something like this horse ‘taxi’ service. The route in this picture went between Czernowitz and Sadagora.

When Moshe reached the border checkpoint, the Russian officer did not say anything to him. The Austrian officer on the other side of the border delayed Moshe and told him that his passport had expired. Moshe realized his mistake and apologized to the officer. The officer did not respond to him at all. He wrote a few things on the passport and told Moshe, “Go with this passport to the bureau of the city and there you will find out what you need to do.” The officer assumed that Moshe didn’t understand German. But when Moshe read what the officer wrote, “This passport has been expired and the owner of it should be caught and arrested and held until some more people like him are caught. Send them back followed by police to their cities.”

Moshe didn’t go to the bureau and instead went to a hostel. He told the owner what had just happened to him. The owner got scared and told him, “It is impossible for me to let you sleep here at my house. Almost each hour, police come here to look for Russian refugees. I am advising you to go to the Beit Midrash (synagogue) and there you will possibly find a man who will help and save you.”

Sadagora Synagogue

Sadagora Synagogue

Moshe took his advice and went there in fear. He sat there until the time that people gather for evening prayer. The caretaker comforted him and told him that there was an old man in the city that comes to pray in the evening and he deals with the mitzvah (commandment) of redemption of captives.

Moshe was so worried that he didn’t eat all day. After the evening prayers, the caretaker approached the elderly man and told him about Moshe’s plight. The elderly man talked to Moshe and told him, “I understand that you are a great scholar. Come with me to my house and sleep there and we shall see what we can do about this tomorrow.”

After Moshe went to his house, the elderly man brought him food but Moshe said that he was too upset to eat. The man, seeing that Moshe would not eat scolded him and said, “Aren’t you a great Torah scholar? How come you have so little faith? Eat! Then go to sleep and tomorrow I will deal with the redemption of captivity.”

The next morning he told Moshe, “I made up my mind. In our city it is impossible to do anything. I am going to Czernowitz City and I hope to bring you liberation from there. I will be back tonight or tomorrow.” Moshe sat in the house all day because he was afraid that he might encounter the police who ask every unfamiliar person for his passport.

On the second day, the man came back and told Moshe with joy, “God’s salvation came as fast as the blink of an eye. Take your passport and burn it. You are no longer an Austrian citizen but are instead Turkish. I brought you a Turkish passport written and signed by the Turkish Consul. The passport is valid.” Moshe was astonished and asked, “I am an Austrian citizen so why did the Turkish Consul give me a Turkish certificate?”  The elderly man replied to him saying, “Why do you care? Is it such an honor for you to be an Austrian citizen? At this moment, you are a Turkish citizen and when you return to your homeland you should say that your passport got lost or stolen. You will be able to get help in the place where people know you and they will give you a new Austrian passport.” Moshe kept asking, “How come the Turkish Consul gave me a passport?” The man smiled and said, “The Turkish consul did not have the means for livelihood so he got himself tools and he sells certificates for a fee.” Then Moshe asked him, “How much did you give him for the certificate?” The man answered in a serious way, “An opportunity to do a good deed came to me and I was not going to miss it for any price. Go to your home in peace and celebrate Passover.” The man wished Moshe well and told him to celebrate the holiday with happiness and relaxation.

This is how Moshe separated from his generous benefactor. Without an obstacle, Moshe went to his home and stayed there for a couple of weeks. His friends easily made him a new certificate for an entire year.

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