An Orderly Army
As we hear these reminiscences we are walking down the street to see the house where R' Elchonon used to live. It's still standing, but like all the other houses of this once Jewish neighborhood, gentiles are living there. There are no Jews around.
Next stop is the yeshiva, Ohel Torah of Baranowitz. The building is still there, but now it is a gymnasium. The broken-hearted whispers, "There is where R' Elchonon sat, that is where the mashgiach davened," echo off of goalposts and gym horses.
In Yeshivas Ohel Torah everything ran by the clock. There were sedorim for learning, for prayers, even for eating. The davening was carefully organized, under the leadership of a chazan appointed by R' Elchonon personally. Not just anyone got to be the shaliach tzibbur in the yeshiva. (R' Leib lets it slip that once he was appointed to this task.) The way R' Elchonon saw it, a congregation of hundreds of bochurim needed a shatz who was an expert in every aspect of davening. So the appointed shatz davened all the daily tefillos, weekdays and Shabbos together, during his period of service. Only on Yomim Tovim was it different: then the roshei yeshiva themselves led the prayers.
Then there was the day R' Meir Shapira of Lublin arrived in Baranowitz. He was on his great trip of investigation, looking for the right way to run Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin that he planned on opening. The yeshiva was in the middle of Mincha when he arrived. He stood silent in amazement as three hundred bochurim answered Boruch Hu uvoruch Shemo and Amen in perfect unison. Never had he seen a yeshiva that was organized like an army!
Even the dining hall was run with military order and precision. It was considered a privilege to be appointed a waiter, and the appointment conferred a special status on the recipient. (He was even paid a salary -- purely a nominal sum --, just as the chazan was.) R' Yaakov Yisroel, the mashgiach, used to come and "stand guard" in the dining hall so that no one would indulge in idle talk, and that everyone would finish the meal promptly and not waste precious time. He never needed to say a word to anyone -- his presence alone was enough to drive the message home eloquently. The moment he entered the hall, nothing could be heard but the soft clatter of knives and forks. A stunning sight: hundreds of yeshiva bochurim eating their lunch in complete silence!
No one who knew him could forget the mashgiach. R' Katzman recounts what the Jews of Baranowitz used to tell about the day R' Yisroel Yaakov came to the beis midrash with half of his beard scorched to a frizzle, arousing amazement among the bochurim, of course. But the mashgiach was not about to sing his own praises, and only after much investigation was the story pieced together. A nearby shul was tended by an old shamash, who was getting senile and had begun to be forgetful of his duties. The mashgiach, who just then was serving as the rav, had decreed that the old man might not be dismissed, since it would cause him considerable pain - - so he himself had taken on the responsibility for the shamash's duties!
Every morning at dawn R' Yisroel Yaakov arrived at the shul and waited to see if the old man would show up. If not, he lit the stove himself, so that the shul would be warm enough to daven in. That fateful morning he had given up waiting for the shamash to come and was just ready to light the fire in the stove, when suddenly he saw the old man tottering through the shul door. R' Yisroel Yaakov thought quickly; how could he save the man from feeling shamed? Swiftly he threw himself down on the floor under the oven and wrapped himself up in his coat until he looked like a bundle of discarded clothes, something the old man would not notice. Unfortunately his face was jammed up against the stove casing.
The old shamash dutifully lit the fire in the stove, waited until it had got the coals burning, and then tottered away to his regular seat in the shul and began to say Tehillim. Only then did R' Yisroel Yaakov dare to disentangle himself quietly and slip out of the shul. A scorched beard, he felt, was a fair price to pay for saving an old man's dignity.