Yeshiva Ahavas Torah Baranovich was founded in 1997 to give life and continuity to the important Jewish Community of Baranovich, fifty-five years after the complete annihilation in 1942 of that large and vibrant community.
Baranovich (Baranovici), White Russia, took shape in the latter part of the 19th century on a strategic intersection of important railway lines.
Both the Warsaw - Bialestok - Minsk - Moscow and the Cracow - Lublin - Brest - Minsk - Moscow trains passed through Baranovich, as well as the Rovno - Vilna - Riga line.
Originally that area was part of the Russian Empire, but following the First World War it was annexed by Poland.
Today it is part of the independent country of Belarus. The city of Baranovich began as an offshoot of the nearby Jewish shtetl (village) of Musch.
First came a rail side inn run by a Jew called Reb Shaike Baranovich (perhaps the city owes its name to him), followed by many who took advantage of the new commercial opportunities occasioned by the railways.
Following the First World War, Polish independence, and the incorporation of Baranovich into Greater Poland, Baranovich experienced intense growth, with several new streets being added every year.
Due to its rapid expansion, precise population figures are not available, but two things are clear: Baranovich was a city of tens of thousands of people, and its population was overwhelmingly Jewish. According to holocaust survivors, Baranovich was home to as many as 35,000 Jews before the Second World War.
They also say that as many as 20,000 Jews were murdered when the ghetto was liquidated in late 1942, although the memorial stone erected several years ago at the cemetery (not the place of the massacres) reads: 12,000 Jews.
Obviously, during times of murder and mayhem, nobody was compiling statistics.
Back Row (Right to Left):
It is clear though, that the original number of Jews was much higher than twelve thousand, as the final liquidation of a ghetto always followed earlier escapes, expulsions and massacres, leaving the population much depleted relative to its earlier numbers. The fact that Baranovich was a "Jewish" city is attested to by the fact that until the Second World War the entire commercial district, and the central market (or mark as it was called in Yiddish) were completely deserted and devoid of any activity on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath! This also attests to the devoutness of the Baranovich Jewish Community, a singular example in that area of the Jewish world. Along with the rapid increase in the size of the Jewish Community of Baranovich, came a steady growth in the community's organizations and buildings.
Two Hassidic sects moved their headquarters to Baranovich: the "Koidenover Chassidim", and the large and powerful "Slonimer Chassidim".
These two groups had their own independent organizations and school systems. Baranovich was divided by the train tracks into "Old Baranovich" (built in the 19th century, including the original Musch) and "New Baranovich" (built in the 20th century).
Each had its own communal organizations and separate Rabbinate.
We are aware of the existence of at least ten synagogues in "New Baranovich" before the war.
These were all major synagogues housed in autonomous structures, as opposed to Shtiebels housed in smaller, improvised quarters.
There may have been many more Shtiebels as well.
There were also at least two Talmud Torahs (Jewish religious elementary schools), a Jewish Community Center, an Old Age Home, an orphanage, and a "Maccabi" Jewish sports facility.
All this attests to the size and importance of that flourishing community. Perhaps the jewels in the crown of the Baranovich community were its two Yeshivas, the Hassidic "Torat Chesed" Yeshiva, and especially the non-Hassidic "Ohel Torah" Yeshiva.
The latter Yeshiva, whose growth mirrored that of the community in general, appointed some of the greatest Torah Scholars of the day to lead and educate the rapidly expanding student body.
These scholars included such well-known Rabbis as Rabbi Shlomo Heiman, later Dean of the important Torah Vo'Daas Yeshiva in New York, Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman and Rabbi Dovid Rapaport, both famous Torah leaders and authors of many important Rabbinic works, both who sadly perished in the holocaust. The Mashgiach, or spiritual leader of the “Ohel Torah” Yeshiva was Rabbi Yisroel Yaakov Lubschansky.
He was formerly the Rabbi of “Old Baranovich”, and was the son-in-law of the famous Rabbi Yoizel of Navaradok, founder of the Navaradok Mussar Yeshiva movement, and one of those responsible for encouraging the founding of the "Ohel Torah" Yeshiva as well.
Rabbi Lubschansky was also murdered in the Holocaust, as well as the remaining staff: Rabbi Hirsh Gutman, Rabbi Leib Gavye, Rabbi Yitzchok Valdshein, Rabbi Yosef Zeldes, Rabbi Yisroel Gursky, Rabbi Chaim Zvi Leeder and a group of students.
May their blood be avenged by G-d. The "Ohel Torah" Yeshiva, along with its approximately three hundred students, was almost exclusively supported by the local population.
This was a rare phenomenon in that poverty-stricken area of pre-holocaust Europe.
It was mostly accomplished by the widespread practice of essen teg, or the inviting of all the young students to dine on different days in the homes of the local Jewish population.
After much heroic effort, specifically on the part of the Dean, Rabbi Wasserman, a sprawling campus was erected, including a large study hall, a kitchen, dining room and lecture rooms.
The facilities had only just recently been dedicated when the calamity of the holocaust extinguished this brilliant chapter in Jewish history. We have as yet not succeeded in compiling any meaningful information on the community facilities in "Old Baranovich".