The Lost World
We were a group of bnei Torah from Eretz Yisroel and America, who set out during last summer's bein hazmanim on a trip to what were once the greatest Torah centers of Europe: the Lithuanian yeshivos.
Our trip was organized by Yeshivas Ahavas Torah-Baranovich, a yeshiva for bnei Torah from America founded in Yerushalayim two years ago. The nosi of the yeshiva, R' Arye Leib Baron, is himself a talmid of the original Yeshivas Baranovich and of Yeshivas Mir. R' Baron and his son, R' Elchonon the rosh yeshiva (named after R' Elchonon Wassermann Hy"d), decided to found the new yeshiva as a memorial to the kehilla of Baranovich, which was famous for its love of Torah.
In addition to visiting the sites of the great yeshivos, we were seeking out the remnants of the modern Jewish communities of Lithuania, hoping to meet these Jews face to face and offer them some spiritual sustenance.
Our having with us rabbonim who were actually raised in the Lithuanian yeshivos added another dimension to the tour. At every stop the group was gripped by their reminiscences; the historical accounts they had read came to life as those who had been there described what had once been.
Besides R' Arye Leib Baron there was R' Osher Katzman, another talmid of both Baranovich and Mir, and also R' Nochum Zeldis of Lakewood, a talmid of Baranovich whose father had taught in the yeshiva ketana there, and R' Aharon Florans, also of Baranovich and Mir.
As a result of the political upheavals of recent years, the Lithuanian yeshivos are nowadays split between two countries, Lithuania and Belarus. The tour began in Minsk, in Belarus: a painful example of the devastation of European Jewry.
Pre-Holocaust Minsk was home to 140,000 Jews, well over half of the total population of 215,000 (the similar proportions were found in many towns and villages in the region). In this city, where such great men as the Nachalas Dovid and the Or Godol served as rav, not a trace of that glory remains. Even the Jewish cemetery is completely obliterated; only in the park that was planted in its place one may occasionally stumble over a fragment of an old matzeivah.
The Great Synagogue of Minsk is still standing, a beautiful building -- it now serves as a theater. Members of the local Jewish community showed us another former shul, now an art gallery. If they hadn't pointed it out to us, we never would have known it had once been a shul. All the obvious signs have been stripped away. But yes, now we can see it: there is the niche where the aron kodesh stood, and there is the ezras noshim up there and look! There are twelve windows!
The local Jews take us to see some more buildings. Here too was a synagogue, they tell us, and here there was a shtiebel. They say "was": everything is in the past tense.