Herirtage Tour Album
Rediscovery Trip to Lithuania
by Rabbi Nosson Zev Grossman
(Reprinted with permission from the Yated Ne’eman and Rabbi Mordechai Plaut)
Almost a year has passed since that wonderful voyage of discovery to the roots of the yeshiva world in Lithuania, organized by the yeshiva Ahavas Torah-Baranowitz of Yerushalayim, led by HaRav Elchonon Baron. The trip was graced with the presence of several senior talmidei chachomim who have personal memories of those roots, including HaRav Leib Baron, the nosi of the yeshiva. The voyage was chronicled, so that we can all participate, to some extent, in the voyage and the lessons it has for us today.
The airport clerk stops in the middle of examining our tickets and looks up hesitantly. “I see you have just returned from Vilna,” she says in heavily accented Hebrew. “I am from there myself; I came on aliya about a year ago. May I ask what you want in Lithuania — I mean, Jews of your sort?”
Odd, we’d been asked the same question by another young, secular oleh chadash while waiting to board the plane at Vilna. He had gone back to visit his family, but obviously he had already adopted the Israeli style: “Tell me something – — what is a Dos [Israeli slang for Ashkenazi chareidi] like you doing here in Vilna? Did you lose something here?” Then he answers his own question with a knowing look. “Wait, don’t tell me — I already know. You came to visit the Gaon’s grave, right? Don’t think I never heard of him. I went to the Gaon’s grave myself on this visit. That’s what you came for, right?”
The word “gaon” rolls off his tongue with a strong Russian accent that seems to augment the triumph in his voice, as if he had gotten to the bottom of the mystery. So this was why so many chareidim, rabbonim, and roshei yeshivos come to Vilna!
As a matter of fact, our visit to the kever of Rabbenu the Gaon of Vilna, ztvk”l was one of the high points of our recent trip to the destroyed Torah centers of Lithuania. But if anyone had doubts about whether they were really destroyed, this question would easily settle the matter: “What would Jews like you want in Lithuania?” – – clear evidence that only a wasteland is left after two hundred years of glory. Second and third- generation tinokos shenishbu, victims of Communist “reeducation,” wonder what on earth bnei Torah could be looking for in Lithuania.
“What did you lose here?” they want to know.
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.
On the Way to Volozhin
From Minsk we travel to Volozhin, whose name alone awakens the heart of every ben Torah. Volozhin, the mother of all yeshivos.
On the way to Volozhin we are thinking of how the foundation was laid there for all the famous yeshivos, how R’ Chaim of Volozhin came to the Gra and enthusiastically presented his idea for a real yeshiva, a mokom Torah that would form a total environment for its talmidim instead of the study in a local kloiz or beis midrash that was customary until then. The Gra would not answer R’ Chaim on that occasion.
Only much later, when R’ Chaim came again to ask for the Gaon’s ruling on his idea, did the Gra finally approve it and explain why he had been unwilling to give an answer the first time. “When I heard you speaking so excitedly about your idea, I was afraid that your intentions were not lishma, that some personal desire from deep in your heart was involved. But when you came back and presented your idea in a calm, detached manner, I could see you were lesheim Shomayim. That is the only way to found a mokom Torah.”
We remember hearing about how R’ Chaim’s talmidim testified that when the cornerstone of the yeshiva was laid, he wept so much that no water was needed to moisten the mortar. The Chofetz Chaim concluded from this, “A yeshiva is built with tears.”
As the bus enters Volozhin our eyes widen in amazement. The town looks almost unchanged, as if time had stopped sixty years ago. (Later we would see that Radin and Mir too, still wear the same rustic look.) The peace and quiet of these little towns, free of the restless hunt for pleasure that characterizes modern urban life in the West, explains somewhat why gedolei Yisroel chose them as the location for the yeshivos.
As R’ Dov Eliach tells us in his book Avi Hayeshivos, it was this atmosphere (among other things) that led Rabbenu Chaim to turn down a tempting offer from Vilna’s Jewish dignitaries: if he would move his yeshiva from Volozhin to Vilna, they would completely finance it, as well as make him rav of the city.
“Not everything can be moved from one place to another without damage,” R’ Chaim explained to them. “A stone or a beam of wood for example, no matter how heavy it may be, can always be dislodged and reinstalled in a new location. You could do that with the beams and benches of the yeshiva, too. But you could never move the cobwebs from the yeshiva and reinstall them. A yeshiva is more like a cobweb than a beam of wood. If you try to move it, you are liable to destroy it.”
HaRav Zalman Sorotzkin, who heard this ma’aseh while he was a student at Volozhin, explained it this way: “A yeshiva’s existence is purely miraculous; it is based on things as delicate as a cobweb — mainly, the give-and- take relationship between the local people on the one hand and the spirit that has been cultivated within the yeshiva on the other hand. These things can’t be uprooted and transplanted in another location.”
R’ Zalman added that R’ Chaim had another reason for preferring Volozhin to Vilna: “Conditions in a small town are more suitable and more advantageous for a yeshiva. We saw in later generations too, that the founders of yeshivos always tried to open them in small towns” (from HaDei’ah Vehadibur, p. 94). R’ Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky ztvk”l expressed a similar view in a letter concerning R’ Boruch Ber Leibowitz’s yeshiva, which was located in Kaminetz: “. . . the administrators found that an urban location was bad for the yeshiva, and our geonim have always founded yeshivos in small communities, because there they will not be disturbed by the noise and crowds of the city” (Marbitzei Torah Umussar, R’ A. Surasky, Part 2, p. 146). Similarly, R’ Aharon Kotler wrote during World War II, “We are thinking of moving the yeshiva temporarily to Leonova, outside of Kovno, because a village is more suited to the ruchniyus of a yeshiva, as is well known” (Ibid., Part 3, p. 241).
We all feel a thrill as we approach the site of the Volozhin Yeshiva. It is no small thing to enter this holy place, on which today’s whole Torah world was built.
But as great as our anticipation is our disappointment. We find a cafe instead of a yeshiva. The local population took the building over as soon as the Jews had been “removed,” and the building that once rang with the sound of Torah is now full of young gentiles sitting around and drinking beer. Only when we walk around the building can we discern, from the outside, the outline of the aron kodesh. Near the roof is engraved the year the yeshiva was built: 1806 (5566).
The members of our group go inside and stand around as if rooted to the spot. The woman behind the counter gawks at us. Before her very eyes are Jews, who haven’t lived in Volozhin for the past sixty years, standing there uncannily silent, like ghosts, ignoring her wares of cakes and drinks and staring at the walls.
Our eyes wander over the barren walls as we try to recreate the past, to see the young men walking among the benches with gemoras and Rambams in their hands, to hear the roar of voices battling in rischa de’Oraisa.
The stark reality of the present, like the scenes that await us in Mir, Radin, and Baranovich, wakes us from our daydream. It hurts more than everything we’ve heard before about the churban. All the kedusha that we have conjured up from our imaginations is no more. The yeshivos are a desolation and foxes roam through the kodshei hakodoshim.
When we leave the building our feelings pick up a little. Someone points out that despite what we’ve lost, the Jewish soul is not bound to buildings and benches, but to the spirit of Torah that these buildings absorbed. After all that has happened, is that spirit not still alive in our botei midrash? There Rava and Abaye live on, and we learn the Torah of Volozhin to this day.
R’ Leib Baron has an anecdote to tell us; everyone pricks up his ears. In his youth he once came to Volozhin with his brother to visit the yeshiva. They searched among the old seforim in the beis midrash hoping, as young boys will, to have the thrill of finding some famous names written in the flyleaves. In the first gemora that came to hand they found the name “Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky,” and next they came upon a gemora signed “Chaim Nachman Bialik” — a juxtaposition that concretized for them Chazal’s saying, “For he who merits, [the Torah] becomes the elixir of life; for him who does not merit, it becomes the elixir of death.”
We might add that it also epitomizes the Gra’s famous peirush on the verse, “Let my doctrine drop down like rain”: Divrei Torah are like rain, which causes every seed and plant to grow according to its nature. Fruit trees blossom and bear fruit, whereas thorns and thistles also grow in response to rain — becoming even thornier and pricklier.
But R’ Baron had a further message in mind for us, seeing our mood as we left the desolated building. Some time later, when he happened to tell this story of finding the gemoras to an antique dealer, the man yelled, “Why didn’t you take them? You could have gotten a good price for them!” The dealer added, thoughtfully, that at any rate he could have taken a tidy sum for a book signed by the “poet laureate” of Israel, but he probably wouldn’t have found many collectors who would pounce on R’ Chaim Ozer’s gemora. After all, people who can appreciate the Torah of the Achiezer are not the people who would spend a fortune to acquire his worn-out personal effects.
That is the difference between them and us, R’ Leib concluded. Those who are bound to an empty culture which is continually changing have nothing but inanimate objects to link them to the past, but we cling to the living Torah, which is still as fresh as if it had just now been given at Sinai.
Why Rabbenu Chaim Wept
Next we visit the old cemetery of Volozhin. The newly refurbished tombstone of Rabbenu Chaim of Volozhin stands out among the aged stones at the center of the cemetery. As we walk among them, we see familiar names: one member of our group points out the grave of the father of R’ Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz ylct’a. At the edge of the cemetery we notice several matzeivos that have been given a coat of paint, and we go over to see who they belong to.
They bear the name “Peresky.” These are relatives of Shimon Peres, whose grandfather was among those who learned in Volozhin and who watched in horror as his children left the path of Torah. Apparently some local authority arranged this gesture in honor of Peres’ visit a few years ago.
After we pour out our hearts in tefilla at the grave of the Nefesh HaChaim, R’ Leib Baron tells us how before his death, Rabbenu Chaim one day burst into tears. His talmidim asked him why he was crying, and he explained that the Torah had, through the centuries, gone into golus after golus, and the last golus, he said, would be in America.
But why did he cry? R’ Leib asks again. He offers this explanation: Today we can clearly see that R’ Chaim was speaking out of ruach hakodesh. There were not many Jews in America at the time of his petirah, and most of those who were there had left their fathers’ ways. The idea of founding yeshivos in the New World was like something you would see in a dream. Who could have imagined then that America would become the haven of Torah that it is today?
But if R’ Chaim knew all this through ruach hakodesh, he probably also knew of the circumstances under which it would come about.
The Torah wandered with Am Yisroel from Eretz Yisroel to Bovel, to Spain, to North Africa, and to Europe. There were many reasons for these peregrinations, including persecution by our enemies, but never has there been such large-scale destruction of the Torah world as the churban that brought Torah to America.
The survivors who straggled in gave everything they had to the task of rebuilding Torah. R’ Aharon Kotler came to America with the words, “Bemakli ovarti es haYarden hazeh” (with nothing but my staff did I cross this Jordan River), and then founded the yeshiva of Lakewood.
Just so were founded the rebuilt yeshivos of Mir, Telz, Kaminetz, and others. The Torah world was indeed rebuilt, but we do not forget what preceded the rebuilding — and it was this that made Rabbenu Chaim cry. “And just as we have seen that everything that was revealed to R’ Chaim min haShomayim came to pass, let us remember that he also said that the golus of Torah in America would be the final golus! So let us trust in those words and expect the geula,” says R’ Leib with tears in his eyes.
On the Heights
While we are trying to daven and afterwards listen to R’ Leib’s speech at the kever of Rabbenu Chaim, we are pestered by an old drunken goy who tugs at our jackets and demands that we take his picture as he poses in front of the kever. Another living proof of the churban, just in case we had needed one.
As our bus heads out of town we get one last glimpse of the building that was once the Volozhin yeshiva, still standing proudly on its hill. It brings to mind what R’ Eliahu Aharon Mielkovski wrote of his last moments there, before the yeshiva was closed (in protest at the government’s order to include secular studies in the curriculum): “I passed by the yeshiva in the middle of the day and cast an eye for the last time on the beautiful building, standing tall on the heights of the city, where I had spent the best years of my life. The roar of the voices of five hundred talmidim emanated from it. Fortunate was he who saw all this. Did it occur to any of these people that soon they would be chased out of this beis mikdash with `anger, rage and great fury’?”
On our way down we take the beginning of the path that the grieving talmidim of Volozhin took after the yeshiva was closed. As the chroniclers describe it, the police came and took the bochurim out of the beis midrash, whose doors were then locked with a government seal, while peasants gathered from the whole area with their wagons to take the exiles to the nearest train station at Molodechna.
But we are going to Molodechna for a completely different purpose. A summer camp is in progress there for Jewish children from Belarus, Lithuania and Russia who are returning to their roots, and the roshei yeshiva have been asked to speak to the children. They seem fascinated as R’ Baron tells them gently there is a mitzvah in the Torah to live for seven days in the succah, “so that your generations may know . . . “
In “The Mir”
The next day we move on to the village of Mir, where R’ Baron, R’ Katzman, and R’ Florans once learned, along with boys from all over Europe. The stream of eager talmidim was so great that R’ Shabsai Yogel once remarked, “In the posuk `all the rivers go to the sea (yam),’ the word yam is the initials of Yeshivas Mir!”
And when the yeshiva wandered off to Japan, the joke went around: Why was it decreed that “The Mir” must travel all the way to the Far East? Because that was the only part of the world from which no talmidim had arrived, and the guardian angels of those countries were jealous and wanted a part in the Mir’s Torah.
We arrived in time for a memorial ceremony. The survivors of the Jewish community of Mir had gathered from all over the world to inaugurate a memorial stone on the site of the mass grave of the martyrs Hy”d. We had met them at the Minsk airport, where a lively conversation developed between them and R’ Leib Baron, whose sharp recall of every youthful incident delighted them. These Jews — bareheaded to a man, sad to say — are proud of their hometown and understand perfectly that its sole fame comes from its yeshiva.
“Wherever we go, when they ask us where we’re from and we say `Mir,’ no one knows where that is. Who ever heard of a tiny village like that? Only when we met chareidische Yidden do we get any reaction — and what a reaction!”
We say Tehillim and Kaddish at the mass grave, remembering how R’ Avrohom Tzvi Kammai, the rav of Mir, refused to leave his townsfolk in their last moments and strode along fearlessly to his death together with his people. R’ Chaim Ozer had once said of him, after the Chofetz Chaim died, “We still have the Rav of Mir.” Now when his end was near he remained a “living sefer Torah.” Only one thing he asked of the butchers: not to shoot him at the edge of the pit but to let him climb down and then shoot him. His last thoughts were to do the mitzvah of kevurah properly, such that none of his blood would fall outside of his grave.
We heard this story on the way to the grave site from an eyewitness, who had escaped just in time and joined the partisans. He watched the procession of the doomed from his hiding place in the forest trees, and has never to this day forgotten the awesome sight of how R’ Kammai calmly descended into the pit and gave his soul back to his Creator.
R’ Osher Katzman tells us now about the last time he met the Rav of Mir. The War was already raging and the Mirrer Yeshiva had evacuated to Vilna. Food was, however, scarce there and hard to come by, to the point where the refugees were almost starving. R’ Osher had in the meantime made the acquaintance of a local baker, but when he told the man what a state the talmidim were in, he received a surprising answer: yes, the baker could manage to supply them with a small daily allotment of bread, but he had run out of salt and could find no more! Since saltless bread would not be very tasty, the baker suggested that R’ Osher find a supply of salt sufficient for the bakery, and in return he would supply the yeshiva with bread.
But where could one find salt in wartime Vilna? R’ Osher suddenly remembered his abandoned guest-room back in Mir, with a half-full sack of salt standing in the corner. Quickly he decided to make the dangerous trip there and back — anything to feed the hungry!
He returned to a fear-stricken Mir, a village where the people numbly awaited the inevitable coming of the butchers. Then he heard that R’ Kammai was still in the village. Hurrying over to the Rav’s house, he asked, “What is the Rav doing here still?”
The measured answer was, “A Rav does not leave his community in time of trouble. I am staying with my people, come what may.” Raising an eyebrow, the Rav continued, “But what are you doing here? You had already left for Vilna. Out of here, quick, if you want to escape death.”
“Suddenly R’ Kammai seized my hands and burst into tears over the closing and flight of his beloved yeshiva. `Elokim, gentiles have come into Your heritage, they have defiled Your holy place,’ he mourned, as his tears ran down and wet my hands. But after a couple of minutes he pulled himself together and commanded, `Now flee quickly, immediately, right now! Don’t wait even a minute. Every moment you delay you are in mortal danger.’ I tried to convince him to let me spend a few minutes in town to ask after my family, who had remained in Mir, but he prodded me: `Absolutely not! Off with you at once! Hurry, hurry!’
“I obeyed the Rav and rushed to the train station. All the cars in the train were full, crammed with refugees from the battle areas. I couldn’t even get into a car, and ended up standing on the steps with half my body hanging out over thin air.
“Only when I got back to Vilna did I realize how right the Rav had been. If he hadn’t hurried me along I wouldn’t be here today, for that train was the last one to leave Mir. Afterwards all roads were closed and no trains were allowed to run. Every Jew left in Mir after that last train was murdered.”
From Yeshiva to Post Office
In Volozhin, the yeshiva had been turned into a cafe; in Mir it had become the local post office, and we felt R’ Kammai’s tears once again.
Our welcome too, left something to be desired. Stiff formality, cold enmity, icy stares, and the aged postal clerk looking as if she cannot stand the sight of “those Jews” returning to Mir and shrieking at us, “No more photos!” You would have thought this village post office was a secret army base. And in ghostly counterpoint to the clerk’s hatred, R’ Baron and R’ Katzman poured out all their memories of bygone greatness, faster than we could grasp it all.
There was the day when R’ Meir Shapira of Lublin stopped by to visit. He was just then preparing to open Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, and had decided to make a grand tour of all the Lithuanian yeshivos, to see their methods and pick the right one that would fit his new yeshiva.
“R’ Meir was a chassidishe rav and when he arrived he was amazed to see, among hundreds of bochurim, not one with a beard. R’ Yeruchom explained that among us growing a beard was not seen as a mere natural activity. It was a sign of mature acceptance of one’s obligations, and therefore one should grow a beard only when he thought he had reached the right madreigo. `The bochurim,’ said R’ Yeruchom, `do not feel that they have gotten there yet.’
“All the same, when the grandson of a chassidishe Rebbe came from Poland to learn in the yeshiva, R’ Yeruchom would not let him exchange his long kapote for our sort of clothing. `According to the chinuch you grew up with,’ he told the einikel, `a kapote and a beard are part of your Yiddishkeit. And you must never give up anything that is part of Yiddishkeit!’
“R’ Meir accepted R’ Yeruchom’s explanation about beards, and added that he had just learned a chiddush. `We always hear about some Jews who are extra particular about Chassidic, or chareidi, dress and manner, yet inside they are empty — their inside is not like their outside, as Chazal say. In Yeshivas Mir I have discovered what Litvishe bnei yeshiva look like, beardless and dressed in short jackets and modern styles, and yet at the same time on the inside they are full of Torah, yira, and mussar. With these bochurim, their outside is not like their inside.’
“Before R’ Meir left, R’ Leizer Yudel the rosh yeshiva decided to show him what kind of lamdonim the bochurim were. He called over one of them and asked him to say over the chiddush he had made that morning in Kodshim. He gave a complete shiur, while dealing with kushyos that those present interjected as he spoke. R’ Meir’s eyes glistened with delight. At the end he smiled and said, `It’s a long time since I heard such clear chiddushim.’ He added jokingly (remember, R’ Meir became a rav at a very young age): `I see that the bochurim here know how to learn. Maybe when I get to their age I’ll be able to learn like them’.”
How to Save a Life
Our next stop is R’ Yeruchom’s grave. R’ Katzman tells us something about the effect “the Mashgiach,” as his talmidim call him to this day, had even after his death.
“Many years after the War I met R’ Yaakov Finkelstein in America. (He came to the yeshiva from Poland — chassidic territory.) After we greeted each other R’ Yaakov said to me with strong emotion, `I want to tell you something! By your merit my life was saved. I don’t suppose you know it yourself, but it’s a fact.’
“It turned out that he was talking about an article I had published in Sivan of 5699 (1939), on the Mashgiach’s yahrtzeit. I wrote about how I remembered R’ Yeruchom, the great mechanech, and somehow a copy of this article made its way into R’ Yaakov’s hands. It seems he was so impressed by the figure of the Mashgiach and the picture I drew of Yeshivas Mir and its ways of building ruchniyus that he decided, `I want to learn there.’ This is what motivated him to come to the yeshiva, although I never knew it. In fact, he left Poland the same day with just a single suitcase.
“If the article came out in Sivan 5699 (1939), you can understand that R’ Yaakov got to learn in Mir only for a month or so. Then the war broke out and the yeshiva set off on its wanderings — on the way to survival. `So,’ claimed R’ Yaakov to me, `it was your article that brought me to the Mir, and that is why I am alive’.”
R’ Leib agrees that many boys came to Mir simply to be near the Mashgiach. After all, he points out, a good many of them were already on high levels of lomdus and had learned from the greatest roshei yeshivos. Some of the older bochurim were fit to give shiur themselves. But all of them, from youngest to oldest, clung tightly to R’ Yeruchom. “People used to say then that what R’ Chaim Brisker was in lomdus, R’ Yeruchom was in mussar.”
R’ Yeruchom — The Mashgiach
We learned that R’ Yeruchom was a great meivin in personalities — what is called a “psychologist” nowadays. He could see down to the bottom of a person’s mentality. For example, there were boys from Germany in the yeshiva, who had arrived after they already had received a university degree. R’ Yeruchom used to give them a special shiur in Chumash, which left these boys stunned with the Mashgiach’s understanding of psychology and his ability to find the words for any concept, however subtle. “What took us years to study in the University, he can cover in a single shmuess,” they said.
There were bochurim who were actually afraid to speak freely when talking with the Mashgiach, because they knew that he was weighing every word, discovering from the nuances of their speech what was going on inside their heads. Even their “body language” spoke to him.
R’ Yeruchom, everyone knew, could tell what town a boy came from before he ever spoke with him. How did he do it? The first time a boy came from a certain town, R’ Yeruchom would observe every last detail of his conduct. After that, the next time a boy came from that town it took the Mashgiach only a few minutes to spot the unique similarities. Ordinary people can usually tell what continent or country a person comes from. R’ Yeruchom could spot the differences in mentality between one village and its neighbor.
He also could measure how mentalities change as a talmid grows, as R’ Leib remembers: “I came to Mir after Succos and went home for Pesach. Before setting out I went to take leave of R’ Yeruchom. Generally speaking he objected to bnei Torah travelling with a baal agoloh, but I explained to him that I couldn’t afford a train ticket. `Have you gone to the Rosh Yeshiva,’ he asked, `to say some Torah before you go?’ I told him that I had.
“Then suddenly I heard him mumble to himself, `Baranowitz . . . Mir . . . from Baranowitz to Mir . . . R’ Zeira fasted forty days to forget the Torah of Bovel and replace it with the Torah of Eretz Yisroel . . . Baranowitz — Mir . . . Bavli — Yerushalmi . . . ‘ All the while he was gesturing with his hands as one does when weighing a doubt. Finally he held his hand out to me and said, `For one zeman it’s not bad.’ It wasn’t hard to understand: to go from Baranowitz to Mir you had to go through an acclimatization, like R’ Zeira’s fasts, in order to absorb the unique atmosphere of Mir. After some thought he had just summed up my progress: `for one zeman — not bad.'”
R’ Leib reminisces: “When R’ Yeruchom fell sick [at the end of his life], we had no idea that it was anything serious, until one day the Rebbetzin came to the beis midrash and opened the aron kodesh and cried. The whole time, the only thing that bothered him was the fear that his mental powers might be impaired. When they brought a doctor to examine him and he forbade the Mashgiach to exert himself, R’ Yeruchom asked if this included mental exertion. The doctor was a simple village practitioner and didn’t understand what the Mashgiach was talking about. He was angry at this `silly question’ and could only ask sarcastically, `What’s the point in thinking? What would you get out of it?'”
On the way to the Mashgiach’s grave in the old cemetery of Mir, the group shared more memories. Lost since World War II, the grave was rediscovered only ten years ago by members of the Levovitz family, who restored the headstone and engraved on it the names of the family members killed during the Holocaust. Finding the grave was a story all by itself:
The family searched the entire cemetery, looking for the headstone. However, they knew that even if that had been destroyed, they had another landmark to look for: the broad concrete foundation that had been poured over the grave. Strangely, though, they could find neither headstone nor foundation anywhere. They had almost given up when a drunken farmer spotted them and beckoned them to him. “I know what you’re looking for,” he said with a grin, “and for fifty rubles I’ll show you the place.” It turned out that they had not found the concrete slab because they had looked in the wrong place! It seems that this farmer had high- handedly taken over a large part of the old cemetery and turned it into extra fields for his personal use. However, he discovered quickly that his plow kept getting stuck (somehow or other . . . ) on the concrete foundation of the Mashgiach’s grave, so he ended up not using that particular area.
The family was able, soon enough, to establish that here really was the Mashgiach’s grave, and after some brisk bargaining the farmer agreed to “sell” them the stolen cemetery area. (The old cemetery still served as a cow path to take the herds to and from their pastures. Boruch Hashem, a fence is now being put around it.)
After we said some tefillos by the grave, R’ Leib decided to give us an idea of what people meant when they said, “What R’ Chaim Brisker did for lomdus, R’ Yeruchom did for mussar.”
“R’ Shimon Schwab zt’l once told me something that the Mashgiach taught him about bein odom lechavero. Before Pesach R’ Shimon had borrowed some money from R’ Yeruchom so that he could get home for yom tov. When he came back to Mir and paid the loan back, he attempted to say, `Thank you,’ but R’ Yeruchom cut him off brusquely: `Don’t you know the halacha, that saying thank you might be ribis?’
“A year later R’ Shimon needed once again to borrow his travel money, and this time when he paid it back after yom tov he remembered his lesson. Shaking slightly, he put the money on the table and rushed for the door without saying a word. The Mashgiach called him back: `What about saying Thank you? What happened to gratitude?’ R’ Shimon was staggered: `Last year you warned me that it’s ossur!’ Now R’ Yeruchom explained himself: `To say it is certainly ossur; but you still have to want to say it! You mustn’t treat other people’s help as if it were a matter of course. To say thank you out loud is ossur, but your heart has to feel thank you.'”
Always on Duty
“The Mashgiach went on building us up and strengthening us even after he died. I remember in Shanghai when we trembled with fear amidst the terrible bombings, R’ Yechezkel zt’l told us one morning that R’ Yeruchom had spoken to him the previous night in his dream. `He said that we would have great difficulties, but we would come out of them safely,’ R’ Yechezkel reported.
“He used to tell us that the Mashgiach was definitely speaking up for us in Shomayim, `He’s looking out (mashgiach) for us,’ was the way he often put it. He explained that R’ Yeruchom wasn’t just guarding us; the Mashgiach couldn’t stop being the Mashgiach no matter what the circumstances. He was still full of concern for the yeshiva’s welfare, and kept busy constantly davening for us in Shomayim, that we should not be harmed either physically or spiritually.
“And the truth is that in those days we actually saw Hashem’s hand and His hashgocho every step of the way. We were learning then in an old building in the Hongkyo industrial district of Shanghai, an abandoned factory that was practically a ruin. It was enough to look at it to convince you not to go in. The whole building actually leaned to one side, and it looked as if it was about to fall over, any moment. Not to mention that the Americans were bombing the whole industrial district so as to put the arms factories out of action. I remember that the heaviest bombings used to knock down even buildings that hadn’t been hit — the shock wave alone was enough. These were mostly poor people’s homes, and they collapsed like a house of cards. The streets were strewn with corpses. But with Hashem’s help, not one of the yeshivaleit was hurt.
“Even in quiet times we felt afraid to walk into the yeshiva, and the fear was much more during bombings. If we even heard the sound of the bomber planes approaching, the whole yeshiva would rush out of the building. Only R’ Yechezkel would stay and learn with R’ Moshe Berenstein zt’l (who just recently passed away). He had no doubts that the safest place of all was a place of Torah study.
“Every bombing run weakened the building’s foundations more, until we were afraid to go on there. We all got together, everyone gave ten dollars, and with the three thousand dollars that gave us we bought another building in better condition. Two weeks after we moved, the old building fell down — not during a bombing run, just out of dilapidation! One of the talmidim still has a photograph of the ruins.”
A Four-Hour Shiur
From Mir we took the road to Baranowitz. That was the opposite direction of what the bochurim used to take. Yeshivas Ohel Torah of Baranowitz was meant for younger boys, who would spend their years from 13 to 18 there and then go on to learn elsewhere — perhaps in Mir.
They are old men now, but they remember: R’ Elchonon Hy’d used to give two shiurim every day: one from 9 to 11 in the morning, and a second one immediately afterwards, from 11 to 1 P.M. Four hours straight! Both shiurim were on the same maseches, too, only the first one was for the higher classes and the second one was simpler, for the beginners. (The kibbutz only heard one shiur a week.) In Baranowitz they didn’t learn just one or two perokim of the maseches: they learned it from start to finish, taking two zemanim to do it thoroughly.
R’ Elchonon stuck to the daf in his shiur, always dealing with the pshat. It wasn’t out of necessity, that much was sure. R’ Leib Baron remembers what the mashgiach, R’ Yisroel Lubchansky, told him over the Shabbos table (R’ Leib made his Shabbos by the mashgiach for several months.) R’ Elchonon, told the mashgiach, was renowned for his pilpul; people called him “the Boisker illui.” Then one day he told some of his chiddushim to one of the gedolei hador, who immediately rebuked him: “This is not the way! You must learn pshat.” From that day on R’ Elchonon put away his pilpulim and stuck to learning the pshat.
R’ Leib used to write down the Rosh Yeshiva’s shiur every day. His transcriptions were so accurate that when R’ Elchonon decided to publish his Kovetz He’aros he sent his son R’ Naftoli Hy’d to Mir (where R’ Leib was learning by this time) to ask for his notes to serve as the basis for the proposed book.
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.
Rod and Staff
Next we hear about R’ Dovid Rappaport zt’l hy’d, the Mikdash Dovid. Once, when R’ Boruch Ber Leibowitz had come all the way from Kaminetz to a wedding in Baranowitz, in the middle of the simcha he was told that R’ Dovid was just then entering the hall. R’ Boruch Ber jumped out of his seat, trembling, and drew himself up straight and tall to greet the guest. Seeing everyone’s astonished looks, he said simply, “Seder Kodshim just walked in!”
R’ David always prepared his shiur while walking slowly up and down the streets of Baranowitz, totally enwrapped in his thoughts. When his talmidim discussed the day’s shiur afterwards, you would hear them saying, “This part the Rav must have worked out on Sdobska Street, this bit would have fallen into place on Poscztova Street.” If anyone asked R’ Dovid if the passersby didn’t disturb him, he would answer, “The Jews of Baranowitz couldn’t possibly disturb a person’s Torah study!”
As he walked around the town, R’ Dovid would constantly tap the ground with his cane, now to the left, now to the right. “We used to say that when he tapped on the right-hand side he had found a ra’ayah in the Bavli, and when he tapped on the left he had thought of a pircha to it from the Yerushalmi.”
The rough shouts of the gentile youths bouncing basketballs waken us from our dream of the past and eventually drive us out of the building, shuddering at the realization of what has become of this once-holy place.
The present takes on an even gloomier aspect when we meet with the few remaining Jews of Baranowitz. For sixty years they have had no contact at all with the Torah. To think what they once were . . . a community famous all over Europe for its single-minded devotion to Torah, people whose bustle on the street “couldn’t possibly disturb a person’s Torah study.” When a bochur from the Mirrer Yeshiva married a young woman from Baranowitz, R’ Yeruchom spoke ecstatically at the wedding: “To marry a Baranowitzer meidel is in itself a treasure worth half a nedunya!”
These were the people who were practically starving, yet willing, gladly, took in the yeshiva bochurim, one and all, for “eating days,” sharing what they themselves didn’t have so as to keep their beloved yeshiva functioning.
R’ Leib remembers the day he took leave of his old melamed to go off to learn in Baranowitz. His teacher thoughtfully asked, “How is a boy from a family as poor as yours going to have money for food?” When young Leib answered that he would go out for “eating days” with families, like the other boys, the melamed said to him, “I hope that the posuk will come true for you, `Oheiv yomim lir’os tov’ — loving your eating days and seeing something good on the table!”
Like the old melamed, the bochurim never ceased cracking jokes about their “eating days,” but the jokes had an edge to them; hunger is no laughing matter, and poor food and not enough of it is no solution for the problem.
They told, for example, of the boy who dreamed of winning the state lottery. “And what would you do with all that money?” his friends asked him. “What kind of question is that?” he shot back. “Obviously, I’d build a house with seven stories. Then I’d rent each story out to a different baalebos, all of them well-to-do of course, and then I could get decent meals every day of the week!”
Sometimes an overly solicitous baalebuste could create problems just by being so attentive. The questions would rain down on the poor bochur’s head: “Where are you from? What do your parents do? How did you travel to Baranowitz? How long did it take?” And the boy, too embarrassed to eat while someone was talking to him, would sit there hungry while his food (none too abundant to begin with) got cold.
One day one of the bochurim in Baranowitz excitedly told his friends about a solution he had found to this problem. He had just tried it out, and it worked perfectly! “The moment the baalebuste started in with the questions, I didn’t wait for her to ask, instead I gave her the whole story in one shot: `I’m from Eishishok, I have a father but my mother died two years ago, I have six brothers and sisters but we manage all right because my sisters help out in the house, my maternal grandparents live in Slutsk but my father’s side come from Vilna, I’m in the second shiur in the yeshiva and I like it. . . .’ The poor lady was so bowled over that she got out of the kitchen quick and I had my lunch in peace.”
The Dead and the Living
Inevitably we visit the mass grave where the Jews of Baranowitz are buried. Nowadays it is marked by a memorial pillar, but we discover that this is not the original gravesite. The local government decided to put a public building on the original spot, and “permitted” the tiny community of survivors to move the bones to the present location. We say Kaddish over the remains of the holy community, now memorialized in the yeshiva in Yerushalayim, Ahavas Torah-Baranowitz.
Our next stop was Radin. On the way, as we bounced around on the very rough road, R’ Osher Katzman remarked that it seemed as if the road had not been repaired since one night long ago when he and his friends got stuck in one of the potholes.
It was the day that the news reached the yeshiva about the passing of the Chofetz Chaim, rabbon shel Yisroel. We rushed out to hire a wagon to take us to the levaya, but on the way the axle broke. There we were, enveloped in our mourning, forlorn on the wayside and beaten by the pouring rain. There seemed to be no hope. How could we find a replacement for the broken axle here, on a deserted road to a tiny village in the middle of nowhere?
The mashgiach of the yeshiva of Baranowitz, HaRav Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky, was with us, and he offered a heartfelt prayer: Ribono Shel Olom, have mercy on these poor bochurim who used their last pennies to go for kovod haTorah and to participate in the levaya of the godol hador.
Hardly a few minutes had passed when suddenly a wagon lurched out of the darkness. The non-Jewish owner stopped and told us that he just happened by. Amazingly, when he heard of our problems, he found that he just “happened” to have with him a spare wagon axle, and we made it to Radin!
The Last Jews
At every place we visited, our encounters with the remnants of local Jewry prompted us to wonder aloud, “Who will be left here in a few more years?”
In every village a Jewish family or two remains. These are the people who have the keys to the Jewish cemetery and who show visitors the way to the buildings that were once yeshivos or homes of rabbonim. In Volozhin it is Moshe Alterman who performs this function. He, his wife, and his daughter live isolated among the gentiles. Their life is not easy in the material sense, and it is certainly not easy to live with the memories that stare them in the face. Opposite the Alterman home is the mass grave where the Jews of Volozhin were slaughtered. “Every morning when I open my eyes,” says Mrs. Alterman in tears, “I see the spot where they murdered my mother.”
In Mir one Jew is left alive. Likewise in Radin. In Rakov, the hometown of R. Osher Katzman, where his uncle R. Avrohom Kalmanowitz zt”l served as rav, not a single Jew remains. All the local inhabitants know of Jews is the story of how the Nazis herded them all into the synagogues and burned them alive.
Erev Shabbos in Vilna, we hear the bad news that the last Jew of Kelm has passed away suddenly: Dr. Meir, who devoted his last years to the care of the Jewish cemeteries and retrieving lost kisvei yad.
In Kovno there are still Jews, not all of whom are aware of their history. Chatzkel Zak, the gabai who used to act as tour guide to Jewish visitors, emigrated to the United States a few months ago, so we find our way with the help of Yehudah Ronder, who speaks perfect Hebrew and is excited to meet us. Listening to the exchange between him and R. Leib Baron, we are impressed once again by R. Leib’s acute memory.
The first time had been when Moshe Alterman had come to unlock the gates of the Volozhin cemetery for us. R. Leib remembered that he had known a family called Alterman in his childhood hometown, Horodok. Soon the two of them were reminiscing about their youths and R. Leib was recalling various members of the Alterman family by name, wondering what had become of them.
Now, as we meet Yehuda Ronder, we are just as astonished as R. Leib recalls that he and his friends from Yeshivas Mir had stayed with a family called Ronder during their escape from the Nazis. Our guide is almost struck speechless. To think that sixty years later he is face to face with one of the Mirrer bochurim that his family had taken in. “I never dreamed I would be zoche to such a miracle, to meet Jews like you and walk with you on Lithuanian ground,” he says. On the way, Ronder reminds us repeatedly that the Nazis had plenty of help in their work from local citizenry. He sees it as one of his life’s purposes to try to bring these criminals to justice.
We visit Yeshivas Radin, where Meir Stoller, the last Jewish resident, tells us how he was saved from the Nazis. When the Jews were rounded up to be shot, he and his friends, a group of strong young men, were selected and ordered to dig the pits that would serve as mass graves.
Realizing what was going to happen, they made a plan. At a prearranged signal, the workers suddenly raised their spades and struck at the necks of the German soldiers standing over them. While the soldiers reeled in shock, the Jews fled into the forest. The Nazi officer yelled at the stunned soldiers to fire. A confused rain of bullets flew over their heads, and then the officer himself came galloping after them on horseback. He aimed his rifle accurately, but Meir Stoller grabbed a handful of stones and threw them at the horse’s head. The horse reared up in fright and the shot that was meant for Stoller hit the branches overhead as he escaped.
He joined a band of partisans and survived the war. When asked why chose to live alone in Radin after the war, he replies, “I want to die in peace in the place where my life was saved.” Who can understand the heart of a man who has been through troubles like those?
These are the Jews who are left caring for the cemeteries and guiding the tourists. What will happen when they are gone, too?
As we make our way back to Eretz Yisroel and America, we are full of the memories of our journey to Minsk, Volozhin, Mir, Baranowitz, Radin, Vilna, Kovno and Kaidan. Centuries of Torah life and our Jewish heritage, passing before our eyes as if in a dream. There is nothing left of the life of old. All we can do is to visit the centers of the past, and remember what once was and is no more.
It was against that background, that the Israeli immigrant who had been born in postwar Vilna approached us in the airport and asked, innocently: “Tell me something — what is a Dos like you doing in Vilna? Did you lose something here?”
(Reprinted with permission from the Yated Ne’eman and Rabbi Mordechai Plaut)