From Vilna to Birzh: Refugees Gather in Lithuania
Over fifteen thousand refugees fled to Lithuania from all over Poland, including great roshei yeshiva and their students such as HaRav Boruch Ber Leibowitz with his Yeshivas Kaminetz, HaRav Elchonon Wasserman with his Yeshivas Baranowitz, HaRav Lezer Yudel Finkel and HaRav Chatzkel Levenstein with their Yeshivas Mir. The Brisker Rov, HaRav Yitzchok Zeev Soloveitchik, HaRav Aharon Kotler with Yeshivas Kletsk, HaRav Moshe Rosenstein with Yeshivas Lomzha, the sons of HaRav Shimon Shkop zt'l and Yeshivas Grodno, HaRav Zaks and Yeshivas Radin and more.
On 17 Kislev (the yahrtzeit of the Alter of Novardok), the talmidim of the Novardok yeshivos and their rebbeim all gathered in Vilna. At that gathering, HaRav Shmuel Panitch, the mashgiach of Yeshivas Mezhritz, suggested taking out the sifrei Torah and that everyone should swear on the sefer Torah that he would not abandon the Torah. Everyone at the gathering did so, overcome with crying. It was an unforgettable gathering.
HaRav Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky zt'l said at the gathering that Vilna is the blade of the double-edged sword. [See the sefer, Lev HaAri, the speeches and memories of HaRav Nekritz zt'l, for a deep understanding of the hidden and prophetic words of the famous mashgiach HaRav Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky.]
I lost my precious tefillin in Vilna, so I contacted an expert sofer, a yirei Shomayim who specialized in making special, wondrous batim. With aid money from the Joint, I bought a new pair of outstanding, mehudar tefillin. [I was zoche to be moser nefesh for these tefillin in order to keep them while in Siberia.]
There was wondrous unity between all the bnei yeshiva refugees in Vilna. Students came to listen to shiurim from HaRav Boruch Ber zt'l, from the Griz of Brisk, from HaRav Elchonon Wasserman and to hear divrei Torah from the Modzhitz and Amshinover Rebbes at their tischen on Shabbos.
Taanis Tzibbur in Lithuania
When the refugees gathered in Vilna, the Agudas HaRabbonim announced a taanis tzibbur. The following is the announcement.
"Be'ezras Hashem 18 Shevat 5700 (1940).
"Eis tzoro leYaakov, which has almost not been thus in Yisroel's history. We are now standing on the threshold of the end of a shemittah of misfortunes for am Yisroel. In the past seven years, we have seen evil, beis Yisroel has been battered to pieces. Not only villages, but complete states were plucked and uprooted from their places. In a great storm, thousands and hundreds of families were pulled from the roots, went into exile and did not find rest for the sole of their feet. And the later hardships make the previous ones forgotten. The latest one was weighty: the country of Poland was destroyed in the blink of an eye.
"And when trouble comes to the world, Yisroel receives a major portion. As of today, the strongest settlement, the backbone of our nation, three-and-a-half million souls of our brethren bnei Yisroel [in Poland], was destroyed and thrown, plundered and crushed in body and spirit, drowning in a sea of blood and tears, refuse and disgrace. Woe is to us that such happened in our days!
"With mercy from Heaven, amidst the gloominess and darkness, Hashem kept his promise to Yisroel that Torah would not be forgotten from His children and saved the remainder of His scribes: the great yeshivos with the ramim and geonim and many great rabbonim, who found refuge in Vilna. The Lithuanian government generously welcomed them.
"The prisoner, however, can not free himself from prison and can not even scream and shout. But we, who are the closest to the slain, have the tremendous responsibility to scream and arouse mercy for our brothers who are about to be killed and plundered, disgraced and degraded. At a bitter, distressing time such as this, which has not been since Yisroel went into exile, we must fulfill what is written in the Torah: `Batzar lecho umetzo'ucho, when you are in distress and [the hardships] find you' . . . `veshavto, and you shall return [to Hashem]' . . . `veshov, and [Hashem] will return [to you].' And in the Nevi'im and Kesuvim: `Im tidreshuhu yimtzo lochem, ve'im ta'azvuhu va'azov eschem, If you seek Him, He will find you, and if you leave Him, He will leave you.' 'Yikro'eini vo'e'ene, imo Onochi betzoro, You will call Me and I will answer; I am with you in distress.'
"And the Rambam in the first chapter of Hilchos Taanis: `It is a positive commandment in the Torah to scream and shout over any hardship that comes upon the congregation, as it says "al hatzar hatzoreir eschem." It is part of doing teshuvoh that when a hardship comes and he screams about it and shouts, everyone will know that their evil deeds caused bad for them, etc. And this will cause the hardship to be removed from them. If they don't scream and shout, however, but say this happening is the way of the world, etc., this is cruelty and the other hardships will be added to the hardship etc. The Sofrim say to fast on any hardship that comes upon a community, until they have pity on him from Shomayim.'
"Based on this, the general rabbinical convention in Kovna decided to establish a day of fasting: Thursday, erev Rosh Chodesh Adar I, which will come upon us for good. Every one of our brothers bnei Yisroel, from age eighteen and above, is required to participate in the pain of the community in fast and crying, to arouse mercy on the nation Yisroel, whose haters do not know mercy. On this fast day, we must fulfill the words of the novi [Yeshayohu 58:7], `Should you not give the hungry your bread, . . . when you see him naked, cover him.' The purpose of the fast is teshuvoh and good deeds, and we must arouse ourselves to do teshuvoh and strengthen basic religious principals and also give tzedokoh, especially clothing to the thousands of refugees found in Lithuania.
"May Hashem hear our cries and from the hardship find redemption and savior. May He bring our savior quickly and gather the remote and scattered, and the year of redemption should come. And the words of the novi [Ibid. 2:4] should be fulfilled in us, `Lo yiso goy el goy cherev, no nation will lift a sword against another nation!' May there be peace in the world, and our Geula and pedus nafsheinu come swiftly."
The Central Agudas HaRabbonim in Lithuania
After the refugees were in Vilna for a short time, the Lithuanian government established a "refugee office" and issued "refugee certificates" to all Polish refugees. The yeshivos which had congregated together were told to leave Vilna and to disperse to nearby villages.
A week before Pesach 5700 (1940), we arrived in the village of Birzh with the rosh yeshiva HaRav Yaffen and the mashgichim HaRav Yisroel Mowshowitz and HaRav Nisan Patchinsky.
It was a typical Lithuanian village. The rov of the village, HaRav Mordechai Leib Berenstein Hy'd (disciple of the Alter of Slobodka) greeted us happily and took care of our needs. We stayed at a baal habayis when we first came. When the Russians took over, I moved to the rov of the village's house, where I stayed with two of my friends from yeshiva, together also with HaRav Nisan Zilinker (Babroisker) Hy'd, his wife and small children, Hy'd. (The rov treated HaRav Nisan's children like adopted sons, since he himself had no children. He used to sit and learn with them like sons.)
In his Shabbos Hagodol speech, the rov burst out in loud, bitter tears. He cried out emotionally, "Bochurim came to us, refugees from the valley of tears, and they are lacking bread. Can we sit on leil haseder at the Seder table when they still don't have matzos for Pesach?"
The rov collected money, bought wheat (not shemurah from the time of harvest, but only from the time of milling), and baked matzos for us in the village's matzo bakery. He also bought a cow for the sole purpose of supplying us with butter and milk.
In Birzh, the yeshiva reopened anew in one of the botei medrashos. Shiurim and shmuessen were given as usual, and the learning went back to its former level of great diligence, especially since we once again had the mashgichim HaRav Yisroel Mowshowitz and HaRav Nisan Patchinsky, as well as HaRav Nisan Babroisker. Thus a tense year of war passed with great diligence in Torah learning.
The Russians Take Control of Lithuania and Latvia
As the Germans expanded in Western Europe, the Russians also began taking control of no-man's land.
On isru chag of Shavuos 5700 (1940), Russian tanks rolled into Lithuania and established a Communist government. After two months, they announced simulated elections and the results were as follows: the Lithuanian nation requested to annex its land to "Mother Russia."
During these months, the unsettled period of the Communist government in Lithuania, all foreign consulates in Kovno, Lithuania were still active. Feverish efforts were made to emigrate, to obtain visas and certificates to wherever it was possible to go. We, the Novardok bnei yeshiva, were not able to obtain Japanese visas due to a lack of financial means.
Meanwhile, Russia annexed Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to the greater Russia. This is not the place to describe the tremendous difficulty in learning Torah under the evil Communist government, but boruch Hashem, we sat and learned despite the difficulties.
The rosh yeshiva HaRav Yaffen zt'l had a visa to America. He feared that the Russians were planning to deport him to frozen Siberia since he was guilty of the crime of spreading Torah in Russia and smuggling over the Russian border. He decided to travel to America when the possibility arose in Adar 5701 (1941), when he received exit permits through Russia and Japan from the N.V.K.D. He hoped that in America he would be able to help the bnei yeshiva who did not have the monetary means, to escape. Before his emigration, it seems that he gave our names to the N.V.K.D office as candidates for emigration.
In the first part (of three) HaRav Grodka discussed his early years briefly and then went on to describe his years in yeshiva. He entered the Novardok yeshiva of Bialystok at the age of 16 in 1936, and was able to learn there for three years before the War broke out in Elul, 5639 (1939). He discussed the yomim noraim that year and what it was like to learn and live with the clouds of war hanging low. Many yeshivas from Poland and Russia went to Vilna, Lithuania in the hope that it would be independent of both Germany and Russia. A week before Pesach 5700 (1940) Rav Grodka arrived in Birzh with the yeshiva and the rosh yeshiva HaRav Yaffen and the mashgichim
HaRav Yisroel Mowshowitz and HaRav Nissen Patchinsky. However soon Russia took over Lithuania
Kabbolas HaTorah on the Way to Siberia!
Many respected, important roshei yeshiva of Yeshivas Novardok and their students were in Lithuania during the war and exile. We'll mention a few of them, who blossomed in the desolation and exile.
HaRav Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky, mashgiach of Baranowitz and brother-in- law of HaRav Yaffen, the son-in- law of the Alter of Novardok zy'o. He stayed with his students (of Yeshivas Ohel Torah-Baranowitz) and the rosh yeshiva HaRav Elchonon Wasserman Hy'd in Lithuania, and then in Troki near Vilna. He did keep in contact with our yeshiva in Birzh, and every once in a while he came to give mussar shmuessen and to speak with his brother-in- law the Rosh Yeshiva.
I remember that once I heard from the rov of Birzh, HaRav Mordechai Leib Berenstein Hy'd that when HaRav Yisroel Yaakov came, he asked him a difficult halochoh sheilo. HaRav Yisroel Yaakov hesitated to give a psak halochoh, even though he had served as rov in Baranowitz. He said that he thought the halochoh should be thus, but he'd ask his rebbi (meaning HaRav Elchonon zt'l) and send the answer by letter. Some time later, the rov received a letter with the answer, that the halochoh was indeed as he had said and that is what one must do.
HaRav Yitzchok Elchonon Waldshen-Shorshuber, mashpia ruchani in Baranowitz and Pinsk, also stayed in Lithuania, as well as HaRav Yoel Kleinerman and Reb Aharon Agulnik of Yeshivas Ostrov Mezhibezk, and HaRav Moshe Reisz of Pinsk, Czechnovsa, and Lutzk. HaRav Shmuel Weintraub and HaRav Yerachmiel Shulman of Yeshivas Novardok in Pinsk, and the famous mashgiach (mentioned in the oath taken on the sefer Torah) Rav Shmuel Panitsh Hy'd of Yeshivas Novardok in Mezhritz (who was killed in the end al kiddush Hashem in the village of Nimichin, Lithuania with his students while holding the sefer Torah in his hand).
HaRav Nissen Zilinker (Babroisker) zt'l Hy'd, brother- in-law of HaRav Ben Tzion Bruk, was on the hanholoh ruchanit of the yeshiva. Even when we were under the Bolshevik reign, he exuded happiness and joy from his shining face.
I remember the hakofos of Simchas Torah (5701-1941) under the Bolshevik- Russian government. He and his students sang together, to the tune of a well- known Communist anthem, an emotional song about strengthening oneself over all religious persecution. (This song has been printed in Yiddish in the sefer, Ner Leyitzhor, a book of resolutions of the vaadim and Novardok hanhogos.) The Russians, who saw how they were singing their anthem song for kedushoh and to strengthen themselves against religious persecutors, ground their teeth in restrained anger. The song began in Yiddish in rhyme with the chorus, "Like our fathers long ago, during religious persecution, we are not afraid, and we laugh at all of them!"
They say that when he felt the Nazi noose getting tighter, HaRav Zilinker wrote a special song about spiritual preparation for the impending mesiras nefesh and kiddush Shem Shomayim. When I visited his brother-in- law HaRav Ben Tzion Bruk zt'l, he burst out in tears upon remembering his brother-in-law, HaRav Zilinker Hy'd. He also composed the famous song of bitochon, "Ashrei hagever asher som Hashem mivtacho velo ponoh el rehovim, fortunate is the man who puts his trust in Hashem and does not turn to emptiness" (published in the sefer, Lapid Eish Novardokai about HaRav Yitzchok Orlansky).
Once he composed a song about reading newspapers. The song began with, "Newspapers are the new idols."
Everything that happened to us in the Lithuanian village of Birzh left an indelible impression on us. We strengthened ourselves and grew in Torah and achieved a proper outlook on everything that happens in the world, especially overcoming nisyonos. One of the shuls in Birzh served as the "Beis Mussar," a place to work on mussar and self- improvement.
A Portrait of the Village Rov
The village rov, Rav Leib Berenstein Hy'd zt'l, was born in Minsk in 5647 (1887) to HaRav Chaim Eliezer, ram of the yeshiva in Minsk. [In his old age, his father immigrated in Eretz Yisroel and gave shiurim in the shul, Nachalas Shiva. He passed away there in 5706 (1946). One of his sons was killed in the big slaughter of Yeshivas Chevron in Chevron.]
Rav Leib was considered one of the best lamdonim in Yeshivas Knesses Yisroel (Slobodka) and was a talmid muvhak of the Alter of Slobodka zy'o. He always used to tell over the words and gems of the Alter of Slobodka. [He told me that in yeshiva he was called Mottel Minsker, so I deduced that his real name was Rav Mordechai Leib, not just Rav Leib.]
Once he told me in the name of the Alter of Slobodka zt'l, "First be a mentch and then a frumer!"
He married the daughter of a prominent member of the village, Rav Nosson Nota, and was then appointed av beis din of Birzh.
He was very strong in rabbinical matters and did not show favoritism. He was very accepted by the Agudas HaRabbonim in Kovno, which offered him rabbonus in large, important cities. However, he refused to leave Birzh.
When the Rosh Yeshiva was going to travel to America through Japan, he asked the rov of Birzh, Rav Leib Berenstein Hy'd to give shiurim and mussar shmuessen in the yeshiva in his absence.
The village rov was an outstanding talmid chochom, baal mussar, a great yirei Shomayim and a man of mesiras nefesh for Torah and mitzvos. Even under Communist rule, the rov himself used to heat up the mikveh, change the water and clean the floor and would not allow any of us to help him. He did everything in secret, with love of mitzvos. And he was a great gaon in the treasures of Torah and yir'oh. Many stories can be told about him, especially about his mesiras nefesh for the yeshiva's existence.
Let Us Grasp the Torah
HaRav Nekritz zt'l, in his sefer Lev HoAri, told about the Shabbos Hagodol in 5701 (1941) when the rov of the city, Rav Leib Berenstein, got up at the bimoh of the beis hamedrash. In his drosho, the Rov mentioned the words of the Chofetz Chaim zy'o in 5677 (1917), when he was in exile in Russia as a refugee from Radin. In that period, the Communists took over the government and prohibited keeping mitzvos and learning Torah.
Simchas Torah arrived and the Chofetz Chaim was called up for an aliyoh leTorah. The Chofetz Chaim approached, grasped the atzei chaim in his hands and said, "Ribono shel Olom, look. We used to have houses where we grew up; we had sons and daughters, livelihood and sustenance. You took everything away from us and now You also want to take away this Torah. But we say, `No, the Torah will not slip away from us.'" And everyone burst out crying.
The Rov mentioned another idea in the name of the Chofetz Chaim from that period. On Parshas Vayeiro, the congregation came to his house to daven ma'ariv. The Chofetz Chaim turned to them and asked if his son-in-law Reb Hirsch was there. They said he would come immediately. When Reb Hirsch arrived, the Chofetz Chaim said to him, "Do you know, I have an idea of what to do. Behold Lot said to the people of Sedom that he was relinquishing his two daughters, and `to these men do not do anything, because for this reason they came into the shade of my house [under my protection].' If Lot had such sentiments, let us also complain and hide in the shade of Hakodosh Boruch Hu, and He (so to speak) is definitely no less Lot and will definitely protect us!' With this, the Rov concluded his speech and said, `Come, let us hold onto the atzei chaim of the Torah hakedoshah. We will guard the kedushoh of the family and make sure not to eat neveilah and treifah, and this zchus will stand for us to quickly be saved."
On 20 Sivan 5701 (1941) (a week before war broke out between the Russians and Germans) all the bnei yeshiva who had asked for exit permits and did not agree to accept Soviet citizenship were imprisoned. They were packed into cattle cars and sent to far-off Siberia as criminals, because they refused to accept Soviet citizenship. It could be that the Russians already suspected that the Germans planned to attack them, and they wanted to remove potential opposition from the area.
One thing we remembered -- that we must hold onto the eitz chaim of the Torah!
The atmosphere in those days in the bnei yeshiva refugees in Lithuania, who were not yet zoche to escape the Communist government, was tense. Many bnei yeshiva already celebrated Pesach in Japan and other countries free from Bolshevik rule. We celebrated Pesach with bitochon in Hashem, who did miracles for our fathers in Mitzrayim, that He would redeem us quickly. As the village Rov said, if we grab hold of the Torah, the Giver of the Torah would protect us, even if we are exiled to Siberia.
HaRav Nekritz zt'l mentioned to his friends in the cattle cars, "Do you remember the brochoh of havdoloh?" While the prison cars took us to the depths of Siberia, we put our hands around each others' shoulders on motzei Shabbos and said, "Hamavdil bein kodesh lechol, bein or lechoshech, bein Yisroel lo'amim!"
We were going from the kodesh of learning Torah all day, from tefilloh and mussar, to the "frying pan of chol" of working all day. From a life of "light" and tranquility to a life of "darkness," hunger and suffering, frigidness and ice. Between Yisroel and the nations: until now we almost never saw a gentile face; now we were traveling and would be among gentiles.
We therefore declared together: let us make the havdoloh, the separation. And the aron kodesh and the heilege Torah would separate us from hardship to hardship. Indeed that is how we strengthened ourselves and survived. We fulfilled the advice of the Chofetz Chaim zy'o, mentioned by the Rov of Birzh zt'l -- to grab hold of the tree of life -- the heilege Torah.
Erev Shabbos parshas Behaalosecha 5701 (1941), Birzh, Lithuania, after Yeshivas Bialystok fled from Poland.
The sun rose, and as usual we woke up in time for tefillas shacharis in the yeshiva, which was now in Birzh. After davening, the yeshiva had its usual halochoh session with HaRav Nissen Babroisker zt'l. After davening and learning, we each went to our respective hosts for breakfast and then returned to the yeshiva for the learning session.
On this particular erev Shabbos, we felt a strange excitement in the air that aroused our suspicion. Everywhere we turned, we met NKVD soldiers with their blue hats (We called them the sheidim, demons.) No one could possibly know what satanic plans were up their sleeves.
On Shabbos night, we davened as usual and sang Shabbos zemiros like every Shabbos kodesh, and we did not imagine what was going to happen to us on this Shabbos.
At about 2:30 a.m., there was loud banging at the door of the local rov, HaRav Mordechai Berenstein. (During that period, I and two other bochurim lived there.)
We opened the door, and NKVD soldiers burst into the house like demons. They woke up the two bochurim and dragged them out of their beds. Then the soldiers opened their files and verified that they were the wanted "criminals" (since they had fled from Poland to Russian Lithuania). They demanded that they sign the criminal file detailing their rightful punishments.
Because it was Shabbos kodesh, the bochurim did not want to sign, so the NKVD demanded that the Rov command them to sign. When the Rov zt'l refused, they threatened to shoot him. The Rov replied that he was ready to be shot.
In the end, they took the two bochurim who were listed in the criminal files and left me free. (One of the bochurim lives today in Bnei Brak boruch Hashem, and the other is no longer alive.)
I went to daven in shul, as we no longer davened in the building that housed the yeshiva. The mashgiach, the tzaddik HaRav Yisroel Mowshowitz zt'l and many talmidim were imprisoned on that Shabbos night. Many rumors flew around about the bochurim captured by the NKVD -- rumor after rumor.
During krias haTorah there was a bitter feeling, recalling that the two upside-down nunim between vayehi binso'a ho'Oron to alfei Yisroel were there to separate between troubles and hardships. (see Rashi and peirush Kol Kisvei).
After davening, we were afraid to return to the dining room, in case the NKVD beasts would fall upon us, and everyone went back to his host. I also went to the Rov's house.
When I reached the courtyard, I peeked through the window and saw two NKVD officers (or soldiers) sitting and waiting for me. I decided that I was not going to try to hide anywhere; everything is in Hashem's hands. I went forward and when I opened the door, the two terrorists jumped on me and asked me my name. When I told them, they were very happy that they caught the wanted "criminal," instructed me to pack all of my possessions and come with them.
I told them that today is Shabbos and I am forbidden to do any work. They started to laugh at me -- what is he talking about, Shabbos? They instructed Rebbetzin Babroisker a'h (who was staying at the Rov's house) to pack my belongings for me. The Rov zt'l understood that it was pikuach nefesh, so she packed all my possessions.
But when they asked me to sign the criminal file on Shabbos, I remained stubborn and did not sign. Then they pressured me to take my packages, and I was adamant about this as well and refused to carry on Shabbos. The end was that I saw an unusual, wondrous thing: the two of them carried my packages to the train to Siberia and even put them on the train for me.
Because I refused to sign the criminal file on Shabbos however, they shoved me into a special car meant for animals. The sight was really terrible. The roof was metal with two holes in it; it was a miracle that we did not faint from the heat and stuffiness, as the car was very crowded.
For three weeks, we sat in this cattle car, guarded by armed soldiers who did not allow us to get off. The entire first week of travel we were still in Lithuania which was under Russian rule. At every train station that the train stopped, local Jews brought us food at HaRav Berenstein's request. The train used to stop for a day or two, but we were trapped inside and could not get out.
The esteemed mashgiach, HaRav Yisroel Mowshowitz was with us in the cattle car. On Friday, after a week of travel, the train stopped in the vicinity of Vilna and stayed in the Vileika station until after Shabbos. We met Rav Gershon Leibman (zt'l, rosh yeshiva and founder of Novardok in France), and he began to cry bitterly due to his deep pain and emotion.
The day after Shabbos, the train continued on its way and approached the Russian border, and on motzei Shabbos, we reached Minsk, the capital city of White Russia.
Meanwhile, the mashgiach told us that he had heard the Russian radio and understood that the Germans had opened war on the Russians.
Once a day, we received a portion of bread with soup. Since we spilled out the soup, they stopped giving it to us and allowed us to take a bucket of boiling water instead. Thus three weeks passed in the train and on Sunday of the fourth week, we reached the Rishota station in Krasniask, Siberia. There the yeshiva students' Siberian chapter began.
All the pain and suffering we experienced traveling as prisoners and in Siberia was yad Hashem to save us from the Nazi valley of death in conquered Lithuania.