The story of Volozhin
By Eliezer Leoni the editor
This Introduction appears in the original book in two versions, Hebrew & English
What distinguishes Volozhin from other shtetls in Eastern Europe attains unmistakable statement in this volume. It is not a single book, but an amalgamation of two. It is a description of a major Torah center and rabbinical learning academy; also it is the story of the Volozhin community.
The first section aims to give an account of those outstanding figures that were either born in the city, connected with the "Volozhin dynasty", or the select few who helped to maintain the Volozhin tradition. The main sections of the book are: The history of the Volozhin community, The Volozhin sages and scholars, and Tales of the wise, who preserved the Volozhin tradition. These sections intend to develop a universal Jewish cultural source. The Volozhin sages and their disciples deeds, teachings and casual conversations were insightful and educational. They had shaped not only the Volozhin community but also the entire Eastern European Jewry.
This book has been written not only for the Volozhin natives and its Yeshiva students but also for the tens of thousands for whom the Yeshiva influenced their way of life from afar:
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Berlin wrote about this institution "The Volozhin Yeshiva is renowned from one end of the Jewish world to the other one". However, writing this book involved considerable difficulties. The enormous source of materials forced us to make selections, to eliminate a great part of the material and to shape a version, which would be comprehensible to those who are not familiar with the Talmud. We tried not to be excessively grave and dry; we preferred to stress poetic aspects. We had chosen to display the Agada (fable) rather than Halacha (law), because the Agada is nearer to the heart of the common reader.
Concepts in Judaism could be articulated in diverse styles; they could be expressed through a philosophical discipline or by scientific methodology. And it can also be explained by using literary techniques. Some ideas can be displayed in a drawing, other by pictures or symbols, yet another can be expressed by a fables or legends. Rabbi Yohanan told about Rabbi Meir: "When Rabbi Meir expounded a Bible passage he would dedicate one third of his exposition to the laws it contained, another to the legends, and the last one to parables". He also remarked that Rabbi Meir knew three hundred "Fox Fables". Which goes to show that Rabbi Meir made full use of the fabulist art to make the legal side easier and more palatable to his students and listeners.
We adopted Rabbi Meirs method. Tales, anecdotes and legend were used to lead us to our objective: To understand the words, deeds and thoughts of the Volozhin scholars. We were very careful, Heaven forbid, not to write too much or too little, and not to misrepresent an entire spiritual world. Therefore we hope that anyone studying our account on the Eytz Hayim Yeshiva will find all praiseworthy and inspiring material. It applies to all that was written about the three "patriarchs" Rabbi Hayim Volozhiner, his son Rabbi Isaak Reb Itsele, his son in law Harav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Hanaziv, as well as to the sages of this spiritual center. We have done the best to tell our tale in an easy and simple manner, expressing their principles in a more popular style than the one they used.
I have reason to hope that this method is the correct one. I sent the chapters dealing with the community and Yeshivah history to Dr. Nathaniel Katzburg, history lecturer at the Bar Ilan University, asking him to check and to verify facts and dates. In his letter dated 7th Tishri 5727, Dr. Katzburg wrote inter alia:
"The work in general seems suited to its purpose to provide a succinct but comprehensive literary description, on the basis of the available sources and literary material, while introducing passages from sources and memories, from which the intelligent reader and, particularly the younger generation, can obtain a comprehensive picture of this magnificent chapter in the Jewish history and Torah study during recent generations. Anybody who wishes to know more and to study the subject more deeply need only refer to the bibliography which you append".
In writing the Volozhin Community History we met distinct types of impediments. We had almost no one to assist us. There were no writers, Rabbis or scholar who would aid us to investigate the history of the community. Here lived some of the most outstanding figures of Jewry. They wrote about Volozhin for more than a century. Yet they were dedicated almost entirely to the Yeshiva and paid scarcely any attention to the congregation. And while the material on the Yeshiva is more than plentiful, there is next to nothing on what to base the general history essay. This forced us to engage in considerable research work.
These features could be found in the second part, which deals with the ordinary life in the Volozhin community. It covers a period of forty-two years, from the beginning of the twentieth century until the Volozhin entire Kehila destruction in 1942. Here we describe the ordinary Jews, their sufferings and struggles for existence. Here we find the intense background of the common Volozhin Jews. The Yeshiva left its spiritual impression on the shtetl inhabitants. Hanaziv, meeting the Volozhin water carrier would jokingly say " And you shall draw water from the salvation springs". The Rabbi knew, that the Volozhin regular natives were familiar with the Torah sources.
The principal Volozhin figures and the ordinary people suited each other. Peretz the Balegole (waggoner) in course of the journey used to test the Yeshiva students on various Talmud tractates. Rabbi Yohanan Rodkes, who would complete the entire Babylonian Talmuds study in cycles of nine months an almost incredible feat. Freydele di Rebttzn (the Rabbis wife), who knew the entire Bible by heart. It seems that the unique "Volozhin qualities" were found not only in Rabbi Hayim, his successors and disciples but also in Reb Peretz the Balegole. He was a real prodigy, "swimming" at ease in the entirety of the Talmud literature. However the economical circumstances compelled him to make a living with his horse and wagon. He reminds us of Abba the Builder, who could find an answer to the Greek philosopher Avnimos of Gadara, which demanded more acumen than the town Rabies could deliver.
The correspondence between the two parts of the book finds also an statement in the style. Here too are plenty of stories, tales and anecdotes from the simple folk lives. These freshens the text, brings the past to life, and help to familiarize us with the Community daily Existence.
Preparing this text we were guided by the epithet: "multiple kinds of arts are good, except for those that are boring". We tried our best to avoid them.
Circumstances beyond our control compelled us to restrict our account to a few communal leaders and outstanding heads of households. We made every effort possible to obtain information that would enable us to extend the number of cronicals, but in many cases nothing could be done. Stories of other families have been forgotten and in many cases there is nobody left, as to our knowledge, which could tell about them. And this we regret deeply.
We have tried to be brief where brevity was called for, in order to be more expansive wherever possible and also to increase the number of those whom we recalled. But we did not succeed. So those, whom we were able to describe, let them be the representatives of the entire Volozhin Community.
After years of dedicated endeavors by all the members of the editorial committee, we raised a memorial to the Etz Hayim Yeshiva and to the Volozhin community. Being engaged in this holy task the late Dr. Issaac Rivkind, blessed shall be his memory, was taken from us. He, who had helped us with his advice, guidance and discovery of sources, who considered Volozhin as his spiritual birthplace and home, He wrote me, that every house, every tree and every Jew in Volozhin was dear to him, because they reminded him the wonderful world, which had enlightened his entire life. Dr. Rivkind looked much forward to see the book and asked me about it. We regret his going from us, not seeing our work completed. But His memory is engraved in its pages.
The Book deals also with the destruction and eradication of Volozhin Kehila. The Volozhin Jews were burnt to death. In their reminiscences the survivors have tried to describe those horrors. Yet all we had succeeded to get from them is no more than a drop in the ocean of suffering. What really happened was far more blood curdling than has been told here. Those who were not on the spot; those who never saw how the life dried up and died away in the ghetto; those who never heard their moans and groans from evening to morning and morning to evening, those who never saw their sufferings; those who never experienced life lived at the risk of death at any moment; those who did not go along with the doomed; those who never heard the shots and the cries of the fallen, those who never saw the bleeding and dead; those who never saw them being hurt to death those who never saw all of these things can never comprehend the depths of the tragedy.
It is generally said that a memorial volume is a monument in memory of a city or a small town. But this does not apply to Volozhin. Neither the editor nor the Editorial Committee Members have regarded themselves as a Burial Society performing the last kindness to all those who have gone. We have not raised a memorial, for that would reduce our Books value. A memorial is something life less which may be indeed respected but from which people keep away. People remember memorial on occasions for mourning and weeping. Memorials are remembered on the Ninth day of Av and during the Elul Month, when Jews go to the graves of their kinsfolk.
The Volozhin Izkor Book is not a graveyard or the mark of the last kindness. It sets out to record life, it sets out to be a source of pleasure, of inspiration and of physical exaltation. The words and thoughts of the Volozhin sages deserve to be drunk with thirst all the year around. The warmth they engender can warm us in all times. Let us stand in awe before their Torah! And let us dedicate ourselves to the study of their teachings; go back to it again and again, even though we cannot claim that we give it all. For anyone who studies the Torah according to the Volozhin method the whole world will have a meaning. His life will have a flavor of its own. It will raise him high above the drabness of life. Or, to quote the Fathers Chapters words: "When a man passes away hes not taking with him money, pearls or gold but only Torah and good deeds".
It is my pleasant duty to thank everyone who helped us to accomplish this holy task, by providing us with literary sources and material. Particularly I need toe mention Mr. Yehiel Lavie, the Ahad Haam Library Director who did not spare toil in providing all the material that we required.
Similarly, we thank Mr. Moshe Ungerfeld the Bet Bialik director, for his assistance in order to find all necessary sources for the "Bialik in Volozhin" chapter. I owe special thanks to the management and director of the Rambam library, Mr. Abraham Goldrat and his staff. They provided me with familiar and unfamiliar sources to describe the Etz Hayim Yeshiva history. I am particularly grateful to them for supplying me with the photos of the Yeshiva students from the library ample material. Finally heartfelt thanks to my friend Mr. Moshe Morgenstern who provided me with much interesting material from his colorful and rich library.
Though, helped by so many scholars and having done our best to ensure the accuracy of our work, we would be less than truthful if we claimed that the Book is completely without errors.
"And may it be the Holy and Ancient Ones will to allow us to atone for any faults due to error, and may we never do wrong for a vicious purpose. Forgive the errors created for Thy sake".
We submit this Book to the public for consideration with our full knowledge of its deficiencies. We have tried to satisfy the demands of many people to whom the name Volozhin is very dear due to its historical, spiritual and scholarly associations. The members of this public will treat us as strictly as the subject calls for. Yet, we hope that we have succeeded in presenting the inner spirit and essence of Volozhin sufficiently well to gain the approval of them all.