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ON FOREIGN SOIL An Autobiographical Novel by Falk Zolf


38. Our Eternal Flame


Rakov, winter 1916.


From the nearby Russian-German killing fields, we would hear, day and

night,the muffled thunder of the cannons, until the ground shook. Steel and

iron cut down young lives, like the harvester cutting down corn. "The hand of

Esau laid waste to the abundance of his own orchard..."

At this time, there was in the small village of Volozhin, which lay of the

very fron lines, a small group of young people, who were fighting with all

their strength to keep alive the not-yet-extinguished spark of the ancient,

always-new Yavneh, which bore the present-day name of....Volozhin. This was a

remnant of the previously famous yeshiva, "Princess of the Yeshivas", which

had, for generations, sent forth into the world hundres of Students of the

Wisdom, Sages of the Generations.

The Sons of the Yeshiva kept watch and studied. One would go off to rest, and

a second would come to take his place. They studies day and night, ignoring

their surroundings and the hunger than gnawed at them from the inside. The

quiet, mournful gemorra-melody rose up over the half-empty yeshiva builings

from one end to the other. It wound its way from one yeshiva-boy to the next,

like the night-watchmen who went about in the pitch darkness with glowing

lanterns, signalling to each other, drawing close together the lonely souls,

in the old/new web of Jewish stubbornness and optimism:

"And so the rabbis taught....!"

The Volozhin Yeshiva was sinking; the light was flickering dim. But she

refused to die! The small group of stubborn yeshiva-boys was determined to

forge one more link in the eternal Jewish chain. Links forged not from steel

and iron, but from an ancient spirit, a spirit that traces is origins all the

way back to the burning bush, which burned and burned and was not consumed....

"And so the rabbis taught.....!"

But the small Volozhin Yeshiva was surrounded on all sides: mit hunger, need,

and poverty. That in itself would not have been the main problem, because to

such things they were long accustomed. becuase "this is the way of the

Torah....". What was worse, was that the enemy sought to extinguish the very

last spark of the Light of the Torah, which still glowed in the old Volozhin

Yeshiva. It came down to a test of strength between the "Voice of Jacop" and

the "Hands of Esau",.a kind of contest betwee the Masters of the Torah and

their eternal enemies, the Masters of Blood, to see which one of them would


The enemy, the Russian gendarme, armed with rifle and bayonet, was lliable to

burst in at any time of the day or night on the pale, hungry Volozhin Sons of

the Torah, as they sat poring over the pages of their wide-open Vilna

Gemorrahs....and they never left empty- handed.

Every day they would come to seize one more yeshiva-boy, throw iron shackles

on his arms, and lead him away on foot, to the war-torn city of Minsk, which

lay under the military rule of the infamous Governor-General Hirsh, Tormentor

of the Jews, who was already famous for his Jewish gallows. From there, from

Minsk, the half-starved yeshiva boys would be sent straight to the

slaughter-fields....or they threw him behind bars among drunks, street gangs,

and common criminals.

Volozhin, the Princess of the Yeshivas, was sinking. With each day, she

become more and more shrivelled, emaciated, like the dried fig of Rabbi

Tzadok; fewer and fewer remained afloat on this life-raft. And so the

remaining yeshiva-boys became even more stubborn. When one of them was taken

away, his friends would take up his "daily readings", so that even his

studies shouldn't be interrupted.

Those dedicated yeshiva-boys didn't pay attention to the muffled voices, the

"voices" that thundred on without cease from the iron mouths of the cannons,

innundating the world with blood and fire. They didn't look at their horizon

closing in around them. They had before them but one ideal, one burning

desire: that the flame of Volozhin, the modern-day Yavneh, should not be

allowed, God forbid, to flicker out.

And as though to defy the forces of the outside world, to mock the mighty

iron "Hands of Esau", there rang out ever louder the "Voice of Jacob",

echoing within the half-empty walls of the yeshiva:

"And so the rabbis taught.....!"



The people at the yeshiva in Volozhin sent a letter via a messenger to the

rabbi of Rakov. In their letter, they wrote::

"To the leaders of the community of Rakov:

"You must know that the water is up to our necks; for weeks know we have

struggled in the claws of hunger, virtually with no more strength to go on;

because, "it would have been better to die by the sword than to die from

hunger". We are like orphans without a father or mother. We have been cut off

from the world and forgotten.

"The town of Volozhin, which had previously drawn her livelihood from the

sons of the Yeshiva, is now hardly able to support itself, because it is

under a strict quarantine. No one enters or leaves without a special permit

from the government. All commerce has been suspended. We are a burden on the

village. She no longer has the means to provide us with food and water.

"Therefore we beg of you: You must find a way, all the more quickly to send

us a bit of food, to sustain our souls. Because other than "our Father in

Heaven", you are our closest neighbor."

That very same evening, the Rabbe called together a meeting of the whole

commitee. After reading us the letter from the Volozhin yeshiva-boys, he

turned to us with the questions:

"What should we do?"

"We should send a letter to the Central Aid Commitee in Minsk," suggested one

member of the commitee.

"No, it will take too’s a matter of life and death!" shouted the

rabbi, Kolmanovitch. "The wagons are already waiting outside..."

"Let us go around town, calling on the rich Jews, the merchants, to collect

food," suggested my friend Yankel.

The Rov drew himself up to his full height, and hammering his fist on the

table, shouted at the top of his voice:

"I will not permit you to go from house to house asking for bread, even for

the Volozhin Sons of the Torah!"

"But this isn't's our duty!"

"No! No!"

"We could take a small portion from the rations of the homeless", suggested a

second rich commitee-member.

"Stealing from the poor!" we young folks shouted out.

"The Volozhin yeshiva-boys are just as deserving as the homeless here," a

third householder shot back in reply.

"The refugees are the proper owners of the little bit of food, which they

receive from us,...therefore we should first ask their permission," we argued.

The rich balebatim were adamantly opposed to this: where was it ever heard

of, that one should ask the poor people how to apportion the charity? Such a

thing is unheard of!! The whole thing all but came to blows...young,

hot-tempered boys against old, established grey-beards. We even threatened

them with a strike. But at that point, the young Rabbi came down on our side.

The hot tempers gradually began to cool down.



The next morning, the homeless assembled, as usual, in front of the

storehouse which was situated in the Rabbi’s yard. The Rabbi came out with

his staff in his hand, his prayer-shawl tucked under his arm, hurrying on his

way in to the House of Study for morning prayers. But first, he stopped

before the large crowd and began to give a short sermon, explaining to them

the great importance of acting to save a life. Before he could finish, the

whole crowd of refugees interrupted him, shouting with one voice:

"They should eat well! We give what we have without reservations!"

That same morning, each homeless one returned to his family with a smaller

"dole", but in a cheerful mood. A joyful tear shimmered in his eye. Each one

felt that a spark had been re-kindled deep in his heart. After all, he

himself had not so long ago been driven from his home, from his own table,

and now he finds himself on the road, on a long March of Exile, which no one

knows where it will end; and here, by the side of the road, he has been given

a place to rest his tired feet, to catch his breath and still his hunger. And

he was only too grateful for the chance to share this bread, these meager

provisions, with the hungry yeshiva-boys, they should also be able to enjoy

something from the generosity of those who had contributed. And it was this

feeling, the knowledge that one belonged to one and the same shared fate,

which warmed and consoled.


Outdoors, there was a cold frost.. The road which led to the front was all

but impassable. But the young, energetic Rabbi of Rakov, the great scholar

and commited Masoratic, would not entrust the duty of bringing the

necessities of life to the Sons of Volozhin to anyone else. All of the

protestations from his sick wife, from his family and from the leading

townsfolk were to no avail.

The rabbi dressed up in his new, warm fur, which was a wedding present, and

on top of that a heavy cloak, with a warm hat on his head, tied together at

the waist with an old leather belt. He quickly said his prayers for the road,

kissed the mezzuzah with his hand, sat down in the the large sled, stuck his

feet between the sacks of food, and set off on the road.

The kind-hearted women of Volozhin, who had a reputation in the yeshiva and

among the neighboring villages for their good-heartedness, quickly heated up

their groyse back-oyvens, and set to work baking bread and making noodles for

their half-starved yeshiva-boys. And the Rabbi of Rakov, the guest, for his

part, couldn't wait to share with the Sons of the Yeshiva a clever Talmudic

argument, which he had just worked out on the way.


A few days later, the Rabbi of Rakov returned home from his mission. As he

was crawling out from under the pile of old warm clothes that the women of

Volozhin had covered him with, you could see that he was beaming with pride

and satisfation. He couldn't stop darting back and forth in his house,

rubbing his hands together in great excitement. And all the while, he kept

repeating these words to himself:

"Not to worry, not to worry; Israel will not fail, Israel will not falter...!"