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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 long...itâ€™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 begging...it's our duty!"
"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 Rabbiâ€™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...!"
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