Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

3 Tammuz 5762 - June 13, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Back To Kobrin, Baranovitch And Mir: An Interview With HaRav Aharon Kreiser, zt'l

by Rabbi Dov Eliach

Part Two


Rav Eliach is the author of HaGaon, a three- volume work about the Vilna Gaon and the Jewish world in which he lived. He has recently issued a second edition with additions (third printing) of that popular set. As in the first part, he consulted with gedolei Yisroel about every step he took.

Rav Eliach is also the director of the Institute for the Heritage of Yeshivas, which is dedicated to documenting and preserving the rich contribution of the European yeshivas to the Jewish tradition. In the context of his work in this area he conducted the following interview with one of the prominent talmidim of the European yeshivas, HaRav Aharon Kreiser, who has since passed away.

In the first part of this interview, which was conducted ten years ago in Rav Aharon Kreiser's home in Lakewood, Rav Kreiser shared his recollections and impressions of the two Mirrer mashgichim, HaRav Yeruchom Leibowitz and HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein zt'l. He also recalled his great rebbe, HaRav Elchonon Wasserman zt'l, Hy'd, the Rosh Yeshiva of Baranovitch and he discussed the powerful influence that all three of them had on their talmidim.

In this second installment, Rav Kreiser affords a glimpse into the life of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Shanghai, and provides more fascinating and instructive information about the Mashgiach and the rosh yeshiva of Baranovitch.

If Not For Your Torah

Rav Aharon interspersed his memories with observations on contemporary Torah life. Both flowed from him freely, in no apparent plan. Sometimes, a question that I put to him opened a new window upon some hitherto unseen aspect of the world that he was recreating for us. This was what happened when I asked a question that had intrigued me every time I read or heard about the yeshiva's sojourn in Shanghai: "How on earth did you manage during the Shanghai period, completely cut off from the world, spending five years in the same place?"

"Believe me, I knew nothing about the `news' that was transpiring. While I was there, I didn't hear about the Holocaust or the murders that were taking place in Europe, not even once. I was so immersed in learning that I didn't know a thing!"

"How is such a thing possible?"

"Torah, Torah!"

"The whole world is at war, the foundations of life are shaking, families are being obliterated . . . [and yet]?"

"I learned day and night!"

"And what about the poverty and the deprivation? People want to know about their futures, they need to marry but there is no one! Were there any suitable young ladies there, whom it was fitting to marry and with whom it was possible to set up a Jewish home?"

"Some did get married there. Some of us set up educational institutions, a talmud Torah, a Bais Yaakov, many who came from Germany and among the few who were saved for Yiddishkeit, they also got married. Look, everybody has a different Shanghai. My own [experience of] Shanghai was based on utter ignorance of what was transpiring around us and consequently, I didn't suffer from anything. I wasn't the only one; there were many more like me.

"I'm not saying that there weren't those who were troubled by world events, by our situation, or by depression. I myself however, learned and learned and didn't know about anything. I had tremendous pleasure from the learning and I acquired a lot of Torah.

"In his shmuessen, the Mashgiach would call on us and cry out, `Tzoros! Tzoros!,' arousing us to the [seriousness of] current events. But I thought it was a dream. One's mind was so taken up with Torah that it all seemed far away. We learned day and night, literally day and night. Thus I didn't suffer from anything but I can't testify about others. There were certainly those who suffered terribly from the situation."

The Baranovitch Mashgiach

Another of the towering personalities whom Rav Aharon got to know while learning in Baranovitch before the war was the mashgiach, HaRav Yisroel Yaakov Lubschansky zt'l, Hy'd. The extensive recollections which he shared with me add to our knowledge and understanding of one of the greatest mussar figures of those times.

"The day-to-day running of the yeshiva was entrusted to the capable hands of the mashgiach. Reb Elchonon did not interfere with anything. It is a great pity that we were young and did not know how to make proper use of him. He was literally a burgeoning wellspring, a highly gifted speaker and orator. Whoever heard his shmuessen, still lives with them. What a shame that those shmuessen have never been published. I think he was the greatest speaker among all the mashgichim.

"On Yom Kippur, he would speak before Kol Nidrei and I once heard him talking about a person's animalistic, material desires. He described them using his wonderful power of depiction:

`Take an animal from the farm and bring it straight to Marchokovsky Street in Warsaw. (That was the city's central thoroughfare, like Fifth Avenue in New York. `What will it look for there? Graz! (Grass!) What does Marchokovsky Street mean to an animal? Graz!

`What does a person think about all the time? What is he worried about day and night? More money, a bit of a better living -- grass and a bit more grass! A beheimoh! A beheimoh zucht graz! (An animal looks for grass!)'

"He would always tailor his message to the time of year and moreover, he even adjusted his style of delivery to the season. He was a kolbo-nik. During the aseres Yemei Teshuvoh he would cry, on Simchas Torah he would sing and on Purim, he would weave grammen [into his talk]. Every Yom Tov, he became someone different.

"Once he was speaking in the yeshiva on Zos Chanukah [the eighth day]. It was eleven o'clock at night and before he started he quipped, `Look what a miserable job it is being a mashgiach. It's already eleven at night. All the other Yidden are already asleep and I have to rack my brains to find something to say. What a miserable livelihood . . . '

"On Purim, grammen were said in the yeshiva. One of the bochurim would compose a verse, with a particular message, or posing a question about the yeshiva, and the mashgiach would respond in kind. For example, the bochur once wondered how the mashgiach knew all the gemoras that he used to quote in his shmuessen and all the midroshim that he quoted in his droshos. He never publicly displayed his fluency in all of Shas. Instead of saying, `I saw such and such a gemora,' or at least, `The gemora says,' he used to say, `I heard that the gemora says,' or, `I heard that Chazal say.'

"In the yeshiva, he was considered to be a very gifted scholar and people spoke about how he knew all of Chazal's words by heart. He would always play this down, by using the above expressions, as though this or that statement of Chazal's in the medrash or the gemora had come to his attention by chance.

"HaRav Moshe Schwab zt'l, (who later became mashgiach of Gateshead Yeshiva), was a great follower of the mashgiach's. He drank every word that issued from the mashgiach's lips thirstily. He always watched him with a look of tremendous admiration. He was entranced by his shmuessen and he clung to him with all his heart and soul.

"On one occasion, during the singing of grammen on Simchas Torah, Reb Moshe asked the mashgiach, `Does the rebbe [i.e. the mashgiach himself] know kabboloh?'

"The mashgiach replied, `I'm not a rebbe!'

"Reb Moshe asked again, in different words and the mashgiach again sidestepped the question with a sharp verse of his own. Reb Moshe pressed once again in verse and the mashgiach again avoided answering, until Reb Moshe put the question in verse, as follows, `Does the person standing next to the Aron Hakodesh learn kabboloh?' and Reb Yisroel Yaakov responded.

" `The rebbe standing next to the Aron Hakodesh is indeed a great mekubol, but not a mekubol who is versed in works of kabboloh. He is merely a mekubol who is mekabeil (who receives) money from others . . . ' "

His Influence Outside the Yeshiva

"The seventeenth of Kislev was the yahrtzeit of the Alter of Novardok zt'l, the mashgiach's father- in- law and he would travel to Bialystok in order to deliver shmuessen and to speak in the Alter's memory, in the central Novardok yeshiva there. He stayed in Bialystok for three days and spoke non stop. He had the knowledge and the strength to speak all year round without stopping.

"I later heard from someone who had heard him speak there, that in the course of his talk he had said, `Believe me, I'm not telling you any lies, because lies I can say in Baranovitch. I don't need to travel to Bialystok to tell you lies . . . ' It was his custom to spice his talks with humorous remarks and sharp quips, making the most of his great talents.

"He was also a wondrous tzaddik, oh ho! How he guarded the yeshiva -- like the apple of his eye! During tefilloh, he would survey the beis hamedrash and if he saw that a few talmidim were missing, he got up and went to look for them in their lodgings. He was both an officer and a general, as well as a faithful and devoted soldier.

"He was also involved in communal affairs. His father (Reb Chaim Leib zt'l), had been rov of Baranovitch and when he passed away and Reb Yisroel Yaakov inherited his position, he gave it to his brother-in-law (Reb Dovid Weisel), who was very easygoing, which required Reb Yisroel Yaakov's help. If any corrective measures had to be made, or any warning delivered about harmful influences, Reb Yisroel Yaakov's droshoh in the beis haknesses would be announced and crowds would pack into it. I knew of craftsmen who used to close their shops and run to hear him.

"My landlord, a tailor by profession, was not all that observant. He just about kept Shabbos. Yet, if he so much as heard that the mashgiach would be speaking that day in the town, he would drop everything and run to listen thirstily to his droshoh.

"Thanks to this, the mashgiach had a lot of power among the community's leadership. The shamosh would come to tell him about a shop or a craftsman who was not closing on Shabbos and he would hurry over to the violators and demand in no uncertain terms that they close. In Baranovitch, he was considered a holy man and people were afraid of his curses and his displeasure.

"If a store owner was obstinate and refused to respond positively to his demand, he would threaten him and warn him that he would incur a curse and the former would then immediately give in and close. That was the extent to which he was admired by the townspeople and to which they feared his utterances.

"There were two occasions when I heard him addressing a general audience in Baranovitch. He had wonderful and interesting ideas and he knew how to speak the people's language, citing examples from their everyday life and airing the various problems that troubled the householders of those times. Thus, when he saw that he needed to reprimand them, he did it in good taste and chastised them verbally. He was a great man, an extremely great man!"

Concluding Memories of Baranovitch and Reb Elchonon

"Yeshivas [Ohel Torah in] Baranovitch then, was a blend of the three gedolim: HaRav Elchonon Wasserman, HaRav Yisroel Yaakov Lubschansky and HaRav Dovid Rappoport zt'l, author of Tzemach Dovid and Mikdash Dovid.

"Each year, over a hundred bochurim joined the yeshiva and about the same number completed their studies there and left. Thirty would go to Kamenetz, twenty to Mir, thirty to Radin and a similar number to Kletsk. This was roughly how the talmidim dispersed when they finished learning in the yeshiva. Baranovitch itself was an intermediate yeshiva, in between yeshiva ketanoh and yeshiva gedoloh.

"In my time, there were two years when nobody went from Baranovitch to learn in Mir. HaRav Leizer Yudel Finkel zt'l, rosh yeshiva of Mir, began to worry why the bochurim weren't coming. Rav Naftoli, Reb Elchonon's son, who was then learning in Mir, came to Baranovitch and persuaded us to go to Mir.

"When we came to Reb Leizer Yudel, he began questioning us and he asked why we had left Baranovitch. We told him, `Because we wanted to learn in Mir.'

"To this he responded with a smile, `According to that, even if I accept you to Mir, you will certainly return to Baranovitch . . . '

"There were many bochurim who came from other yeshivos, whom he did not accept into the yeshiva. He examined them again and again, to the point where many of them could not meet his demands and returned the way they had come.

"By the way, you should realize that there are no end of stories. Your job is to extract the lesson that they teach and the path that they show. I've read stories about Reb Elchonon that are far from portraying the Reb Elchonon that I knew. They bear no resemblance to him whatsoever. In general, everyone has his own Reb Elchonon. If you hear the same thing from many people, you can conclude that it might be true. At any rate, Reb Elchonon was truly a giant!

"I left Baranovitch before he travelled to America for a trip of long duration. His shiur was simple, clear and straightforward. If anyone didn't understand it, there was something wrong with them. He would read the gemora clearly, explain it twice and not overload us with too many [extraneous] points. If you asked him about what he'd said, he would repeat it word for word. In the afternoon shiur, he spoke even more tersely. And what he printed was even less than what he said.

"At the end of every week, the shiurim that he'd said in the yeshiva were printed based on notes that he made, but he didn't copy everything down to be printed. The yeshiva's TaT fund, [Tomchei Torah] would print them out and sell them to the bochurim for a few pennies and eventually, the sefer Koveitz Shiurim was produced from these notes."

"Why did he refrain from publishing many of the things that he said in the shiur -- and we're really talking about many things?"

"I don't know. The purpose of printing the shiurim was so that we could review them at the end of the week and the income went to the TaT. When Koveitz He'oros on Yevomos was printed too, he designated all the income for the TaT.

"By the way, note what he called it, [simply] Koveitz He'oros! That was Reb Elchonon. It wasn't out of humility. That was his characteristic simplicity. Koveitz He'oros, that's all! It should also be noted that even though Reb Elchonon was extremely poor, his home was clean and shining. I was fortunate to sleep there and was very impressed by the special cleanliness of the home and by the pleasant smell that it always had. His clothes too, although they had been repaired and were patched here and there, because he did not have the means with which to buy new ones, were [nevertheless] wonderfully clean and neat."

Repository of the Chofetz Chaim's Teachings

"In general, Reb Elchonon did not speak on aggodoh and he was not in the yeshiva for the yomim tovim. I remember though, that HaRav Chaim Ozer zt'l was sick and that a day of prayer was held in the town to pray for his recovery. Reb Elchonon, who spoke that day in the large beis haknesses, kept mentioning things from `the Rebbe,' the Chofetz Chaim: `The Rebbe says' and the like.

"On another occasion, a new sefer Torah was brought into the town's modern beis haknesses. Reb Elchonon spoke there and repeated an interesting parable from the Chofetz Chaim:

" `Two sisters were born and raised in the [Lithuanian] town of Eishishok. One remained in her birthplace, while the other travelled to Paris, the French capital, where she lived amid great wealth, with a coterie of maidservants, and similar luxuries. After many years had passed, the sister from Paris came to inquire after the welfare of her sister in Eishishok. She found her living in a single room, with a large family, almost without a stick of furniture. "How are you?" asks the Parisian sister.

" `The other replies, "Boruch Hashem, happy and contented with my family. Boruch Hashem, everything is fine. And how are you, my sister?"

" `She replies, "Boruch Hashem, I have servants, maidservants and the best of everything. I have everything but I have nothing. I hardly see my husband. My children have all travelled away and I sit by myself, all alone."

" `In the same way, said the Chofetz Chaim, a Yid once wrote two sifrei Torah. One was brought into the shul in Eishishok and it never stopped being used, on Shabbosos and weekdays, with great regularity. The other one was put into a shul in Paris. It was never ever used during the week and hardly ever even on Shabbos. It started to gather dust and it remained solitary and alone.'

"This was Reb Elchonon's message on the occasion of the introduction of the new sefer Torah into the modern beis haknesses in Baranovitch -- HaKodosh Boruch Hu doesn't need baubles or fanfare. He isn't looking for abandoned `Parisienne' sifrei Torah but for `Eishishok' ones, that are read and learned from all the time. He doesn't need atzei chaim made of gold or silver but the reading from the sefer Torah itself!

"HaRav Shmuel Greineman zt'l once told me about a long period when the Chofetz Chaim used to hold extended melaveh malkas during the winter motzei Shabbosos. For the meal he made do with potatoes and borscht and then he would sit and speak from eight in the evening until five o'clock in the morning. He would speak for hours on Chazal, on midroshim, giving explanations and presenting his own ideas, as he was accustomed to doing.

" `There were approximately twenty people there,' Reb Shmuel said. `I managed to listen to him for two whole hours. Someone else would listen for three hours and a third person for an hour longer etc. Who could sit and listen to so much, right into the night too? Not so Reb Elchonon, who sat and listened from the beginning to the end. He was the only one who sat there till morning.'

"Reb Elchonon already knew all of Chazal's statements that the Chofetz Chaim spoke about; he himself had tremendous fluency in all of them. It was therefore easier for him to grasp immediately what the Chofetz Chaim wanted to convey with each idea that he expressed. In addition, he was so attached to his Rebbe that he didn't feel any tiredness or weariness whatsoever whilst sitting in front of him. He was therefore the only one who managed to sit for close to ten hours of discourse, ideas and parables, as was the Chofetz Chaim's wont."


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