Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

24 Ellul 5761 - September 12, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








To Rededicate Koenigsburg -- He Established Elul
(The Alter of Kelm about Rav Yisroel Salanter)

by Chaim Sher

Chapter II

The first part of this report covered the visits to Volozhin and Radin.

The Story of the Trip -- Vilna

After Radin we proceeded to Vilna. To get to Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, we needed an exit permit from Belarus and an entry permit to Lithuania. An unpleasant surprise awaited us when the border police, citing various strange pretexts, detained us for more than six hours at the border crossing. This gave us a small indication of the delays Jews had to endure when they tried to cross Russian borders during the Holocaust, when, for example, they refused to let a father meet his son across the border and they had to wait many days to be reunited. We reached Vilna towards morning.

After shacharis part of the group went to the town (the other part set out for the cemetery). Some members of the group still remembered Vilna from its days of glory, when it was still the "Yerushalayim of Lithuania." Naturally they are depressed at the sight of Vilna today. Still, we encounter a small surprise: on the way to our destination we come across the Great Synagogue of Vilna, in which two minyanim take place, at seven and eight o' clock in the morning. This is the only shul which is still functioning in Vilna.

How sad to think that this is the same Vilna which had 109 shuls before the war. The same Vilna whose skies were illuminated by such giants as HaRav Avrohom Aveli and HaRav Zelmale, and about which Rabbi Akiva Eiger proclaimed that "even its coachmen were as full of Torah as a pomegranate."

We reach 17 Zvolna Street. Here on the second floor was the nerve center of Lithuanian Jewry, the home of HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt"l. The whole of Jewish life in the Diaspora was directed from here. The postman would deliver piles of letters three times a day with questions and requests from throughout the Jewish world. Masses of people crowded into this house at all hours to speak to HaRav Chaim Ozer, and now the place stood desolate. Only the clock protruding onto the road still remains, counting the hours that have passed since that time.

HaRav Yisroel Orlansky is moved to tears as he recalls what this building was like in its heyday. How the gedolim would come here for advice, and how HaRav Chaim Ozer carried the responsibility for the yeshivos on his shoulders. He told us about the period at the beginning of the war when Vilna was host to 23 yeshivos. HaRav Chaim Ozer was their leader and guide.

At the same time, he was like a loving father to every yeshiva bochur. He asked every bochur who went to see him for his name, his birthplace, and the name of his yeshiva. He knew about everything that was happening in every Lithuanian town and yeshiva.

Rav Yisroel also recalled that the last time he was in this house was for HaRav Chaim Ozer's levaya on 5th Av 5741 (1941) which took place amidst fears of Soviet snipers. "I remember walking up these stairs. HaRav Chaim Ozer lay in the middle of the room with candles all around him. HaRav Elchonon Wassermann Hy"d was present and expressed his deep concern about what would happen to the Jewish people now. I still remember that rabbonim came from all the Lithuanian towns. I remember the hespedim of the rabbonim from Lomza, Lutzk, Birzh, Keidan and Krinik. Everyone felt a deep sense of having been orphaned of a loving father."

Rav Yisroel points out the location of the various yeshivos during the war period, when most Lithuanian yeshivos were in Vilna. This shul housed Mir Yeshiva; in this house the Brisker Rov lived during that year and so on. He recalls how during that period every yeshiva bochur had the opportunity to hear a shiur of HaRav Boruch Ber in the Kamenitzer Yeshiva, from HaRav Aharon Kotler in the Kletsk Yeshiva, and to hear shmuessen from HaRav Shlomo Harkavi at Grodno Yeshiva or from Rav Yechezkel Levenstein at Mir Yeshiva.

On Friday night hundreds of Yeshiva bochurim gathered together with roshei yeshiva and mashgichim to hear a shmuess by HaRav Moshe Rosenstein, the mashgiach of Lomza Yeshiva and a talmid of the Alter from Kelm. This period preceding the churban was rich in ruchniyus.

Our next stop was the new Vilna cemetery, where the Vilna Gaon is buried. People express their feelings of fear and distress as we get nearer to the beis hachaim, and emotions reach a new peak. One of the mashgichim upon seeing the ohel from a distance cannot contain himself and bursts into tears which sweep away the whole group.

Only a few people at a time are able to enter the ohel itself. The tefillos and cries from inside the ohel are heard throughout the cemetery. The other members of the group daven in the area around the ohel.

One of the rabbonim stood on a path at a distance from the ohel and davened. I ask him if he is a Kohen, but he shrugs his shoulders. He was reluctant to tell me why he was standing there, but eventually he told me: "I'm afraid."

There are six graves inside the ohel: the Gaon lies in the center and his mechuton HaRav Noach Mindes (the Parpro'os Lechochmoh) and his wife, as well as the Gaon's brother, HaRav Yissochor Ber, and the brother of the Vilna gvir R. Leib R. Beres. In the last grave on the right lies buried the dust of the ger tzedek Count Potozky. Years later two of his fingers were also buried there. (One of the rabbonim in the group recalled having been at the grave of Count Potozky before the war in the old cemetery and that there too his dust was buried right next to the Gaon. A tree had grown out of the grave, a very unusual phenomenon which was considered a miracle.)

HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky is buried not far from the Gaon's ohel. Next to him lies his only daughter. HaRav Chaim Stein tells us about the warmth HaRav Chaim Ozer displayed to every yeshiva bochur, including himself at the time.

It was the last year before the war when it finally became possible to cross the border from Russia to Poland. That was the first time he came to Vilna and to HaRav Chaim Ozer's house. As always the house was packed with rabbonim and askonim seeking his advice, since there were many problems at the time. "When he saw me he asked me for my name. When I told him, he remembered that I had sent him a letter in the past with comments on the Achiezer. He dropped all other matters and started engaging in a lengthy conversation with me in limud regarding what I had written in the letter." He was a real father to every ben yeshiva.

Not far from HaRav Chaim Ozer's grave we find the grave of HaRav Itzele of Ponevezh zt"l who was unique in his generation for his profound shiurim and unlimited ahavas haTorah.

Outside the cemetery everybody shares experiences. There was a general feeling of, "I have seen Rebbi's grave and shed tears upon it" (R. Chiyyo's words in Kesuvos 103b). It was interesting to note that both gedolim in the group said that now they understood why we had to be held up at the border crossing the day before: "It was to get us more prepared for the Gaon's kever."


On the way to Kovno we see hundreds of kilometers of the Vilna forest. Rav Yisroel Orlansky agrees to tell the story of how the yeshiva population of Vilna escaped through these dense forests. He himself witnessed those events.

We reach Kovno, the cradle of the mussar movement. First we make our way to the old beis hachaim. This graveyard is hundreds of years old (some books say almost five hundred years old) and it is terribly neglected. It is a huge cemetery containing many broken gravestones. We can tell that many of the graves have been victims of grave robbers.

It is impossible to walk in some parts of the cemetery, because of the horrific sight of dispersed gravestones, many of them containing well-known names. Here you find buried the brother of a famous rov, there the daughter of another godol. These are names whose very mention makes your whole body shake, and here are their broken and sometimes smashed matzeivos lying around like manure.

Suddenly somebody reads out the engraving on a tombstone: "Here is buried Rav Yitzchok Zeev ben horav Rav Yosef Soloveitchik zt"l, grandson of Morenu HaRav Chaim of Volozhin." This is the father of the Beis Halevi and ancestor of generations of geonim in the Brisk dynasty: the Beis Halevi, HaRav Chaim, HaRav Yitzchok Zeev.

HaRav Chaim Rabinovitz of Telz is also buried here. His gravestone has also been desecrated by rioters. The old ohel in which HaRav Yitzchok Elchonon was buried before he was moved to Alksut is also to be found here.

Opposite the cemetery we saw a huge stretch of grass. Someone in the group told us that he had been here a few years ago, and this whole green area was then full of graves. We all say Tehillim le'iluy nishmas all the important people who are buried here. (It turns out that during the very period of our visit some rabbonim met with the municipal authorities to ensure the preservation of this cemetery.)

HaRav Yitzchok Peretz, the rav of Raanana, gave a drosho and HaRav Don Segal said Kaddish. Afterwards we also said Tehillim at the communal grave on the outskirts of this cemetery.

There are three communal graves in Kovno. One here, one in the Alksut cemetery and a third in the ninth district. It is not surprising to find so many communal graves here, since Kovno was the second largest Jewish town in Lithuania with a prewar Jewish population of some forty thousand. Most of them were killed by the Nazis ym"sh and were buried here Hy"d.

A group headed by HaRav Chaim Sarna set out to visit the house of his father-in-law, HaRav Arye Malkiel Friedman zt"l Hy"d. Rav Avrohom Grodzensky zt"l Hy"d the mashgiach of Slobodka Yeshiva, lived in this building on the first floor. There are still mezuzas on the entrances to these houses. From this house HaRav Elchonon Wassermann zt"l Hy"d was taken to be murdered.

Rebbetzin Sarna o"h related that when they came to take him away he was sitting on the first floor next to a shtender and learning. He asked her to bring his watch and coat from his room on the upper floor. She went quickly to get them, but by the time she got back he was no longer in the house.

HaRav Chaim is visibly moved. On leaving the house he makes the brocho boruch dayan ho'emess. He tells us that his late wife had refused to return to Lithuania, saying that she could not go back to a country whose earth had absorbed so much Jewish blood.

We continued on to the famous bridge connecting Kovno and Slobodka (not many people know that Slobodka is a neighborhood of Kovno) on our way to the new cemetery in Alksut. The remains of HaRav Yitzchok Elchonon and of his son, HaRav Zvi Hirsch, were transferred to here. Everybody davens with great kavonoh. One of the rabbonim mentions that this is a special place to daven for omol haTorah, since HaRav Yitzchok Elchonon had not been endowed with special talents and had still managed to become a godol hador by virtue of having worked hard and possessing an iron will. Kaddish is recited by the three brothers the Rabbonim Broida, great-nephews of HaRav Yitzchok Elchonon.

Also buried in the same cemetery we find one of the great Slobodka rabbonim, the author of Dvar Avrohom as well as other rabbonim. HaRav Chaim Sarna spoke movingly about Kovno in its prewar days of glory and about the Holocaust, after which he said Kaddish for the great people killed in Slobodka.

Near the beis hachaim in a thicket covered by vegetation which hides the atrocities underneath, stands a gravestone: "Here lie buried hundreds of Jews killed in the small Kovno ghetto."

As we move from place to place we begin to get some idea of the extent of the atrocities committed during the last World War. Every city contains such communal graves, in which thousands of Jews are buried: men, women, and children, among them giants of Torah. As we stand immersed in distressing thoughts we recall the words of R' Eliezer Hakalir at the end of the piyut on the asoro harugei malchus on Yom Kippur: "O Merciful One, look down from on high, and behold the spilt blood of the righteous."

To end off on a pleasant note, we must mention the wonderful shiurim of HaRav Dovid Man, rosh yeshiva of Kfar Chassidim Yeshiva, who gave several daf yomi shiurim on Bovo Kamo on the way. In these he interspersed chiddushim of gedolim to whose cities and resting places we were traveling at the time. These shiurim were a source of delight during the long journeys from place to place.


We made our way to Kelm, which is several hours removed from Slobodka. It was already nine o'clock at night by the time we arrived and the sun was about to set (sunset is very late in Russia). We look for a place to daven mincha, but encounter a serious problem: this small town is full of cow sheds emitting an odor which can be smelled everywhere, making it forbidden to pray. We look for an isolated corner, to no avail. Then somebody notices a small building with an empty hall. It turns out to be the central bus station which is totally unused and empty at this time of day. HaRav Matisyohu Salomon takes the omud for Mincha, davening with immense enthusiasm.

As we leave, HaRav Uri Weissblum comments that it could be that this building was built so that if a group of two hundred bnei Torah come to Kelm one day, they will be able to daven there.

We then set out for the Kelm beis hachaim in which the Alter of Kelm and his son HaRav Nochum Zeev are buried, as well as HaRav Leib Chossid. Everybody davens with great fervor. There is something about the atmosphere here that touches the recesses of your soul.

Rav Shmuel Sheinker zt"l told of a tradition they had in Kelm that a prayer at the grave of the Alter of Kelm will not remain unanswered. However, the exact location of the kever is not known. The only piece of information we had was that he was buried next to the ohel of Rav Leib Chossid, so that we were in a position to gauge the approximate location of the kever. Rav Don Segal gave a shmuess on the Alter of Kelm's hashkofoh (to be published at a later date, b"H).

From there we move on to the spot where the kedoshim of Kelm were killed al kiddush Hashem. It was late at night and pitch dark. We entered the forest and, with the help of a faint torch -- we reach the valley of death in the thickness of the wood where the Jews were slaughtered. Our hearts skip a beat, and then start to pound with increasing intensity. Here the Nazis dug a big pit in which they murdered the kedoshim of Kelm on the fifth of Av. A stone monument tells the story of the atrocities committed by the Nazis at this spot. "O earth, do not hide my blood."

We say some pirkei Tehillim le'iluy nishmas those murdered here, after which Kaddish is recited by HaRav Yisroel Meir Karno, who attended the Kelmer Talmud Torah. The sounds of Omein yehei shemei rabbo mevorach reverberate in the distance. A dim light illuminates the crowd. HaRav Matisyohu Solomon delivers a moving speech (to be published at a later date, b"H). He quotes from a letter by Rav Dessler zt"l in which he writes that on Simchas Torah in the Kelmer Talmud Torah, the enthusiasm and fervor were immense. People went out to the streets dancing and singing vetaher libeinu le'ovdecho be'emess, and it was with that same simchah that they walked to their deaths along the path we just took. They were led by HaRav Gershon Maidenik and HaRav Doniel Movshovitz zt"l Hy"d, singing the same words with the same enthusiasm.

HaRav Solomon said that before they were killed they sang two songs: Oleinu leshabei'ach in the tune of the yomim noraim and Adon olom as it was sung in Kelm on Rosh Hashonoh and Yom Kippur nights. They sang with all their hearts, as they were used to doing in Kelm.

At the conclusion of his shmuess Rav Matisyohu sang with the tzibbur Oleinu leshabei'ach in the tune of the yomim noraim and Adon Olom according to the Kelmer niggun, which he had been taught by his rabbonim. We sang exactly as those kedoshim of the Kelmer Talmud Torah had sung on this same location.

I cannot begin to describe the feeling we had during those long minutes. We felt shivers down our spine. Our eyes were closed and our foreheads wrinkled in deep concentration. Tears streamed down our faces. The volume of the singing increased and enveloped all those present with devotion and yearning for something hidden. Suddenly, everything becomes tangible. Here on this spot hundreds of Jews gave up their lives on such a high madreigo with joy, friendship and love. Suddenly everything becomes so real and alive.

The visit to Kelm left us with a strong impression. Many in the group said afterwards that of the whole trip, which one of the mashgichim described as one protracted tefillas ne'ilo, the memories of this special evening will remain indelibly impressed in our memories.


It was late into the night by now as we crossed the border from Lithuania into Russia, heading for Kaliningrad (Koenigsburg) for the climax and main purpose of our visit: the hakomas matzeivo on HaRav Yisroel Salanter's grave.

At the border point we experience a repetition of yesterday evening's events, and have to endure another few hours' delay. We are forced to have another taste of Russian bureaucracy and obtuseness. Rav Yisroel Orlansky recalls from his own experiences that in the last World War when the boat had departed from Vladivostok on its way to Japan, HaRav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt"l would ask at regular intervals, "Have we left the borders of Russia yet?"

When he found out that they had indeed left Russian territorial waters, he burst into a dance with the bochurim thanking Hashem for having taken them out of Russian territory. So now we again have a small taste of what it means to cross a Russian border.

At dawn on Thursday we were still waiting at this border crossing. One of the rabbonim explains to the group that since we were on our way to Rav Yisroel's grave we had to work on our middos and be patient, despite the circumstances. (It has to be said that there were many wonderful instances of exemplary behavior bein odom lechavero during this whole trip.) During the morning hours we reached Kaliningrad.

This town has experienced a revolution. Since the discovery of Rav Yisroel's grave the local Jewish community, consisting of about two thousand families, has enjoyed an amazing revival. The vast majority of these families were very far removed from Yiddishkeit for many years, but this situation has changed significantly since activists took it upon themselves to look for Rav Yisroel's grave. A rov was sent from Moscow, a shul was opened, as well as a religious school and kindergarten.

During our stay in the town, the activists met with the local authorities with a view to obtaining additional buildings for religious institutions. There are even plans for the opening of a yeshiva. One of the aims of the visit, not less important than the erection of the matzeivo, is to see to the needs of the living.

During the week preceding the hakomas matzeivo a seminar took place in Kaliningrad led by HaRav Moshe Lebel, the rosh yeshiva of Toras Chaim Yeshiva in Moscow. To be more precise, there were actually two seminars, one for yeshiva bochurim in Russia and one for students who have yet to taste Torah. HaRav Sholom Povarsky and HaRav Aviezer Wolfson gave lectures throughout the week for participants of the seminars and learning took place in a yeshiva format with regular sedorim.

We davened Shacharis in a spacious building specially rented for the use of the participants in this convention for Lithuanian Jewry. Joining us for the tefillah were members of the local community as well as yeshiva bochurim from Russian yeshivas who had been accompanying us on the trip from the beginning.

After davening we crowd around groups of local Jews. We have no problem communicating with them, since most of them speak Yiddish. The rabbonim are interested to hear about their situation and speak to them at length. For the local Jews this is an opportunity to ask questions and to seek advice. The rabbonim offer words of encouragement. We can tell from their faces how moved these people are that such a large group of rabbonim from all over the world has come to visit them.

At ten o' clock the delegation arrives at the seminar. The central meeting of all seminar participants is about to take place. Everybody is visibly excited: they have been learning Torah for a week and have been waiting for this moment when rabbonim from all over the world come to guide and encourage them. The first speakers are HaRav Naftoli Elzass and Rabbi Shmuel Blum, Co-President of Agudas Yisroel in America. They are followed by inspiring speeches from the Lakewood mashgiach HaRav Matisyohu Salomon and HaRav Don Segal (their speeches in Yiddish were translated into Russian by Rav Zvi Patlas). Then the audience was divided up into groups each of which was given a chance to speak to the rabbonim. Some ask questions or seek advice, others request a brocho or a photo. What they all have in common is a tremendous thirst to hear the dvar Hashem.

Everybody present has been deeply affected by what they have seen. 120 young men, some of them students who had no exposure to Torah before this week, sat for a whole week learning Torah and mussar in a yeshiva framework. It was quite an experience to witness the enthusiasm with which they listened to the speeches of the rabbonim, asking questions and expressing their hunger for knowledge.

In this elevated state they burst into song and dance. Which eye could fail to shed a tear at the sight of rabbonim and young men dancing together and singing "Veyeid'u ki Ato shimcho Hashem, elyon al kol ho'oretz."

Now that Rav Yisroel's spiritual will to take care of the living had been fulfilled, everybody together -- delegates, seminar participants and members of the local community -- travels to the cemetery for the hakomas matzeivo of a spiritual giant. All yeshiva bochurim are his spiritual descendants in their constant avodas Hashem and their recognition of the necessity of mussar study.

Someone mentions the fact that HaRav Shach shlita had talked about the necessity of mussar study in our generation in his hesped on HaRav Nochum Abba Grossbard zt"l at the end of the winter of 5753 (1993):

"Rabbosai, mussar is the only thing. I am speaking from a holy place (the courtyard of Ponevezh Yeshiva) and I tell you: There is no remnant of all the old shittos (and there were many), none of them have any standing today. Mussar is the only thing left that contains no additional components mixed up with it. Mussar contains no dregs or additives, because there is only one bare truth: man makes his own din. This is the basic concept which Rav Yisroel Salanter bequeathed us: `What does Hashem your G-d ask of you except to do mishpot?' We are not required to do external acts. In all the shittos the main stress was on dikduk bemitzvos. It is true that there are halochos which we have to be particularly careful to observe meticulously, but these theories added insignificant points. Mussar is different. I do not know if this audience is receptive to these words, but I am giving expression to what I feel deep inside."

We reach the beis hachaim in the middle of a forest. A magnificent matzeivo has been prepared at Rav Yisroel's last resting place. Everybody starts to daven and at the same time the hakomas matzeivo takes place. Mr. Abba Dunner from London, one of the main activists responsible for this holy endeavor, speaks first. He gives a short overview of the series of events relating to the search for Rav Yisroel's grave and of the spiritual revolution in Kaliningrad. Then he outlined plans for the future religious development of the community.

With some emotion he recalled the visit of the rabbonim to this town a few years ago. When he asked the mashgiach of Lakewood, HaRav Nosson Wachtfogel zt"l what Rav Yisroel would have asked of us if he would be with us, he replied, "There can be no doubt that he would have asked us to take care of the living."

He was therefore appealing to anyone who was in a position to help with restoring religious awareness and knowledge to Lithuanian Jewry. He thanked all those who had helped with these matters over the years and especially HaRav Reuven Dessler from Cleveland who had invested both efforts and funds into this holy cause.

The Lakewood mashgiach read the 80th perek of Tehillim. He started by quoting Rav Yisroel who wrote (in Or Yisroel, chapter 14) that even after learning mussar there is still an iron barrier. The only way to make a small hole to pierce that barrier, writes Rav Yisroel, is for ten people to get together and request help only in ruchniyus, to succeed in the milchemes hayetzer, to ask only for genuine growth in Torah and yir'oh. Rav Yisroel, who was far away from members of the chabura at that time, concludes that if they do this, "maybe it will also have a beneficial effect on me."

"Kapitel 80 of Tehillim, which talks about Knesses Yisroel, the golus haShechinoh and the repentance of the whole Jewish nation, was the perek which Rav Yisroel would always say with the tzibbur."

Then the mashgiach broke down in bitter tears: "As we stand here at the grave of Rav Yisroel, let us all say together kapitel 80 only for the sake of kvod Shomayim. We ask Rav Yisroel -- perhaps we also can benefit from him -- to ask Hakodosh Boruch Hu to help Klal Yisroel, that we should merit a complete teshuvoh and the geulah kerovoh." Then everybody said perek 80 together, with tremendous his'orerus: "O Hashem . . . how long will You be angry against the prayer of Your people . . . Why have you broken down her fences, so that everybody who passes by plucks her . . . O Hashem, restore us, cause Your face to shine, and we shall be saved."

HaRav Uri Weissblum gives a drosho analyzing Rav Yisroel's approach as reflected in the Igeres Hamussar. Then Rav Chaim Sarna spoke about Rav Yisroel's immense influence on the Torah world and how the yeshivas became strengthened because of him. The central speech was given by HaRav Chaim Stein (to be published at a later date, b"H). HaRav Zvi Yoel Dessler also spoke on behalf of his father, HaRav Reuven Dessler. Afterwards everybody remains behind for a long time, each person giving expression to his thoughts in prayer.

We return to the building used by the convention for Mincha. After davening a very moving event took place, a fitting climax to the whole trip.

One of the young men who had participated in the seminar who had been deliberating for a long time whether to have a bris miloh, agreed to have one as a result of the visit by the rabbonim. While we were davening Mincha the bris was performed in an adjoining room, and after the tefilloh all the rabbonim joined in with the second part of the bris.

After the bris the chosson habris received a beautiful pair of tefillin as a gift from the Committee dedicated to the preservation of Rav Yisroel Salanter's memory. The rov of Raanana, HaRav Yitzchok Peretz, put the tefillin on the boy. Then the chosson was carried by the crowd as they sang, "Uvo'u kulom bivris yachad na'ase venishmo omru ke'echod."

There could not have been a more fitting conclusion to the trip than this moving bris and the knowledge that twenty student participants at the seminar had registered to join yeshivos. Hashem had granted us success in our task of fulfilling Rav Yisroel's tenacious mission throughout his life to increase kvod Shomayim and strengthen the Jewish awareness of our brethren wherever they may be.

This wonderful trip was not the end of the matter. A yeshiva is due iy"H to open up in Kaliningrad, and it is also hoped that within our camp we will preserve Rav Yisroel's legacy about the necessity of mussar study and working on our middos, all of which is "within our power to do," as Rav Yisroel wrote.

We have to be immensely grateful to the Committee, which spent many days and nights organizing this marvelous trip. Many years passed before Rav Yisroel's kever was located, and it took several months to organize this trip which, as one of the participants pointed out, was like one long ne'ilo prayer.


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