Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

19 Iyar 5763 - May 21, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








In a Land of Cold and Hunger

by Esther Vale

At the outbreak of World War II, R' Rafael Waldshein was a young yeshiva bochur learning under HaRav Elchonon Wasserman, Hy'd. Although leaving his home in Poland to study in Lithuania spared him from the Germans, the Russian Communists were hardly hospitable. At the tender age of fourteen he found himself on a train to Siberia.

While imprisoned at a work camp he discovered Siberia was not just a frozen land of hunger, backbreaking labor and misery, but also a land of mesirus nefesh for mitzvos Hashem. R' Waldshein experienced both of these aspects of Siberia personally and set out for freedom spiritually invigorated. Fifty-five years later, as he approaches "gevuros," he lays out his remarkable adolescent years with clear, vibrant memories of harrowing times.

Part I

* * *

My mother had one brother whose name is known to all, Maran HaRav Chaim Shmuelevitz. They were the grandchildren of the Alter of Novardok. My mother and her brother were orphaned at a young age and were raised by their uncle, HaRav Avrohom Jofen, who was also a godol hador.

My father studied at Yeshivas Novardok. They married in Bialystok, Lithuania, where I was born in 5686 (1926). During this period my father was a mashgiach at R' Elchonon Wasserman's yeshiva in Baranovitch.

Great poverty reigned in our home. Our house consisted of a single room divided in half by a curtain. On one side Ima took care of the baby--me--while on the other side Abba would give shiurim to bochurim who came to him from the yeshiva. Ima made sure we never felt want. She always procured food and clothing; through her chochmoh she would create something out of nothing--yeish mei'ayin.

Ima was a great woman whose remarkable character was made manifest at a young age. She was dedicated to the yeshiva, accepting austere conditions and hardship without complaint. Abba was mashgiach at a number of other yeshivos ketanos opened by the talmidim of the Alter of Novardok in the towns surrounding Bialystok. He was known as the "Shershover" because of his origins in the small town of Shershov, and he was a renowned figure in the Torah world.

He had a special friendship with the Chazon Ish zt'l when the latter was still living in Vilna before his move to Israel. Their relationship stretched back to Abba's childhood. Near his parents' home was a small town surrounded by forests, where the Chazon Ish would go during the summer to relax and vacation for a bit with many other bnei Torah. There the Chazon Ish and Abba met among the trees and enjoyed themselves through an exchange of divrei Torah. The bond forged during the summer remained throughout the year until it was renewed during the next bein hazmanim.

As I was preparing to celebrate my bar mitzvah, years later, the Chazon Ish, who was living in Israel by then, wrote my father a postcard saying he planned to send me a gift like no other: fine tefillin parshiyos that he hired a sofer from Bnei Brak with yiras Shomayim to write.

I can still see the postcard before my eyes as if I received it yesterday. There was one line written on it and below the line were his three initials, alef, yud, shin [which stand for Avrohom Yeshaya], the Chazon Ish's signature. What genuine happiness prevailed in our home when the postcard arrived, and even more upon the arrival of the parshiyos -- a present from the Chazon Ish!

My father also had a close friendship with the Steipler zt'l. One example among many: Maran the Steipler asked my father to arrange a shidduch for his sister, and Abba of course honored his request and attended to the matter.

Bar Mitzvah

R' Rafael cuts short the stories from his childhood, which he spent at a local cheder, and skips to his bar mitzvah day during the month of Iyar 5699 (1939). The fine parshiyos were ready and waiting, along with locally made boxes. Young Rafael could lay tefillin for the first time in his life and step up to the Torah. The family lacked the means to hold a party, but they celebrated the event in a different manner, typical of his bnei Torah and ohavei Torah parents: they sent the boy to yeshiva!

Although he was merely 13 and the top yeshiva in the area was in Baranovitch, a 20-hour journey from Bialystok, in the Waldshein home, where ahavas Torah blazed, such "trifling matters" were of little consequence. The main thing was for their eldest son to go learn under HaRav Elchonon Wasserman at his famous yeshiva.

To Baranovitch

So I wouldn't have to make the long, hard journey alone, another bochur traveling the same route was hooked up with me and we set out together. The first stop along our route was Warsaw. Arriving at midnight we got off and had to wait four hours in the freezing cold until the train that was to take us to Baranovitch pulled in.

I had never left my hometown before and here I was in a bustling train station. Thousands of people of every description were roaming about and trains from every corner of Europe were passing through. The loudspeakers announced the arrivals of trains from Moscow and Paris and various cities I had never heard of before. Everything was new and astonishing. I was a bit afraid of the sheigetzim parading around in packs and occasionally giving me a shove, but otherwise the place felt almost heimish.

The new sights kept me too distracted to long for the home I was leaving behind and would see again who-knew- when. Time passed quickly and soon our train arrived. We boarded and felt very at ease--everywhere Jewish faces could be seen. In Poland Jews comprised 10 percent of the population (3 million out of a total of 30 million), but on the train they numbered 50 percent. Despite the long hours of travel we passed the time agreeably. Jews from all of the well-known towns boarded the train at intermediate stops. By the time we arrived in Baranovitch we had passed through large districts and many cities.

At Yeshivas Baranovitch

To be admitted into the yeshiva I had to pass an entrance exam administered by R' Elchonon's oldest son. Today only some of the bochurim who take entrance exams are accepted, but there every bochur who managed to arrive was allowed in and stayed for years. The test was just a matter of formality, in order to keep up the yeshiva's reputation. I passed, boruch Hashem, and joined the yeshiva.

Considered a Lithuanian yeshiva, there were 320 bochurim including many Chassidim who were attracted by R' Elchonon's personality. His reputation as a great talmid chochom and tzaddik preceded him all around Europe.

I entered the first shiur. I had not yet had the privilege of hearing the Rosh Yeshiva teach because he taught the third shiur, but R' Elchonon's mere appearance in the beis medrash for the tefillos every day was very impressive. Due to his humility he would sit on one of the back benches, wherever a place was empty, choosing not to sit in the Mizrach. Several times I had the privilege of sitting beside him and taking in his unique tefillos.

The yeshiva did not have a dormitory. Every bochur had to arrange for his own quarters. I had the privilege of staying in the home of HaRav Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky Hy'd the mashgiach at the yeshiva -- who was my mother's uncle -- and had the opportunity to observe his special personality.

The yeshiva only provided the bochurim lunch, which consisted of bread, potatoes, an egg and sometimes a sausage. For breakfast and lunch each bochur received a coupon from the yeshiva that could be exchanged for one roll at the bakery. I ate breakfast and dinner at Rav Yisroel Yaakov's house, but I also made use of the coupons from the yeshiva, which I would give to the baker in exchange for a few small coins. I would save up the money and use it to go to the bathhouse every Friday, lichvod Shabbos. There was no other way to do this because we did not receive a cent from home. My parents had to scrimp and save just to pay for the train fare.

I grew accustomed to the yeshiva quite rapidly. I found suitable chavrusas and felt I was becoming a part of this important and flourishing yeshiva. I learned from Rosh Chodesh Iyar until bein hazmanim began, following Tisha B'Av.

Of course I stayed at the yeshiva because I did not have the money to travel home, but my father came to visit me. Our reunion was emotional and heartwarming. I missed my parents and my little brother a lot. Had I known how many years I would go without seeing them and in what circumstances, maybe I would have been even more excited over the visit.

The March to Mir

My father took me on an important excursion. We went to the town of Mir, where his brother and his mother's brother HaRav Chaim Shmuelevitz, lived. He had not seen either of them for several years. Back then travel was slow, difficult and expensive and this was a big opportunity for him to visit them. Who could have known that was to be their last meeting?

Abba planned to leave Mir before Rosh Chodesh Elul to return to Ima and the yeshiva in Poland, but then the War broke out. The Germans invaded Poland and all of the borders were closed. Abba found himself stuck in Mir.

A few days later he joined me at the yeshiva where he served as mashgiach until its closure. I returned to the yeshiva [in Baranovitch] earlier in order to begin Elul zman on time. We had all anticipated the special atmosphere of Elul at the yeshiva.

Reports and rumors regarding the War disturbed our peace of mind but we tried to maintain hasmodoh in learning and to adhere to the yeshiva schedule. R' Elchonon's talks provided us a great deal of chizuk. I was really concerned about how my mother and brother were faring under German occupation, but still I tried hard to keep these worries from distracting me from my learning.

The peace and quiet in Baranovitch was short-lived. Just as Rosh Hashanah arrived, German planes began to bomb the town. We had nowhere to go. There were no bomb shelters, so we would wait with pounding hearts to hear where the next bomb fell. Boruch Hashem no Jews were hurt during the bombings.

That year Rosh Hashanah fell on Thursday and Friday. The tefillos on that Rosh Hashanah were unique and particularly powerful. Everyone felt the fear of Judgment and when we said "Unesano tokef" every single word took on great meaning. "Mi yonu'ach umi yonu'a . . . mi bamayim umi bo'eish . . . " R' Elchonon davened all of the other tefillos with us in the yeshiva but for Minchah he held a minyan in his home.

When I arrived at his house for the tefilloh he sat learning with tremendous concentration. The town train station was located nearby and just then a large bomb fell on the station. R' Elchonon raised his head from the sefer. "What's that noise from?" he asked.

We told him a bomb had fallen and he resumed his learning immediately. We saw how when R' Elchonon was learning the world ceased to exist. Bombs were falling and he went on with his learning as if nothing was happening. A Lithuanian station worker came to the house. "Who's the man I always see sitting in the window," he asked, and indeed R' Elchonon would learn beside the window, "who continues to read calmly while we are constantly running around looking for ways to hide from the bombs that keep falling?"

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah the explosions continued unabated. R' Elchonon was worried about the boys in his care. He decided to leave the city without delay [on the second day of Rosh Hashanah] and go to Mir on foot, a distance of 50 kilometers [30 miles]. Mir was a tiny village and the Germans would not bother to bomb it.

Numerous Jewish families from Baranovitch left with us since the Germans were raining down bombs incessantly. I remember HaRav Boruch Dov Povarsky as an eight-year- old setting out with his family in the long convoy. We began to bond during the journey and sometimes he reminds me how we walked along together. The women and children sat on wagons hitched to horses.

In the morning [on Shabbos] we came to a small town. We halted, ate and rested, gathering our strength to continue the march. That evening we arrived at Mir. By then it was already motzei Shabbos. We bochurim from the yeshiva went into the beis medrash and spent the night sleeping on the hard benches, but who even noticed? After the long and arduous journey we slept serenely.

The next day, Tzom Gedaliah, suddenly airplanes appeared. We were startled, worrying that now they would start bombing us again just as in Baranovitch. But no. Rumors spread that Poland had been divided between Germany and Russia and Mir fell in the Russia part. Later this proved to be true. Within a few hours the first Russian tanks appeared at the edge of the town.

Everyone was happy to see the Russians for they knew they had been spared from the dreaded Germans. But when R' Elchonon heard the news as he stood in the yeshiva courtyard he said, "What will become of the yeshivas?" R' Elchonon did not think about the danger of the bombs, he immediately thought, "Torah, mah yihiyeh oleho?"

The Russians were Communists and suppressed the Jewish religion. How would it be possible to learn under their rule? This was his first concern!

A Haven in Vilna

A decision was reached to return to Baranovitch as soon as the situation improved, but from Above circumstances were arranged to bring us to a safe haven in Vilna. Poland and Lithuania had wrangled over the city for a long time. Twenty years earlier Vilna had been invaded by the Poles. The Lithuanians ground their teeth but were too weak to put up a fight to recapture their capital. As a sign of protest they severed diplomatic ties with Poland. I remember that it was impossible to cross the border from Poland to Lithuania. In order to reach Lithuania one had to go through Latvia in Russia.

Now, as a result of the War, we heard the Russians had made a new decision: since the Poles had done Lithuania an injustice by taking Vilna away twenty years earlier they--the Russians-- would now return Vilna to the independent Lithuania. As a result of this Hashgocho Protis, Vilna became destined to shelter and save the yeshiva world from the claws of the Nazi beast and from the hard hand of the Russian Communists.

The news that Vilna was being transferred to Lithuanian control immediately made the rounds among the yeshivas. Word reached HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky of Vilna and his assistants made contact with the yeshivas right away to inform them that they could and should come to Vilna. We boarded the train, every yeshiva at a different station, and headed toward Vilna. We were practically still children and I recall how we would walk from one car to the next to meet with bochurim from other yeshivos who filled the train. On board were talmidim from Mir, Kamenitz and other yeshivas, as well as the Amshenover Rebbe -- the great- grandfather of the current Rebbe -- with his talmidim.

I have yet to mention that I was not alone. My father, who had remained in Lithuania against his will, joined me and was at my side. Both of us were constantly worried about my mother, for we had not received word from her since the Germans invaded Poland.

An Emotional Meeting

Ima knew we were in Baranovitch, which is located not far from the Russian border, so she decided she would try to come to us. Taking advantage of the chaos along the way in the aftermath of the invasion she headed towards the border. From time to time she would transfer to a different bus or car until she arrived in Brisk. The city had been captured by the Germans, but after a short time it was transferred to Russian control, boruch Hashem. [The Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement (also known as the Brest-Litovsk Agreement), which divided control over Europe, was signed between the Russians and the Germans in Brisk, which was a border town.]

She traveled toward us for about a month, from the middle of Elul until Succos, and when we arrived in Vilna -- there she was! To this day tears well in my eyes when I recall the emotions that seized me when Ima suddenly appeared. I had been so worried about her; I didn't know if I would ever see her again, and there she was at my side!

I also had a an exciting encounter with my grandfather, my father's father, HaRav Avrohom Aharon Waldshein, whom I met for the first time. He was the rov of a small town near Vilna and the high cost of travel and the great distance separating us had made it impossible for us to visit him.

Besides these meetings I remained with the yeshiva. And like the other yeshivas, ours, too, was in search of a quiet corner where we could resume regular studies. R' Elchonon's yeshiva moved to a small town outside of Vilna called Trop, where HaRav Nochum Partzovitz ("R' Nochum Tropper"), HaRav Chaim Shmuelevitz's son-in-law, had grown up. We made-do in the central beis medrash and were able to return to our studies in peace.

The war situation was quite calm and we felt at ease. Some of the bochurim whose families had remained in Poland received letters, but the letters did not dare describe the real situation there. They wrote that things were a bit hard for them, that they were not permitted to travel from one place to another, but the true circumstances--what was really happening to the Jews of Poland--remained unknown to us. We assumed it was difficult for them just like in any occupied land, but certainly bearable. In fact it was even possible to send letters, we reasoned.

By then it was already after Pesach 5700 (1940). The Russians had captured Vilna and the surrounding area, and we came under Russian Communist control. They decided to close all of the foreign embassies in Vilna for Russia had only one capital city, Moscow, where all of the embassies had to be located. During the short period between the city's capture and the total shutdown of the embassies, many yeshivas (including Mir) took advantage of the generosity of the Japanese Ambassador, who issued hundreds of visas to Shanghai. Every yeshiva tried to secure entry visas to wherever it could, because they knew the Communist authorities would close the yeshivas sooner or later.

HaRav Shlomo Wolbe, still a young bochur at the time, was already in Sweden and from there he placed a call to the Dutch Ambassador suggesting he issue visas to Curacao, a remote island [in South America off the coast of Venezuela] under Dutch rule. The Dutch agreed to issue 2,000 visas and, based on this, we too, R' Elchonon's yeshiva, applied for exit visas. It was then the winter of 5701 (1941). In Nisan the Russians stopped issuing exit visas. HaRav Aharon Kotler caught the last train out and all the gates were shut behind him.

The Russians had not yet touched the yeshivas, but they had begun to take an interest and to try to "handle" the matter. I remember that they sent us a Jewish Communist from Moscow who wanted to deliver a speech to the bochurim. Of course it was forbidden to refuse him a platform, so we had to sit down and listen to him.

He told us about the task of good Russian citizens: "A Russian citizen works and toils and then he receives his food, while you, what do you do all day long? You sit and eat and don't do anything. I spoke with your principal," he said, which was true, he had met with R' Elchonon before the speech, "and I told him, `You and all of your students should know that your place here is not secure at all. Today you are here and tomorrow you may be somewhere else.' We are here forever and always."

This was intended to be a threat sent to us by the central Soviet government in Moscow to let us know the matter of our yeshiva was being "taken care of."

The next day R' Elchonon gave us a special talk. He told us the rulers we were subject to were Amolek. When Am Yisroel was in the desert or in Eretz Yisroel they were able to keep the mitzvah of eradicating Amolek by means of war. Today, since we were unable to wage war we had only one way to expunge Amolek: learning Torah. Every page of gemora wipes out one Amoleki.

The talk had a powerful impact on us. I was 14-and-a- half among mostly 17-year-old bochurim and we drew so much chizuk from the talk that the tefillas Ma'ariv that followed was like Ma'ariv on Yom Kippur. Everyone experienced great his'orerus and we really did try to increase the number of pages of gemora we learned and to learn with greater chizuk as if we were sitting and learning in a land of peace and safety, without paying any attention to our circumstances. For the time being, we were allowed to learn virtually undisturbed and the Russians even transferred to the yeshiva the funds that arrived from the Joint. For the time being. Apparently they needed the dollars we were sent so they agreed to receive the money and passed on an equivalent amount in rubles.

Although we sat seemingly in peace and learned, the gedolei dor knew what lay in store. I was in close contact with R' Elchonon and I heard him say things that sounded like prophecy. Once, when we went to his house to daven Ma'ariv he said, "According to a mishnah in maseches Brochos the verse, `Eis la'asos leHashem, heifeiru Torasecho,' means when Hashem wants to visit calamity upon Am Yisroel it's as if He can't do it because Torah learning stands at their side and protects them. So what does He do? `Heifeiru Torasecho.' He has the yeshivas closed so Jews can't learn and then he brings the tzoroh upon us. This explanation frightens me for He is liable to carry it out in our generation."

And he was right. A few months later all of the bochurei yeshivos in Russia were sent to Siberia. In the other occupied lands they suffered the same fate as the rest of the Jews there. And when R' Elchonon was asked for his opinion on what would happen to the Jews under Russian rule, he replied that indeed Communist rule was harsh, but he feared much worse--a reference to the Holocaust taking place during those years under German rule, of which we knew nothing. (Maran HaRav Elchonon Wasserman was taken by the Germans immediately upon their conquest of Vilna, and he was murdered in Tammuz 5701 (1941), Hy'd.)

All this took place before Pesach 5701. The War was at its height, Europe was in flames, and we were sitting and learning with hasmodoh and shekidoh as if on a remote island. On erev Pesach R' Elchonon had to part from us because he had received indications that the authorities intended to arrest him. He left the yeshiva and the town and was replaced by HaRav Naftoli, his eldest son. The atmosphere in the yeshiva was grim, yet we tried our best to continue learning according to the regular routine for as long as possible.

Right after Shavuos, dozens of Russian soldiers encircled the beis medrash. Some of them came inside carrying a list of names of bochurim they had come to arrest. Anyone who had made an official request to leave Russia was considered a traitor in the eyes of the Communist authorities. We who had filed such applications knew we would be sent to Siberia sooner or later. We knew why they were reading off the names and so in response to every name we said, "No, he's not here."

Russian soldiers are not particularly bright and they accepted our replies without protest. One bochur stepped forward when his name was called and was immediately arrested--and this was what saved him! Because of his arrest he was not sent to Siberia. He stayed alive until the end of the War and is alive today.

End of Part I


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