HaRav Osher Katzman, zt"l, a ram at Yeshivas
Torah Vodaas and a former talmid of Yeshivas Mir and
of HaRav Elchonon Wassermann Hy"d, passed away in New
York last week.
Years ago this writer heard him tell two gripping accounts
about how he was saved from the Nazi death machine through
chasdei Shomayim and how he had the merit to save
another ben Torah. HaRav Katzman told his stories
during a voyage to the remains of the destroyed Torah centers
in Lithuania at the initiative of HaRav Leib Baron, who was
also a survivor of Yeshivas Mir and Yeshivas Baranovitch.
At the height of the war when the yeshivas had gone into
exile in Vilna, food was in very short supply and the exiled
refugees were on the verge of starvation. When R' Osher told
the local baker of his hunger, the baker said he would
provide R' Osher a small ration of bread, but because the
supply of salt had run out he offered to make a deal: If he
could obtain a large quantity of salt for baking, the baker
would provide plenty of bread for him and his friends.
Recalling half a sack of salt was left at his sleeping
quarters in Mir, R' Osher decided to return to the town
despite the hard journey. Upon arriving in Mir the effects of
the war were already apparent. Everyone felt the Nazis were
about to arrive at any time. A sense of gloom and terror
gripped the town. He rushed to the home of the rov of the
city. HaRav Katzman told of his last meeting with the rov of
Mir, HaRav Tzvi Hirsch Kamai Hy"d. "Why is the rov
still here at a time like this?" R' Osher asked
"A rov does not leave his kehilloh in time of
trouble," HaRav Kamai replied. "I'm staying here with the
people of the town, come what may. But what are you
doing here? Didn't you already escape to Vilna? Get away fast
lest you perish!"
HaRav Katzman recounted in a trembling voice how the rov of
Mir clasped his hand and lamented the destruction of the
Torah in the town. `Elokim, bo'u goyim benachalosecho,
timu es heichal kodshecho' (Tehillim 79:1). He wept
ceaselessly and his hot tears wet my hands, but after a few
moments he recovered his composure and said, `Now flee from
here quickly, right away. Don't remain even for a moment.
Every moment you linger is considered sakonas pikuach
nefesh.' I tried to persuade him that I wanted to drop in
for just a few moments to ask about my family members who
remained in Mir, but he pressed me saying, `Absolutely not.
Flee right away. Quickly, quickly . . . '
"I obeyed the Rov and rushed to the train station. All of the
cars waiting in the station were packed with refugees fleeing
the war. I couldn't even fit inside any of the cars and had
to stand on the bottom stair of the door with half of my body
hanging out in the air.
"When I got back to Vilna I realized how right the Rov had
been. Had he not rushed me I would not have survived. That
was the last train that departed from Mir. Afterwards the
escape routes were closed and the trains stopped running.
Every Jew who remained in Mir even one minute after the train
rolled out was caught by the Nazis and taken away to his
When we visited the desolate building of Yeshivas Mir on our
trip a few years ago, which had been converted into a local
post office, HaRav Osher and ylct"a HaRav Leib Baron
recalled past memories of the prominent members of the
yeshiva, their unique traits and their styles of learning, as
well as the teaching method employed by the Mashgiach HaRav
Yeruchom, zt"l. Inside the remnants of the yeshivas,
as the two described the great esteem for the Mashgiach,
HaRav Katzman told the following story.
"In the US, many years after the war, I met HaRav Yaakov
Finkelstein, one of the alumni of the yeshiva who had come
from Chassidic Poland. He embraced me and said excitedly,
`Let me tell you a secret. My life was saved in your merit!
You probably don't know it, but it's true.'"
In Sivan 5699 (1939), on the yahrtzeit of Maran HaRav
Yeruchom, HaRav Katzman wrote an article in memory of the
Mashgiach for a chareidi newspaper published in Yiddish. The
article reached the hands of R' Yaakov Finkelstein, who was
greatly impressed with what he read about Yeshivas Mir and
its method of building talmidim in ruchniyus.
The bochur decided Mir was the just the kind of
yeshiva he wanted to learn in. He made a decision to go and
started to carry out his plan right away. Taking his
kapotoh and a handbag carrying a few personal articles
he set off for Mir. Just weeks after his arrival the war
broke out and the yeshiva went into exile, beginning its long
wanderings as far as Japan and Shanghai. "Thanks to your
article I had the zchus to learn at Yeshivas Mir--and
to remain alive."