Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

3 Av 5764 - July 21, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








In Exile With the Torah

Memoirs of a survivor of Yeshivas Bialystok in Poland -- HaRav Binyomin Grodka

Part II

In the first part (of three) HaRav Grodka discussed his early years briefly and then went on to describe his years in yeshiva. He entered the Novardok yeshiva of Bialystok at the age of 16 in 1936, and was able to learn there for three years before the War broke out in Elul, 5639 (1939). He discussed the yomim noraim that year and what it was like to learn and live with the clouds of war hanging low. Many yeshivas from Poland and Russia went to Vilna, Lithuania in the hope that it would be independent of both Germany and Russia. A week before Pesach 5700 (1940) Rav Grodka arrived in Birzh with the yeshiva and the rosh yeshiva HaRav Yaffen and the mashgichim HaRav Yisroel Mowshowitz and HaRav Nissen Patchinsky. However soon Russia took over Lithuania.

Kabbolas HaTorah on the Way to Siberia!

Many respected, important roshei yeshiva of Yeshivas Novardok and their students were in Lithuania during the war and exile. We'll mention a few of them, who blossomed in the desolation and exile.

HaRav Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky, mashgiach of Baranowitz and brother-in- law of HaRav Yaffen, the son-in- law of the Alter of Novardok zy'o. He stayed with his students (of Yeshivas Ohel Torah-Baranowitz) and the rosh yeshiva HaRav Elchonon Wasserman Hy'd in Lithuania, and then in Troki near Vilna. He did keep in contact with our yeshiva in Birzh, and every once in a while he came to give mussar shmuessen and to speak with his brother-in- law the Rosh Yeshiva.

I remember that once I heard from the rov of Birzh, HaRav Mordechai Leib Berenstein Hy'd that when HaRav Yisroel Yaakov came, he asked him a difficult halochoh sheilo. HaRav Yisroel Yaakov hesitated to give a psak halochoh, even though he had served as rov in Baranowitz. He said that he thought the halochoh should be thus, but he'd ask his rebbi (meaning HaRav Elchonon zt'l) and send the answer by letter. Some time later, the rov received a letter with the answer, that the halochoh was indeed as he had said and that is what one must do.

HaRav Yitzchok Elchonon Waldshen-Shorshuber, mashpia ruchani in Baranowitz and Pinsk, also stayed in Lithuania, as well as HaRav Yoel Kleinerman and Reb Aharon Agulnik of Yeshivas Ostrov Mezhibezk, and HaRav Moshe Reisz of Pinsk, Czechnovsa, and Lutzk. HaRav Shmuel Weintraub and HaRav Yerachmiel Shulman of Yeshivas Novardok in Pinsk, and the famous mashgiach (mentioned in the oath taken on the sefer Torah) Rav Shmuel Panitsh Hy'd of Yeshivas Novardok in Mezhritz (who was killed in the end al kiddush Hashem in the village of Nimichin, Lithuania with his students while holding the sefer Torah in his hand).

HaRav Nissen Zilinker (Babroisker) zt'l Hy'd, brother- in-law of HaRav Ben Tzion Bruk, was on the hanholoh ruchanit of the yeshiva. Even when we were under the Bolshevik reign, he exuded happiness and joy from his shining face.

I remember the hakofos of Simchas Torah (5701-1941) under the Bolshevik- Russian government. He and his students sang together, to the tune of a well- known Communist anthem, an emotional song about strengthening oneself over all religious persecution. (This song has been printed in Yiddish in the sefer, Ner Leyitzhor, a book of resolutions of the vaadim and Novardok hanhogos.) The Russians, who saw how they were singing their anthem song for kedushoh and to strengthen themselves against religious persecutors, ground their teeth in restrained anger. The song began in Yiddish in rhyme with the chorus, "Like our fathers long ago, during religious persecution, we are not afraid, and we laugh at all of them!"

They say that when he felt the Nazi noose getting tighter, HaRav Zilinker wrote a special song about spiritual preparation for the impending mesiras nefesh and kiddush Shem Shomayim. When I visited his brother-in- law HaRav Ben Tzion Bruk zt'l, he burst out in tears upon remembering his brother-in-law, HaRav Zilinker Hy'd. He also composed the famous song of bitochon, "Ashrei hagever asher som Hashem mivtacho velo ponoh el rehovim, fortunate is the man who puts his trust in Hashem and does not turn to emptiness" (published in the sefer, Lapid Eish Novardokai about HaRav Yitzchok Orlansky).

Once he composed a song about reading newspapers. The song began with, "Newspapers are the new idols."

Everything that happened to us in the Lithuanian village of Birzh left an indelible impression on us. We strengthened ourselves and grew in Torah and achieved a proper outlook on everything that happens in the world, especially overcoming nisyonos. One of the shuls in Birzh served as the "Beis Mussar," a place to work on mussar and self- improvement.

A Portrait of the Village Rov

The village rov, Rav Leib Berenstein Hy'd zt'l, was born in Minsk in 5647 (1887) to HaRav Chaim Eliezer, ram of the yeshiva in Minsk. [In his old age, his father immigrated in Eretz Yisroel and gave shiurim in the shul, Nachalas Shiva. He passed away there in 5706 (1946). One of his sons was killed in the big slaughter of Yeshivas Chevron in Chevron.]

Rav Leib was considered one of the best lamdonim in Yeshivas Knesses Yisroel (Slobodka) and was a talmid muvhak of the Alter of Slobodka zy'o. He always used to tell over the words and gems of the Alter of Slobodka. [He told me that in yeshiva he was called Mottel Minsker, so I deduced that his real name was Rav Mordechai Leib, not just Rav Leib.]

Once he told me in the name of the Alter of Slobodka zt'l, "First be a mentch and then a frumer!"

He married the daughter of a prominent member of the village, Rav Nosson Nota, and was then appointed av beis din of Birzh.

He was very strong in rabbinical matters and did not show favoritism. He was very accepted by the Agudas HaRabbonim in Kovno, which offered him rabbonus in large, important cities. However, he refused to leave Birzh.

When the Rosh Yeshiva was going to travel to America through Japan, he asked the rov of Birzh, Rav Leib Berenstein Hy'd to give shiurim and mussar shmuessen in the yeshiva in his absence.

The village rov was an outstanding talmid chochom, baal mussar, a great yirei Shomayim and a man of mesiras nefesh for Torah and mitzvos. Even under Communist rule, the rov himself used to heat up the mikveh, change the water and clean the floor and would not allow any of us to help him. He did everything in secret, with love of mitzvos. And he was a great gaon in the treasures of Torah and yir'oh. Many stories can be told about him, especially about his mesiras nefesh for the yeshiva's existence.

Let Us Grasp the Torah

HaRav Nekritz zt'l, in his sefer Lev HoAri, told about the Shabbos Hagodol in 5701 (1941) when the rov of the city, Rav Leib Berenstein, got up at the bimoh of the beis hamedrash. In his drosho, the Rov mentioned the words of the Chofetz Chaim zy'o in 5677 (1917), when he was in exile in Russia as a refugee from Radin. In that period, the Communists took over the government and prohibited keeping mitzvos and learning Torah.

Simchas Torah arrived and the Chofetz Chaim was called up for an aliyoh leTorah. The Chofetz Chaim approached, grasped the atzei chaim in his hands and said, "Ribono shel Olom, look. We used to have houses where we grew up; we had sons and daughters, livelihood and sustenance. You took everything away from us and now You also want to take away this Torah. But we say, `No, the Torah will not slip away from us.'" And everyone burst out crying.

The Rov mentioned another idea in the name of the Chofetz Chaim from that period. On Parshas Vayeiro, the congregation came to his house to daven ma'ariv. The Chofetz Chaim turned to them and asked if his son-in-law Reb Hirsch was there. They said he would come immediately. When Reb Hirsch arrived, the Chofetz Chaim said to him, "Do you know, I have an idea of what to do. Behold Lot said to the people of Sedom that he was relinquishing his two daughters, and `to these men do not do anything, because for this reason they came into the shade of my house [under my protection].' If Lot had such sentiments, let us also complain and hide in the shade of Hakodosh Boruch Hu, and He (so to speak) is definitely no less Lot and will definitely protect us!' With this, the Rov concluded his speech and said, `Come, let us hold onto the atzei chaim of the Torah hakedoshah. We will guard the kedushoh of the family and make sure not to eat neveilah and treifah, and this zchus will stand for us to quickly be saved."

On 20 Sivan 5701 (1941) (a week before war broke out between the Russians and Germans) all the bnei yeshiva who had asked for exit permits and did not agree to accept Soviet citizenship were imprisoned. They were packed into cattle cars and sent to far-off Siberia as criminals, because they refused to accept Soviet citizenship. It could be that the Russians already suspected that the Germans planned to attack them, and they wanted to remove potential opposition from the area.

One thing we remembered -- that we must hold onto the eitz chaim of the Torah!

The atmosphere in those days in the bnei yeshiva refugees in Lithuania, who were not yet zoche to escape the Communist government, was tense. Many bnei yeshiva already celebrated Pesach in Japan and other countries free from Bolshevik rule. We celebrated Pesach with bitochon in Hashem, who did miracles for our fathers in Mitzrayim, that He would redeem us quickly. As the village Rov said, if we grab hold of the Torah, the Giver of the Torah would protect us, even if we are exiled to Siberia.

HaRav Nekritz zt'l mentioned to his friends in the cattle cars, "Do you remember the brochoh of havdoloh?" While the prison cars took us to the depths of Siberia, we put our hands around each others' shoulders on motzei Shabbos and said, "Hamavdil bein kodesh lechol, bein or lechoshech, bein Yisroel lo'amim!"

We were going from the kodesh of learning Torah all day, from tefilloh and mussar, to the "frying pan of chol" of working all day. From a life of "light" and tranquility to a life of "darkness," hunger and suffering, frigidness and ice. Between Yisroel and the nations: until now we almost never saw a gentile face; now we were traveling and would be among gentiles.

We therefore declared together: let us make the havdoloh, the separation. And the aron kodesh and the heilege Torah would separate us from hardship to hardship. Indeed that is how we strengthened ourselves and survived. We fulfilled the advice of the Chofetz Chaim zy'o, mentioned by the Rov of Birzh zt'l -- to grab hold of the tree of life -- the heilege Torah.

Satanic Plans

Erev Shabbos parshas Behaalosecha 5701 (1941), Birzh, Lithuania, after Yeshivas Bialystok fled from Poland.

The sun rose, and as usual we woke up in time for tefillas shacharis in the yeshiva, which was now in Birzh. After davening, the yeshiva had its usual halochoh session with HaRav Nissen Babroisker zt'l. After davening and learning, we each went to our respective hosts for breakfast and then returned to the yeshiva for the learning session.

On this particular erev Shabbos, we felt a strange excitement in the air that aroused our suspicion. Everywhere we turned, we met NKVD soldiers with their blue hats (We called them the sheidim, demons.) No one could possibly know what satanic plans were up their sleeves.

On Shabbos night, we davened as usual and sang Shabbos zemiros like every Shabbos kodesh, and we did not imagine what was going to happen to us on this Shabbos.

At about 2:30 a.m., there was loud banging at the door of the local rov, HaRav Mordechai Berenstein. (During that period, I and two other bochurim lived there.)

We opened the door, and NKVD soldiers burst into the house like demons. They woke up the two bochurim and dragged them out of their beds. Then the soldiers opened their files and verified that they were the wanted "criminals" (since they had fled from Poland to Russian Lithuania). They demanded that they sign the criminal file detailing their rightful punishments.

Because it was Shabbos kodesh, the bochurim did not want to sign, so the NKVD demanded that the Rov command them to sign. When the Rov zt'l refused, they threatened to shoot him. The Rov replied that he was ready to be shot.

In the end, they took the two bochurim who were listed in the criminal files and left me free. (One of the bochurim lives today in Bnei Brak boruch Hashem, and the other is no longer alive.)

I went to daven in shul, as we no longer davened in the building that housed the yeshiva. The mashgiach, the tzaddik HaRav Yisroel Mowshowitz zt'l and many talmidim were imprisoned on that Shabbos night. Many rumors flew around about the bochurim captured by the NKVD -- rumor after rumor.

During krias haTorah there was a bitter feeling, recalling that the two upside-down nunim between vayehi binso'a ho'Oron to alfei Yisroel were there to separate between troubles and hardships. (see Rashi and peirush Kol Kisvei).

After davening, we were afraid to return to the dining room, in case the NKVD beasts would fall upon us, and everyone went back to his host. I also went to the Rov's house.

When I reached the courtyard, I peeked through the window and saw two NKVD officers (or soldiers) sitting and waiting for me. I decided that I was not going to try to hide anywhere; everything is in Hashem's hands. I went forward and when I opened the door, the two terrorists jumped on me and asked me my name. When I told them, they were very happy that they caught the wanted "criminal," instructed me to pack all of my possessions and come with them.

I told them that today is Shabbos and I am forbidden to do any work. They started to laugh at me -- what is he talking about, Shabbos? They instructed Rebbetzin Babroisker a'h (who was staying at the Rov's house) to pack my belongings for me. The Rov zt'l understood that it was pikuach nefesh, so she packed all my possessions.

But when they asked me to sign the criminal file on Shabbos, I remained stubborn and did not sign. Then they pressured me to take my packages, and I was adamant about this as well and refused to carry on Shabbos. The end was that I saw an unusual, wondrous thing: the two of them carried my packages to the train to Siberia and even put them on the train for me.

Because I refused to sign the criminal file on Shabbos however, they shoved me into a special car meant for animals. The sight was really terrible. The roof was metal with two holes in it; it was a miracle that we did not faint from the heat and stuffiness, as the car was very crowded.

For three weeks, we sat in this cattle car, guarded by armed soldiers who did not allow us to get off. The entire first week of travel we were still in Lithuania which was under Russian rule. At every train station that the train stopped, local Jews brought us food at HaRav Berenstein's request. The train used to stop for a day or two, but we were trapped inside and could not get out.

The esteemed mashgiach, HaRav Yisroel Mowshowitz was with us in the cattle car. On Friday, after a week of travel, the train stopped in the vicinity of Vilna and stayed in the Vileika station until after Shabbos. We met Rav Gershon Leibman (zt'l, rosh yeshiva and founder of Novardok in France), and he began to cry bitterly due to his deep pain and emotion.

The day after Shabbos, the train continued on its way and approached the Russian border, and on motzei Shabbos, we reached Minsk, the capital city of White Russia.

Meanwhile, the mashgiach told us that he had heard the Russian radio and understood that the Germans had opened war on the Russians.

Once a day, we received a portion of bread with soup. Since we spilled out the soup, they stopped giving it to us and allowed us to take a bucket of boiling water instead. Thus three weeks passed in the train and on Sunday of the fourth week, we reached the Rishota station in Krasniask, Siberia. There the yeshiva students' Siberian chapter began.

All the pain and suffering we experienced traveling as prisoners and in Siberia was yad Hashem to save us from the Nazi valley of death in conquered Lithuania.

In Siberia

To a desolate desert, a land afflicted with bitter hunger and frost; between mountains of snow, where temperatures in the cold of the winter reached 40-50 degrees below zero; to the taiga forests, containing one-hundred year old trees - - the yeshiva bochurim arrived with their father and madrich ruchani, the mashgiach HaRav Yisroel Mowshowitz zt'l in Krasniask, Siberia.

Three months of exile and backbreaking work, of digging ground as hard as iron in which a half hour of iron blows only broke the thick ice. We toiled for hours to saw, split and carry the immense, sturdy trees.

In our camp, shelves served as beds, shelf upon shelf; they treated us like animals, not people. But we guarded our ruchniyus strengths with all our might and we guarded our precious treasures, our tefillin and sifrei kodesh. Each one of us hid his treasure, his tefillin and kept Hashem's mitzvos. In the darkness of daybreak when the officials were not watching, at two, three o'clock in the morning, we put on tefillin and davened shacharis under the blankets, so the searchlights above would not give us away. This tefillas shacharis was from the depths of the heart and soul, with outstanding mesiras nefesh.

Shemiras Shabbos in Siberia

Behold the Shabbos Queen came to the terrible darkness in the distant North when light and darkness were mixed together. We decided that we would not work on Shabbos kodesh nor transgress any issurim of the Torah.

We went out to the forest, our boundaries clearly marked on the trees, with the "stroloks" -- the shooters -- guarding us with drawn rifles, escorting us around the trees. Each of the four borders swarmed with soldiers. We began tefillas shacharis. The stroloks screamed at us -- you'll soon learn what a work camp in Siberia is.

But the holy fire of kedushas Shabbos blazed in the Siberian ice and hail and enflamed our pure neshomos. Because we were new in the camp, they left us alone the first Shabbos, in spite of the open tefillos and the fact that we did not work, the entire day.

The next Shabbos however, we suffered greatly for our decision to not work on Shabbos. On erev Shabbos, a poliatrok (government spokesman) stood in front of us in his blue beret, and lectured in Russian that they own the entire forest and we must work in it to receive food. We must not to be too clever, because otherwise we will never leave Siberia alive.

The bochurim stood and laughed at the poliatrok. He informed the natzalnik, the camp official, who imprisoned all of us in a tightly-locked Siberian dungeon.

There were close to fifty yeshiva bochurim, a group of two brigades, in the dungeon -- a narrow, suffocating room. We enthusiastically sang Shabbos songs there, unafraid, despite the fact that we were in great danger as the camp official planned to prosecute us to the full extent of the law.

But Hashem helped us. A certain precious Jew from Vilna bribed the officials and they agreed to free all of us. They warned us, however, that we dare not desist from working in the forest the next Shabbos.

The next Shabbosim we did go out to work, but we made sure with all our might to not transgress issurim de'Orayso.

What did we do? Two bochurim dragged the logs together, thereby avoiding transgressing issurim from the Torah. We succeeded in not doing melochos de'Orayso in spite of all danger.

Cutting the Mashgiach's Beard

There were times when the natzalnik seized our teacher the mashgiach and threatened us, "We know he is your leader. If you slack off in your work, we'll shoot him and kill him in front of your eyes."

HaRav Yisroel zt'l suffered bitterly from them. They even cruelly cut off his beard and payos, despite his protests, and he covered his face with a cloth. But he personified "vayidom Aharon, and Aharon was silent." He never complained to anyone and accepted the decree with love, even when he was informed of his bitter fate, that his righteous wife and children were murdered in Lithuania.

He used to sit and encourage us with many stories of bitochon, strengthening our bitochon in Hashem yisborach that everything is for the good and we would soon be redeemed from all pain, nisyonos and suffering.

Many of us used to cover our faces to protect ourselves from the blood-sucking lice, but I did not have enough rags to cover myself and suffered terribly from leeches and parasite bites.

Keeping the Issur of Treif

We were two brigades of yeshiva bochurim in the labor camp and we had nothing to eat. We made sure that one of us would always be on kitchen duty, so he could inform us if they were cooking treifos. Where did they get treifos from? If one of the animals died, they put the carcass into the soup. In such cases, we did not touch the food, even though the terrible hunger was life- threatening.

I remember that one afternoon, they commanded me to bring two buckets of soup that had treifos in it and I spilled it on the way. Sometimes there was only soup with spelt, which we ate.

One Sunday after three weeks of living in the work huts, it was my turn to work in the kitchen, to bring firewood and to supervise the cooking pots. It was a most bitter Sunday and Hashgocho protis had me in the kitchen.

This is the story. Kitchen duty consisted of chopping firewood nearby and bringing it to the gentile cook. Payment was a bit of flour to bake a small roll in the oven or on the flame. At ten thirty in the morning, a bochur, Shmuel Holtz, came in as white a sheet and put a pair of tefillin into my pocket. I asked him, "Tell me Shmuel, what happened?"

He said, "Don't ask. A great churban in the work huts! They are taking everything, especially tefillin and sifrei kodesh, and are planning to burn them. I managed to slip away and run to the distant kitchen, because they won't search the kitchen. They are searching through clothing and all the huts, under the beds and in personal belongings."

I asked him why he didn't bring my tefillin as well and he said that it didn't matter if it was my tefillin or his, the main thing was that we should be able to save a pair of tefillin and keep the mitzvos.

I hung the coat with the tefillin on the fence of the kitchen, jumped out the bathroom window, circled around to our hut and succeeded in saving my tefillin before the NKVD destroyed them chas vesholom. Boruch Hashem, I managed to return to my work in the kitchen.

A few minutes later, when I was still in the kitchen, another bochur, who was also white and agitated, came in and gave me his tefillin to guard. His name was Berel Koziner. The gentile working in the kitchen realized that something was suspicious and screamed at me, "What did he give you?"

I answered, "Nothing!"

He said, "Show me what he gave you."

I left the kitchen with the work tools to chop trees, hid all the pairs of tefillin in a cloth and buried them under the trees. Thus with chasdei Hashem I managed to save three pairs of heilege tefillin from evil.

The wild beasts took whatever they found in the huts, including watches and expensive items, which they pocketed, and they destroyed the devorim shebikedushoh in a large bonfire. To our pain and sorrow, they used the straps of the tefillin for secular work. It was a bitter pain, much worse than the hunger and ice, to see how our heilege items were disgraced and reduced to dust and ashes.

End of Part II


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