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25 Tammuz 5764 - July 14, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








In Exile With the Torah

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

The Flight

Ostrov Mezhibesk, a Polish village. HaRav Meir Segal (Brisker), and later HaRav Yosef Kleinman, served as roshei yeshiva of Yeshivas Novardok Beis Yosef in my village, and the mashgiach was Reb Aharon Agulnik, zecher tzadikim livrochoh.

The talmidim of the yeshiva learned very diligently and served Hashem with tremendous enthusiasm and yir'oh. The yeshiva had a great influence on the entire surroundings and even chassidishe bochurim learned there. I learned there in yeshiva ketanoh.

When I was sixteen, I "exiled myself to a place of Torah" (after experiencing various hardships in the village of Ostrov), to Yeshivas Beis Yosef in Bialystok, a large yeshiva with a nice dormitory where about 400 students learned.

Yeshivas Bialystok was famous for its outstanding talmidei chachomim. I tangibly felt there what it means to work on improving one's character traits. I remember how the rosh hava'ad Reb Yitzchok Kot (an older bochur) asked the young bochurim which precious character trait could be learned from the Alter of Novardok zt'l. One student got up and said, "Knowing the Creator!"

The rosh hava'ad answered, "True. Knowing the Creator is an avodoh and a very important middoh. However, the avodoh of `knowing oneself' is greater!"

The rosh hava'ad always used to discuss and explain any act we did.

For three years straight, without a break, I learned in this yeshiva. The rosh yeshiva was the Alter zt'l's son-in- law, HaRav Avrohom Yaffen and the mashgiach was HaRav Yisroel Mowshowitz zt'l. HaRav Nisan Zilinker (Babroisker) zt'l assisted them greatly.

HaRav Nisan Patchinsky zt'l also served as the mashgiach ruchani and gave fiery shmuessen on emunoh and bitochon. He used to speak about the coldness of the outside street and would scream, "The street is like a desert" (pust, empty, in Yiddish). Then he used to emphasize the great strength and happiness in yeshiva and learning in the beis medrash, as well as the importance of being happy with a life of pain and chasing the vanities of olom hazeh out of one's heart, in order to serve Hashem with a pure heart. Like it's written in Koheles, "Hachochmoh to'oz lachochom, yoser mei'asoro shalitim," (Koheles 7:19), and "hachochmoh tichye be'oleho," (Koheles 7:11). We must, therefore, toil and work in the chochmas Hashem.

One of the Novardok mussar slogans that I heard was, "If you are lacking something, something is lacking in you!"

It seems to me that I was zoche to a tremendous aliyoh in Torah, tefilloh and yiras Shomayim, due to the spirit of the yeshiva. The learning in yeshiva was with tremendous enthusiasm, a great desire for Torah and outstanding hasmodoh. Tefilloh was a true avodoh shebaleiv, with faithful and proper kavonoh. We also heard many shmuessen, especially on the Alter's yahrtzeit (17 Kislev), from Novardok's gedolim such as the Rosh Yeshiva's brother- in-law HaRav Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky Hy'd, Reb Dovid Bleicher Hy'd zt'l, and others.

In 5697 (1937), a large convention was held to strengthen the yeshiva and all the gedolim and rabbonim of Novardok attended. HaRav Ben Tzion Bruk came in specially from Eretz Yisroel.

The Beginning of the War

On Shabbos parshas "Ki Seitzei lamilchomoh", Elul 5699 (1939) World War II began in a storm. Before Rosh Hashana, the German army ym'sh marched into Bialystok. Confusion reigned and many people began fleeing to Baranowitz. (Germany's entry was against the Molotev- Ribbentrop agreement between Germany and Russia, which stated that eastern Poland belonged to Russia.) We asked the mashgiach, HaRav Yisroel Mowshowitz zt'l, what to do and on his advice, we stayed in Bialystok. His answer was, "The German airplanes are faster than you; it's not worth fleeing. Even in Baranowitz, it will be difficult to learn in depth during war."

On Rosh Hashana, we davened in yeshiva with great emotion and fear. The Mashgiach was the baal tefilloh as usual, pleasantly and emotionally pouring out his heart to the Borei yisborach, Master of all wonders and Chief of wars.

The rosh yeshiva, HaRav Yaffen, stayed in Baranowitz for the Yomim Noraim with his brother-in-law, HaRav Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky zt'l, the mashgiach of the large, famous yeshiva of HaGaon HaRav Elchonon Wasserman Hy'd zt'l.

The Communist Red Army had not yet entered Baranowitz, and there was great confusion due to fear of the German bombing. Many continued to flee to nearby villages.

There was tremendous fear of the Germans ym'sh, but they didn't cause much damage nor fire many bombs. We tried not to raise our voices in tefilloh and learning. Boruch Hashem, on the day before Yom Kippur the German soldiers left Bialystok and the Russian soldiers entered instead.

Many Jews, Rachmono litzlan, served in the Communist army and even in the government. A Jewish Communist climbed onto the government building and hung up the red flag. Patrols and soldiers of the Red Army stood and announced, and even convinced the residents, that the Russians and Communists are Gan Eden on earth and that there was great bounty in Russia.

On Yom Kippur, we were able to daven out loud and cry out. We felt a certain let up in the pressure, because we were not under German boots.

The tefillos of Yom Kippur can not be described in words. Those enthusiastic, emotional tefillos forged us like iron, preparing us to meet the nisyonos of the coming year as well as those following it.

Word spread in the yeshiva that the radio (on news broadcast from the outside) announced that Vilna would be given to the Lithuanian government. This news electrified the yeshiva and most of the students decided to travel to Vilna by train.

When the yomim tovim were over, we traveled to Vilna. It was swarming with refugees from all over Poland, which had been split and conquered by the Germans and Russians.

The Russian soldiers withdrew from Vilna on the planned date, but the Lithuanian soldiers did not want to enter for two weeks, out of fear that the Russians would return.

Meanwhile, news arrived that my father and (step)mother and my sisters Hy'd had come from Ostrov Mezhibesk to Bialystok. I had not been zoche to see my father and my family since 5696 (1936), so I returned to Bialystok by train, a one night's journey.

With excitement and tears, I met my entire family, who were in a very difficult financial situation and even suffered from hunger.

While I was still in Bialystok, news arrived that Lithuanian soldiers had entered Vilna and that the city of Vilna was under Lithuanian government.

The news hit me like a hammer, because I had intended to return to Vilna immediately to be with the yeshiva and not remain in the oppressing world of the Communists.

With mesiras nefesh, HaRav Yisroel Mowshowitz zt'l reorganized a yeshiva of refugees and survivors in one of the shuls in Bialystok. He did not plan to go to Vilna and flee over the borders to Lithuania. He alone bore the burden of supporting close to 200 students who had joined together from other yeshivos.

I traveled in a completely packed train to the train station in Lanvorona village. The train then returned to Grodno instead of Vilna, because Vilna was already not part of Lithuania.

I got off the train in Grodno and met my friend from the yeshiva, Rav Yaakov Galinsky (Krinker) who, like me, was also searching for a way to cross the border to Vilna.

Rav Galinsky encouraged me with bitochon in Hashem, that with His help we would cross the Lithuanian border in peace. We traveled together by train to Lida, a city near Radin, and from there took a bus to Radin, the city of the Chofetz Chaim.

Radin was close to the Lithuanian border and many yeshiva students smuggled across the border from there. We did have to keep a distance from one another so as not to arouse suspicion of the Red Army and Communists.

Elderly men who looked like typical Jews sat in the beis medrash of the Rabbon shel Yisroel zy'a and learned Torah with great desire. How fortunate they were to be zoche to live near the Chofetz Chaim zy'a, I thought. There were shelves containing all the Chofetz Chaim's seforim on the east wall of the beis medrash with a sign hanging on it, "Tzaddik Po'al" (a tzaddik accomplished)!

One of the Jews took us into his house for a refreshing lunch, for we were already quite hungry from the traveling. After lunch, the Jew said to his young daughter, "Go look in Mr. Kushka's store if the goy who smuggles people over the border is already there." The girl returned and said that the gentile was there and he was demanding a lira a person to smuggle two bochurim. He was to leave at five o'clock from the store and we were to follow him from a distance.

We followed his wagon by foot until we were out of the village; then we rode on the wagon. He brought us to his house, put us into the granary and covered us with straw. Thus we went to sleep.

In the middle of the night, when everything was dark, the gentile woke us up for the dangerous journey. We walked and passed through three canals of water. After these canals, we were already at the Lithuanian border. After walking about twenty kilometers, we arrived in the village of Eishishok. In the middle of the way, a Lithuanian soldier yelled at us to go back, but afterwards it seems that he ignored us and did not scream any more.

In Eishishok, the baalei batim whispered to us that it was better to leave and not arouse suspicion. We walked a great distance, about a day's walk, until we finally reached Vilna. There, we met the bnei yeshiva who lived in the beis medrash, "The Green Gate."

The Joint established kitchens for the refugees in Vilna, but the roshei yeshiva made special arrangements, obviously with the help of the Vaad Hayeshivos headed by HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zy'a, to buy and bake bread and eat in the yeshiva.

Amidst the raging German and Russian storm, we sat and learned with tremendous hasmodoh, like in former days. However, we missed the mashgichim, HaRav Yisroel Mowshowitz and HaRav Nisan Patchinsky, who had remained under Communist rule.

In the middle of the winter, the Rosh Yeshiva sent a talented, capable bochur across the border to bring the Mashgiach to Vilna. The bochur did succeed in the difficult, dangerous mission and with indescribable efforts, arrived with the mashgiach HaRav Yisroel Mowshowitz and his family. Rav Nisan Patchinsky also came with his family to Lithuania.

From Vilna to Birzh: Refugees Gather in Lithuania

Over fifteen thousand refugees fled to Lithuania from all over Poland, including great roshei yeshiva and their students such as HaRav Boruch Ber Leibowitz with his Yeshivas Kaminetz, HaRav Elchonon Wasserman with his Yeshivas Baranowitz, HaRav Lezer Yudel Finkel and HaRav Chatzkel Levenstein with their Yeshivas Mir. The Brisker Rov, HaRav Yitzchok Zeev Soloveitchik, HaRav Aharon Kotler with Yeshivas Kletsk, HaRav Moshe Rosenstein with Yeshivas Lomzha, the sons of HaRav Shimon Shkop zt'l and Yeshivas Grodno, HaRav Zaks and Yeshivas Radin and more.

On 17 Kislev (the yahrtzeit of the Alter of Novardok), the talmidim of the Novardok yeshivos and their rebbeim all gathered in Vilna. At that gathering, HaRav Shmuel Panitch, the mashgiach of Yeshivas Mezhritz, suggested taking out the sifrei Torah and that everyone should swear on the sefer Torah that he would not abandon the Torah. Everyone at the gathering did so, overcome with crying. It was an unforgettable gathering.

HaRav Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky zt'l said at the gathering that Vilna is the blade of the double-edged sword. [See the sefer, Lev HaAri, the speeches and memories of HaRav Nekritz zt'l, for a deep understanding of the hidden and prophetic words of the famous mashgiach HaRav Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky.]

I lost my precious tefillin in Vilna, so I contacted an expert sofer, a yirei Shomayim who specialized in making special, wondrous batim. With aid money from the Joint, I bought a new pair of outstanding, mehudar tefillin. [I was zoche to be moser nefesh for these tefillin in order to keep them while in Siberia.]

There was wondrous unity between all the bnei yeshiva refugees in Vilna. Students came to listen to shiurim from HaRav Boruch Ber zt'l, from the Griz of Brisk, from HaRav Elchonon Wasserman and to hear divrei Torah from the Modzhitz and Amshinover Rebbes at their tischen on Shabbos.

Taanis Tzibbur in Lithuania

When the refugees gathered in Vilna, the Agudas HaRabbonim announced a taanis tzibbur. The following is the announcement.

"Be'ezras Hashem 18 Shevat 5700 (1940).

"Eis tzoro leYaakov, which has almost not been thus in Yisroel's history. We are now standing on the threshold of the end of a shemittah of misfortunes for am Yisroel. In the past seven years, we have seen evil, beis Yisroel has been battered to pieces. Not only villages, but complete states were plucked and uprooted from their places. In a great storm, thousands and hundreds of families were pulled from the roots, went into exile and did not find rest for the sole of their feet. And the later hardships make the previous ones forgotten. The latest one was weighty: the country of Poland was destroyed in the blink of an eye.

"And when trouble comes to the world, Yisroel receives a major portion. As of today, the strongest settlement, the backbone of our nation, three-and-a-half million souls of our brethren bnei Yisroel [in Poland], was destroyed and thrown, plundered and crushed in body and spirit, drowning in a sea of blood and tears, refuse and disgrace. Woe is to us that such happened in our days!

"With mercy from Heaven, amidst the gloominess and darkness, Hashem kept his promise to Yisroel that Torah would not be forgotten from His children and saved the remainder of His scribes: the great yeshivos with the ramim and geonim and many great rabbonim, who found refuge in Vilna. The Lithuanian government generously welcomed them.

"The prisoner, however, can not free himself from prison and can not even scream and shout. But we, who are the closest to the slain, have the tremendous responsibility to scream and arouse mercy for our brothers who are about to be killed and plundered, disgraced and degraded. At a bitter, distressing time such as this, which has not been since Yisroel went into exile, we must fulfill what is written in the Torah: `Batzar lecho umetzo'ucho, when you are in distress and [the hardships] find you' . . . `veshavto, and you shall return [to Hashem]' . . . `veshov, and [Hashem] will return [to you].' And in the Nevi'im and Kesuvim: `Im tidreshuhu yimtzo lochem, ve'im ta'azvuhu va'azov eschem, If you seek Him, He will find you, and if you leave Him, He will leave you.' 'Yikro'eini vo'e'ene, imo Onochi betzoro, You will call Me and I will answer; I am with you in distress.'

"And the Rambam in the first chapter of Hilchos Taanis: `It is a positive commandment in the Torah to scream and shout over any hardship that comes upon the congregation, as it says "al hatzar hatzoreir eschem." It is part of doing teshuvoh that when a hardship comes and he screams about it and shouts, everyone will know that their evil deeds caused bad for them, etc. And this will cause the hardship to be removed from them. If they don't scream and shout, however, but say this happening is the way of the world, etc., this is cruelty and the other hardships will be added to the hardship etc. The Sofrim say to fast on any hardship that comes upon a community, until they have pity on him from Shomayim.'

"Based on this, the general rabbinical convention in Kovna decided to establish a day of fasting: Thursday, erev Rosh Chodesh Adar I, which will come upon us for good. Every one of our brothers bnei Yisroel, from age eighteen and above, is required to participate in the pain of the community in fast and crying, to arouse mercy on the nation Yisroel, whose haters do not know mercy. On this fast day, we must fulfill the words of the novi [Yeshayohu 58:7], `Should you not give the hungry your bread, . . . when you see him naked, cover him.' The purpose of the fast is teshuvoh and good deeds, and we must arouse ourselves to do teshuvoh and strengthen basic religious principals and also give tzedokoh, especially clothing to the thousands of refugees found in Lithuania.

"May Hashem hear our cries and from the hardship find redemption and savior. May He bring our savior quickly and gather the remote and scattered, and the year of redemption should come. And the words of the novi [Ibid. 2:4] should be fulfilled in us, `Lo yiso goy el goy cherev, no nation will lift a sword against another nation!' May there be peace in the world, and our Geula and pedus nafsheinu come swiftly."

The Central Agudas HaRabbonim in Lithuania

After the refugees were in Vilna for a short time, the Lithuanian government established a "refugee office" and issued "refugee certificates" to all Polish refugees. The yeshivos which had congregated together were told to leave Vilna and to disperse to nearby villages.

A week before Pesach 5700 (1940), we arrived in the village of Birzh with the rosh yeshiva HaRav Yaffen and the mashgichim HaRav Yisroel Mowshowitz and HaRav Nisan Patchinsky.

It was a typical Lithuanian village. The rov of the village, HaRav Mordechai Leib Berenstein Hy'd (disciple of the Alter of Slobodka) greeted us happily and took care of our needs. We stayed at a baal habayis when we first came. When the Russians took over, I moved to the rov of the village's house, where I stayed with two of my friends from yeshiva, together also with HaRav Nisan Zilinker (Babroisker) Hy'd, his wife and small children, Hy'd. (The rov treated HaRav Nisan's children like adopted sons, since he himself had no children. He used to sit and learn with them like sons.)

In his Shabbos Hagodol speech, the rov burst out in loud, bitter tears. He cried out emotionally, "Bochurim came to us, refugees from the valley of tears, and they are lacking bread. Can we sit on leil haseder at the Seder table when they still don't have matzos for Pesach?"

The rov collected money, bought wheat (not shemurah from the time of harvest, but only from the time of milling), and baked matzos for us in the village's matzo bakery. He also bought a cow for the sole purpose of supplying us with butter and milk.

In Birzh, the yeshiva reopened anew in one of the botei medrashos. Shiurim and shmuessen were given as usual, and the learning went back to its former level of great diligence, especially since we once again had the mashgichim HaRav Yisroel Mowshowitz and HaRav Nisan Patchinsky, as well as HaRav Nisan Babroisker. Thus a tense year of war passed with great diligence in Torah learning.

The Russians Take Control of Lithuania and Latvia

As the Germans expanded in Western Europe, the Russians also began taking control of no-man's land.

On isru chag of Shavuos 5700 (1940), Russian tanks rolled into Lithuania and established a Communist government. After two months, they announced simulated elections and the results were as follows: the Lithuanian nation requested to annex its land to "Mother Russia."

During these months, the unsettled period of the Communist government in Lithuania, all foreign consulates in Kovno, Lithuania were still active. Feverish efforts were made to emigrate, to obtain visas and certificates to wherever it was possible to go. We, the Novardok bnei yeshiva, were not able to obtain Japanese visas due to a lack of financial means.

Meanwhile, Russia annexed Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to the greater Russia. This is not the place to describe the tremendous difficulty in learning Torah under the evil Communist government, but boruch Hashem, we sat and learned despite the difficulties.

The rosh yeshiva HaRav Yaffen zt'l had a visa to America. He feared that the Russians were planning to deport him to frozen Siberia since he was guilty of the crime of spreading Torah in Russia and smuggling over the Russian border. He decided to travel to America when the possibility arose in Adar 5701 (1941), when he received exit permits through Russia and Japan from the N.V.K.D. He hoped that in America he would be able to help the bnei yeshiva who did not have the monetary means, to escape. Before his emigration, it seems that he gave our names to the N.V.K.D office as candidates for emigration.

End of Part I


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