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13 Tammuz 5765 - July 20, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Tzaddik Who Ruled Through His Fear of Heaven: Sixty- One Years Since The Martyrdom of HaRav Avrohom Grodzensky Zt'l, Hy'd, 5704-5765

by M. Musman

22 Tammuz, 5765 marks the 61st yahrtzeit of HaRav Avrohom Grodzensky zt"l, the mashgiach of Slobodka. Last year on parshas Voeschanon, we published some material describing his background and some of his accomplishments. This week and next we continue. These two articles describe the last years of HaRav Grodzensky's life that were lived in the Kovno Ghetto. As HaRav Efraim Oshry wrote, "Death in the ghetto was not always heroic. [But] ghetto life . . . [was,] in the spiritual sense, extremely heroic." HaRav Grodzensky's life and work, which ended very painfully in the Kovno Ghetto, is nonetheless an inspiration for us to see what man can reach, even when weighed down by unimaginable adversity. It is a lesson we must learn during the period of Bein Hametzorim.

Part I

In the Kovno Ghetto — Introduction

"The Kovno Ghetto . . . the word ghetto by itself evokes hardship, suffering, pain and distress, but mention of the Kovno Ghetto should bring on quaking and trembling. Nobody will ever be able to imagine what life was like there. Nobody has the right to question or delve into the halachic rulings that were issued, the Kovno Ghetto. If one was not there, one can have no idea of what death means or of what life was like there — of the dimensions of the danger or of how far- reaching the ramifications of the dread of dying were.

"Words can describe things; they can be used to try to give an accurate depiction. But they can never convey the intensity of life there or what our existence was like. Yet they are the only means we have for giving an inkling of what happened . . . " (Rabbi Yitzchok Elchonon Gibraltar, a survivor of the Kovno ghetto)

Rav Avrohom's last three years, which he spent in the Kovno Ghetto, were the crowning chapters of his life of teaching, guiding and inspiring others. In his earlier struggles with tragedy and adversity, he had worked mightily on himself to strengthen faith, accept Hashem's will and maintain a positive frame of mind and a cheerful bearing towards others. He emerged from those struggles greatly strengthened.

Immense spiritual heroism was required of Kovno's Jews in order to endure the terrible experiences of the ghetto without losing their humanity, let alone their devotion to Torah and mitzvos. Many of them, talmidei chachomim and simple folk alike, possessed it in abundance and sanctified their Creator in their daily lives and in their deaths.

Yet it was a different type of strength that Rav Avrohom was able to draw on in order to go beyond the preservation of his own equilibrium and to rise above fear, personal suffering and grief to reach out to others. He constantly encouraged, inspired and infused faith and was able to look beyond their hopeless present to a future that the fortunate would reach, in which they would have to rebuild.

The story of Rav Avrohom and his family during those years can better be appreciated when viewed against the events that accompanied the German occupation and the crushing ghetto life that followed. The principal source for the account that follows is the memoir Ve'emunosecho Baleilos, by Rebbetzin R. Wolbe tblct'a, a daughter of Rav Avrohom and wife of the mashgiach HaRav Shlomo Wolbe zt"l. In no way however, is the background presented here a full account of the Kovno Ghetto and the countless heroes — both great and ordinary Yidden — who lived there and mostly met their deaths there. Such an account can be found in Churban Lita by Rav Efraim Oshry zt'l, a talmid of Rav Avrohom's who survived the ghetto (published in English by The Judaica Press as The Annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry).


The Germans opened their attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 with the aerial bombardment of Russian-held Lithuania. Rav Oshry recalls the scene in the Slobodka Yeshiva. "That morning I was in the yeshiva. As the Germans approached Kovno, war planes could be heard flying overhead and bombs were sporadically dropped. Suddenly the learning was stopped and the students and their teachers began to recite Tehillim. Wailing and weeping broke out as they prayed . . . The students kissed their seforim good-bye, running their fingers over the shtenders where they had learned . . . over the course of so many years. They took one last glance at the holy walls that had absorbed the sanctity of their . . . study.

"Many students gathered around . . . Rav Avrohom Grodzensky, then an elderly man, and looked into his deep and wise eyes. Although his eyes were calming, simultaneously we saw an unsettling question in them . . . I remember one student saying in confusion, `Farewell rebbi, I'm going. But where should I go?' Moments later he changed his mind: `Maybe I should stay?'

"Never will I forget that last morning, Monday the twenty- eighth of Sivan 5701 (June 23, 1941). On that day we stopped learning in the Slobodka yeshiva; the sound of Torah was heard for the last time on the corner of Glezer and Furman Streets."

Rav Avrohom and his children lived in a large house two blocks away from the yeshiva, which belonged to his parents- in-law. Rav Ber Heller zt'l and his wife had moved to Eretz Yisroel four years earlier, a few years after the petiroh of their eldest daughter, Rav Avrohom's wife. Several of the building's apartments were rented out to rabbonim and their families.

When the bombing of Kovno started, a number of bochurim who decided to remain in Slobodka and other families gravitated to Rav Avrohom's home seeking shelter. He was the only one of the yeshiva's heads who was in Slobodka at the time. The Rosh Yeshiva HaRav Isaac Sher zt'l was recuperating in Switzerland and his son-in-law HaRav Mordechai Shulman zt'l was in the United States on a fundraising trip.


At first, Rav Avrohom decided that it would be safest for them all to leave and to try and get as far away as possible from Kovno, the target of the bombing.

"We left the house hurriedly", writes Rebbetzin Wolbe, "closing the doors behind us without locking them. We were joined by most of the members of the families who lived in the building and by those staying with us temporarily. As I stood at the entrance, tears came to my eyes . . .

"Our house had always been a meeting place for scholars. I can still picture the twice-yearly gatherings that used to be held in our house: during Elul, in anticipation of the Yomim Noraim and in Shevat, on the yahrtzeit of the Alter of Slobodka . . . At those times, rabbonim of cities far and near who were alumni of the yeshiva would gather in our house. How I enjoyed seeing the radiant faces of all those rabbonim! What happiness, what joy there was among them at meeting their old friends in the place where they'd spent their youthful years and imbibed the spiritual fuel that would sustain them through later life . . .And now we were leaving this house, leaving everything, forever! Was it possible?

"There were approximately fifty of us . . . A horse-drawn wagon was hired for Father because walking was difficult for him, and we all walked around him. Father Hy'd wore his frock coat and his hat, just as he did when going to the yeshiva. His radiance never left him. His face wore an air of calm and nobility. He showed no signs whatever of tension over the war or of worries about the difficult situation."

When someone asked Rav Avrohom about his attire at such a time, he replied by quoting a gemora in Sanhedrin (92): "They learned in Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov's beis hamedrash, `Even at a time of danger, a person should not alter his rabbinical appearance.' " Rashi explains: " . . . so that he should not appear panic stricken and frightened and his enemies will be embarrassed because of him."

After a long trek and repeated refusals of their request for shelter, a gentile farmer in one of the villages outside Slobodka eventually allowed the refugees to stay in his barn, in return for generous payment. A few days later however, he took fright and turned them all out. Since the bombings had stopped, Rav Avrohom and the other rabbonim decided that their party ought to return home.

The returning families were puzzled by the strange looks they were getting from the gentiles whom they passed on their way. Some of them gazed at them with hatred and malice; others with pity. One gentile approached them and said quietly, "Don't go into the city — they'll slaughter you all!"

Not believing him, they continued. But as a precaution they took a roundabout route and entered the house from the backyard. It felt wonderful to be back within their own four walls and they retired for the night.

The House on Paneriu Street

That night the sounds of banging on doors and gunfire woke those sheltering in Rav Avrohom's home, as the Lithuanians embarked on a vicious pogrom that lasted for several days. Lithuanian Nazis and mobs of ordinary townspeople went from street to street, entering homes and butchering the Jewish inhabitants with horrifying savagery. Eight hundred of Slobodka's six thousand Jews were murdered, among them the town's rov HaRav Zalman Osovsky, the gaon HaRav Yonah Minsker (one of the leading members of Mir Yeshiva) and dozens of Slobodka bochurim Hy'd. Nobody dared venture out of the house or even turn a light on. They spent the endless night in utter terror, praying and weeping.

The house's inhabitants remained indoors for the following three weeks, subsisting on food stores that had been prepared during the months of Russian occupation. In all four of the two-floor building's apartments, the surviving bnei Torah of Slobodka sat and learned, day and night. The women and girls recited Tehillim.

From time to time, someone would peek through the shutters to see whether any Lithuanians or Germans were approaching. When people eventually began mustering the courage to step outside, street arrests began. Jews were also being evicted from their homes and marched off. Those who remained lived in constant terror. The house was extremely crowded and the living conditions were very difficult.

Rav Avrohom's daughter knew that the gentiles who lived around their home admired and venerated her father. When he had made his way to the yeshiva, a walk of only a few score meters from his home, even the gentiles would turn around to look at him and move out his way. She surmised that this might have been the reason why their home had been spared that night. One of the bnei hayeshiva, who hid in an attic throughout the pogrom, overheard two Lithuanians conversing as they walked past the house.

"The Rabbi lives here," he heard them say. "We won't go in here."

Yet they had brutally murdered the rov of the town. Their survival then, was a miracle wrought by Heaven, so that Torah study might continue unabated in the last remaining mokom Torah in Slobodka, if only for a short time.

Rav Oshry writes that in Rav Avrohom's home, "Torah study never ceased . . . [He] would lecture in mussar for all who were present. HaRav Yechezkel Burstein (head of Yeshivas Or Yisroel, one of the preparatory yeshivos for Knesses Yisroel) had a chaburoh in maseches Nedorim. HaRav Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky lectured on Shaarei Teshuvoh . . .

"Every day brought new travails, new decrees, terrifying news about rabbis and leaders of other towns in Lithuania who were murdered along with their entire communities. Parents looked on as their children were taken to be killed and roshei yeshiva witnessed as their students were massacred. As tragedy mounted upon tragedy, my holy master stood firm and discoursed on the topic of martyrdom; extraordinary lectures that would have enriched had they been written, had someone taken notes."

Martyrdom for Klal Yisroel

Late one Sunday afternoon, less than two weeks after the pogrom, a number of Lithuanian partisans burst into the yard of the Grodzensky house while Rav Elchonon Wasserman was delivering a shiur on the day's daf yomi. The group was so absorbed in the sugya that at first they ignored the Lithuanians' shouts. When they threatened to open fire, the assembled scholars rose to their feet.

The intruders gathered a group of thirteen men, among them Reb Elchonon Wasserman, HaRav Yosef Chaim Zaks a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivas Ohel Moshe in Slobodka, Rav Avrohom's son Velvel Grodzensky, his brother-in-law Rav Shabsai Vernikovsky who held a position in the Lomzha yeshiva, and Rav Shabsai's son Mordechai Hy'd. A few of the men managed to slip away and hide. (Among them were Rav Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky Hy'd mashgiach of Reb Elchonon's yeshiva in Baranovitch, and HaRav Efraim Oshry zt'l.)

Rav Avrohom himself was lying down because of his ailing foot. The Lithuanians left him because they had no means of transportation and only wanted men whom they could march through the streets. While they made their plans, Reb Elchonon set aside all personal concerns and addressed the group with his customary evenness and solemnity, exhorting them to do teshuvoh before being martyred. (His words appear in the introduction to Koveitz Shiurim.) He did not even ask to part from his son Naftali, who was lying in bed with a broken leg. Reb Elchonon, Rav Zaks and the more distinguished-looking members of the group were placed at the head of the line.

The prisoners were marched down the street at gun point. "For an instant," writes Rav Avrohom's daughter, "I managed to glance at my beloved brother Ze'ev-Velvel. It was beloved Velvel's last look at us all. What fear I saw in his eyes!"

Jews peeked out at the grim procession from behind the shuttered windows of their homes with heavy hearts and with tears in their eyes. Later, those remaining in the house discovered that the entire group met their deaths that same day, the twelfth of Tammuz 5701 (6 July 1941), in the Seventh Fort.

Reunion and Loss

A few days later, the sound of quiet, gentle knocking at the gate indicated that someone was seeking entry. The door opened to reveal Eliezer Grodzensky Hy'd, Rav Avrohom's eldest son, his face displaying shock and horror at his recent experiences. When the Germans invaded he had joined the many Jews who tried to flee to the Russian border. Most of them were unsuccessful and were rounded up by the Germans and cruelly tortured. Broken in body and spirit, Eliezer managed to return home. He told his father all the terrible things that he had witnessed. His sister recalls, "He sat all day adorned with his tefillin and cried; it was hard to calm him down."

While the violence was at its most horrific for the first few days of the pogrom, the Lithuanians continued perpetrating bloody terror for several weeks. Jewish men, women and children were randomly taken from homes, stores, or botei knesses, or off the streets to be beaten, tortured and savagely murdered; property was looted.

When this began to die down, the Germans let it be known that they intended to restore order. The terrified Jews of Kovno were more than willing to believe their promises that if they complied with orders and worked hard, their lives might be difficult but they would be spared. Orders were given for the appointment of a Jewish council — it turned out that this would be the instrument for carrying out the German plan to eradicate the entire Jewish population. On the tenth of July, orders were given for all of Kovno's Jews to move into Slobodka by the middle of the following month.

By the time the move to the ghetto began, virtually all the Jews had been registered with the Labor Bureau. This too was to ensure that they could all be accounted for and ultimately eliminated. Registration was achieved by the issue of food cards. To receive a card, each family had to produce identifying documents for all its members. Not all the Jews complied; some did not believe a word the Germans said and chose to forgo the cards and spend months in hiding rather than having the Germans know anything about them. At around this time, seven thousand men who had been arrested on the streets over the preceding days were murdered in the Seventh Fort. On one occasion, Rav Avrohom was instrumental in securing the release of a group of bochurim who had been arrested.

The ghetto was to house thirty thousand people crowded into an area that had previously housed eight thousand. It was in two sections that were linked by a wooden bridge erected over Paneriu Street. Rav Avrohom's house was within the boundaries of the smaller section so, for the time being, the family was spared the trauma of being turned out into the street with nowhere to go. On July twelfth, two days after the order to move into the ghetto, all Jews were ordered to attach yellow stars to their outer clothing. The "resettlement" started three days later, on the fifteenth of July.

One day, not long after the establishment of the ghetto, the Germans asked that five hundred young, educated men volunteer to join a work battalion the following morning. Still not fully aware of the satanic way they operated, Eliezer joined the group in the hope that doing so would bring some benefit to his family. The family waited up for him that evening in vain; he did not return. They continued waiting throughout their years in the ghetto but the group never came back. Eventually it became clear that prior to liquidating Kovno Jewry, the Germans wanted to preclude the possibility of resistance by removing the strongest and ablest young men who could have caused them the most trouble.

The Harshest Blow

Although the barbed wire fencing around the ghetto afforded a measure of protection from the marauding Lithuanians, the worst horrors still lay ahead. Incarcerating the Jews in the ghetto allowed the Germans to squeeze every drop of slave labor from them — which they did for three years — while conducting periodic selections and murdering huge numbers of the population as and when it suited them.

Early one Shabbos morning, just two weeks after the move to the ghetto, all the inhabitants of the smaller section were woken and dragged from their homes by armed Lithuanian soldiers. A selection was conducted and then, a German arrived on a motorcycle and was overheard congratulating his friends on the "successful" operation. That day, all the Jews were released; it had been a "dry run."

The real operation was conducted a fortnight later, again on a Shabbos. This time, those who were sent to the left were loaded onto lorries and taken to the Ninth Fort, where they were murdered that day. The small ghetto's hospital was doused in fuel and incinerated with its inmates inside. Guards were posted around it to ensure that no one would escape. The survivors were sent over the bridge into the large section and were left there in the street with nowhere to go and without any belongings. Acquaintances helped Rav Avrohom's family to find accommodation. That was how the small ghetto was liquidated.

Life in the ghetto soon assumed some routine. Every morning the work brigades would line up by the gates to be counted on their way out to work. The Germans dictated the size of the brigades and the tasks to which they were assigned. The most physically crushing work was building an airstrip for the Germans at the nearby suburb of Alexot.

One day, after about two months of "regular" ghetto life, signs were posted that on the morrow, instead of going out to work, each and every one of the ghetto's twenty-six and a half thousand inhabitants was to come to the main square. (Houses were to be left unlocked so that searches for evaders could be conducted.) On the seventh of Marcheshvan 5702 (28 October 1941), Rav Avrohom and his family joined the crowds that were making their way in the dark, the freezing cold and the snow to the square.

Rumor had it that survival in the impending selection would be determined by suitability for work and that large families and elderly people were therefore at greatest risk. The greatest worry was for Rav Avrohom himself. Rav Shmuel Abba Snieg z'l was a friend of Rav Avrohom's who had learned in the Slobodka yeshiva and subsequently served as a chaplain in the Lithuanian army. Now a member of the Jewish council, Rav Snieg arranged for Rav Avrohom to pass together with the council members' families. They were allowed past without incident and Rav Avrohom's life was saved.

The large family of his sister-in-law Rebbetzin Vernikovsky, (whose husband and son had been taken away together with Reb Elchonon), were divided among various other family members so that all in all, they would appear like several small, young families. Rav Avrohom stood on his feet all day long, watching the proceedings. He rejoiced over everyone whom he saw saved and grieved over all who were sent to the other side.

By the end of the day, ten thousand men, women and children, young and old, had been separated from the population. They were driven into the small ghetto that was standing empty and the following day, they were taken to the Ninth Fort and murdered. The clacking of the machine guns could be heard all day long in the ghetto.

The survivors were stunned and broken. No family was left intact; all had returned home with some family members missing. When Rav Avrohom's family arrived home they discovered that Aunt Vernikovsky and her three children that had been with her had not returned. Their selection had gone unnoticed at the time but anyway there was nothing that could have been done.

Nobody was taken to work the next day. The sounds of hysterical weeping were heard from every house. People could neither eat nor sleep. It was awful to walk in the streets. The Germans left the Jews alone with their grief for seven days but then they demanded workers again. They explained that the survivors would remain alive in the merit of their work. "Black Day" was the name by which that tragic day was remembered, even by the ghetto survivors years later.

All this took place within the first five months of German occupation, by which time most of the other, smaller Jewish communities of Lithuania had been obliterated entirely.

Life in the Shadow of Death

"Death in the ghetto was not always heroic," writes Rav Oshry. "Ghetto life [on the other hand, though] always tense, traumatic and bitter, [was] in the spiritual sense extremely heroic. Jews grew accustomed to the notion that every life was under constant threat. Nevertheless, as long as they could still draw a breath they did not wish to live without at least a spark of sanctity. The sacrifices that I saw regarding the . . .attachment to Torah, the risks taken for the spirituality, for the Jewish Book, I will never forget."

After some further months of relative calm, during which a large number of akztionen had been carried out at the cost of countless Jewish lives, the Germans mounted a new kind of campaign to try to crush the Jews' spirit. On February 18, 1942, they demanded that the Jews give up all the seforim in their possession in the following ten days, under threat of punishment, which meant death. Under Rav Oshry's direction, a widespread campaign began to hide as many sifrei Torah and sifrei kodesh as possible from the Germans. Adults and young children alike displayed incredible sacrifice in order to keep seforim so that they would be able to continue learning.

Rav Avrohom too, held on to a number of sifrei kodesh. His age exempted him from going out to work and he would remain at home, learning during the quiet periods. He maintained his equilibrium under all conditions. Once, after having gone for more than two days without food, he was brought a portion of soup. He ate slowly and calmly, in his usual manner. It was impossible to tell from watching him that fifty hours had passed since his last meal.

End of Part I


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