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21 Adar I 5765 - March 2, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
"For Mordechai Became Exceedingly Great"

Excerpts from a book recently released, on the life and works of HaGaon R' Mordechai Pogramonsky zt'l, one of the great figures of Telz, Lithuania. This chapter focuses on the Holocaust period and reflects R' Mordechai's outlook on the troubles which visited the Jewish people.

25 Shvat was HaRav Pogramonsky's 55th yahrtzeit.

Excerpted by B. Re'eim

R' Mordechai was invited to attend a bris taking place in France, after the war. R' Mordechai set out on a Friday together with another Jew. They grew so immersed in divrei Torah that they became confused about their destination and got off the train at the wrong stop.

"I'm afraid we're lost," sighed the companion.

Nonplussed, R' Mordechai exclaimed, "Look at what a beautiful world Hashem has created! How lovely are these trees and everything all around us. Do you know, a Jew never gets lost," he offered as a side comment, and continued to praise the scenery.

A German student approached them and told them that they must get on the next train in order to reach their destination. After they had boarded it, R' Mordechai turned to his travel mate and said, "It is written by Hagar, `And she went and she strayed' (Bereishis 21:14). Rashi comments there that she returned to the old ways of her father's house. How does Rashi know this? Chazal learn this from a gezeira shava, since it says [when Yaakov is discussing with his mother his going to Yitzchok disguised as Eisov], `And I shall seem in his eyes as a deceiver [one who misleads]'" (Bereishis 27:12).

R' Mordechai continued, "A Jew never loses his way or makes a mistake. Wherever he happens to be, he understands that he was brought there by Heavenly design. It is Hashem's will that he be there at that time, in that place. There is no mistake about that. What then, is losing one's way? If a person goes to a place where Hashem would prefer he didn't go, a place that is against the will of Hashem. He is sidetracked, misled along the wrong path. If the Torah says that Hagar strayed, it must mean that she strayed from the right, G-dly path, and reverted to her idolatry."

Only Hashem...

R' Mordechai once entered a beis medrash in Paris. Within minutes, he was surrounded by yeshiva students. His message to them was: "It is important to toil. How was it in the Kovna ghetto? There was no honor, no wealth, no property, no security, no jobs, no stature, no plans for future security, no purpose, no way out. No tomorrow. Only you — and Hashem. Think of a life, an existence, like that. Only you — and He. Nor Du und Hashem Yisborach; Nor Du und Hashem Yisborach, meir gornit. Only you — and Hashem. Nothing else..."

He paused, totally immersed in the thoughts he had evoked and remained thus, steeped in reflection.

"I Don't See Bombs..."

When he was in the ghetto, and afterwards too, he used to say, "I see no bombs. I only see the sayings of Chazal." Or, "I see no Germans. I see no partisans. I only see the verses of the Torah surrounding the ghetto. — `If only with a strong hand will I rule over you' " (Yechezkel 20:33).

Parchments Burned

When he talked to Maran HaGaon R' Avrohom Shapira ztvk'l, author of Dvar Avrohom, about the troubles that were increasing by the day and the loss of hope that everyone was experiencing he, notwithstanding, was full of hope.

R' Avrohom once asked him, "What?! About [that particular trouble] too?"

And he replied, "Parchments are being burned, [but] the letters are flying to Heaven."

Secular Jews from the Kovno ghetto told after the war that R' Mordechai gathered groups in the ghetto and infused them with a spirit of hope not to despair. They testified that they survived thanks to his encouragement, even though they continued to be inveterate apikorsim.

Believers, Sons of Believers

Before Pesach the residents of the Kovna ghetto were carefully, painfully, slowly, saving matzos for the upcoming holy days. A Kinder Aktzia took place in the ghetto just then. Children were seized, torn away from their parents and brutally murdered before their very eyes. Many of the parents were so horrified, so crazed with grief and despair, that they took the precious matzos which they had succeeded in baking with great effort, and threw them out of the windows, together with siddurim and Chumoshim.

When R' Mordechai was told of this terrible reaction he was duly shocked, but he saw their act in a different light. "That is not a show of heresy. In fact, it is emunah. They still believe — only they are angry with their Father..."

A Suspicion of Theft

People in the ghetto were constantly relocated from one apartment to another. When R' Mordechai was assigned a different place, he was reluctant to sit on the chairs in that apartment, for fear that the owner still nursed hopes of returning one day. In that eventuality, he would now be using the furniture without his permission, in which case it would be a form of theft since the owner retained his rights.

R' Mordechai was hiding from the authorities and was not legally registered as a resident. Therefore, when he was given food rations he refused to accept them, saying that since he was not registered, the food was not given for him [but for someone else]. Whenever food was brought, he would interrogate the person thoroughly to find out where it had come from before he allowed himself to eat.

The question arose in the ghetto concerning money that was left behind by people who had been seized by the Nazis and either taken away or directly murdered, leaving no heirs. Some rabbis declared that it was permissible to take since it fell into the category of something lost in the sea, where there is no hope of it being normally retrieved.

R' Mordechai refused to have benefit from any such money whatsoever, lest there were still some heirs alive, somewhere in the world. (Rav Y.A. Gibraltar)

Toil for Torah

Maran the author of Dvar Avrohom ztvk'l once sent a sum of money to R' Mordechai via two young men. He asked them if they had found R' Mordechai immersed in study and they replied, "No, he was pacing the floor."

The Rov of Kovno laughed. "What do you think? That one must be holding onto a gemora in order to study? He knows everything by heart!"

The Remaining Camp Shall Survive

Towards the end of the war, the Nazis established camps around the ghetto in order to be able to supervise the goings on in the ghetto more strictly.

On the last Yom Kippur of the ghetto, R' Mordechai addressed the minyan where he prayed and told the people that he knew that they would be taken away to difficult camps where there was a slim chance of survival. Only one "from a city and two from a family" might remain alive when it was all over. He advised families to separate, rather than remain together, for this would increase the chance of someone surviving. Some members should remain behind in the ghetto and others should allow themselves to go to the work camps right outside it. He was taking the advice of Yaakov Ovinu, who also divided up his family before the encounter with Eisov. Others, however, said that this was not a strategy at all. "It is all one big camp," they argued. "What difference does it make in the chances for survival — here or there?"

Then the Germans announced in spite of the war that they intended to destroy the ghetto altogether and transfer all of its inhabitants to work camps. The question arose whether people should try to go into hiding or to let themselves be taken to the Dachau camp. Maran R' Avrohom Grodzensky ztvk'l said that he was for going into hiding. "They will try to kill us wherever we go. Better to extend our chances by hiding, than going straight to the death camp. This way we can postpone the death and gain some life."

R' Mordechai felt otherwise. "If they wanted to kill us, they would do so here, rather than go to the trouble of transporting us all." R' Mordechai remained, in the end, since he was too weak to travel, but most of those who went to Dachau did, in fact, survive.

The Miracle of the Survival

There was a righteous Jew in the ghetto by the name of R' Avrohom Yitzchok Winkelstein zt'l. Some yeshiva students who learned with him brought him to R' Mordechai, who had such an impact upon him that he became exceptionally precise and punctilious, especially in monetary matters. All the good traits that were discerned in him were, people said, a reflection of R' Mordechai's blessed influence upon him.

As the Russian army advanced, the Nazis began liquidating the ghetto. The question then arose whether to try to hide from the Germans — or go to the camps. R' Avrohom Winkelstein and R' M. Zuckerman tried to hide together with the Mashgiach, R' Avrohom Grodzensky, but were not allowed entry in the hiding place. R' Mordechai took them to the apartment of the Kovalskys. They drew the curtain around R' Mordechai's bed and opened all the doors in the hope of deceiving the Germans into thinking that the apartment was abandoned.

Then they looked for an additional hiding place in a small space between the kitchen and the stairs. They made an opening in the wall and covered it over and were able to hide nine people there for a week. At night, one of them would look out from the window and report what was going on outside. One time, he heard a German soldier telling his comrade, "Tomorrow they're going to blow up the whole place." Nevertheless, they decided to remain and hope for a miracle. On the following day, the Germans placed dynamite around four buildings and set fire to them. Theirs was the only building in which the explosives failed.

The Nazis then began searching throughout the apartments but didn't find them. R' Mordechai then told the people to flee. While they were running away, the Germans blew up their building.

They fled the ghetto. To the right was the River Wilo that separated Kovno from Slobodka and before that was an empty field with bushes. To the left were homes of Lithuanian gentiles. A youth who was with them went to the left and was killed. R' Mordechai decided to turn to the right and that is what they did. They kept on walking for two weeks along the river bank, subsisting on carrots that grew there.

After two weeks, some Germans fell upon them and it became clear that they had run away from the invading Russians, so R' Mordechai and R' Avrohom Yitzchok Winkelstein were able to return to Kovno, which was now under Russian control.

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