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21 Av, 5782 - August 18, 2022 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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From Baranovitch To Mir: HaRav Leib Baron Recalls His Youth In Eastern Europe

As Told To Rabbi N Zeevi


Part III

For Part II of this series click here.

For Part IV of this series click here.

HaRav Arye Leib Baron shlita, was born in Horodok, which is near Volozhin. In his youth, he learned in the yeshivos of Baranovitch and Mir. Today he is the rosh yeshiva of Mercaz HaTalmud in Montreal, Canada and is known for his shiurim in both halacha and aggada, some of which have been published in his seforim: Bircas Reuven, Bircas Yehuda, Yishrei Lev, Nesivos Lev, Mesamchei Lev and Yismach Chaim, to give just a partial listing. We have published several of his essays on machshovo and hashkofo in these pages.

In these essays, based on an extended interview with HaRav Baron, he discusses the prewar European yeshiva world, upon whose approach to learning and to character development, today's yeshivos are patterned. Thanks to the magnificent memory with which he is gifted, HaRav Baron was able to describe his experiences in perfect detail, thus evoking living images of the life inside the great yeshivos of Baranovitch and Mir and of their roshei yeshiva and mashgichim.

In the last part, we read about the Mir Yeshiva, its mashgiach, HaRav Yeruchom Levovitz, zt'l. In this part we read about the early part of the war as the yeshiva began its wandering under pressure of the Germans from the west and the Russians from the east.

The Outbreak Of War

In the meantime, signs of impending evil had begun to appear. In Elul 5699 (1939), the war broke out in Poland in its full fury, as Germany attacked from the west and Russia from the east. The country was overrun in sixteen days and was partitioned between Germany and Russia.

The Polish Sejm in 1931

There is an interesting anecdote concerning those sixteen days. Around two years before the war, antisemitic delegates in the Sejm (the Polish Parliament), tabled a bill outlawing shechita. This antisemitic move united all the Jewish parties in opposition, including the secularists, the Bundists and the Communists. Even those who were not particular about eating kosher meat themselves joined the struggle, feeling that the bill had been inspired by plain antisemitism.

All the Jewish groups decided to hold a sixteen day boycott on the purchase of meat in protest, in the hope that the economic damage caused by the strike would make the authorities have second thoughts. The strike was kept, even by those who needed to eat meat, as well as by the Jewish slaughterers and butchers who were unable to earn a livelihood during those sixteen days.

I remember that the wedding of a bochur from Mir was held in Slonim during the time when the strike was at its height. A milk meal was served at the wedding! The Slonimer Rav spoke and he prefaced his drosho with a riddle. Where in the Torah do we find a wedding without meat? We didn't know the answer.

It's simple, he continued. Odom and Chava set up home at a time when eating meat was forbidden!

Two years later, when Poland was conquered in sixteen days, one of the Polish leaders got up and said, "This is a deliberate punishment because the Jews refrained from eating meat for sixteen days because of us. Sixteen days for sixteen days."

When Mir fell under the control of the Soviet Communist regime, which was known for its deep hatred of religion, our hearts grew heavy with fear for the yeshiva's future. We feared exile to Siberia, which was the fate meted out by the Communists to rabbonim and other religious leaders.

During Chol Hamoed Succos we heard that Russia announced that Vilna would remain the capital of an independent Lithuania, in return for Lithuania's agreement to station an army base on their territory. After a brief discussion it was decided that the yeshiva must escape to Vilna. It was with sadness that the yeshiva uprooted itself from Mir, after it had been making the sounds of Torah learning heard there for a hundred and fifty years. Thus began the Mirrer Yeshiva's wanderings across Lithuania, Russia, Japan and China until finding haven in Eretz Yisroel and the United States.

Miracles Within Miracles

I want to preface my description of the perilous journey which the yeshiva took with the following thought. Our rescue can be termed `a miracle within a miracle.'

It is well known that the poskim say that Purim marks a miracle of Klal Yisroel's rescue from physical destruction while Chanukah marks freedom from spiritual persecution. In our travels, we experienced both types of miracle together. On a physical level, we were saved from the claws of the murderers and the travails of the war, but above all, we were saved spiritually as well. Wherever we went, a place was set aside for learning and the sounds of the Mirrer Yeshiva's Torah learning never stopped. The bochurim continued their spiritual ascent at every one of our stops and in the most desolate and difficult of places.

There is another point to be made as well. There were many who were saved from the Holocaust as individuals — in a `private' capacity, as it were. I think that the Mirrer Yeshiva was the only group to be saved as a yeshiva — as one communal unit that survived in its entirety.

As mentioned, we left Mir for Vilna. Everybody carried whatever he could with his bags: sifrei Torah, seforim, etc. Upon our arrival in Vilna, Reb Chaim Ozer saw to our accommodation in the building of the Ramailles yeshiva. The bochurim sat down to learn immediately. `Difficulties in adjusting' were luxuries that we could not allow ourselves.

Around Chanukah, it was decided, for several reasons, to move the yeshiva to Kaidan. The author of the commentary Pnei Moshe on the Yerushalmi had served there as rav and the Vilna Gaon married and spent the following few years there. We immediately established ourselves in Kaidan's large local beis hamedrash and the sounds of Torah learning were again to be heard both by day and by night.

We continued thus until Shavuos, when we found out that the Russians had overrun the whole of Lithuania, as well as Latvia and Estonia. Again we were face to face with the harsh reality of the antagonistic Communist regime. We swiftly experienced the first practical effects of the new order when the local authority, which had fallen into Communist hands, issued an order forbidding the yeshiva to continue its activities in Kaidan.

It should be noted that among the Communist officials were Jewish youngsters who had been swept up into the revolutionary wave that had engulfed the region. Many of them had devout mothers who still clung to their traditions and who begged their offspring not to harm the yeshiva members and Torah scholars. Their pleading did not always fall upon receptive ears.

Dividing Up the Yeshiva

The hanholo realized that the yeshiva would no longer be able to continue learning together as one unit. A group so large, comprising hundreds of talmidim in one place, would be too conspicuous and would provoke another order of closure, if not something worse. It was therefore decided to split the yeshiva into four groups. With lightning organization, four suitable townlets in the vicinity of Kaidan and Kovno were located. These were, Karkinova, Krak, Schat and Ramigola.

We left Kaidan a few days before Tisha B'Av. Depression gripped all of us. We realized that our wanderings were continuing, with the end nowhere in sight. We were to continue wandering across the country. On the day we left Kaidan, Reb Chatzkel stood by the omud and led us in saying Tehillim, posuk by posuk, while weeping emotionally. Hundreds of yeshiva members repeated the pesukim loudly after him, in prayer to the Creator that He not cease bestowing His kindness upon us. Tears also fell from the eyes of the householders of Kaidan, who had come to take part in this parting tefillah.

So the yeshiva was divided into four groups, each comprising around eighty bochurim. The hanholo divided the bochurim so that each group contained both younger and older talmidim. I was in the group that was assigned to learn in Ramigola. The mashgiach would visit each of the four towns, delivering inspiring talks and breathing a spirit of faith and trust into all of us. The bochurim also kept in touch with their friends in the other groups. They would sometimes visit them and discuss Torah. The spiritual unity of the yeshiva was thus preserved despite the physical distance that separated the groups.

HaRav Chaim Ozer

I remember that on the day I arrived in Ramigola, the bitter news of Reb Chaim Ozer's petiroh reached us. I did not manage to attend the levaya of the gaon of the entire generation and the patron of the yeshivos.

During this period, the bochurim sat and learned solidly in each of the four towns. Everybody knew however, that the situation could not go on for long. As soon as Lithuania was annexed to Soviet Russia, the threat of closure once again hung over the yeshiva. We began to plan an escape from the area under Communist rule.

Escaping The Trap

One day, one of the yeshiva's younger bochurim, Yaakov Ederman, who spoke Polish fluently, arrived with the news that he had a scheme that would enable each and every yeshiva member to obtain a Polish passport. Although Poland itself had been invaded, a number of Polish embassies were still functioning in an official capacity. Bochurim handed in their particulars and a passport photo, and, within two days, they received a Polish passport. The first step in leaving Russia was thus accomplished.

As soon as I received my passport, I felt that it would be playing a very important role in our rescue and I guarded it as closely as I could. I was even afraid to leave it inside the valise in my room so I sewed it into my inside coat pocket.

Everyone thus had a passport with the exception of one of the most distinguished bochurim, whose story is really tragic. The gaon Rav Yonah Karpilov Hy'd, was one of the most outstanding students in the yeshiva. He had a brilliant mind and was a very deep thinker. He was completely against all the arrangements that were being made for flight.

He argued that, as a native of the Russian city of Minsk, he was very familiar with the true nature of the sly and deceitful Communist authorities. He maintained that they would allow the entire yeshiva to pass through all the stages of preparation for departure, and even to leave together. Then, when they reached Vladivostok on the Russian eastern coast, they would grab the yeshiva and its rabbonim all together and either exile them to Siberia or murder them on the spot. He felt that it was therefore preferable for small groups of bochurim to stay together and remain in hiding until the danger passed. Tragically, Rav Yonah Minsker stayed behind and met his end with his brethren, at the Germans' hands. A volume of his chidushim, Yonas Ileim, was published after his petiroh, Hy'd.

Once we had passports, the next stage was to obtain visas which would enable us to leave for another country. A committee of three bochurim was appointed to go around to all the different embassies. They visited the Swedish and Swiss embassies and many others, but their request was absolutely refused everywhere. During wartime, when the situation was growing worse daily, no country wanted to set a precedent that could lead to its being flooded with tens of thousands of homeless refugees who had no means of support.

In the meantime, we were beginning to feel the cruelty of the Communist regime. A special order obliged bochurim to spend a number of hours each day doing agricultural work. Work was Communism's highest ideal and it saw `parasitism' — not working — as an unforgivable sin. They forced us to go out into the fields, picking potatoes and doing other jobs. The bochurim equipped themselves with boots so that they could get around in the mud. Here as well, Jewish mothers whose children had become influential Communists would warn them not to start up with those who learned Torah and not to force them to do hard labor.

"Destination": Curacao

This last decree speeded up our departure. It became obvious that it was impossible to go on running the yeshiva in this way and the committee was pressured to work without stopping in order to obtain visas. They continued making the rounds of the embassies in Kovno until they found a sympathetic ear at the Dutch Embassy. The Ambassador promised them exit visas for Curacao, a small island near America, which was under Dutch rule. Although it was clear to him that we would be unable to reach there, he said, our fictitious visas would give us a reason for leaving Russian territory which was what we wanted, after all. "I am doing this purely to enable you to escape," he said.

In order to obtain his visa, each bochur had to pay two lit (the unit of the Lithuanian currency). I remember that one of my friends, a boy who came from a small town, came to consult me as to whether this expenditure — two lit! (according to Rav Yechezkel Leitner, the exchange rate at the time was five lit to one dollar) — was worthwhile. He was completely serious — any chance of escape seemed so remote that he honestly wanted to know if it was worth wasting the money. I was annoyed with him and raised my voice. "Shmuel — two lit? Don't stand apart from the rest of the group. This is the only thing that could save us. Why, it is worth paying much more money, even if we only have a chance of a thousandth of a percent." He eventually agreed, since the plan was going ahead anyway.

The most difficult issue now faced us. How were we to actually get out? All of Russia's borders with Europe were completely sealed. The only route to the outside world lay through the port of Vladivostok on the east, and then on to Japan. For that, we would need Japanese visas.

End of Part III


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