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12 Elul, 5782 - September 8, 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 V

For Part IV of this series click here.

HaRav Aryeh Leib Baron zt"l, was born in Horodok, which is near Volozhin. In his youth, he learned in the yeshivos of Baranovitch and Mir. Later he was the rosh yeshiva of Mercaz Hatalmud in Montreal, Canada and was 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, and how the students and rabbonim received documentation to travel across Russia, and actually went with the Trans-Siberian railroad.

A Yeshiva in Wartime Japan

We arrived in the city of Kobe. Again, as had happened at all our European stopovers, a building which suited our purposes was immediately located and the sounds of the Mirrer yeshiva's Torah learning rang out loud and clear.

We arrived in Kobe about a month before Pesach and we stayed there until Rosh Hashanah. Several Jewish families were also staying there. I remember the first Shabbos, when I went for a stroll, seeing a sign on one of the shops, "Shabbos geschlossen" ("Closed on Shabbos"). I was very excited by the idea that even in the heart of Japan, Shabbos was being observed.

Keeping Shabbos in Japan was not without its problems, however. The question of the location of the International Dateline became a crucial issue with practical consequences. We sent telegrams to the Chazon Ish zt'l, the Imrei Emes zt'l, and the Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel zt'l.

The Chazon Ish's response arrived swiftly, together with those of the other gedolim, instructing us to keep Shabbos on the local Sunday. (The Chazon Ish composed a special work dealing with this topic.)

The local community kept Shabbos on the seventh day of the week, while all the chareidi refugees (with the exception of the Lubavitch group, who acted like the local community) kept it on Sunday. This made things very complicated.

On Saturday night in Kobe's large beis hamedrash, the residents would meet for ma'ariv with havdoloh, while in an adjoining room the bnei hayeshiva would begin saying Kabolas Shabbos. While we treated Saturday like a normal weekday, the residents closed their shops. On Sunday, when we kept Shabbos, they opened up. (It also transpired that the day we had left the boat and boarded the train had not really been Shabbos according to the psak of the gedolim.)

Shortly before Rosh Hashanah, we were ordered to leave Japan and pass over into China, where the problem of the dateline did not exist. On this account, the mashgiach expressed his pleasure at leaving Japan.

Several families stayed on in Japan for the Yomim Noraim, only leaving later on. They told us that when the dateline question arose regarding Yom Kippur, a number of people had decided to act stringently because of the doubt. The gaon Rav Mordechai Rogov zt'l, who was a weak person, fasted for two days but he observed the second day according to the halacha for a one whose life is in danger, drinking a small amount every few minutes. HaRav Yeshaya Shimanowitz fasted for two whole days.

Professor Kotsuji is the second from left.

During our sojourn in Japan, we had two interesting encounters with Government representatives. One day it was announced that a Professor Kotsuji from the University of Japan would be arriving in the yeshiva and addressing us. A reception was held for the Professor, at which the rav of Lomza, HaRav Moshe Shatzkes zt'l, spoke. His speech was translated from Yiddish into English for the Professor.

When the Professor stood up to speak, we were surprised by his opening words: Bereishis boro Elokim... He read out the first pesukim in the Torah, in loshon hakodesh. He continued his speech in English, telling us that he had researched Judaism, Semitic languages and Eastern religions.

Later on, we found out that throughout our stay in Japan and China, this professor secretly came to our aid, rescuing us in various ways. Ultimately, when the war was over, Professor Kotsuji decided that he wished to attach himself to Judaism. He converted and lived as a Jew until the end of his life. In the Mirrer yeshiva, he was treated as a "Friend of the Yeshiva" to his last day. He is buried in Yerushalayim.

Another interesting meeting took place when the Japanese Government asked to meet with Jewish political representatives in order to gain a closer view of the Jews. The rabbonim and leaders of the refugee population were sent to the meeting.

Unexpectedly, the representative of the Japanese army, a well known general, got up and said, "Perhaps you could explain for once and for all why the Germans hate you so much. Perhaps there is some basis for their approach?" The delegates were thrown into confusion by this loaded question.

The Amshinover Rebbe responded brilliantly by saying, "Do you know why they hate us? Because we are Asians. Our origins are in Asia and according to the Nazi's racist ideology, Asians cannot be tolerated."

Of course the Japanese are Asians too, so that the implication was that the Germans have no use for them either.

In order to prove his point, the Rebbe related a story that had recently been publicized in Europe. A Japanese student had gone to study in Berlin University. However for racist reasons, the authorities refused him permission to marry a local girl, arguing that a member of the Aryan race could not raise a family together with an `Asiatic.'

"That's why they hate us," said the Rebbe, "for they regard us as Asians. You can decide for yourself whether they are justified..." The Japanese general smiled and remained silent.

Shanghai: Heat, Hardship and Survival

Around Rosh Hashanah 5702 (1941), we arrived in the Chinese city of Shanghai, where there was an international colony, with refugees from many countries. The local rav, Rav Ashkenazi zt'l, gave us the use of the large Sephardi beis hamedrash which was not then in use. I still remember its address: 50 Museum Road.

In Shanghai, learning in the yeshiva continued with full energy and application. The delivery of shiurim and shmuessen went on despite all the difficulties. The printing of gemoras and works by the Rishonim was also undertaken. The five or so years in Shanghai were years of spiritual progress to which many of the talmidim felt Chazal's comment was applicable — "The Torah which I learned in anger [in adverse circumstances], stood by me [has remained with me]."

When we arrived Shanghai, there was a food shortage. We ate one slice of dry bread a day. All we had to eat besides this was porridge and more porridge. The lack of vitamins in such a diet caused most of the bnei hayeshiva to fall ill.

A certain Professor Sinai came to perform examinations and diagnosed the serious and potentially fatal condition, beri beri. He argued that we had fallen prey to the disease because our diet lacked bread and he suggested peanuts as a substitute, as they contained certain vitamins which were not getting. We therefore started to keep our pockets filled with peanuts, which were available cheaply. We would eat them all day long.

Boruch Hashem almost everybody recovered. Only two members of our yeshiva and three from the Lublin yeshiva fell victim to the subsequent stages of the disease, including mental derangement, later dying amid great suffering R'l.

We learned for several months in Shanghai's large Sephardi beis hamedrash, until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, after which the Japanese were awash with feelings of triumph and national pride. I remember the day of the bombardment. As I walked to shacharis I saw a Japanese civilian staggering out of a tavern, drunk as could be, shouting, "All of America is mine!"

After Pearl Harbor, America declared war on Japan. The Japanese overran Shanghai, which ceased to have an international colony. All the foreigners were interred in a sealed camp. We were sent to the impoverished slum neighborhood of Honkyo.

Half a million Chinese lived in this wretched and depressing area. We were fenced into a ghetto. The summer heat was unbearable. We wore an upper garment which had four corners for tzitzis, thin cotton trousers and sandals. It was so hot that even the tar on the pavements became soft. Our footprints were visible where we had walked!

In Shanghai's Honkyo quarter, we learned in an old building, a real hovel, which had once been a factory. The whole place had once been an industrial area. A look at our building was enough to give one second thoughts about entering it — it leaned, giving the appearance of being liable to collapse at any minute. The neighborhood was bombed by the Americans on account of the munitions factories that were situated there.

I remember that there were buildings that would collapse even when they had not been directly hit by the blasts. These were the unstable tenement buildings, which would fold up like houses of cards. The streets were strewn with many bodies of dead Chinese but boruch Hashem, not one of the bnei yeshiva was injured.

One morning, the mashgiach told us that Reb Yeruchom had appeared to him in dream and said, "You will experience great hardships but you will leave safely."

"He will be an advocate on our behalf," added Reb Chatzkel.

If we were afraid to enter the ramshackle beis hamedrash at times of relative calm, how much was this the case during air raids. As soon as the echoes of the American bombers were heard, all the bnei yeshiva fled. Only the mashgiach stayed behind, learning on his own, completely secure in the knowledge that a place in which Torah was learned was the safest place to be!

Each new bombardment further weakened the building's foundations and the bochurim expressed grave doubts as to how much longer it would remain standing. We therefore raised money on our own — each bochur contributed ten dollars — and three thousand dollars were collected. With this money a new, sturdier building was acquired. Two weeks after we left the old building, on Rosh Hashanah, it collapsed with a tremendous crash. The flimsy foundations were solely responsible, not the bombings. One of the yeshiva's alumni has a photograph of the wreck of the building.

Something which took place many years later caused me to remember an incident which took place during our stay in Shanghai. I visited Eretz Yisroel after my wedding and I headed for the Ponovezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak in order to visit the mashgiach, Reb Chatzkel. His son-in-law, Rav Reuven Ginzburg zt'l, told me that he had prepared a place for me at the shmuess, despite the great crowding of the listeners, which was the norm.

On Friday night after the tefillah, a long line of people formed before the Mashgiach, in order to wish him `a gutt Shabbos.' The Mashgiach suddenly left the line and turned towards the rows of benches, where I was standing. Approaching me, he warmly extending his hand, invited me to dine at his table over Shabbos and turned to go home. I stood there in surprise, not understanding how I deserved this honor.

Reb Reuven said to me, "It seems that he has some special reason. He doesn't do this kind of thing without a reason. Two years ago he did the same thing to someone else and it transpired that there was a specific reason. He has one now as well. Look out and you'll discover what it is."

After thinking for a long time I asked myself, "Does he still remember?"

Twenty years had elapsed yet the mashgiach indeed remembered. In Shanghai, twenty years earlier, I had an experience with the Mashgiach when he had criticized me for something of which I knew I was totally innocent. I surmised that someone had spoken slander about me to him and, unable to contain myself, I had burst out, "If so-and-so goes to play cards, it's obvious that he'll come to slander others!"

The Mashgiach cut me short. "Why are you speaking loshon hora?"

Unable to stop myself, I blurted out, "And why did the Mashgiach accept loshon hora about me?"

I was immediately overcome with fear and dread. I had insulted the Mashgiach! I had always been careful to accord him honor, in view of Chazal's warning that, "Their bite [of chachomim in retaliation for a slight to the honor of their Torah learning], is the bite of a scorpion." I knew of bochurim who had slighted the Mashgiach and had later been punished because of his affront. He had warned them not to anger him and everybody knew that they had suffered in later days.

However, the Mashgiach apparently understood that I had been falsely accused and from then on, he drew me close to him. When I left Shanghai, I asked him for a letter of recommendation. Until then, he had no official letter paper. I went to have sheets printed for him bearing the caption, "Mashgiach Ruchani in Yeshivas Mir."

When I published my seforim he wrote me letters of approbation and I merited receiving seven letters from him (some of which have been printed in Or Yechezkel). The Mashgiach had forgotten nothing! Everything he did was carefully thought out. I related all of this to his son-in-law Reb Reuven and he agreed, "Yes, that is it. He keeps a meticulous reckoning."

HaRav Avrohom Kalmanowitz

Later Encounters: Old Timers and Newcomers

It was only when the war had ended that I discovered that there were Chinese Jews living in Shanghai. The nephew of HaRav Avrohom Kalmanovitz zt'l, (in whose yeshiva I had learned in Rakov) sent me a package of medicines so that I could sell them and make some money for my upkeep. The postal worker in the post office refused to release the package unless I paid duty. When they told me how much I would have to pay, I realized that it was more than I would get from selling the medicines. The Chinese clerk would not give in.

I went to the branch manager who was a Russian. I thought that he may take a more positive attitude to me if I spoke in Russian but nothing helped me. I left the building disappointed and depressed. On the stairs, I met another Chinaman. He took a look at me and asked, "Are you Jewish?"

"And what about you?" I replied with another question.

"I am a Jew," he said. I didn't believe him — he looked just like a Chinaman. I knew a little about the history of the Jews in China many years earlier and I asked him where he was from. When he told me that he came from Haiphong, I knew he was speaking the truth for there had been a Jewish community in that area for hundreds of years.

He swiftly helped me release my packages for a much smaller payment, and he told me about his past. He knew nothing about keeping mitzvos. The sum total of his Judaism stemmed from an incident that had taken place before his father's death when his father had called him over and said to him, "Know that you are a Jew. Do not forget this as long as you live."

The man told me of a an old Chinese Jew in Shanghai who kept one mitzva — he fasted one day each year. He gave me the man's address and I went there straight away. The door was opened by an old woman. She understood only Chinese and no English and she wouldn't let me in. I thus lost the chance to meet the remaining Chinese Jew, possibly the last in Shanghai.

Immediately after the war, I had the none too pleasant experience of becoming acquainted with a new type of Jew. An American army rabbi arrived in the yeshiva, in search of whoever was in charge. It transpired that the Commander of the American forces in the area had received a request from HaRav Avrohom Kalmanovitz to send the rabbi to check what had become of the Mirrer Yeshiva. We immediately organized a reception for the rabbi and presented him with a sefer as a gift.

Reb Chatzkel spoke in honor of the occasion. Suddenly, he grabbed hold of the unknown rabbi's hand, looked into his eyes and said excitedly, "But the main thing is yiras Shomayim! Yiras Shomayim!" repeating himself several times. None of us understood what he meant by this.

Later on we found out that this was a Reform rabbi, something with which we had been totally unacquainted in Lithuania. He looked like a typical rabbi. Only the Mashgiach, with his holy gaze, had penetrated the man's heart.

Our acquaintance with this rabbi once helped us out. One Shabbos I arrived for tefillah and was surprised to see all the bnei yeshiva waiting outside. Reb Chaim Wisokar told me that one of the talmidim, Reb Ben Zion Leitner, had disappeared. Nothing had been heard from him for three days. Today, a German Jew had reported having seen him bound in chains, being driven by Chinese policemen. The imprisoned bochur had begged this Jew to tell the members of the yeshiva that he had been locked up, was sick and that his life was in danger.

Since I was acquainted with the American army rabbi, having organized the reception for him, I was given the task of going to him. As we had been given to understand that danger to life was involved, I set out on Shabbos.

Work was going on as usual in the rabbi's office, while the rabbi himself was sitting and writing as on any other day. When I entered, he was surprised to see me. After I described the difficult problem, he said that he didn't see how he could help. China was once again an independent state and this was a purely internal matter. I didn't give up. I told him that he could approach the head of UNRWA, which was responsible for the refugees, and ask him to use his authority to intervene.

When the men with sufficient rank arrived, we set out for the police station. I waited for three hours until the bochur was released.

It later transpired that he had been arrested for breaking the curfew imposed by the Chinese authorities. He had been returning from the beis hamedrash after midnight when a Chinese policeman stopped him. They had decided to punish him by incarcerating him for seven days in a tiny, filthy room together with Chinese criminals. He fell sick after two days and his rescue had indeed been a matter of life and death. Years later at his wedding, he said, "If not for Rabbi Baron, I wouldn't be here with you!"

We underwent many troubles and as I mentioned at the outset, we were constantly aware of the double miracle in our experiences: first, our physical rescue and continued existence, and second, our spiritual preservation — the yeshiva carried on its learning throughout the years of our wanderings. An entire community was saved thanks to a series of wondrous miracles along the way from Mir through Shanghai, until we reached Yerushalayim and the United States.

End of Part V

The End


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