A Novardok shul in 1939
Between Russia And Germany
The terrible conditions, the harsh decrees, the dangers—nothing deterred the Alter. For a person who believes and trusts in Hashem, they are all nothing.
Once, on a Motzei Shabbos, the Alter stood making Havdoloh when one of the robbers' bands broke into the yeshiva courtyard and were about to come inside the building. The air was filled with their cries and the stamping of their boots.
The Alter made Havdoloh on an overflowing cup with a perfectly steady hand, not one drop spilled. If he was afraid, it was only of one thing: man's limited strength, which may not be enough to stand up to life's trials, lest a trace of hesitation creep into his heart.
Therefore, when the Germans invaded Russian territory during the First World War—and Germany was then a modern, tolerant country, unlike cruel, backward Czarist Russia—the Alter decided to flee from them into Russia because the Germans brought with them germs of the destructive enlightenment. He fled right into the depths of Russia, from Novardok to Homel. He sent his talmidim on further, into the interior.
Then came the Revolution. The Communists came to power and the situation was reversed. Now atheism was in Russia proper. The Yevsektsiya reared their heads, and the yeshivos were closed down. The time had come to move in the opposite direction—west to Poland. The border was sealed but there are no barriers for Novardokers. Five thousand talmidim stole across the border!
In The Attic
It was in the year 5682 (1922). We received the message that we would be crossing over the border into Poland. We travelled as far as Minsk and walked from there to a town on the border where a brother of Rav Sorotzkin was the rav. There was a certain gentile there who knew the surrounding area and he received five rubles for every bochur he crossed over.
We went after him at night time, along forest tracks. We walked nearly all night and towards morning he went off to check out the area and told us that we wouldn't be able to cross that night. It was too dangerous.
While he had to get back to the village before his absence would arouse any suspicion, we would have to stay put, in absolute silence, in the middle of the forest, until the next night.
We grew restive at hearing this because he had been paid in advance and was perfectly capable of disappearing, never to return, leaving us stranded in the forest. In the end he agreed to leave his son with us as a security.
We crossed over the border the next night and made our way to the nearby town. On the bridge leading to the town however, stood a guard! We experienced a miracle there, without any doubt, for the guard didn't stop us and send us back to Russia, despite the fact that we were a group of refugees and were coming from the border.
Some refugees were taken back, some were shot, some they tortured and hanged, however we arrived in the town, in Shteifes.
Obviously, we went to the beis haknesses where the astonished townspeople received us—a group without any papers or documents of identification. They put us all in the shul's attic until they could arrange transit visas for us.
From Shteifes we went to Nascwiecz where we saw white bread for the first time. From Nascwiecz we went on to Baranovitch where we were located in the Slonimer shtiebel which was then standing. We had not come to Baranovitch for nothing.
Give And Take
Of course, we were refugees without any official standing so Baranovitch was the perfect thing for us. There had recently been a fire in the town and the city archives had gone up in flames.
They had no choice but to register everyone again from scratch. Anyone who presented himself accompanied by two witnesses who testified that he was a Baranovitch resident received identification papers. To this day I am recorded in my identification documents as being a native of Baranovitch.
So everything was fine, except that the flood of refugees grew and many discovered the trick. The number of "natives of Baranovitch" was now greater than the entire number of people that had actually been born there form the beginning of the town's history. How could it be that every day new groups of people sprung up who "remembered" that they were born in Baranovitch but had lived until now without any identification?
At this point, I must mention the good deeds of Reb Mendel Goldberg, an alumnus of Radin who owned a whiskey distillery. He drew up an agreement with the official in charge of the population register. This man would enter every Jew who applied to him without asking too many questions and in return he would receive unlimited quantities of whiskey.
The agreement worked. The gentile recorded the names and drank and drank. The documents he issued were duplicated. One copy went into the pockets of the refugees while a second copy went to the government offices in Warsaw where they were astonished by this amazing Baranovitch whose citizens were multiplying at such a dizzying rate.
They sent a commission of inquiry. When the commission arrived though, they found the population registrar had died of alcohol poisoning. We experienced miracle upon miracle at each step we took. One can learn how to have bitachon from life itself!
Dancing In The Marketplace
Equipped with our documents, we travelled to the [Novardok] center in Bialystok. Rav Avrohom Yaffen had set up the center there a year earlier. The second center was in Mezritch—not the town of the Maggid of Mezritch. I had also assumed that it was, but they told me that there were two towns with that name.
A story is told about this Mezritch concerning a poor water carrier who would climb up the mountainside every day with his two pails of water, which he would then sell for a few pennies.
One day he found a bundle of banknotes, worth a fortune, lying in the marketplace. Now all his problems would be over. Poverty would be a thing of the past; good times had arrived.
His yetzer hatov held him back however, protesting, "It's not your money! Don't touch it!" His hand was moving almost by itself though. An opportunity like this would not return a second time. As he stood there helplessly with his hand outstretched, he began to cry out, "Help! Gevald!"
Crowds of people in the marketplace all came flocking to where he stood. "Look what I found...take it..." was all he could say.
As they picked it up and counted, a Jew approached. He was in a state of shock. The money was his and he had lost it. After giving a siman and naming the number of notes, his money was returned to him. Overjoyed, he turned to the water carrier and asked him to name his reward for returning the massive sum of money.
"As my reward for the mitzva I don't want you to give me anything," the water carrier replied. "But if you want to spend your money I would ask you to hire a few musicians to come over to the marketplace and play some merry tune. Then I'll dance for joy over having stood up to the test!"
Novardok reestablished itself in no time. Within a year, centers had sprung up in Bialystok, Mezritch, Warsaw and Pinsk. Bochurim were sent out on "reserve duty," to set up yeshivos and to recruit new bochurim.
In Bialystok I learned with the Steipler. He gave shiur to a group of younger bochurim and I said vaadim five times a week.
In 5696 (1936), the Rosh Yeshiva sent me to head a yeshiva that bochurim had set up in Botchatch, the town of the Da'as Kedoshim. When I arrived I found that the yeshiva was literally "something from nothing!" There was no building nor any financial foundation and yet they learned and the yeshiva prospered!
Afterwards the problems started. The Communists arrived in Botchatch and the Second World War broke out. The bochurim who helped me, the maggidei shiur, all returned to their homes and I was left by myself with the dozens of talmidim.
I confronted my situation squarely; one has to come to grips with problematic situations. I started the shiur at five in he morning with the group of older bochurim. We learned until shacharis. After the tefillah they became the maggidei shiur for the younger groups.
Later, the Communists closed down the Talmudei Torah so we "annexed" the children to the yeshiva. We made a "mishnayos yeshiva" for them, which was not ignored by the Communists. They vowed that they would yet catch Zeitchik.
We learned in the women's section of the beis haknesses with the shutters closed and candles burning. We posted a guard downstairs who would bang on some iron when the police arrived. I would then go into the attic, into a place that had been prepared for me—and we learned!
Yes, I think that was the essence of Novardok: "hefkeirus," abandoning everything for the sake of one's aims.
Paying no attention to externals. What did the Alter say about growing a beard? Not to grow one, but not to shave either; just don't think about yourself. And by the way, who had money for haircuts anyway? We didn't even have the ten zlotys you needed to go to the bathhouse.
Not to pay attention to difficulties, not to be bothered by criticism. Others may well have seen it in a different light. I had a difference of opinion with Reb Yeruchom of Mir—that's a story worth hearing.
There was a wedding in which the whole of the yeshiva world participated, the wedding of the son of Reb Leizer Yudel Finkel of Mir. The wedding was held in Datcha and it was there that I met Reb Moishe Giteles—one of the outstanding Mirrer bochurim. We found that we had something in common and spent much time in discussion together walking outside or in the gardens.
Once, the Mirrer Mashgiach saw us walking together and he called us to his room. He was seated while we stood, like this, and the talmidim stood at a distance.
His son Reb Yisroel stood at the side of the room, there at the side. They were standing before him like, like a guard of honor, as if on parade. Such fear, such respect.
The Mashgiach looked at us with his large, penetrating eyes and said in a low voice, "Novardok means seeking. The Novardokers are "seekers." Why don't they come to Mir?"
Although that was an open invitation, I remained silent. I was quiet and Reb Yeruchom continued in the same soft voice, "Why do bochurim become "broken" in Novardok? Why do they stumble? Why is it that when a bochur leaves Novardok, his heart is full of bitterness?"
He spoke as if to himself but he was waiting for an answer.
Then I said, "Why do they fall? Because one can only fall from a height. It's impossible to fall off the floor. Why do they become "broken?" Why do some walk out? Because demands are made on them and they don't all stand up to the requirements."
The bochurim around me gave me such looks! But Reb Yeruchom suddenly smiled.
"You see?" he said, "I don't demand enough from you!"
That's it, Reb Yeruchom characterized Novardokers as "seekers" and he was correct. There was seeking. Oh! Such seeking! Bochurim travelled from Bialystok to Mezritch to Pinsk.
I spent half a year in Warsaw to drink in Torah from Rav Avrohom Zalmans. I went to the Chofetz Chaim. I was in Lomza for a few weeks with Rav Moshe Rosenshtein. He would spend the whole day there, alone, and in the evening he would dine on a salted fish and a glass of seltzer.
Reb Yeruchom disagreed with this routine. Each to his own.
Everyone is attacking the same fortress: the hardened, sealed heart. Each attacks from a different side and with a different strategy, like generals in a battle. They do so with wisdom and dedication. There is plenty to learn and plenty to see. All rivers lead to the sea, one has to learn from all of them.
When my seforim were published, Reb Chaim Shmuelevitz and his brother-in-law Reb Chaim Zeev Finkel sat together discussing them. They deliberated: Was this Novardok? Was it Kelm? Slobodke?
But no, all these barriers are purely tactical and perhaps artificial. The main thing is the searching, the yearning to rise, to scale the heights—not to wallow in the mud. I'll tell you a story and perhaps you'll see what I mean.
I was learning with my talmidim in Botchatch. It was at the time when the Germans violated the Ribbentrop-Molotov accord and invaded Russia. Soldiers suddenly appeared and handed me a conscription order. In this way the Russians conscripted two hundred thousand civilians and marched them off into the Russian interior, far from the battle front. It was a work force that cost them nothing.
We walked forty kilometers a day. When we travelled by train, the Germans bombed the lines. We continued on foot. They loaded us onto cattle wagons. That was how we made it deep into Siberia. We slept in earthen dugouts in the freezing cold until we could chop wood to build huts. Then our real work began: assembling tanks, thirty-six of them a day.
The conditions were terrible. The gentiles could comfort themselves. They drank machine spirit and became drunk. They smoked dried wood from the trees. We lived on a half kilo of bread a day and received a watery soup once a week. Men died like flies.
We laid roads across the swamps. We went in water up to our necks to assemble bridges, the roads would get swept into the river. Life was a nightmare.
The water was moldy and poisoned so we had to fetch water in buckets from a well in the forest. It was a three kilometer walk in the Siberian frost.
We were forsaken, dressed in tatters and drained of all strength. One day I volunteered to bring the water from the well. I did so because I had heard that beyond the forest was a village where Jews lived.
I lifted up the two buckets, reached the well then carried on further until the village. I knocked on a door and a woman opened it. She was shocked when she saw me. I can imagine how I must have looked to her. She gave me a slice of bread—that was a treasure worth gold. I said to her, "I am a Jew. I don't want bread. I want a sefer."
She called her husband and he said, "I'm not a rabbi. I only have one gemora in the house. Sometimes, when I have a moment, I learn from it. I am also Jewish."
Then I started to cry. I said, "Give me one page, give me the title page, just don't leave me like this."
That's what "seeking" means. In any situation. Always. He had a gemora which contained two masechtos: Nedarim and Nozir. He tore the volume in half and gave me Nedarim. I returned to the camp. The buckets didn't bother me; I almost danced with two full buckets.
One day we were sawing wood. The workers were careless—a man's life was worth nothing in their eyes—and suddenly a massive branch landed on my head. I fell down; a lot of blood was flowing. It was terrible. They carried me to the hospital.
I asked them, please, go past the hut. I entered the hut, flooded with blood and in a state of shock—I took my beloved gemora with me. I hid it under my clothes and they carried me like that to the hospital. Because even when a man is on his way to hospital he mustn't forget that the real illness, the eternal malady, is the soul's illness. And the medicine—is a page of gemora.