OU Press has published Letters from Mir: A Torah World in the Shadow of the Shoah by Rabbi Ernest Gugenheim. In 1938, Ernest Gugenheim was a young, newly minted French rabbi who traveled across Europe to study in the Lithuanian yeshiva of Mir. Letters from Mir, comprised of the letters Rabbi Gugenheim wrote home describing his experiences, is an unforgettable memoir of a poignant moment in history. Rabbi Gugenheim’s sharp eye, humor, and charming descriptions give us a rare glimpse of a world that was, of daily life and of yeshiva learning, and of a student in a premier Lithuanian yeshiva at its peak, in the shadow of impending destruction.
Rabbi Gugenheim brings readers into his experiences with the warmth, intimacy and honesty of a family correspondence. This book is filled with vignettes and observations which capture the perspective of a Western-trained student confronting the world of Eastern Europe for the first time, and his enchantment with the Lithuanian yeshiva. In his first letter home, he describes his initial encounter with the Mir beit midrash:
Now, make a small effort of imagination to conjure up for yourself what is to follow: It is ten-thirty in the evening, and we approach the yeshiva. We first hear from outside a chanting sound, or rather it is louder than chanting, but really this is nothing as yet. We enter, and, lo, an immense room, truly immense, and inside there are let us say fifty to a hundred fellows, masmidim, who sing, who shout, who move and shake in a frenzy that delights and frightens you at the same time. In any case, it exceeds anything I had imagined. It should also be added that there was only a small portion of the students present because it was not the time of the lehrnen; what will it be like when everyone is here?
Rabbi Gugenheim also describes how the customs of Mir differed from the customs he had grown up with. For example, “Among the unusual minhagim at the yeshiva, it should be pointed out that no one except the Rosh Yeshiva goes to kiss and follow the Sefer Torah. At the aliyah, since we do not put on the tallis, we wear a coat as kavod.” And although the yeshivot of Lithuania are gone, there is much in Rabbi Gugenheim’s account with which anyone who studied in a yeshiva or seminary can relate. As is the case for many students studying away from home for the first time, one can sense in these letters Rabbi Gugenheim’s personal and spiritual development, fostered by the yeshiva environment.
In addition to his lyrical descriptions of yeshiva life, Rabbi Gugenheim’s letters contain his accounts of the town of Mir, where the poverty of the town residents stood in contrast to the living conditions of the relatively affluent foreign students. As one would expect, the letters occasionally reflect current events. As Rabbi Gugenheim comments in one letter, “Today, Hitler spoke and was heard even here, for the modern inventions such as the radio are not, as might be imagined, things unknown in Mir.” He describes his hostess and her family preparing for Passover (“I’ve just come back from Batsheva’s house; it’s a tummel…I didn’t stay long. It is the only day she quarrels with her husband; but then, they make an uproar!”).
Rabbi Gugenheim, who returned from the Mir to serve as a chaplain in the French army, became a prisoner of war and acted as rabbi in his P.O.W camp until the war ended. He went on to become the director of the French rabbinical seminary, and a leader of Orthodox Judaism in France. Letters from Mir is a unique portrait of a fascinating individual and his times.