Reb Baruch Ber is known to the Torah world as an analytical teacher par excellence. He was, more exactly, a loyal disciple of Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk – perhaps his talmid muvhak. His self-effacement toward his Rebbe seemed to approach total negation. His every sevara (rationale) or explanation had to reflect his mentor’s thinking.
In addition, Reb Baruch Ber’s love for Torah was so overwhelming that it seemed to determine every thought, word, and gesture – leaving nothing of the original Reb Baruch Ber, it seemed. This deep involvement began in his earliest years.
When Reb Baruch Ber was but four years old, his mother noticed that he was crying during his tefillah. She pointed it out to her husband, Rabbi Shmuel Lebowitz (Rabbi of Slutzk at the time), asking him what was wrong. He replied: “I am certain that he’s crying because he has difficulty in understanding Torah as much as he’d like to.”
Reb Shmuel took his ten year old Baruch Ber to a specialist for an examination because the boy was suffering crippling tension headaches. “He has only one cure,” the doctor said. “He needs hours and hours of unstructured free time in the fresh air. Turn him loose.” Baruch Ber listened in disbelief. The Rabbi thanked the doctor, and took his son by the hand. “Let’s hurry,” he said, “You’re already an hour late for your Gemara class.”
When only sixteen, he was accepted in the world famous yeshivah of Volozhin under the tutelage of Reb Chaim Soloveitchik. Although his reputation as a genius preceded him, his steady flow of commentary and his chiddushim (original commentary) only inspired ridicule. When he complained to Reb Chaim about this, the Rebbe said tersely, “Slutzker (A reference to Reb Baruch Ber’s birthplace – Slutzk), I’m afraid they’re right.”
He then concentrated on absorbing his Rebbe’s analytical approach to Talmud study, quashing all impulses to soar off on creative interpretations that had no solid basis in the text. Again he began to produce chiddushim, but of a different style … Again the boys ridiculed him, and again the disciple sought guidance from his Rebbe: Don’t pay attention to them, Slutzker,” he said. “You’re doing fine.”
Reb Chaim’s endorsement found much stronger expression as the years went on. He once commented, “None of my disciples are foolproof. You can successfully challenge any one of them – except Reb Baruch Ber.”
Reb Baruch Ber disciplined himself to distrust his own intellectual judgment, He constantly asked himself: “Where do we find a precedent for this in the sacred literature? How would Reb Chaim have approached this problem?” As a result, he took nothing for granted. As Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer said many years later: “Reb Baruch Ber taught us that there is no such thing as an easy sevara.”
Precision in Language, From Rebbe to Talmud
In Kamenitz, the talmidim were exposed to the importance attached to every single word, and what precision in expression means.
In the Torah world, Rishonim (the Medieval Sages) are divided into two groups. Members of one group explained their viewpoint expansively, using long sentences (like the Ran). The others used short sentences (like Rashi or the Ramban). In both cases, however, every word was measured. It was part of Reb Chaim’s derech (methodology) to weigh and measure every word, every sentence of the Rishonim, taking into account their mode of expression. Reb Chaim often said that the Rambam is not only a posek (a codifier), but a parshan (an explainer) as well. Through his decisions, we can tell how he interprets a particular verse or passage. If his interpretation of the verse were different, the Rambam would have never come to his conclusion.
This approach was totally absorbed by Reb Chaim’s disciple, Reb Baruch Ber. He often said, “It is no accomplishment to construct a Torah lecture. One must strive for the truth – amitah shel Torah (the innermost truth or the Iorah’s teachings).” Although he would talk slowly, testing and probing each thought as he spoke, measuring it for its unquestionable truth, many could not follow his thoughts to the end of the shiur (lecture) – certainly not the newcomers. As a result, study groups led by senior talmidim were formed after each shiur, to review the Rosh Yeshivah’s lecture and to help them digest it. Many of these group leaders emerged as Roshei Yeshivah in their later years.
Those who reviewed the shiur for the other students possessed some very special qualities – analytical abilities (lomdus), a gift for clear explanation (hasbarah), depth in reasoning (amkus), and – above all – a cutting precision in choice of words and definition of concepts. This, in sum, was the method Reb Baruch Ber had learned from his Rebbe, Reb Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk. As Reb Baruch Ber put it, “The depth and the comprehension – the havonah – must come from the words on the page – no pilpul (dialectic), no wandering about in the Sea of Talmud. Every deduction and generalization must come from the text before us, involving a thorough understanding of the implications of every single word. This is the only way to answer questions and clear up misunderstandings.”
This insistence on precision in wording was an absolute requirement in every Talmudic discussion, for the slightest modification could – Heaven forbid – result in a deviation from the intended meaning of the ‘eiliker’ (Russian pronunciation of “heiliker” (holy) – the Russians often drop their h’s.) Rambam or the ‘eiliker’ Rebbe (referring to Reb Chaim Brisker, of course). He carried this ‘penchant for precision into his daily life, and thus a statement from his father or his Rebbe – even in worldly matters – was also subjected to exacting scrutiny.
Welcome to Kamenitz
Reb Baruch Ber lived a life of poverty, even by European standards. Four families lived in one two-story house in Kamenitz. Reb Baruch Ber, his son Reb Yaakov Moshe and his grandchildren took up the entire downstairs. Reb Reuvain (his older son-in-law) and his family lived in the attic-like upstairs. When Reb Moshe Bernstein, the younger son-in-law, came with his family, they moved in with Reb Reuvain upstairs.
I met the Rosh Yeshivah there for the first time, my first day in Kamenitz. My father had sent me to Kamenitz after three years in Reb Elchonon Wasserman’s yeshivah in Baranovich. I could have spent the remainder of my life in Baranovich, and still had much to learn – but such was the spirit of the times. One had to “graduate” – even from Reb Elchonon.
It struck me as strange, for I had been certain that my father, “Alter Tiktiner,” would send me to Mir where he had studied for so many years. In Mir he had attained the singular prominence of previewing the shiur in private with the Rosh Yeshivah, Reb Elya Baruch, before he would say it publicly. And later as a student in Slobodka and then as a layman he maintained his ties with Mir. But here he sent me, and here I entered the always open door of his one-time chavrusa with whom he had studied in Slobodka – Reb Reuvain.
Arriving at the house, I looked in, and found an old man bent over an open book at the table. This could not have been Reb Reuvain, for he was too old to have been my father’s study companion.
Suddenly he raised his face from the sefer and stared into the distance, revealing two large blue eyes – unusually large – and at both sides of his head white shocks of hair cascaded out from under a large velvet yarmulke, flowing into his small white beard. In the sunlight they looked silver-white -whiter than anything I had ever seen before.
The “thread of kindness” seemed woven right into his features. The legendary goodness and its tremendous impact on the viewer – me, in this instance – told me that I was face-to-face with Reb Baruch Ber.
A woman’s voice called from the next room, “Baruch Berel! The milk is getting cold!” Her shrill Russian R’s grated on my ears, but my initial impression was confirmed. It was the Rosh Yeshivah.
He arose, but instead of following the summoning voice to the kitchen, he approached me, and launched into a detailed discussion on the Talmudic topic of esseh docheh lo sa’aseh, under the assumption that I was one of his students who so frequently dropped in, without the formality of appointments or invitations, to “talk in learning.” His thoughts might have been within my grasp, and perhaps they were not, but I was so overwhelmed to be in such close contact with a leading personality of our generation that he could have been discussing kabbalistic esoterica. I was numb.
Finally he stopped a moment, and still smiling, added, “Torah cannot come easily. One must forever (labor) over it. I have been thinking about this sevara all night, and I’m still not sure… Do you think the sevara is a correct one?”
Me? – I wondered. The Roshei Yeshiva’s Rosh Yeshivah is asking ME – a youngster who just wandered in? My panic was relieved by the Rebbetzin, who entered with a steaming glass of milk and a slice of cake. “Baruch Berel, you’ll have to eat it. It’s for your health,” she announced.
She turned to me and recognized me as a new face, and asked me who I was. When I replied, Reb Baruch Ber’s face beamed with happiness, “An orach! An orach!” (A guest! A guest!) He repeated the word several times, savoring the thought with a special joy. He placed his cake and milk before me, insisting that I partake of his snack. I could not consider eating his afternoon refreshment, especially since it was so vital to his health. Besides, I had always kept a special distance from hot milk. I looked to the Rebbetzin for escape, but she only compounded my predicament. “Please drink the milk. I’ll boil some more for the Rosh Yeshivah.”
(I was to learn later that she had always suffered difficulties with him regarding his eating habits. As he was constantly immersed in Torah, he was oblivious of his personal needs, and she had to watch over him steadily. She once decided to complain about her husband … but to whom does one complain regarding Reb Baruch Ber? She finally poured her heart out to the Chofetz Chaim. The Chofetz Chaim listened to her and then spoke to her in private for quite a while. When she emerged from his room she was heard mumbling to herself, “If that is so, then it is worth all the tzores. All the suffering I go through for him is worth it!”)
While I hesitated, looking for a way out of drinking the hot milk, he called upstairs, “Reuvain, come down! We have an orach!” I felt so awkward to have him address his son-in-law Reb Reuvain, who was a Rosh Yeshivah, with the familiar du while he spoke to me with the more respectful, formal ihr.
Reb Reuvain had only to look at me, and without any introductions he exclaimed, “So you are Alter Tiktiner’s first-born!” My worth doubled at once, for Reb Baruch Ber’s love for a talmid chacham was limitless. It spilled over from my father onto me. Further enhanced, and further embarrassed, I began my years with Reb Baruch Ber.
“Shacharis” With the Rosh Yeshivah
The yeshivah in Kamenitz was called Knesses Bais Yitzchak, after the Kovno Rav, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchonon Spektor. It did not have dormitories or eating facilities, so the students were assigned to stanchyes in private homes for room and board. Half of the town made a living from us. My stanchye was closer to the Rosh Yeshivah’s house than to the yeshivah, so I davened more frequently with Reb Baruch Ber’s private minyan in his house than in the yeshivah. During the reading of the Torah, his mind would occasionally wander off on a perplexing Ramban, and he would miss a word or two from the reading. He would then stop the ba’al kriyah and ask him to repeat the passage. On Mondays and Thursdays, it would usually be a matter of a word or two, while on Shabbos it would sometimes involve repeating an entire passage. He would approach the ba’al kriyah with the greatest remorse, asking forgiveness for the intrusion, beseeching him to repeat the phrase or passage he missed.
One morning, after Shacharis, a woman entered, crying pitifully. She was a widow. Her daughter was in labor, suffering an unusually difficult delivery, with both mother and infant in danger. The widow begged Reb Baruch Ber to say Tehillim on their behalf and to pray for their welfare. He fulfilled her request with much feeling, and tears filled his eyes. Before leaving, she handed the Rosh Yeshivah some money wrapped up in newspaper as a donation for the yeshivah. I glanced into the scrap of paper. It only held several pennies, hardly enough to buy two loaves of bread! Reb Baruch Ber carried the paper containing the money to the stairs, calling: “Reuvain! Hurry! A lady brought money for the yeshivah! Come take it!” Some claimed that Reb Baruch Ber actually could not recognize the value of currency. I had the feeling that he wanted to impress the poor widow with his gratitude.
My stanchye was near the Kobriner Shtiebel, where the Chassidic element of the yeshivah used to congregate every Friday night for Kabbalas Shabbos. I loved the melodies they sang, and often joined them. Then I discovered that Reb Baruch Ber himself was an accomplished menagen (vocalist is a very poor translation). In fact, he used to lead the Mussaf prayers on the Yomim Noraim. But one did not have to wait for the High Holidays to appreciate his gift. His Lechah Dodi on Friday night would warm us with his welcoming fervor. Even his daily Ahavah Rabbah would move us with him as he sang out his blessings and prayer to Hashem for teaching us His Torah. He often quoted a leading scholar as saying, “The day I don’t cry during Ahavah Rabbah I cannot be creative in my Torah studies.” Then he would add, “And the day I am not creative in Torah, I become literally sick.”
Reb Baruch Ber would deliver his lectures in the yeshivah on Mondays and Thursdays. A committee of students would accompany him from his house to the yeshivah. On the way, he would periodically ask if the street was clean (from horse droppings), for he was constantly involved in Torah thoughts. He would ascend the few steps in front of the Aron HaKodesh while the yeshivah’s entire student body would form a semi-circle in front of him. He would refer to no Rabbinical figure – Tanna, Amora, or Rishon – without preceding his name with the adjective ‘eiliker’ – holy. Thus it was always “der eiliker Abbaya,” “der eiliker Rambam,” and so on. He once stopped in the middle of a lecture to comment, “What a geshmaker (tasty) Rashba!” Then he paused for a moment of reflection and added, “It is Elul today. One must do teshuvah. The entire Torah is geshmak!”
He once remarked, “What can compare to my situation?” I wake up in the morning, and it’s as though I have the Shaagas Aryeh, Ktzos HaChoshen, and Rabbi Akiva Eiger (all classical commentaries) waiting for me at my bedside! I can’t wait to wash my hands and arise to my riches!”
Seeing a copy of Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s commentary of tractate Kiddushin for the first time, he excitedly pronounced the Shehecheyanu blessing (reserved for special, first time experiences).
Perhaps his attitude can best be summed up with his outburst at a rabbinical meeting. A speaker had intoned: “We are slipping from our hallowed perspective that the Jewish Nation cannot survive without Torah.” Said Reb Baruch Ber: “Cannot? And if we could, would we want to? What is life without Torah!”
Not Worldly, Not Naive…
While Reb Baruch Ber was unusally astute, he struck many people as being almost naive, for he was quite unaware of many communal goings-on, so complete was his involvement in study, and later, in teaching.
As Rav of Halusk in 1903, and later, after World War I, in Karmentzug, where he succeeded his father-in-law, Rabbi Avrohom Yitzchak Zimmerman, as Rav, he carried all aspects of the community on his shoulders. But when serving as Rosh Yeshivah in Kovno, until 1915, and later in Kamenitz, he only knew his seforim and his talmidim.
A prestigious rav once took him to task for not checking into the status of the local mikvah in Karnenitz, while he was Rosh Yeshivah there. “I depend on the local Rav,” he replied.
“But shouldn’t your limud (study) come to lema’ase (practical application)?”
“For lema’ase I’m satisfied with one outstanding talmid chacham over whom I’ve had an influence.”
“Such as Reb Aharon Kotler!”
He was above politics, but he considered support of Agudath Israel and its projects an obligation that was also above politics. When first asked his opinion of the Agudath Israel movement, he replied, “I have no knowledge of communal affairs, but my Rebbe (Reb Chaim) said that Moreinu Yaakov Rosenheim (the chairman of Agudath Israel) is working for the sake of Heaven.” When my uncle, Rabbi Zvi Yitzchok Margolis, founded a Teachers’ Seminary for men under the auspices of the Agudah, he approached Reb Baruch Ber for his endorsement. In reply, Reb Baruch Ber expressed his fullest support for Agudah as a bulwark against the secular forces of the haskalah, with a quotation from his ‘eiliken’ Rebbe, Reb Chaim: “The situation would be impossible without Agudah, for otherwise ‘they’ – the maskillim – would dominate everything – G-d forbid!”
He added an extra word of condemnation against the maskillim saying, “They make a point of ridiculing the traditional melamed (teacher) who is faithful to G-d and His Torah. G-d Himself is praised as being the ‘Melamed of Torah to Israel, His People.’ Could one possibly strive for anything higher? Reb Chaim of Volozhin, the outstanding disciple of the Gaon of Vilna and the father of the modern Yeshivah movement, signed all his correspondence with the appellation: ‘Chaim, the Melamed, with the help of G-d, in Volozhin.’
With that he added his approval for my uncle’s project to that of the Chofetz Chaim and Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzenski of Vilna.
He was not opposed to klal work for all that he, himself, spent little time on it. He encouraged his son-in-law, Reb Reuvain, in his work on behalf of Klal Yisrael. When Reb Reuvain began to assume an active role in communal affairs, he told him of an incident involving Rabbi Yoseif Dov (Reb Yoshe Ber) Soloveitchik of Brisk (author of Bais HaLevi, father of Reb Chaim):
Reb Yoshe Ber was in St. Petersburg with a committee of rabbis to beseech the Czarist government’s intervention on behalf of Jews suffering from pogroms by bands of Cossacks. The rabbis knew that the government was actually supporting the pogroms, and there was a difference of opinion as to whether they should confront the officials with their complicity.
Reb Yoshe Ber advocated maintaining a relationship of trust rather than calling the government’s bluff, but he was outvoted.
The decision upset him deeply, and his mounting concern for the welfare of his people drove him to his sick bed with an illness from which he died.
Said Reb Baruch Ber: “When you go to a conference, or in any way deal with the needs of Klal, you must pack your tachrichim (shrouds) in your suitcase. A Jewish leader must put his life on the line for his people – not like the secularists who sound chimes, eat and drink their fill, and then in a barely sober state decide what’s best for Jewry.”
Financing the Yeshivah in Kamenitz
Since students would room and board in private homes (half the town made a living from the yeshivah), every student would receive a chalukah (stipend), the amount for each decided by Reb Reuvain, who based his judgment on the ability of the parents to provide support. Russian talmidim, however, were cut off from their families in the Soviet Union and received full support, including clothing expenses. Neither Reb Reuvain nor his children wore new clothes until every Russian boy had a new suit and shoes.
The day arrived when funds were so low that he was forced to cut down on the chalukah. The Russian boys were hit the hardest; they were fully dependent on Reb Reuvain, and they started to grumble. As much as Reb Reuvain tried to protect Reb Baruch Ber from any financial worries, he now was forced to tell him about the situation. The load had become too heavy, and more than anything else, he could not handle the complaints of the b’nei Torah.
Reb Baruch Ber invited the senior students to his house and delivered an emotional shmuess saying, “Reuvain carries the entire yeshivah on his shoulders; then he prepares and delivers shiurim. And you have the chutzpah to complain?”
Yudl Grodner (Gershuni) tried to defend the talmidim, but to no avail. At first, Reb Baruch Ber did not budge. Finally, Mordechai Astriner, a senior Russian talmid, struck the right chord. He said: “Rebbe, with the chalukah that Reb Reuvain gives us, we can only learn Gemara and Rashi. For Tosafos we need more strength.”
Reb Baruch Ber thought for a moment, then walked over to the stairs calling, “Reuvain, they are absolutely right! For Tosafos one needs more strength!” Then and there the decision was made to appeal to Jews in America. The two would travel to raise funds.
Reb Reuvain and Reb Baruch Ber in America
As America was celebrated as the “Goldene Medinah,” Reb Baruch Ber expected to raise $1OO,OOO on these shores. “Poshet (simple),” he said. “All we have to do is find one hundred brethren that will donate $1,000 each. What if we can’t find one hundred donors? So we’ll find 1,000 brethren who will donate $100 each, and we’ll still raise $1OO,OOO.”
As it turned out, they arrived in 1929, at the start of the depression. People had no jobs, and the term “tax-deductible” was meaningless. The welcome they got was impressive enough. New York’s mayor Jimmy Walker presented them with a key to the city, with prominent press coverage. Asked the mayor of Reb Baruch Ber: “What can I do for you, Rabbi?” Replied the Rosh Yeshivah: “Separate the men and the women at the beaches.” It seems this was not what the mayor had had in mind…
But then the actual fundraising began. First of all, there was a language barrier; they spoke no English. Then Reb Reuvain set strict rules; no hechsherim (Kashrus “certifications”), which included not eating in any public place, which might be construed as a hechsher. They would not eat any meat, only chicken. Milk must be Cholov YisraeI (very hard to find in those days). No smichah given to anyone. (There were many opportunities to raise large sums of money if one of them would confer smichah on a “rabbi.”)
At every occasion that Reb Baruch Ber spoke, he described the material poverty and contrasting spiritual riches of every yeshivah – Radin, Mir, Volozhin… It was left to Reb Reuvain to announce later that they represented the Kamenitzer Yeshivah.
Fortunately, they found a native of Kamenitz in New York who had lived in America for some time: the late Rabbi Yitzchak Tendler, rabbi of the Kamenitzer Shul in New York, and Rosh Yeshivah in Yeshivah Rabbi Jacob Joseph, who volunteered to help them. His task was immense – bridging the gap between two spiritual giants and the land of materialism and secularism. To this, add raising funds during the depression. The results could not be very lucrative. Several stories serve to typify the entire American misadventure. (These are drawn from conversations with the late Rabbi Tendler.)
Kosher Money in Baltimore
The three arrived in Baltimore, only to find that one of the biggest shuls had been placed under a prohibition by the local Vaad Harabbonim. The congregants had moved the ladies down from the balcony onto the men’s level of worship. They had erected a mechitzah, but the local rabbis, under the leadership of Rabbi Abraham Nachman Schwartz (a talmid of Rabbi Eliezer Gordon of Telshe), had felt that this was the beginning of the breaking down of the mechitzah in Orthodox shuls. The two visitors would not enter the building, but Rabbi Tendler felt that the need was great and, under the circumstances, a local prohibition need not apply to out-of-towners. He appealed to the Vaad Harabbonim, and Rabbi Schwartz, with the approval of the rest of the rabbonim, agreed to waive the prohibition for him on the condition that he speak to the people about the importance of a mechitzah. Rabbi Tendler kept his part of the bargain, speaking on the subject twice.
His appeal there netted $2,400 in pledges, a fortune in those days. The shul president, visibly moved, announced that he would advance a personal check for the entire amount, so they could dispatch the money at once to the hungry students.
Rabbi Tendler went back to the shul to speak again about the mechitzah after Minchah. The two Roshei Yeshivah, meanwhile, sat down to eat Shalosh Seudos. The president of the shul drove up in a car and walked in, presenting a check of $2,400 to Reb Baruch Ber.
The two were petrified. They had heard about chillul Shabbos in America, but this was their first personal encounter with it. Reb Baruch Ber said, “Take a good look, Reuvain; chillul Shabbos money. That’s the result when one doesn’t listen to rabbonim, when one circumvents a prohibition of the rabbonim. Feh!”
The president tore up the check in little pieces, stalked out, and slammed the door behind him.
When Rabbi Tendler returned after Maariv, Reb Reuvain was waiting at the door. “My shver (father-in-law) is fuming. He did not realize that you were going to the prohibited shul and now the president delivered a check on Shabbos!”
“But I only went because the rabbis permitted me to. The president’s conduct was totally out-of-order, but what has that to do with the shul people’s contributions?”
“My shver is so upset with the chillul Shabbos, he will not accept any explanation,” warned Reb Reuvain.
Nonetheless, Rabbi Tendler entered the room, and said, “Gut voch, Rebbe.” Before Reb Baruch Ber had a chance to say a word, he said, “Rebbe, I’m calling you to a din Torah!” That was the second shock for the two gedolim.
“You came to me, telling me that the b’nei Torah in Kamenitz are starving,” he continued. “You can’t pay the baker, or the milkman, and you have no chalukah money to dispense. So I volunteered to help. Tell me, Rebbe, how long would $2,400 last? For a month? Six months? Maybe longer? And you destroyed that money, and refuse to think of accepting it. So I’m calling you to a din Torah. I went to the shul with the knowledge and approval of the rabbonim!”
Reb Baruch Ber thought for a moment and turned to Reb Reuvain. “Reuvain, when one is summoned to a din Torah, he must go. You’ll be my advocate.”
They decided to bring their case to Rabbi Schwartz. When the chief rabbi of Baltimore heard who was coming to him for a din Torah, he let it be known that he was going to them immediately. On the way, Rabbi Schwartz picked up a few more rabbis and the din Torah took place at the very same table where the president had placed his check. Reb Baruch Ber’s defense of the sanctity of the Shabbcs could have found no better spokesman than his son-in-law, and the needs of the yeshivah no more stirring an advocate than Rabbi Tendler.
The decision was issued with speed and clarity. Reb Baruch Ber was right in his protest to the president, but the check had to be recovered for the sake of the b’nei Torah in Kamenitz. During the conversation one of the rabbis revealed that he knew of a local “rabbi” who plays cards with the very same president, and he would intercede on their behalf. They recovered $2,000, but he refused to give $400, which represented his family’s donation.
Last Days of Kamenitz
In September 1939, Poland fell in just a matter of days. The German army entered Kamenitz Erev Rosh Hashanah. Unlike other towns, where they murdered Jews, in Kamenitz the Nazis behaved civilly. People attributed it to the zechusim (merits) of the Rosh Yeshivah and the yeshivah. The town was totally cut off from the outside world. Radio Warsaw was silent, no newspapers, no news. Then the Germans announced their retreat, to hand over the territory to the Russians in accordance with the Stalin-Hitler pact.
Reb Reuvain, for one, was in despair, for he knew the Russians too well; the Bolsheviks would never tolerate a Torah institution. This was the end of the yeshivah. Besides, the leaders of the Kamenitzer Yeshivah had all suffered terribly from the Red Liberation during World War I.
The Bolsheviks had a personal account with Reb Reuvain from his younger days in Minsk, during the birth of the Communist regime. He had been an outspoken opponent of the Yevsektzia (Jewish Communists), fighting them tooth and nail. And he knew that the Bolsheviks had exhaustive records on everyone. Where could the yeshivah be moved? They feared the oncoming Russian army more than the retreating Nazis. There was a strong movement to transfer the yeshivah to Chelm, which would surely be in German hands. (We simply did not take the newspaper reports describing the German atrocities at face value.)
Reb Baruch Ber insisted on moving the yeshivah to Vilna, but this did not seem to make any sense: the same Bolsheviks who occupied Kamenitz were occupying Vilna. (Some thought that he chose Vilna because in his old age he wanted to be near his father’s burial place, but it would have been out of character for him to be so selfish)… A delegation of ba’alei battim came to him crying, “Rebbe, are you forsaking us? Will you leave us to the Bolsheviks?” He cried with them and decided not to leave. Then a special messenger arrived from Vilna with an order from Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzenski that the entire yeshiva should come to Vilna at once, even if it meant traveling on Shabbos.
One by one, the students slipped out of town, unnoticed by the local Communist regime. Some went to Brisk, some on foot to Zabinke, the nearest train station (25 klm. from Kamenitz) – all the way to Vilna. But the Russians kept a watchful eye on the house where Reb Baruch Ber and Reb Reuvain lived. They knew of their value to Klal Yisrael and to American Jews, so they waited for instructions from Moscow on how to deal with them. One dark night, friends placed the old Rosh Yeshivah and his family on a wagon and sneaked them out to Brisk and then placed them on the train to Vilna. Shortly afterwards, Moscow declared that they were handing over the ancient capital of Vilna to the free Republic of Lithuania as the price of the treaty permitting Soviet bases on the Lithuanian territory. People remembered Reb Baruch Ber’s wish to move to Vilna – how puzzling it was then and how clear it was now.
I often ask myself – why, among all those who were so close to Reb Baruch Ber, did none write their reminiscences about him? I found the answer in his own words. When he was told about a colleague from his younger days in Volozhin who abandoned Yiddishkeit and became a famous literary figure, Reb Baruch Ber said: “He knows where and when der ‘eiliker Abaye died, but I know where der ‘eiliker Abaye lives!” Indeed, his students still know Reb Baruch Ber, very much alive today in his great and ‘eiliker sefarim. For them, reminiscences are out of place.
1. When the two passports arrived from the Ministry in Warsaw at the local police station, the local police commandant announced that he personally would deliver them to Jasno Wielmozny, Pan Rabin” (Most Honorable Sir Rabbi). When Reb Baruch Ber heard that the police chief was coming, he put on his kapota (long coat) and hat. “One must show honor to the government,” he declared.
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Observer and is also available in book form in the ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Judaiscope Series.