By C. Rosenberg
When you hear the words “escape from Mir,” if you know anything about Jewish history during World War II, you probably think of Shanghai. For Rav Elchonon Scheinerman, z”l, and 84 Mirrer bachurim and yungeleit, as well as three kollel wives, the journey was far shorter and less harrowing, but not any less miraculous.
“My father didn’t speak much about the war,” Fagie Rosen, one of Rav Elchonon’s daughters, says. “While it was unlike the tragedy felt by those who experienced the Holocaust in an incomprehensibly horrific manner, my father also experienced loss and trauma. When he did speak about it, I tried to capture the moment.”
When Fagie visited her father several months before he was niftar, he began to talk about his escape. Rummaging in her purse, she found a pen to record the details of his journey, but no paper. Digging deeper, she came up with a coupon from a nearby department store and frantically began scribbling, documenting this important part of history for posterity.
“I was afraid that if I’d get up for a piece of paper my father would lose his train of thought and stop talking,” she says. “I wanted to make sure we got a chance to record my father’s final journey from Europe; the journey that took him away from his Rebbeim and friends forever…”
It was indeed traumatic for Rav Elchonon to leave the Rebbeim and friends — the young Torah scholars and yerei’im u’sheleimim of the Mir Yeshiva — who had played a large role in shaping this young American bachur’s life. But in truth, his story starts much earlier.
Baseball at the White House
Born in 1919 to Peretz and Annie Scheinerman, in Washington, DC, Elchonon was one of nine siblings. His mother was born in Baltimore, but his father was a “greenhorn” who’d arrived in America from Russia as a young man together with his father. Like many immigrants then, Zeidy Yitzchak Aryeh sold dry goods from a pushcart, which eventually grew into a full-fledged storefront.
“My father grew up playing on the White House lawn,” Fagie says, repeating stories of her father’s early childhood that he had shared with his children. “There was no gate around the yard at the time, and he would play baseball with his friend Harry Shoenig, z”l, on the wide open grass.”
In a story that has now been repeated countless times, Elchonon told about how his yarmulke fell off once while he was roughhousing, and he quickly put it back on his head.
A man came over to him and said, “I see that you care about your religion. That’s important. Always make sure you continue to stick to the values your parents instilled in you.”
Images in newspapers were grainy at the time, and children didn’t have easy access to them, so young Elchonon had no idea who this man was. It was only when another person — apparently a member of the secret service — clued him in, that it had been President Calvin Coolidge who had imparted that tidbit!
Though Washington, DC was full of political figures, frum life there was lacking. “They would get excited about every shomer Shabbos Yid they’d meet,” Fagie explains. There were no compromises for the Scheinermans, however. When they couldn’t get to Baltimore to use the mikveh, they’d use the Potomac River!
A Move to the Lower East Side
With the stock market crash of 1929, which left few unaffected, the Scheinermans’ time in Washington, DC came to an end.
“My Zeidy lost everything, and he realized that there was nothing there anymore,” Fagie explains. “He no longer had a business to keep him in Washington, DC, and there was little in the way of frum amenities. He decided to move his family to the East Side in New York, where there were many more accommodations for frum life.” Zeidy Peretz, though, continued traveling to Washington, DC for 17 years to repay the debts he’d accrued when his business folded during the crash.
Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, related the following story during Zeidy Peretz’s levayah: On one of those trips by train, Zeidy sat next to a meshulach, learning from a sefer. When the conductor passed by Zeidy, he didn’t stop to ask for his ticket.
“You forgot to punch his ticket,” the meshulach told the conductor, pointing to Zeidy Peretz.
“I’m not going to be the one to make him take his eyes out of his holy books,” the non-Jewish conductor replied. “I see him every single week, with his eyes always in the holy books. I’m not going to be the one to make him do that!”
Though quite a step up from Washington, DC in terms of frum amenities and community, New York back then was still a far cry from the Jewish hub it is today.
“If you leave Elchonon in public school, you’ll lose him!” Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Herman, of All for the Boss fame, urged Zeidy Scheinerman, with whom he had become close friends. “Send Elchonon to Europe for a proper Torah education!”
The Scheinermans already had one daughter (Miriam Gordon) in Mir as a kollel wife, so the concept wasn’t entirely foreign to them. Though Elchonon was quite young, they saw the wisdom of Rabbi Herman’s words and agreed to send Elchonon to Mir when he was just 15 years old. (By the time his two younger brothers were of age, the Telshe Yeshiva had opened in Cleveland, and they were able to stay closer to home.)
Crossing the Ocean
At that tender age, off went Elchonon on the Queen Mary, a large transatlantic ocean liner that took him away from familiar American shores to a completely foreign destination. However, the spiritual “wasteland” he left behind in exchange for the spiritual treasures Europe offered made for a great deal.
“He’d only learned with a melamed and visiting meshulachim until then,” Fagie explains. “With that background, walking into Mir was like walking out of preschool straight into Ponevez!”
The Roshei Yeshivah at Mir were welcoming, but at the same time they realized the young American bachur wasn’t on par with the bachurim and kollel yungeleit in Mir who had years of in-depth learning behind them. They sent Elchonon to the mechinah in Baronovitch, overseen by Harav Elchonon Wasserman, Hy”d. After Rav Elchonon felt he was sufficiently prepared to meet the rigors of Mir, he returned to the large yeshivah.
The Roshei Yeshivah felt personally responsible for the young, slight boy who had journeyed across the ocean to immerse himself in the sea of Torah. In his later years, Rav Scheinerman shared with his children the story of his first Yom Kippur in Mir.
Yom Kippur davening in the yeshivah extended quite late into the evening.
“Elchonon Americana [from America],” the Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Leizer Yudel, zt”l, called out.
Young Elchonon came forth, wondering why the Rosh Yeshivah had singled him out during this sublime moment on the holiest of all days.
“Gei essen [go eat].” Though the Rosh Yeshivah was surely immersed in the loftiest of thoughts during his Neilah prayers, he felt responsible for making sure the young boy was taken care of.
A City of Torah
Though Rav Scheinerman preferred not to talk much about his escape from Europe, he reminisced about his time in the Mir quite fondly.
“Kids in the street would argue in ‘Gemara lashon,’” he’d tell his children, imitating the “tune” children used when arguing with each other, and thus describing the atmosphere in Mir. “Even children who didn’t know how to learn. Torah learning was the ideal way of life for everyone; it wasn’t just reserved for the lomdim.”
Another telling incident he repeated to his children involved an essen teg experience. Since the yeshivah didn’t serve dinner, the bachurim would eat with local frum families, and Elchonon got to know more intimately the way of life in the shtetl called Mir.
During a visit to one home, Elchonon noticed that the hostess hadn’t quite gotten everything ready yet. As a polite, somewhat domestically trained American boy, Elchonon knew that when in someone’s home, one tries to be helpful.
Taking up his offer, the woman of the house pointed to a cabinet and requested that he spread the tablecloth on the table. Elchonon opened the cabinet and removed a white piece of cloth — the only piece of fabric in the cabinet that seemed to fit that description.
While unfolding, he noticed that the fabric was somewhat oddly shaped, but for lack of another choice, he proceeded to lay it over the table.
“Oh, no!” his hostess corrected him when she noticed what was going on. “I directed you to the wrong cabinet. That’s not a tablecloth; that’s tachrichim!”
“This was part of life,” Fagie says, repeating her father’s oft-expressed sentiments. “It wasn’t scary; it was a part of life…. It served as a constant reminder of what life is all about and gave them the impetus to keep on track.”
At the same time, Rav Elchonon would often tell his children how desperately sick he was for home — both for his family and American standards. Never once, during his six years in Mir, did he travel home. He even missed his siblings’ chasunos while in Europe. However, the chashivus haTorah his parents had instilled in him helped him withstand the difficulties.
End of an Era
War had broken out in Europe, but at first no one knew how devastating it would be and how severely it would impact the Jews. However, there were signs that it would be quite catastrophic.
As the German army advanced closer to Lithuania, Harav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, zt”l, made the decision to move the entire yeshivah to Vilna. But it was clear to everyone that safety in Vilna was only temporary. American citizens who had the means to leave made plans to do so. What they didn’t realize at the time was that each minute further spent on European soil narrowed their chances of escaping the inferno of World War II.
One summer Friday, shortly after the yeshivah had arrived in Vilna, a troop of airplanes swooped into Vilna, raining bombs over the city — one of which destroyed the Beis Yesomim Orphanage.
“These were very modern-looking planes,” Rav Scheinerman told his daughter when recalling the event. “That’s how we knew they were German planes — and they were very close.” So close were they, in fact, that the American bachurim and kollel couples whose parents had sent for them to return to America knew that they could no longer delay, not even another minute.
They went into Rav Chaim Ozer, who urged them to leave Vilna immediately, despite that fact that they’d be forced to travel on Shabbos. Rav Chaim Ozer himself picked up the phone to call people he knew in Riga, Latvia, who would be able to accommodate the refugees.
Parting from the Roshei Yeshivah, staff and student body was wrenching; without knowing how tragically the war would turn out, it was still clear that this was most likely a final goodbye. Yet they could not indulge in emotions; time was of the essence.
A Harrowing Journey
Arriving in Riga late Friday night, they were met at the train station by representatives of the Jewish community. Placing 85 people was no small feat, but the community was hospitable, and every refugee had a bed to sleep in that night. What the guests didn’t realize was that many of their hosts had given up their own beds for them.
“It was only when my father woke up in the middle of the night for the bathroom that he saw people sleeping on the floor,” Fagie says. “That’s when he realized these people had given away their own beds!”
Despite the fact that the Jewish community of Riga experienced plenty of turmoil due to impending war, hachnasas orchim was high on their list of priorities.
Though Elchonon’s parents had sent him a ticket weeks before, he’d given it away to a European yeshivah student who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to leave Europe — thus saving his life. Now he needed a replacement.
Back in America, the Scheinermans found out about the pressing danger, and about the fact that Elchonon had given away his ticket. Since the banks had closed by then, they couldn’t wire the money for a replacement ticket before Shabbos. Deeming it a case of pikuach nefesh, one of Elchonon’s sisters set out for the bank the next day, on Shabbos, to wire him the money for his travels and another ticket.
As we know, getting out of Europe was indeed a matter of pikuach nefesh.
When Shabbos was over the “Mir group” crossed into Sweden, where they were promptly arrested due to a visa issue. Luckily for them, by morning the American ambassador to Sweden managed to clear up legal matters for them.
“The Swedes prepared a huge feast for us,” Rav Scheinerman later told his daughter. “They were embarrassed about what had happened, and this was their way of apologizing. We couldn’t eat those ham sandwiches, though, and they were quite insulted.”
After a two-week stay in Sweden, they heard about a freighter at the port in Bergen, Norway, that could take them across the ocean to safety. Elchonon’s father had been adamant that he travel on an American ship. Europe was so chaotic, with country after country joining the war from one day to the next, he was afraid that if the country of origin of a ship carrying Elchonon would suddenly become an enemy country, the Germans would torpedo the ship. America, he believed, would remain true to its pledge to remain uninvolved in the war, and passengers on an American ship would be safe.
They left Sweden for Norway, and once there, they were in limbo for a week as the freighter was prepared for “human cargo,” and American flags were painted onto the sides of the ships.
The wives of the three American kollel yungeleit scoured the city for something the group could eat en route and came up with rye bread and sardines.
Another thing they had to prepare for on board was Sukkos. Though Sukkos was nearly three weeks away, and the group hoped to be back on American shores by then, they knew that it wasn’t likely. Thus, they procured a lulav and esrog, as well as a sefer Torah from the Jewish community in Bergen, to take on board with them.
When the ship was finally deemed seaworthy, they rejoiced that they’d be able to put the travails of the past few weeks behind them. Though the ship was far from a luxury liner, they knew that during times of war, one made do with whatever there was.
But the danger was not over yet. Since war was raging over land and sea, the captain opted to take a prolonged sea route; instead of sailing across the Atlantic directly to American shores, the ship went north towards the Shetland Islands to avoid German submarines and war ships, and then continued south along the Canadian coast until it reached Boston. This extended the trip from the usual one week to three weeks!
The group had been wise to purchase an esrog and lulav! They also put an empty baggage container to good use by covering it with s’chach for an impromptu sukkah.
In a letter Elchonon penned on board the ship, he expressed his concern about his Rebbeim and friends who remained behind in war-torn Europe. At the same time, he wrote, “sedarim continue as usual, the way they did in yeshivah.” Though the bachurim had left Mir, the chashivas and ahavas haTorah they had imbibed remained with them on the Atlantic Ocean as well.
Back on American shores, the group’s families had no idea where they were, as they had lost contact since the boys had boarded the ship. “They gave up on them; my Zeidy thought his son was swallowed up by a ‘big fish’ — what he called the submarines,” Fagie says.
After three weeks of seasickness, they reached Boston on Simchas Torah. How flabbergasted the captain was when the very same people who had kept on expressing their desire to reach shore now all refused to disembark!
As soon as Yom Tov was over the Mirrer group stepped onto American soil, and ran to locate a telephone so they could share with their families the good news of their arrival.
“For their families, it was like hearing from the dead,” Fagie explains. “They’d almost given up on them.”
On American Soil
Once back in America, 21-year-old Elchonon became a shochet and learned in Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim, eventually becoming a talmid muvhak of Harav David Leibowitz, zt”l, his son Harav Henoch Leibowitz, zt”l, as well as the Novominsker Rebbe, zt”l.
Finding a wife for the Mir talmid wasn’t easy. Eligible young women in the 1940s wanted a husband with a well-paying position; a ben Torah wasn’t high on their list of priorities.
Always on the lookout for someone who was worthy of her brother, Elchonon’s sister, Fagie (Ackerman) Shoenig, met a wonderful, ehrliche young woman named Esther Yachnes who traveled from the Bronx to attend night classes at Bais Yaakov of Williamsburg.
The daughter of Reb Shalom and Minna Yachnes, Esther had been raised in a family very much like the Scheinermans, in an environment of love and sacrifice for Yiddishkeit. Despite the many naysayers, they proved that America could be home to true Torah values. A shidduch was arranged between these two Americans who valued Torah hashkafos, and the two were married and started their own family.
For decades thereafter, Rav Elchonon Scheinerman was involved in many chinuch endeavors, including teaching secular boys bar mitzvah lessons and leading institutions such as Pupa Girls School and Sarah Schenirer Seminary, which catered to frum children, as well as institutions such as Yeshiva Shaarei Tzedek, which catered to secular families with a Jewish identity.
Rav Elchonon Scheinerman was niftar on Shabbos morning, 23 Sivan, 5777 (June 18, 2017). His descendants, including numerous Rabbanim and marbitzei Torah, are testimony to the home he built and the lasting impact six years in Mir could have on an American bachur.