A century ago, the whole of Europe was caught up in the flames of World War I. The conflict that began on the saddest day of the year, Tishah B’Av 1914, would eventually engulf the entire world and lead to the inferno of the Holocaust during World War II. Innumerable Jewish communities throughout Eastern Europe were uprooted and destroyed, yeshivos were disbanded and decimated. Jewish life had received a grievous blow and would never be the same again. In the anarchy and chaos that had seized Europe the Gedolei Hador heard the sound of the “footsteps of Moshiach.”
Unfortunately, the Jews always suffered, no matter which side was victorious. They were always regarded as a “foreign element” who would betray their host country to the enemy. In addition, there was endemic anti-Semitism in Russia and Europe. Barely 20 years had passed since the infamous anti-Semitic accusation against Alfred Dreyfus in France. These facts form a brief background to the story of Ephraim Leibowitz, an unfortunate bachur who was caught up a century ago in the turmoil and intrigues of the war.
One Hundred Years Ago
The town of Radin was a quiet rural community with one main street; it did not even have a railway station. The yeshivah established by the Chofetz Chaim in Radin was world famous among Yidden, but the little village was hardly marked on the map of Poland.
At the outbreak of World War I, Poland was still under the jurisdiction of Russia. Russia was a vast country and still governed by the last ruler of the Romanov dynasty, Tzar Nikolai II. From the outbreak of war, Radin Yeshiva had accepted various bachurim who had fled from other countries and hoped to find a safe haven in the rural town. Of course the Rosh Yeshivah was happy to offer them refuge, and the bachurim settled down to learn in the beis medrash.
On the afternoon of Shivah Asar B’Tammuz 1915, the bachurim were resting from the effects of the taanis, unaware of the fateful events that were about to be enacted. A small group of bachurim decided to take a walk in the surrounding countryside. As they were leaving the yeshivah they met a stranger who had recently joined their numbers. This young man had arrived at the yeshivah a few weeks before, claiming to be an itinerant leather merchant from the nearby town of Meretch. He did not seem to have much Torah knowledge and spent much of his time talking with the perushim — the bachurim who spent all their time dedicated to learning.
The stranger was particularly interested to hear that three bachurim had arrived from Memel, in Germany, to take refuge in the yeshivah. He spoke to them frequently, offering to help them financially with their necessities. On that fateful day the stranger asked the bachurim if he could walk with them into the countryside. The small group sat down on a grassy knoll to relax and were soon absorbed in a heated Torah discussion. None of the bachurim noticed that the stranger had been carefully scrutinizing their jackets and sidled up to one of them. As they returned to the yeshivah, the stranger amiably wished them a pleasant evening and departed.
A few hours later, in the dead of night, a convoy of military vehicles suddenly drove through Radin and a detachment of the notorious secret agents from Vilna surrounded the house of Reb Leib Matlis, the brother-in-law of the Chofetz Chaim. They summarily searched the entire house, emptying every cupboard and examining every item they found, while the family and the bachurim who were lodging there looked on in bewilderment.
Suddenly, one of the officers held up a piece of paper that he had found in the jacket of a bachur. The incriminating evidence was a detailed drawing of the Russian military fortress at Kovno. The jacket belonged to Ephraim Leibowitz, one of the bachurim from Memel.
He had no idea how the paper had gotten into his pocket. No amount of pleading innocence from the poor bachur could save him. He was arrested on charges of espionage and spying for the German enemy, and was taken by the dreaded secret police in a covered vehicle to a prison in Lida, from where he was transferred to Vilna. He was in danger of being executed for treason within 48 hours.
Reb Leib Matlis was also arrested, since Ephraim was staying in his house. Because the country was at war, anyone suspected of treason would be punished immediately.
The kehillah representatives lost no time in trying to intercede with the government to save the prisoners. Only after colossal efforts and desperate pleading, together with large sums of money paid to the authorities, did they manage to avert their immediate death. Eventually, after many interventions and negotiations, Reb Leib Matlis was released, much to the relief of his family. However, the charges against Ephraim were far too serious to be ignored.
All too late, the yeshivah discovered the identity of the so-called “leather merchant” from Meretch. The seemingly innocuous individual was a Jewish member of the Russian secret police. The man was ambitious and had fabricated the entire plot against the unfortunate bachur in order to impress his senior officers. He hoped to demonstrate his shrewdness of judgment and his ability to catch spies in order to be promoted. He had planted the incriminating document in the jacket pocket of Ephraim Leibowitz and informed his superiors of his “suspicions.” Ephraim had become the unwitting victim of his ruthlessness and ambition.
The tragic news of Ephraim’s imprisonment spread rapidly. Yeshivos throughout the country said fervent Tehillim for his release. Thousands of rubles were spent trying to achieve his freedom.
The Chofetz Chaim was particularly affected. The tzaddik was about 80 years old and the convulsions of the so-called “Great War” caused him endless anguish. The Gadol Hador was the virtual heart of Klal Yisrael, and the news of the suffering of his brethren affected his health. His daily tefillos were filled with supplications on behalf of the Yidden who were persecuted on both sides of the War.
When the Chofetz Chaim heard that one of the bachurim from his own yeshivah had been put in prison on the serious charge of treason, his distress and grief was boundless.
Shortly afterward, a group of people came to speak to the elderly tzaddik. His family was shocked when they recognized members of the family of the unspeakable villain who had caused the arrest of Ephraim. They had come to appease the Chofetz Chaim, hoping that he would not take out his anger on them. They trembled at the thought of the curses that would fall on them min haShamayim as a result of the tzaddik’s imprecations. They need not have worried. When the Rosh Yeshivah heard the reason for their visit, he lifted up his eyes to them and replied calmly, “I do not curse anyone.”
Unfortunately, the tide of the war was turning against the Russians. The German army drew closer every day to the province of Vilna. In order to prevent the release of their captives, the Russians transported all their prisoners away from the war zone.
The askanim were shocked to discover that Ephraim Leibowitz had been taken away with all the other prisoners. They made urgent and desperate inquiries to find out where he had been taken, but to no avail. The captives had been transported into the depths of the Russian heartland. He seemed to have been engulfed by the endless miles of the Russian steppes, and no amount of effort could discover his whereabouts. The Chofetz Chaim urged those around him to find out about the welfare of Ephraim and the location where he was being held.
For almost two years, absolutely nothing was heard from or about him.
Toward the end of the summer of 1916 in the far-off Russian province of Penzenskaya Oblast, in the town of Penza, Divine providence arranged that a Jewish soldier from the Vilna area was a guard in the town jail. As he was conducting his daily surveillance he was surprised to hear his name being called by one of the inmates. The prisoner had recognized that the soldier was Jewish, and he wanted to give him an urgent message. The guard was surprised to hear that the inmate was also Jewish and was named Ephraim Leibowitz from Memel, Germany.
Ephraim begged the guard to get word to the Chofetz Chaim in Radin that his talmid was incarcerated there. Penza was located on a tributary of the Volga River, about 398 miles (640 km) southeast of Moscow.
The soldier realized that the prisoner was sincere and managed to send a message to the Rosh Yeshivah. The Chofetz Chaim was overjoyed to hear that the young man was alive and sent Ephraim a message of chizuk. However, it was not clear whether the bachur would ever be seen again, as his trial and sentencing on charges of treason was still imminent.
The Chofetz Chaim regarded the accusations of the Russians against Ephraim as part of the Ikvesa d’Meshicha — the travails that Chazal foretold would come upon Klal Yisrael before Moshiach.
Jews were routinely suspected of espionage from both sides in the Great War. Anyone who had family connections in Russia was in danger of being accused by Germany of collaborating with the enemy, and vice versa. The Chofetz Chaim’s rebbetzin had received treatment in the health spa of Carlsbad in Germany before the war and was subsequently suspected by the Russians of trying to give secrets to the enemy.
The elderly sage used to quote the Midrash in Parshiyos Miketz and Vayigash. The confrontation between Yosef and his brothers, climaxing in his final revelation to them, was a portent of the final reckoning at the coming of Moshiach. The Chofetz Chaim pointed out that the suffering of Yosef’s brothers was compounded by Yosef’s accusations of spying leveled against the brothers. Both Shimon and Binyamin were taken as hostages, foreshadowing the accusations of spying and espionage that would be made against Klal Yisrael in the last phases of their galus.
During World War I the Chofetz Chaim was forced to take his family and many bachurim and go into exile in the depths of Russia. Together with Rav Hirsch Levinson, Rav Naftali Tropp and Rav Elchonon Wasserman, they made their way to Smilovitz in the province of Minsk. When the fighting approached their town, they moved on to Sumyatz in the Russian province of Mohilov.
In the autumn of 1916 the Chofetz Chaim and the yeshivah were celebrating Shemini Atzeres when a telegram arrived from the askanim who were trying to rescue Ephraim. The message was that the trial of Ephraim was imminent. Those who were with the Rosh Yeshivah on the following day, Simchas Torah, never forgot the scene that took place in shul.
Following the hakafos and dancing, the sefer Torah was placed on the bimah in the center of the shul. The Chofetz Chaim, who was a Kohen, was honored with the first aliyah. The elderly Gadol slowly made his way to the bimah and paused before making Birchos HaTorah.
Unexpectedly, the Chofetz Chaim started crying. With tears rolling down his face, he pounded the bimah with his clenched fist and exclaimed, “Ribbono shel Olam! Surely You are compassionate! Why do You let Your children suffer? Here lies the Torah that poor Ephraim learned with all his strength, and now he is suffering so much torment!” Although it was Yom Tov the entire shul was soon filled with people crying, until the Chofetz Chaim restrained them.
The Rosh Yeshivah was determined to get the best Jewish attorney to defend Ephraim. He called on a Jewish advocate by the name of Gruzenberg, who was widely known because of his masterful and successful defense of Mendel Beilis in the infamous Kiev blood-libel trial in 1913.
However, Gruzenberg felt incapable of accepting this case. Even when the Chofetz Chaim himself traveled to St. Petersburg to intercede, the Jewish advocate could not be swayed. However, he recommended the non-Jewish lawyer Captain Zvyazik.
The trial took place in Vitebsk in Belarus and opened in December 1916. In all the yeshivos tefillos and Tehillim were poured out for Ephraim. The bachurim of the Radin Yeshiva held a fast on the day that the trial commenced.
Ephraim faced a military tribunal that had the authority to pronounce a death penalty. The state prosecutor outlined the charges against Ephraim.
All German citizens who were living in Poland during the war were legally required to register with the authorities. Since most of those who registered were interned, Ephraim and his friends had not registered, hoping that no one would notice their presence in the small village of Radin. However, this omission was now an important element in the case for the prosecution.
Furthermore, the plan of the Kovno fortress had been discovered in his pocket indicated that he had intended to help his native Germany to conquer the fortress and the town.
The most notable feature of the trial was that the Chofetz Chaim himself was called to the witness stand to testify to the character of the defendant, who had been a student in his yeshivah.
Captain Zvyazik tried to describe the greatness of the Chofetz Chaim to the judges. He retold the well-known anecdote that a man had once stolen some money from the Chofetz Chaim. A hue and cry ensued as many attempted to catch him, and the Rosh Yeshivah had followed. However, the Chofetz Chaim was not running after the man to get back his money. His sole concern was to forgive the man so that the thief would not be punished for stealing.
The judges were not impressed, saying that they could not believe that the story was true. The attorney famously replied that he also found it difficult to accept. However, he noted that no such legends had attached themselves to either the judges or himself. The fact that people attributed such a high level of perfection to the Chofetz Chaim was a proof of his righteousness.
The Chofetz Chaim refused to take an oath, saying that he had never let a falsehood pass his lips but that he could not swear in court. However, he could testify to the sterling character of the accused. Besides the testimony of the Chofetz Chaim, his son-in-law Harav Hirsch Levinson and Harav Elchonon Wasserman also testified. Then the judges retired to consider their judgment.
The packed courtroom waited breathlessly to hear the verdict. The judges returned quickly and pronounced the sentence. “The evidence against the accused is overwhelmingly compelling. According to martial law he deserves the death penalty. However, due to his young age, we hereby commute the sentence to 12 years imprisonment with hard labor. Since he has already been imprisoned for two years, he must serve another ten years at hard labor.” This decision was virtually a death sentence for the frail bachur. How would he survive ten years’ hard labor?
When those who had attended the trial reported the outcome to the Chofetz Chaim, they first said that Ephraim had received a short prison sentence. They were afraid that the truth might shock the elderly tzaddik. But he insisted on being told the full truth.
The Chofetz Chaim looked askance when he heard the verdict. It is recorded that he said, “They think they can sentence him to ten years’ prison? They are fools! Can they be sure that they will still be in power in ten years? Can they be sure that they will be around in ten months? No! They cannot be sure that they will be around even for ten weeks!”
Indeed, a mere eight weeks later, in March 1917, the civil unrest in Russia boiled over. The Russian Revolution swept away Tzar Nikolai II, his family and his government. Alexander Kerensky formed a provisional government for eight tumultuous months until the Bolshevik communists took over in October.
In the interim, when Harav Baruch Ber Lebowitz, zt”l, met his Rebbe, Harav Chaim Halevi Soloveitchik, Brisker Rav, zt”l, he informed him of the sharp words that the Chofetz Chaim had uttered at the trial. The Brisker Rav responded, “the Chofetz Chaim toppled Tzar Nikolai from his throne, but others can come to power now who will be far worse. “
During this time Gruzenberg benevolently decided to get involved and was able to appeal to the new government to treat Ephraim more leniently. Many political prisoners who had been incarcerated by the government of the Tzar were freed. Among them was the young bachur Ephraim Leibowitz. He returned to Radin among much rejoicing and thanksgiving.
Source: The Chofetz Chaim (ArtScroll), a translation of the classic biography of the Chofetz Chaim by Rabbi M.M. Yashar, with historical background notes added.