The Arrival of Mirrer Yeshiva in America 75 Years Ago
The talmidim of Harav Chaim Volozhiner were concerned. Not once, but twice, he had burst into tears during davening. Obviously, something had upset the Rosh Yeshivah, and it worried them. At the conclusion of the tefillah, they appointed Harav Dovid Tevel, who would later be renowned for his sefer Nachalas Dovid, to approach Rav Chaim to discover the reason for his tears.
“The Torah will be in exile in 10 locations,” Rav Chaim said, “wandering from country to country. I saw that the letzteh stanzia, the last station, of the Torah’s wandering will be in America. That is why I cried the first time. Then I saw that it will be extremely difficult for Torah to be established in that wasteland, and for that I cried once again.”
Harav Nosson Wachtfogel, zt”l, the Mashgiach of Beis Medrash Govoha of Lakewood, explained the reason for those second tears. In all the exiles, the great Torah leaders preceded the rest of the nation. Yehudah was sent down to establish a yeshivah in Mitzrayim before the rest of the children of Yaakov entered the land. The charash u’masgeir (Melachim II 24:14), the great Torah leaders in the generation of the Churban Bayis Rishon, were sent to Bavel before the rest of Klal Yisrael (Gittin 85a). So it was with all lands to which the Jewish nation was exiled; the Torah scholars entered first and prepared the country for the incoming nation to be able to study Torah and live accordingly. On the other hand, Jews settled in the galus of America over a century before there was any genuine yeshivah there. Even when Yeshiva Eitz Chaim was finally established on the Lower East Side in 1886, it serviced just a minute portion of the population. It would be years until yeshivos would function in a way that had a major impact on the religious standards of American Jewry.
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The advent of WWII brought both European Gedolei Torah and bnei yeshivah to the United States, and at that time Torah finally began to take a central role for the Jewish residents and immigrants. Harav Aharon Kotler, zt”l, attracted some of the remnants of the citadels of Torah of Poland and Lithuania while adding some American-born talmidim, and the seeds of yeshivos in America began to sprout.
In Chodesh Av of 5706/August 1946, the talmidim of the Mirrer Yeshivah who were stranded in Shanghai, China, started arriving on these shores. From the onset of the war, the yeshivah, numbering 300 talmidim, was determined to remain together. The entire yeshivah first fled from Mir to Vilna. From there they traversed the frozen Siberian steppe to Vlodivostok on the Trans-Siberian Railroad and then took the rickety ship Amakasu Maru to Tsuruga, Japan. They settled for a short time in Kobe and then the yeshivah was moved to Shanghai. There the sounds of Torah resonated under unbelievable and miraculous circumstances for the remainder of the war.
Harav Eliezer Yehudah Finkel, zt”l, the Rosh Yeshivah of Mir, managed to arrive in Eretz Yisrael just as the war broke out and, after the war, he wanted the talmidim to join him there rather than go to America. To that end, Rav Leizer Yudel, as the Rosh Yeshivah was called, worked feverishly to obtain the coveted visas for them to be allowed to enter what was then British Mandate Palestine, postponing any move to bring them to America. On 26 Tammuz, 5706/1946, he penned a letter to Harav Zeidel Semiaticki, zt”l, in London, in which he laid out his plan to bring the yeshivah to France in the hope that it would be easier to enter Eretz Yisrael from there.
You should see to use all avenues and all your strength to obtain these visas in order to save them while there is still time. In addition, through this they will be prevented from chas v’shalom, chas v’shalom, going to waste if they proceed to go to America or Canada, for it is certain that if they travel to America, there is a great fear for their souls, both for them and others who will follow.
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THE LETTER WRITTEN BY HARAV FINKEL contains a detailed list of the names of 15 family members of the hanhalah, including the Rosh Yeshivah Harav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zt”l, and his family; the Mashgiach Harav Chatzkel Levenshtein, zt”l, and his family, including his son-in-law Harav Efraim Mordechai Ginsberg, zt”l; and the mazkir of the yeshivah Harav Yosef Dovid Epstein, zt”l. The last on the list of the families of the “faculty” is [Harav] Chaim Leib Epstein, zt”l, a young boy who grew up to become the Rosh Yeshivah of Zichron Melech in Brooklyn.
Next on the list are names of 249 bachurim, many of who went on to become great Roshei Yeshivah both in America and Eretz Yisrael: Bakszt Lejba, Rosh Yeshivah in Detroit; Berenbaum Shmuel, Rosh Yeshivah in Mirrer Yeshivah in Brooklyn; Berman Abe Mordcho, Maggid Shiur in Mirrer Yeshivah and Rosh Yeshivah of Iyun Hatalmud in Monsey and Yerushalayim; Fajn Rubin, Rosh Yeshivah of Beis Meir in Bnei Brak and Yeshiva Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn; Ginzburg Ruwen, Mashgiach in Yeshivas Ponevez; Jurkanski Eliasz, Nachamczyk Nachman, Kwiat Dawid, and Pruzanski Chaim, Maggidei Shiur in Mirrer Yeshivah; Karpenshprung Mordko and Krejser Aron, Roshei Yeshivah in RIETS; Lajzerson Moszek, Mashgiach in Yeshiva Torah Vodaath; Krupeni Lejwik, Rosh Yeshivah in Kaminetz in New York; Lichtsztejn Oszer, Rosh Yeshivah in Kaminetz Yerushalayim; Malin Lejba, Horodeiski Lejzer, Wilenski Szmuel, Perkowski Srol, Gotlieb Sholom Menashe and Zeilberger Walter, Roshei Yeshivah in Beis Hatalmud in Bensonhurst; Paler Benjamin, Rosh Yeshivah in Yeshiva Mekor Chaim; Pantol Mejer, Maggid Shiur in RJJ; Parcowicz Nochum, Rosh Yeshivah of Mir Yerushalayim; Piwowoz Mowsza, Mashgiach in Yeshiva Chasan Sofer; Portnoj Chaim, Yeshiva Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin; Rozenberg Boruch, Rosh Yeshivah in Slabodka; Sztejn Pesach Icko and Sorockin Leizer, Roshei Yeshivah in Telshe Yeshiva.
A third list consisting of 46 married talmidim and their families includes: Barenbaum Michel, Mashgiach of Yeshiva Tiferes Yerushalayim; Blau Ernst Moritz, who discovered and published kisvei yad of the Ritva and other Rishonim; Fiszman Henach, Rosh Yeshivah in RIETS; Hellman Ernst, Menahel of Bais Yaakov; Krawiec Menachem Mendel, Szymonowicz Szaja and Warszawczyk Szmul, Roshei Yeshivah of RJJ; Kaplan Mendel, Rosh Yeshivah in Beis Medrash LaTorah (Chicago/Skokie) and Philadelphia; Schwab Gustav, Mashgiach of Beis Shraga in Monsey.
These 295 talmidim had toiled relentlessly in learning despite the harrowing physical and mental conditions of the war, and they were now ready to take their places at the forefront of the Torah world.
The fourth list contains 60 talmidim of the Lubliner Yeshivah and Chabad of Otvozk, and a fifth list includes “Rabbis, teachers, instructors and their families, affiliated with the Rabbinical College of Mir, Poland.” Some recognizable names on that list include: Kalisz Szymon Szulim, the Amshinover Rebbe, zy”a; Kaplinski Abram Israel, Najman Jankiel, Walkin Samuel David and many others.
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Despite Rav Leizer Yudel’s heroic efforts, they were unable to obtain the visas. Harav Avraham Kalmanowitz, zt”l, the Nasi of the Mir who had sustained the yeshivah during their six years in Shanghai, had made contact with two British officials in charge of granting certificates, Lord Morrison and Mr. Kreisman of the Anglo-American Commission on Palestine, as they traveled together on the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth. The officials gave their word that 250 certificates would be granted. However, those plans were thwarted when immigrants ran the British blockade and were smuggled into Mandate Palestine. The British government reneged on their promise and the borders were shut tight.
Plan B: America
The war years had taken their toll on the physical condition of the talmidim. They wrote to Harav Avraham Kalmanowitz, pleading with him to help them leave Shanghai as quickly as possible. Their emotional state, buoyed throughout the war by the constant encouragement of the Mashgiach, Harav Chatzkel Levenshtein, was at risk as well. Having lost their families in the inferno of the Holocaust, they yearned to leave behind the dismal conditions in Shanghai and begin rebuilding. For six years, their lives had been on hold, and many looked forward to establishing families of their own. They could wait no longer, and a decision was made to evacuate Shanghai. Harav Kalmanowitz received permission for the talmidim to enter America on student visas so they could “complete their studies in the United States.”
Harav Kalmanowitz worked tirelessly to arrange passage for the talmidim and to secure the funds needed to bring them to New York City. Just a few weeks later, the first talmidim of Mir left for the United States.
“My father left Shanghai earlier than the rest of the talmidim,” Harav Elya Brudny, shlita, relates about his illustrious father, Harav Shmuel Brudny, zt”l. “It seems that, earlier in the war, there was hope of transferring the yeshivah to America. My father had received his entry papers, but the attack on Pearl Harbor dashed those hopes. However, since my father had his approved papers in hand, he was able to gain entry quicker than the rest.”
Over the next few months, small groups of talmidim trickled in to the United States, crossing the Pacific Ocean aboard USS General M.C. Meigs, a Navy transport ship that made trips back and forth from Shanghai to San Francisco. After arriving in San Francisco, they traveled by train to New York City via Chicago.
Rebbetzin Esther Levin née Ginsberg, the daughter of Rav Efraim Mordechai and a granddaughter of the Mashgiach Harav Chatzkel Levenshtein, shares her memories of that momentous journey. “We traveled aboard the USS General M.C. Meigs, a fast troop ship that transported troops for the United States during the war, and arrived in San Francisco on January 1, 1947,” she says. “My parents and three brothers, Yudel, a”h, and ybl”c, Chaim and Eliezer, were on the ship, but my zeide came on a later ship because my aunt, Rebbetzin Yocheved Ginsberg, had given birth to my cousin Daniel, so they waited a bit longer in Shanghai.
“We were scheduled to dock in San Francisco on Friday, and there was a discussion if we could disembark if we arrived too close to Shabbos. In the end, we were able to come ashore on time. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) welcomed us at the dock and arranged for a cab to take us to a hotel for Shabbos. Afterward, we took a train to Chicago, where we were met once again by HIAS, and I remember they gave me a doll. Who would have thought that years later my husband Harav Avraham Chaim, zt”l, would found Telshe Yeshivah in Chicago, and I would spend most of my life in that city?
“We did not stay in Chicago but continued right on to New York City, where Harav Avraham Kalmanowitz, zt”l, arranged for us to stay in Arverne, near Far Rockaway. Arverne was a seaside community that had many boarding houses rented to families during the summer months and emptied out during the winter. There were shuls there that were used mainly during the summer and were not used much during the winter. My family rented some space in a boarding house, and that’s where we stayed during that winter zman.”
The Shmuessen of the Mashgiach
In a shmuess delivered on 25 Cheshvan, 5707/November 19, 1946, the Mashgiach, Rav Chatzkel, told his talmidim that he sees clearly before his eyes how the yeshivah is being set up in Arverne, and how it is incumbent on all to make sure that even while on the boat, they continue learning.
On Monday, 7 Teves, 5707/December 30, 1946, the talmidim in Shanghai gathered to bury the sheimos, the worn-out sefarim that they had used over the last six years. The gathering was tinged with a bit of sadness, since it signaled the end of the exalted learning they had accomplished in “Galus Shanghai” and their departure from the place where they had sustained the yeshivah despite such adversity.
The Mashgiach addressed them, stating that there was a minhag to celebrate the burying of sheimos with music and song to indicate our joy over the toil in Torah through which the sefarim became frayed. “Today, we cannot celebrate with musical accompaniment because we are ourselves like sheimos. The numerous tzaddikim, the sifrei Torah, were burned and disgraced. Many are asking, ‘Where is the honor of the Torah?’”
To answer this, the Mashgiach spoke about strengthening the emunah that all that transpires is with hashgachah pratis, Divine providence, and is done middah k’negged middah — in line with our own actions.
On Friday, 11 Teves/January 3, the Mashgiach boarded the USS General M.C. Meigs with a group of 115 talmidim. The next day, on Shabbos, the Mashgiach delivered a shmuess where he discussed how everything a person receives, whether in gashmiyus or ruchniyus, is from Hashem. Later, he spoke again, this time quoting the passuk (Tehillim 107:23) that those who travel the seas are able to see the actions of Hashem and His wonders. Truthfully, said the Mashgiach, a person should be able to detect how Hashem orchestrates the entire creation by witnessing the wonders that exist. It is only because we have become accustomed to them that we do not take notice. While traveling on the seas, when a person is exposed to the wonders of the ocean, he is more attuned to seeing the hand of Hashem in the Creation.
“There are some people sharing my cabin with me who are busy bathing, combing their hair, eating and sleeping. Why don’t they take notice? The answer can be explained by observing a radio. When its reception is tuned to receive from the east, one cannot hear anything from the west; and when it is tuned to the west, he cannot hear from the east. A person’s mind is the same; if it is tuned to Olam Hazeh, it cannot receive or understand anything of Olam Haba. The reverse is also true; if one is attuned to ruchniyus, he will receive only ruchniyus and not gashmiyus.”
As the boat approached San Francisco, almost all the passengers rushed on deck to see the Golden Gate Bridge, which spans the Golden Gate Strait that connects San Francisco Bay with the Pacific Ocean. A passenger saw the young [Harav] Shmuel Berenbaum (later Rosh Yeshivah of Mirrer Yeshivah in Brooklyn) toiling away learning Gemara. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the Golden Gate Bridge! Don’t you want that experience?” he asked. Rav Shmuel responded in typical fashion, “I have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to learn in place of seeing the Golden Gate Bridge!”
Before the Mashgiach and the talmidim disembarked in San Francisco, they were greeted by a group of local Jews who welcomed them. “Here in America, we keep Shabbos and we eat kosher,” they said with pride. Immediately after the welcome finished, the Mashgiach gathered the talmidim and delivered another shmuess.
“Did you hear what they said? We find that the Torah enumerates several misdeeds of the Dor Hamidbar and even some shortcomings of Moshe Rabbeinu. It is actually laudable that there were only a limited number of offenses, which shows that in all other respects they were faultless. There is a saying, ‘Praiseworthy is one whose faults are tallied, and woe is to one whose positive features are tallied.’ If we must count the mitzvos which a person or a city does, it is a sign that they are few and easier to count.”
When the group arrived at Penn Station in New York City, a group of bnei Torah came to greet them. “My father, Rabbi Elchanan Scheinerman, zt”l, had learned in Mir before the outbreak of the war, and he managed to escape on one of the last ships to leave Europe,” says Harav Moshe Scheinerman. “He joined the entire Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in welcoming the Mashgiach and the final group as they came off the train. Although he was glad to see them, he felt a twinge of disappointment when he realized how much they had grown over the six years when they were closeted away in Shanghai.”
The Mashgiach was not at all satisfied with the situation in America, since the materialism and pursuit of wealth were the antithesis of the teachings of mussar that he espoused. It was reported that when he had to walk in the streets of New York, he would cover his nose and mouth in order not to directly inhale the air of America. When the first opportunity to leave America for Eretz Yisrael came his way, on 24 Adar, 5709/March 25, 1949, he took advantage of it (as will be described in Part II of this series).
The Final Leave-Taking of Shanghai
Harav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zt”l, the Rosh Yeshivah during the Shanghai years, was the last person from the yeshivah to leave Shanghai. Two talmidim had suffered emotional breakdowns there, and it was doubtful that they would be allowed into the United States. Rav Chaim was resolute that he would not leave without them. He was able to convince them to remain silent as he accompanied them to get their visas, and they were approved to enter the country.
Rav Chaim acceded to the wishes of his father-in-law, Rav Leizer Yudel, and although he had a visa to come to America, he chose instead to go with his family directly to France and try to obtain a certificate of entry to Eretz Yisrael from there. A group of 10 talmidim accompanied him to France. To their dismay, the British government closed the door on Jewish immigration, and they had to remain there for a year. They had just about despaired when suddenly their certificates were granted. Rav Chaim sent his family ahead while he traveled to America for six months to ensure that the yeshivah was on solid footing there before joining his family in Eretz Yisrael.
To be continued…