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10 Av 5764 - July 28, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








In Exile With the Torah

Memoirs of a survivor of Yeshivas Bialystok in Poland -- HaRav Binyomin Grodke

Part III

In the first part, HaRav Grodke discussed his early years briefly and then went on to describe his years in yeshiva. He entered the Novardok yeshiva of Bialystok at the age of 16 in 1936, and was able to learn there for three years before the War broke out in Elul, 5639 (1939). He discussed the Yomim Noraim that year and what it was like to learn and live with the clouds of war hanging low. Many yeshivas from Poland and Russia went to Vilna and Lithuania in the hope that it would be independent of both Germany and Russia. A week before Pesach 5700 (1940) Rav Grodke arrived in Birzh with the yeshiva and the rosh yeshiva HaRav Yaffen and the mashgichim HaRav Yisroel Mowshowitz and HaRav Nissen Patchinsky. However soon Russia took over Lithuania.

The Russians sent all the foreign citizens away from the European front and to Siberia. Though life was very harsh in Siberia, the Russians did not engage in mass murder. The yeshiva bochurim had to work very hard, but they struggled to keep whatever they could. HaRav Grodke managed to save three pairs of tefillin, once, when the jailers went through everyone's belongings.

In the Image of Man

Three months of harsh, backbreaking labor passed in Krasnoyarsk, but boruch Hashem we maintained our dignity and scrupulously guarded the mishmeres hakodesh.

Until Elul, we worked in Camp 1 as two brigades of yeshiva students from Poland who were exiled for declining Russian- Communist citizenship. The Germans ym'sh penetrated deep into Russia; by the end of 1941, the Germans were already at the gates of St. Petersburg (then Leningrad).

Russia was forced to seek aid from America and England, who had signed the Atlantic agreement against offensive attacks, and promised freedom in order to win their favor. The Communists, who were by nature very far from promises of freedom, were forced to reach an agreement with the leaders of the Polish government in exile. All Polish citizens in Siberia would stop working in the labor camps and be freed first to the kolkhozes of Kazakhstan and then to the Polish army to fight the Germans.

During Elul, the yeshiva students started being released from the work camps because they were citizens of (conquered) Poland. The mashgiach HaRav Yisroel and a number of talmidim were freed first. They went to the city of Merke through Novosibirsk, where they obtained a sefer Torah and some sifrei kodesh. The Yomim Noraim found them in Merke and that's where they davened.

We were transferred to Camp 7 where we continued working as usual but the conditions were much better than at Camp 1.

It was Elul and we were agitated about how the Yomim Noraim would pass in Siberia (as a shonoh sherosho techiloh . . .) We were obviously not zoche to hear a shofar.

HaRav Yitzchok Orlansky zt'l, who was in Siberia, was freed during Elul and on his way to the kolkhoz "Barnhil" he searched in the marketplaces and found a head of a ram in the depths of the garbage. He managed to scratch out the center of the bone and make a shofar out of it and even blew it on that bitter Rosh Hashonoh, of the year "tosheiv enosh ad dako."

Special Treatment

On Yom Kippur we received special treatment by the overseer. He did not draw his rifle and told us that he considered us intellectuals. We all stood behind a bundle of wood and davened and he did not get angry or scream at us. He merely wanted us to move the wood a little and then wrote in his journal that the prisoners cleaned the forest today.

It was hashgochas Hashem that we were able to stand for hours in tefilloh without any disturbance, like sons confessing to their Creator and begging for mercy. We saw much chasdei Hashem in the darkness, hail and hunger.

Indeed, we are living proof that Hashem's Hashgocho shines even in the dark and gloom. "Ki cheilek Hashem amo, Yisroel chevel nachaloso. Yimtzo'eihu be'eretz midbar uvesohu yelleil yeshimon; yesovevenhu yevoneneihu yitzrenhu ki'eshon eino, Because Hashem's portion is His nation and Yisroel is the rope of His plot. He found him in desert land, in wailing emptiness; He surrounded him, He built him, He guarded him like the pupil of His eye" (Devorim 32:9).

From Siberia to Bolshevik Kazakhstan

Many people are amazed and ask us how we were able to remain staunch in emunah and shemiras hamitzvos and guard our souls through the difficult trials of exile in heretical Communist Russia, the Siberian labor camps and then among the Kazakhs in the Kazakhstan deserts and other far- flung places in Russia. The answer is the avodas hamussar that we learned in Yeshivas Novardok and the avodoh in middas habitochon and yiras Hashem.

I remember that in Bialystok we learned to: "Increase the yir'oh and decrease the nisoyon!" If we work on increasing fear of Heaven, this will decrease the trials of faith and the temptation of the evil inclination. Indeed, we proved that the more we worked on increasing yiras Hashem, the more the nisyonos decreased, as well as the effort to overcome nisyonos.

One of the talmidim, HaRav Shlomo Naftali Hertz Semiatitzky (Drogozhiner) author of Ner Leyitzhor, was one of those who encouraged and strengthened us, as well as HaRav Kehos Barak zt'l, who was later mashgiach ruchani of Beis Yosef in Brooklyn.

One of the main words of chizuk was the answer to the question of Yeshayohu (40:27), "Lomo somar Yaakov usedaber Yisroel, nisteroh derochai meiHashem? Why should Yaakov say and Yisroel speak: `My ways are hidden from Hashem?' " The answer the Novi gave was, ". . . Elokei olom Hashem borei ketzovos ho'oretz lo yi'af velo yiga, ein cheiker letevunoso! Hashem is the G- d of the world Who created edges to the earth He does not get tired or weary; there is no plumbing the depth of His understanding."

Even though Hakodosh Boruch Hu is unlimited and unbounded, He created "edges to the earth" with boundaries, and there is "no plumbing the depth of His understanding." Because the puny human mind cannot understand Hashem's deep understanding when He brings us to a land of harsh decrees and slavery, but there will soon be a boundary and end to the slavery. (See the droshos of HaRav Hertz Semiatitzki, Ner Leyitzhor)


We celebrated chag simchoseinu, Succos, in the forced labor camps under the natzalniks' and stroloks' oppression. Nevertheless, we were happy and full of hope that the time was ripe for freedom from the harsh labor in a desolate land. Indeed, the mercy of Heaven does not end and the hour did arrive.

Despite the tremendous difficulties in the camps and the back- breaking labor, this period of our lives is a shining chapter of observing Torah and mitzvos with tremendous mesiras nefesh. Anyone who never saw a Siberian labor camp cannot understand this. The mashgiach HaRav Yisroel Mowshowitz zt'l wrote, "The weakest students stood strong in the nisyonos even more so than other bnei Torah. Because they absorbed mussar into their very essence -- in yeshiva."

After Simchas Torah 5602-1942, we were freed as Polish citizens. We made a small party in the camp. We were very happy and thanked Hashem for freeing us from the prison labor camps.

We traveled a one week's journey from Novosibirsk to the Bolshevik kolkhoz, arriving in the warm summer areas of Russia, the Kazakhstan settlements in the Merke area near Zambyl.


It is now appropriate to describe the kolkhozes in Kazakhstan and the Kazakhs. The Kazakhs, mainly Muslim Turks, were independent farmers and shepherds before the Communist revolution and were extremely wealthy. After the Communist revolution (by 1920), their land was owned by the government and they were just considered government employees. They were forced to give the Communists a portion of their produce, power over their property and a quota of cattle and sheep.

The mashgiach HaRav Yisroel Mowshowitz and a number of his students came to Kazakhstan during the bad days and did agricultural work in the kolkhoz in Merke-Zambyl.

Kazakhstan is a republic in southwest Asian USSR, and it extends from the Ural Mountains and Siberia in the North until the Tien Shan mountains in the south, and from the Caspian Sea in the west until the border of China in the east (including a wide strip of sand deserts in south Kazakhstan, the largest of which was the Kiezel Kum desert).

Kazakhstan has an abundance of copper, iron, coal, phosphate and various metals, gold and silver mines; the seas contained various industrial salts, and there is oil around the Caspian Sea shores.

During World War II, many industrial factories, which produced machinery and vehicles, moved to Kazakhstan. The main work on the kolkhozes however, was agricultural work.

The climate was extremely dry and the difference between summer and winter was most extreme, with winter temperature reaching 45 degrees below zero and the snow and ice piling five meters high or more.

The Kazakhstan land was very interesting and varied. Low plains lay next to high plateaus. On the east and southeast, high ranges and mountains rose majestically, while the lowest area in the USSR lay on the west -- the Kragian hollow on the east of the sea, which is 132 meters below sea level.

Most of Kazakhstan is desert. Extensive cattle raising developed, due to the aridity. The Communists, however, carefully supervised the animal count and agricultural produce and instead of sending food to the starving Siberian plains, they exported choice food abroad.

The Kolkhoz

A kolkhoz was supposed to be a joint settlement in which the farmers were all partners. The land did not belong to any private person; everything was shared. Calculations were made based on the work done, how many days of work, etc. and the profits were divided among the "partners."

Everything depended on the quality and quantity of the produce -- if it was successful, the income grew, and if it was a bad crop, the income diminished. The same applied to other profits.

The kolkhoz secretary used to write down how many work days each person had on his account. A person could work all week and be credited with only one day's work or one day could be considered a few, depending on the quality of the work.

It seemed, officially, that the wheat produce belonged to the partners, the farmers. However, they were required to give the lion's share to the government as "payment" for the ground, seeds, machines, plows, harvesting and threshing machine ("combine"), horses, cows, etc. After paying for all the expenses, the rest of the wheat was distributed to the farmers to grind in the government mill. Only then could they bake their bread.

If the crop was bad, which happened every year in Siberian areas, there was barely anything left for the farmer himself. He did have permission to use a small plot of land to cultivate a small garden where he grew potatoes, some carrots, some onions and a little garlic. In the summer, he was also able to plant cucumbers and cabbage, but was forbidden to plant wheat and corn. The farmer had to depend on the kolkhoz for flour, in order to force everyone to work in the kolkhoz.

Every farmer had permission to raise one cow, a dog and a few lambs. If a calf or any young one was born, the farmer had to raise it and then give it to the kolkhoz or government. Out of the little milk the cow produced -- two, sometimes four, cups -- ninety percent belonged to the government. The farmer himself obtained food from the kolkhoz, but there was nothing for the animals. So, as any dairy farmer knows, if a cow doesn't eat it doesn't produce milk.

The farmers did not own chickens or roosters and they fed their dog or cat a bit of the potato that the farmer himself really needed. The farmer only received bread as a salary for his work days. He mixed the little flour he received with some cooked potatoes and that was the daily fare for him and his animals.

When we arrived in Boshevik, we worked the ground in the desert fields and received a portion of food (rice and vegetables) as a salary. When Shabbos came however, we hid in the mountains and did not come to work. The Kazakh woman overseer said, "If you work well during the rest of the week, you can get food on Shabbos also." (We didn't come to take the food on Shabbos in front of everyone.)

Once, the Kazakh natzalnik came riding on a horse and told the overseer not to give us food on days that we don't work. However Hashem helped us and she said to us, "Children, come, before they return from work." Thus we were spared working on Shabbos kodesh and even received a humble portion of food.

The hunger and lack of bread affected us adversely and I contracted the terrible typhus disease. Only few are zoche to completely recover from this difficult disease. I layed on straw on the hospital's floor, burning with fever and hallucinating. The mashgiach, the tzaddik HaRav Yisroel Mowshowitz zt'l walked a distance of seven kilometers through the Kazakhstan deserts to visit me through the hospital window.

When Hashem helped me overcome the disease, he was the first to pass expensive pieces of sugar through the window to help me recover. Blessed is Hashem Who did not leave me, and I left the hospital in peace.

Victims of Hunger and Suffering of Plagues

HaRav Pinchos Menachem Malach (in the sefer, Lev HaAri), who was close to the mashgiach in Merke, described the hunger and diseases as follows: The first year we lived in Merke, we worked in the kolkhoz where terrible hunger reigned. (We had not yet begun receiving care packages.)

As a result, a plague of harsh diseases erupted. During one winter, out of a room of ten bochurim, half were niftar and only five remained.

The intense hunger is difficult to describe. We used to eat any kind of vegetable or fruit that we found, even if it was rotten and moldy. This obviously caused more diseases.

The first winter of 5702 (1942), I [Reb Pinchos Menachem] also got sick. Reb Moshe Yunver (Goren) took me to the hospital where I lay for a total of ten weeks, suffering from pneumonia. I could not move a limb or roll over, and I did not recognize anyone. Boruch Hashem, after six weeks my condition improved somewhat. There was a bochur from Yeshivas Mir, Yitzchok Brezer, who lay next to me and when he was released from the hospital he brought me milk every day. To our sorrow however, he got sick again and was niftar (z'l).

The terrible suffering in the work camps weakened the students' bodies and lowered their resistance to the diseases that plagued the camps. In that winter of 5702 (1942), the first one to pass away was Nosson Bialer, a dear, beloved bochur, a talmid of Yeshivas Bialystok. He was only sixteen.

The mashgiach HaRav Yisroel, who eulogized him amidst crying and sighing, cried out, "How will I go up to my father and the boy is not with us?" Then the talmid Meir Kanishner, who had tried to obtain the sefer Torah in the city Novosibirsk, was niftar. In two consecutive days, three of our friends died on us, Reb Sinai Valkvisker z'l, Reb Avrohom Pietrkover and Reb Yaakov Kalishner z'l.

Two brothers from Valkavisk passed away -- Avrohom Yosef and his younger brother Chaim. The two were real tzadikim, students of Yeshivas Bialystok. Yehi zichrom boruch.

The filth was terrible. Because it was impossible to change clothing and wash, a plague of lice broke out, which caused harsh and dangerous diseases. There were some robust men and talmidim who went to the streams that flowed from high mountains when the snow melted, and they washed themselves in the frigid waters.

From 5701 (1941) to 5706 (1946), we not only suffered from hunger, but also from the Communist government which conscripted men to the front lines of the war and to fix the train tracks. There, it was extremely dangerous.

The tragedies that befell us could have plunged us into the depths of despair and destruction, if not for the powerful influence of the mashgiach HaRav Yisroel, who was our anchor of salvation. He succeeded in strengthening our hearts and our bitochon in Hashem, the Eternal Rock.

The Mashgiach, HaRav Yisroel Mowshowitz zt'l

The yahrtzeit of HaRav Yisroel Mowshowitz zt'l, who was a true ish tzaddik tomim, is 5 Menachem Av. He is buried is Har Hamenuchos in Yerushalayim next to the Alter of Novardok zt'l. We dedicate a few words to his memory and his extraordinary deeds.

The Mashgiach's Personality

In Lev HaAri, the talmidim describe the exalted personality of Morenu the mashgiach HaRav Yisroel zt'l.

Rev Pinchos M. Malach said, "I was close to the mashgiach HaRav Yisroel zt'l, and I was zoche to serve him. He spoke with me a lot and strengthened my bitochon in Hashem yisborach . . . I saw how he suffered difficult blows and pain, and in spite of everything, his face radiated happiness and his joyful words lifted everyone's spirits. He had menuchas hanefesh, serenity and confidence.

"He could heal another person's sorrow with his words. Even mentioning the name `Reb Yisroel' was enough to strengthen and encourage everyone. I saw him on a bitterly cold day, his feet wrapped in worn-out clothing, coming from a great distance away. He had gone to the hospital to visit the sick and bring them some milk and bread to revive their souls. His main concern was for others -- the bochurim -- and we never saw him get angry."

An Amazing Story

Reb Pinchos Michoel continued relating, "There was a man of German extraction who lived near our beis hamedrash in Merke, who was a sonei Yisroel. He was extremely angry that the beis medrash existed. What did he do? He got drunk and started to throw stones into the window of the beis medrash. When one of the talmidim, Reb Simcha Radiner (who passed away in Bei, France), tried to stop him, the vulgar German bashed him with a bottle, opening a wound in his head. Just then, HaRav Yisroel was leaving the beis medrash. He saw the incident and said, `You'll see, the end of this rosho will come.'

"The wound was treated, and boruch Hashem, the bochur recovered. The tzaddik's words were completely fulfilled.

"A few days later, the German went to the nearby train station and shoved himself into the car. The ticket-taker came and pushed him off. The German fell onto the train tracks, the train moved and he was cut into two under its wheels. We saw with our eyes the power of the tzaddik, HaRav Yisroel zt'l."

The Bnei Hachaburoh Remember

Rav Moshe Turner zt'l spoke at the yahrtzeit of morenu the mashgiach zt'l in 5751. "In Merke, we divided one masechto (maseches Menochos) into chapters, due to the lack of seforim. After much effort, we arranged a place for tefilloh and learning. Who was our pillar, who strengthened us so we didn't break? It was HaRav Yisroel Mowshowitz zt'l. We can testify that Reb Yisroel did not change. His gadlus and tzidkus in Bialystok remained unchanged in Merke. He was a man of Torah every step of the way. We saw him when he distributed the care packages according to halocho without any personal bias. He was on the elevated level of a true sonei botza."

Reb Avrohom Yitzchok Linzberg told the following story. "Robbers broke into our apartment because they knew we had care packages, so there was something to steal. It was a miracle that it happened at the beginning of the night and not in the middle. Terrible cries and wails, which could be heard from one end of the city to the other, pierced the night. The only one of us who was not frightened was Reb Yisroel. He remained his usual quiet and calm, engrossed in thoughts and tefilloh; his tremendous zchus definitely saved all of us. The robbers shot and made noise until they finished all their bullets and left. The next day, the police arrived and declared that they had never seen such a robbery, with the walls of the house covered with bullet holes. We were not only scared to sleep in the house, but even feared going near it and we moved someplace else. Reb Yisroel, however, was not scared and he remained in that house alone and slept there as usual."

On another occasion, Reb Moshe Turner added his memories of HaRav Yisroel zt'l. "I was in Bialystok for a long time and did not appreciate his noble strength because he was a modest person. His greatness and glorious character traits were especially apparent in Merke. I was amazed and told myself, `How did he succeed in hiding his noble character traits and greatness until now?' Behold a vessel that is overflowing must let out some of its content. However, this was also an expression of his greatness -- the fact that he was able to hide it."

Reb Abba Burshtein of Bnei Brak spoke about Reb Yisroel's gadlus. "In Yeshivas Bialystok, Reb Yisroel did not want to transmit mussar and his'orerus in public. (The mashgiach HaRav Nissen Patchinsky Hy'd zt'l gave the shmuessen.) But when he spoke with bochurim individually, he was not silent; he completely dissected the bochur's middos and actions. His moving tefillos as baal tefilloh on the Yomim Noraim, however, he was unable to hide from the public.

"When I was in the Bolshevik kolkhoz as well, we gathered in Merke-Zambyl for the Yomim Noraim to hear Reb Yisroel's tefillos.

He was a man of halocho, an expert in all halochos of Shulchan Oruch, and was able to rule in halocho anywhere. When we were in the forced labor camps, Reb Yisroel worked extra in the arduous forests for the weak students who were unable to fill their quota. HaRav Yaakov Galinsky described how he once obtained some extra food and brought it to Reb Yisroel, but he refused to take it.

Reb Moshe Turner in Lev HaAri concludes, "`Zechor yemos olom binu shenos dor vodor, Remember the days gone by, understand the years of each generation.'" If we want to understand our generation, we have to understand the past generations. Reb Yisroel zt'l was our model in the forced labor camps. After we left and were still suffering in the Red Exile, he was the one who encouraged, supported, strengthened and forged our spirits. Tehei nishmoso tzeruro bitzror hachaim."


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