During that black era not so long ago, when Europe was engulfed in the flames of the crematoria, the Strikover was a young boy.
Forced to flee his hometown, he became a small speck among the countless other homeless youths arriving in Vilna, bereft of family and friends.
At that time, the Gaon R' Yitzchok Zeev Soloveitchik of Brisk was also taking refuge in Vilna. There he continued learning and giving shiurim in his home.
Many were the Yidden who wished to join the shiurim, the Torah being the sole remnant of a normal life that once was. However, only a few chosen individuals were actually permitted to enter the room of the Griz and to learn with him.
When this young, chassidic boy came to Vilna and informed the Griz that he had arrived, he was warmly welcomed into the elite group by the Brisker himself.
The reason was later revealed by the children of the Griz who heard it from their father.
Before the war broke out, the Griz would take a vacation from time to time in Krenitz, Galicia, where many rabbonim and Rebbes would take a rest from their busy lives in the cities and gather strength.
"Once, the elderly Admor Reb Elimelech Menachem Mendel of Strikov came to Krenitz, accompanied by a young grandson of his. I remember being struck at the time by his amazing talent and depth of understanding in learning. Seeing this same boy several years later, a lone refugee who had nothing and nobody, yet still yearned only to sit and learn, I opened my doors wide to him!"
From then, the boy became a close talmid of the Griz, whose name was mentioned by him only with the greatest awe. The Strikover would humbly insist that he was not zocheh to be a talmid of the Brisker Rov, but that the Brisker Rov "was mekarev me."
With a shudder, the Strikover related how, during the war, he was once walking with the Rov of Brisk who, like everyone, was extremely worried about the situation. Compounding his concern was the fact that Rebbetzin Soloveitchik and her children were not with him in Vilna and he worried for their safety constantly.
"The Rov walked in silence, his face creased with concern, when suddenly he stopped and said to me, `Chazal say that one who desires to live should kill himself. I think that the meaning of this in our current situation is that whoever wants to live on and not be broken in spirit from the terrible occurrences around us everyday, or crushed by his own helplessness, must kill all his feelings. Our thoughts and feelings for ourselves and our families are a barrier to our serving Hashem and we cannot bear the burden of our troubles and worries. If we kill those feelings, overcoming them, we'll be able to learn Torah and daven as we should and thereby merit to survive.'
"And so my Rebbe gave himself chizuk."
Following this, the Strikover Rebbe took upon himself never to dwell on the tzoros he and his family suffered during the Holocaust. By the time the war was over he was left almost the sole survivor of his large, illustrious family. An older sister of his who also survived had been with her parents until the father, R' Yitzchok Yaakov Dan Hy"d, was murdered al Kiddush Hashem. Yet he refrained from asking her even once to tell him what had happened and how, or of the events leading up to the deaths of their family. The reason was, his Rebbe had taught him, that too much thought and feelings invested in the sadness of the past would disturb his Torah and tefilloh.
In his later years, the Strikover chassidim asked the Rebbe to accompany them on a trip to Poland to daven at the kevorim of his ancestors and visit the site of his former yeshiva — Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin.
The Rebbe refused to join them, unwilling to turn back the pages to those tear-stained times.
When someone persistently asked the Rebbe the reason for his refusal, asking if "the Rebbe is afraid of his nostalgic feelings and excitement on visiting his youth," the Strikover retorted sharply:
"I'm not afraid of the excitement. I'm more afraid of the fact that we grow accustomed to the current situation and forget all the wonders Hashem did for us."
In his humble manner, the Rebbe could never request help from anyone, refraining even from asking a younger chossid to pass him something.
He did everything himself, even traveling most of his years by bus. When someone expressed wonder at the Strikover Rebbe not having a driver in a private car, he replied simply, "It's fine, I have the biggest vehicle," referring to the bus.
The Strikover would often say that one who accepts money from another person will, in the end, complain against his benefactor. He would then tell of the gaon HaRav Dov Berisch Weidenfeld, the Tchebiner Rov, who worked as a lumber merchant in order not to have to earn money through his Torah learning.
Only when he had lost all his money did the Tchebiner reluctantly agree to take on the rabbonus in the town of Tchebin.
On Purim that year, the townspeople sent the new rov mishloach monos, which included money. When the Rov saw the Rebbetzin with tears in her eyes, he understood immediately. She, too, had been the daughter of a wealthy family and was not accustomed to receiving money from others. In his wisdom, the Tchebiner told her, "I understand the reason for your tears, I too find it difficult. But one thing I ask of you — in a few years' time, don't be annoyed with the townspeople who don't bring as much as you expect of them."
The grandson of the Strikover Rebbe, Reb Meir Stern, notes that whenever a phone call came for the Rebbe asking him for a brochoh for a sick person, the Rebbe wouldn't just give a brochoh, but immediately recited several chapters of Tehillim.
On one occasion, a young man came to the Rebbe to pour out his heart. His wife was sick and the doctors had recommended that she undergo a complicated operation.
After tearfully saying a few kapitlach of Tehillim, the Rebbe looked up and said, "I don't think she'll need an operation."
The man was mystified, but left with a hopeful heart.
The woman's operation was subsequently cancelled, as the doctors found it miraculously unnecessary.
As soon as the Rebbe heard that the woman was indeed recovering, he called her husband to reassure him that, "it wasn't my Tehillim or ruach hakodesh, only from the description you gave me of the situation it seemed to me that an operation would not be needed."
Once, on a bikur cholim visit to someone in the hospital, the Rebbe passed the waiting room adjoining the operating theater. To his attendant's astonishment, the Rebbe stopped there and spent the next few minutes engrossed in heartfelt and tearful prayer.
The gabbai wondered aloud: "The person the Rebbe was visiting had neither undergone surgery nor was he due to have it. Did the Rebbe know who was currently inside, perhaps?"
When he had finished, the Rebbe saw the question mark on the shamash's face and explained.
"Of all places, this room is surely the one where tefillos are recited in pure sincerity, with fervent tears and holy kavonos. Anyone waiting in this anteroom for a close relative's operation to finish surely davens from the depths of his heart. In such an exalted mokom tefilloh, I too wish to add my tefillos!"