The Dessler family was connected with the Kelm Talmud Torah and its leaders from the outset. Rav Dessler's grandfather, Rav Yisroel Dovid zt'l, was a close friend and associate of the Alter of Kelm.
HaRav Yisroel Dovid's sons, HaRav Reuven Dov and HaRav Chaim Gedaliah, were close disciples of the Alter's. Rav Reuven Dov was later called upon to assist in leading the Talmud Torah after the petiroh of the Alter's son, Rav Nochum Zeev Ziv zt'l, in 1916. Rav Reuven Dov zt'l was married to a daughter of HaRav Eliyohu Eliezer Grodzensky zt'l, in turn a son-in-law of HaRav Yisroel Salanter zt'l.
This was the home into which HaRav Eliyohu Eliezer Dessler was born and it was also where he began his mussar training. A letter of his to his father opens with the following titles, "To . . . his honor my master and father . . . my crown and glory, my guide, who always illumines my path, who provides me with eternal benefits — of the sort about which is said, `If you have acquired this, you have acquired everything' . . ."
Eliyohu Eliezer's father sent him to learn in Kelm when he was twelve years old, the age his father had been when he was sent there. The young student was particularly beloved there, with good reason. He was fluent in all of Shas, he possessed fine character traits and he was a great thinker. Not only the mussar scholars appreciated him. His uncle Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt'l valued him highly and invited him to take part in meetings where the likes of the Chofetz Chaim zt'l and Rav Chaim Brisker zt'l deliberated on the issues of the day.
Reb Chaim Ozer quotes some of his nephew's divrei Torah in Achiezer. He invited him to serve as a dayan in Vilna, writing of him that he was, "a new vessel filled with old content, in breadth, sharpness and depth. I engaged him in halachic discussion a number of times and I saw several booklets [of Torah] that he produced with his profound and straight understanding. He is fit to carry the banner of Torah and of halachic ruling."
When his family's fortunes were transformed following the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Rav Dessler traveled to England, for his father's health and to try to repay business debts he had incurred. He arrived in England (according to his diary) on September 4, 1928. He was not happy in England and two summers later he traveled to America where he stayed with Rav Yaakov Yosef Herman. He was only there about two months. In England he at first was rabbi of a small shul in the East End, and in 1934 he became rov of the much larger Montague Road Beis Hamedrash. He was kept extremely busy between his communal duties, private lessons he gave to young boys and learning with householders from the community. Cut off as he was from the centers of Torah and mussar in Europe, he learned and reflected on his own, developing many of his own ideas and building up his wholly original Torah outlook.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, European refugees began arriving in England. Among them were bnei Torah who had studied in the Lithuanian yeshivos. R' Dovid Dryan zt'l of Gateshead conceived the idea of founding a kollel, alongside the yeshiva that already existed. He put his proposition in a letter to 22 rabbis in England at the time. Most of them (18) did not even reply. Three supported the idea but said they could not participate. The proposal was accepted by Rav Dessler, who undertook to head the kollel and to provide support for the members.
A new chapter in his life opened. He delivered talks to the kollel members in which he revealed his profound and lucid presentation of the fundamentals of Jewish thought. His financial responsibilities to the kollel — he was scrupulous that no debt pile up — kept him on the road during the week. On his regular visits to London and Manchester, he would study with his old talmidim and deliver shmuessen. He would listen to private and communal problems and offer advice and guidance. He corresponded with talmidim and with rabbonim, urging that efforts be made to help European Jewry.
The kollel flourished and from a nucleus of a handful of avreichim, a row of fine Torah institutions were established by his talmidim in Gateshead, Sunderland, Manchester and Tangiers, Morocco. The numerous Torah institutions in Gateshead attracted youngsters from all over England. At this point, he could have relaxed and begun to enjoy the fruits of his years of selfless devotion to building Torah, but he decided to accept the Ponovezher Rov's invitation to serve as mashgiach in his yeshiva in Bnei Brak.
Here he reached the peak of his productivity. He would deliver three shmuessen a week to the bnei hayeshiva, toiling anew to prepare each one. Sometimes he would spend twenty-five hours preparing a single shmuess. Each one was a systematic presentation of a basic idea in Torah and mussar thought — a self- contained unit that fit beautifully into the broad expanse of his thought.
He also conveyed numerous ideas in the form of short, compact sentences. Each was a world of its own that could serve as a signpost or lantern, always indicating the path that a ben Torah should follow. He also guided and directed individual bochurim, binding them to him with bonds of love. The Chazon Ish remarked that he took possession of the bochurim by drawing them towards him (kinyan meshichah), rather than by force (kinyan chazokoh).
He has not relinquished his hold. His influence remains powerful, especially over those who study the collection of his teachings, Michtav Mei'Eliyohu. They feel as though things that he said years ago are being addressed to them now, as though they are being said especially for them by a loving and understanding father, mentor and guide.