[The following was written a year ago.]
In order to "touch the Tree of Knowledge" of Kelm, we dared seek out Maran Hagaon R' Dovid Povarsky [now zt'l], rosh yeshivas Ponevezh, disciple of the giants of knowledge from that great Torah-producing institution of Kelm. His master and mentor, was the Mashgiach, R' Yeruchom Levovitz ztzvk'l, and he actually studied there for a certain period in his life. The Rosh Yeshiva granted us an interview which enriched us with several facts, to which we have added a compendium of words addressed by him in his home at the occasion of a seuda shelishis gathering of a rapt audience of talmidim.
The Moment that R' Yeruchom Was Accepted in Kelm
They used to say, in the Talmud Torah of Kelm, that the Alter possessed full control of his eyes like we have control of our hands. It required a special voluntary effort on his part to move his eyes, just as we consciously will our hands to move.
The Mashgiach R' Yeruchom zt'l studied in Slobodke by HaRav Nosson Tzvi Finkel (the Alter of Slobodke) ztzvk'l, who was a disciple of the Alter of Kelm. R' Yeruchom was sent by his rebbe to Kelm to remain there for the period of Elul through the yomim noraim. After this period, he decided to stay over for the succeeding winter session, but he was not officially accepted as a ranking yeshiva student.
The Alter was very strict in allowing only the talmidim of the Talmud Torah to listen to his talks. Each time before the shmuess began, R' Yeruchom was obliged to leave. Then, one time, the Alter focused his glance upon him and with a gesture of his hand, motioned him to remain. It was at that very moment that R' Yeruchom was officially accepted into Talmud Torah Kelm.
Healing the Soul
There were numerous rules and regulations governing the yeshiva. They considered it like a hospital, a House of Healing. To cite just one characteristic example: garbage receptacles are generally constructed to be wide at the bottom, so as to receive everything thrown into it and to remain sturdy. In Kelm, they used a tall, narrow waste bin which was very prone to tumbling over. Whoever was not careful in disposing of his waste and caused it to fall over, was obliged to gather up all the garbage that scattered all around. This was to train the talmidim in zehirus, caution.
HaRav Tzvi Hirsch Broide zt'l, son-in-law of the Alter, explained what, in his opinion, had caused R' Yeruchom to grow and become outstanding in the midst of his group in the Talmud Torah. It was because R' Yeruchom would review every mussar talk over and over again until it became part of him, an integral acquisition.
Kelm had a system whereby friends would monitor one another's behavior, since a person is not naturally aware of his own faults, especially of his own inner shortcomings which are more apparent to the outsider. Each one asked his friend to comment on what he felt he was lacking, in which area he fell short.
HaRav Dovid Povarsky zt'l arrived in Kelm as a youth, at the beginning of the First World War. It was at this time that R' Yeruchom decided to transfer from Mir to Kelm, this time as part of the staff. All the preparations had been taken care of, but at the last moment, a letter arrived from Kelm suggesting that such a move would not be propitious or beneficial. R' Yeruchom reconsidered and decided to stay put. Meanwhile, R' Povarsky had decided to go to Kelm. During Elul, R' Yeruchom would come to Kelm and give talks in his apartment, but not in the Talmud Torah. And that is where R' Povarsky heard him.
Nuggets of Wisdom and Mussar
One of the grandsons of the Chofetz Chaim had come to study in the Talmud Torah. What was he looking for in Kelm -- he was asked -- that he could not find in Radin by his illustrious grandfather? He replied: "By my grandfather, I see how I should be. In Kelm I am taught to see what I am now."
The Mashgiach returned home from the Talmud Torah in Kelm. A former talmid in his town from Yeshivas Telshe approached him with a question. How was it that after having witnessed the miracles at the Red Sea, the Jews were capable of creating a Golden Calf? R' Yeruchom did not offer a philosophical reply. He quoted, "`Forty years long I quarreled with that generation and said: "It is a people whose hearts turn away from Me, and they did not know My ways."' Do you know the meaning of this reply? You have no concept of the vast power of the evil inclination!"
A certain maggid used to begin his sermons as follows: "Every maggid dismisses other preachers and claims that only he knows how to preach. I do not claim this. I concede that others have what to say. But it does not compare to what I have to impart!"
The Alter of Kelm used this as a parable regarding the wisdom of the nations in general. All nations claim to possess wisdom, and truly Chazal teach us to concede this fact. However true it may be, he would say, foliosfull of their wisdom do not even touch a single word of Rabbenu Yonah! Whatever wisdom they may possess is fully incorporated in a single word in Sha'arei Teshuvah.
When summoned by his disciples on Rosh Hashanah eve and told that ma'ariv was about to commence, he would be seized by trembling and would quaver, "I am being summoned for judgment!"
He once overheard some yeshiva students discussing the arba minim in the month of Elul. "Well, then, are you already finished and done with the Yom Hadin?" he asked.
The Alter once reassured someone who was afraid of leading the prayers because his thoughts might digress from the prayer itself to the cantorial rendition of it. "Never mind," he told him. "Rest easy, for your very undertaking to lead the service as a general commitment is already sufficient."
Kelm was not wont to look favorably upon tearful praying. It was felt that an overt show of emotion might be from ulterior motives and not genuine. Weeping is supposed to emanate from the very depths of one's heart. Could anyone have reached such a level? And so, crying in prayer was frowned upon, even forbidden.
R' Povarsky told about the Nazi murder of the Kelm Jewish population. This was the only place where the yeshiva students were separated from the rest and killed as a group. He said he remembered them, and it sundered his heart. The group included the Alter's daughter, Nechoma Leiba, who was a great tzadekes who would study mussar on her own. (R' Povarsky named his great-granddaughter after her.)
He related how, after the war, he met a certain R' Yosef'ke, one of the students of the Talmud Torah in Kelm, in Vilna. He asked him why he had come, to which the latter replied, "I am looking for kosher tefillin."
That was the situation, then. "From all of the centers of Torah there is a remembrance. But from Kelm . . . "