Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

26 Iyar 5762 - May 8, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








A Brisker Mehalech
Rav Shimon Yosef Meller travels to Brisk

by Rav Aryeh Gefen

Part II

The first part of this report of the trip last summer of Rav Shimon Yosef Meller (author of Shai LaTorah, five volumes, Uvdos Vehanhogos Lebeis Brisk, four volumes, and Nesich Mamleches HaTorah) to Brisk, a journey of discovery undertaken by one who devoted many years of scholarship to studying that area.

The first part of the report described what he found in the city and at the site of the cemetery, which has now become a sports stadium. Amazingly, the grave of the Beis Halevi has remained an untouched patch of grass, though without any marker. Rav Meller also described his encounter with the Archives and the Russian bureaucracy. He met R' Shlomo Weinstein, a Yid who was born in Brisk in 5676 (1916) and still lives there and helped him visit the places of interest. He has recorded his story.

A Diary

Rav Meller has a diary written by R' Asher Zisman z'l, a resident of Brisk, in which he describes the moments of his return to his birthplace Brisk soon after the war was over:

I walk through the streets of my city Brisk with a torn and raging heart. I go into the Beis Knesses Hagodol and the botei medrash, gather torn pages, worn leaves of heilege seforim that are rolling on the floor. I pick them up, look at them, kiss them and wet them with my tears. There isn't even a minyan to say Kaddish.

The streets are empty of Jews. The Beis Knesses Hagodol looks proudly from above. Wherever your eyes look -- a Jewish cemetery. Orphanhood -- as if there were never any Jews in the city. On Ratner Square are piles of graves. 5000 kedoshim and tehorim found their burial place in the area between Kotilna and the brick factory. And the cry bursts from my choked throat: "Yisgadal veyiskadash! Kedoshim, kedoshim all around!"


R' Shlomo Weinstein told us that immediately after the war he married Sara Sladna from Minsk. They had a son and a daughter. Their daughter married the first Jew who was born in Brisk after the war -- Moshe Kaplan. His father was R' Ben Zion Kaplan, a native of Brisk who also returned after the war and married the daughter of HaRav Lichtenburg. R' Shlomo's son is named after his father, R' Asher Hy'd. The son moved to Eretz Yisroel with his family eight years ago.

How many Jews live in Brisk today?

"Today there are about 400 Jews in Brisk, all of whom are elderly Jews who came to Brisk after the war. The only one who is "a geborner in Brisk" (born in Brisk) is me. Out of these 400 Jews, most of them are only half, a third, or a fourth Jewish. There are fifteen to twenty men that I know are definitely Jewish, whom I accept in the minyan."

Before the war, there were forty active shuls and botei midroshim in Brisk, which were bustling with life all hours of the day, between davening, shiurim and learning. Today there is not one active shul in the city. Although there are many shul buildings that are still intact, they were confiscated by the government and used for other purposes. There are also shul buildings that are not used at all, but the Jewish community cannot have them back.

R' Shlomo related that he went to court many years ago and asked for the Hekdesh Beis Medrash building to be returned to the local Jews for its original purpose. He won the case, and the court ruled that the building must become a synagogue again and the building's tenants must evacuate it. However, the tenants appealed to a higher court in Minsk, and for many years the matter has been in the air without a final ruling. This is "Russian justice," R' Shlomo told me bitterly with a sad smile on his face.

"Where do you daven?" I asked. He told me that there is an organization in Brisk called "Kindness" which is funded by the Joint. The "Kindness" organization for the local Jews runs a day center for the elderly in a few apartments they joined together on Pilstzotz'ka Street. The members come for a few hours a day and receive a hot meal at the end of the program. There is a large room there that also serves as a shul. During the week, there is no davening, only on Shabbos morning.

R' Shlomo Weinstein is the chazon. Before shacharis he teaches a half an hour of Chumash and now a little mishnayos Ovos. There is one sefer Torah in the city, but they use it only on yomim tovim, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. After the Shabbos davening, he makes kiddush and gives out a little food.

When I asked him how many people participate in the davening on Shabbos, he told me about fifteen. Only he has a tallis.

When I asked him if they need more talleisim, he said "Who knows if I had more if people would wear them?"

During the yomim noraim, he is the chazon and baal tokei'a; he showed me the shofar he uses.

R' Shlomo Weinstein told me painfully, "Imagine. There were forty shuls and shtiebelach in Brisk, every beis medrash had at least seven or eight sifrei Torah. Hundreds of sifrei Torah were burned and disgraced, not to mention the thousands of siddurim, Chumoshim, and sifrei kodesh.

"A Jew from Brisk told me what he saw with his own eyes. After the war, on the outskirts of Brisk, entire sifrei Torah were thrown open on the streets to be trampled and disgraced. `Woe to the eye who saw this.' "

R' Shlomo continued, "I turned to the heads of the local church and asked them how they can allow such a thing to happen. Even they have a minimal amount of respect for the holiness of the Bible; why are they not protesting the disgrace of the Bible? They dismissed me with empty, mocking words, which included claiming that the matter was not under their jurisdiction."

With tears in his eyes R' Shlomo said, "What happens here is unfathomable. Those of you in Eretz Yisroel cannot be quiet! You must raise a cry and commotion about what happened. The least we can do is pass the things on as they were, to our grandchildren and the future generations, so they should know what was here. Perhaps the day will yet come that the crown will be returned to its glory."

There are almost no young people in the community; future is shrouded in darkness. When we visited "Kindness" in the afternoon, the president took us for a tour of the place. We saw with our own eyes a number of elderly men and women who were doing various crafts at the time.

Among others, were women there with obviously Jewish names: Esther Rabinowitz, Miriam Levin, Mera Diskind, Shoshana Schwartz, Miriam Switzki, etc. In general, poverty is rampant; the average pension of each elderly resident of the city is sixty to seventy dollars a month. This amount of money is very hard to live on, especially in the winter when one must pay a lot of money for heating, which is a necessity, beside for rent.

Do you remember the Griz zt'l?

"I used to past the Griz's yard twice a day, on my way to and from school, and I saw him many times. I did not have a personal relationship with him, but I clearly remember the tremendous respect and honor everyone in the city, even the Communists and Zionists, afforded him.

"I especially remember that when the Griz zt'l walked on the street, whoever was sitting on a bench used to stand up in respect and awe. Whenever he entered the beis knesses, everyone was quiet and stood up out of honor and fear of him.

"The fear of the Rov zt'l was demonstrated by the fact that if someone wanted to threaten someone else, he used to say that he'll call him to a din Torah before the Rov. These words alone were enough to influence and instill fear in the person.

"I remember when I was young, I once went to a beis din room to see a certain din Torah that was being conducted there. Maran the Griz was sitting in din, with HaRav Simcha Zelig Riger zt'l, more tzedek of the city. You could actually feel the fear and awe of the rabbonim to rule a din according to halochoh.

"After the war, a number of gentile families confiscated the Griz's house, as well as Rav Simcha Zelig Riger's, which was on the top floor of the same building. I remember very well how in 5719 (1959), eighteen years after the Holocaust, gentile families still lived in the Griz's house. Afterwards, they tore down the building, and today the place serves as a plaza in front of the theater that was once the Beis Knesses Hagodol. A giant fountain graces the plaza."

The next day, when we toured the streets of the city, we passed the large plaza on Pilszottzka Street, the corner of Listoveska and Peretz Streets, where many people were sitting and playing chess. Large, beautiful trees line the wide plaza on both sides.

We passed the house of Dr. Yaffe, the famous Jewish doctor in Brisk, a knowledgeable and merciful doctor who helped many people. Here is Mr. Tovzhinek's house, the publisher on Listoveska Street; and here is "Zilberman's Tower," the Zilberman family's gate, and here is the house of the Tennenbaum family of the furniture trade. Here is R' Ziske Pollack's house, a chossid who lived in Brisk, and here is the Gold family's house. All the houses still remain intact, but gentiles live in them today.

"After the war, I put up a matzeivoh," R' Shlomo related, "at the end of Deluga Street, the place the Jews of Brisk were gathered together and sent off to death. Some of the Brisker Jews were killed there as well. The matzeivoh was engraved in three languages -- Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish."

The matzeivoh read as follows: "In memory of tens of thousands of holy korbonos from the Jewish community of Brisk and its suburbs, who were killed or buried alive by the Nazis, may their name and memory be erased, during the Holocaust. May their memory be blessed."

A few years after the matzeivoh was erected, when the government built a road nearby, the monument was broken and taken down, supposedly as part of the construction.

R' Weinstein related how he went to the mayor and complained: how dare they take down the monument in memory of thousands of citizens? The mayor said, "Did I take the monument down? Go complain to the contractor who took it down."

R' Shlomo went to the contractor responsible for the work and demanded that he cover the cost of putting a new matzeivoh up. The contractor dismissed him with, "Did I do it? Go to the workers who decided by themselves to do it and ask them for the money."

And so, R' Shlomo was sent from one to the other. In the end he was left with no choice but to put up a new matzeivoh with donations he had collected. Recently, in the last months of 5761 (2001), when a wave of antisemitism broke out all over Europe, someone broke the monument a number of times and drew swastikas on it. This time, the matter had repercussions in all the large newspapers in Brisk, which supposedly portrayed the incidents as shocking. However, R' Shlomo was forced to clean and fix the monument by himself this time as well.

With pain, R' Shlomo pointed out that there is no Jewish cemetery in Brisk today. "To our deep pain and embarrassment, we bury the Jews in a separate section of the general cemetery. I am the one who organizes a minyan for the levayoh, from the few men who come every Shabbos. I say a hesped, and Kel molei and Kaddish. There is also no mikveh in Brisk, and if necessary you go to the river."

Do you feel antisemitism in the city?

"For the last few decades there was barely any antisemitism, although it is of course not the best situation to live among gentiles. Lately however, since the intifadah began in Israel, there is some antisemitism here again. Even the monument of the communal grave in memory of the Brisker Jews who were murdered by the Nazis ym'sh was desecrated a number of times."

With tears in his eyes, R' Shlomo answered an unarticulated question. "No one can judge those who remain in the city. I feel that I have a special mission to stay in the city. Definitely, the easiest and best thing for me and my wife would be to move with our son Asher and his family to Eretz Yisroel -- our dream.

"However, as you know, I am the last native of Brisk who stayed here. I am responsible for the upkeep of the shul; I am the chazon, baal tokei'a, and arrange whatever is needed Jewishly in the city. That is why I decided that I have to stay in Brisk."

From Brisk to Warsaw to Vilna

Rav Shimon Meller's diary of his travels.

My brother HaRav Zelig Reuven, rosh kollel of Or HaTzvi in Yerushalayim who learned in Brisk for many years, and I, went on an almost two-week journey. Our first destination was Warsaw, to daven at the kever of the Netziv of Volozhin zt'l and Reb Chaim of Brisk zt'l. The following are some of the places we visited.

Words cannot express the strong emotions that overcame us as we stood at the gates of the huge ancient Warsaw Cemetery. This is one of the only cemeteries in Europe that was preserved for hundreds of years. Over 3000 people are buried here, including many hundreds of gedolim and admorim from Poland. The cemetery is so big that it is almost impossible to find a kever without knowing how to find it beforehand.

Before we left on the trip, an American avreich who had been there told us exactly how to get to the kever. Without his precise instructions, it would have undoubtedly been difficult, if not impossible, to find the Netziv's and the Grach's final resting places.

After we returned from the trip and he saw the pictures, HaRav Meir HaLevi Soloveitchik told us that the pictures we had were different from those in the past. Before the cemetery was renovated by Rabbi Yechezkel Besser of New York, the Grach's matzeivoh was on the right of the ohel and the Netziv's was on the left. After the renovations, the Grach's matzeivoh appears on the left and the Netziv's on the right.

There were also a number of mistakes in the wording of the tombstones, differences from the original wording. Indeed, after investigating the matter, it became clear that there was a mistake in the position of the matzeivos and new matzeivos were soon sent from Eretz Yisroel to rectify the matter.


From Warsaw we continued towards the famous health resort, Otvezk. Many gedolim and admorim used to come to this village to rest, and it was known for its clear air. This was also the village in which HaRav Chaim Soloveitchik zt'l passed away on 21 Av 5678 (1918), and his funeral left from here, to Warsaw. Otvezk has a large communal grave where the Jews of Otvezk were buried by the Nazis during the Holocaust. A monument was erected at the site.

From Otvezk we traveled to the village of Ger and from there to Kharkov and Auschwitz. The next stop was Minsk, which was the capital city of Byelorussia, White Russia. We met a very interesting figure in the Central Beis Knesses of Minsk, R' Avrohom Yaakov Radizhkover, a happy, energetic 88-year-old who appears younger than his age.

He is from the village of Radizhkov and is a warm, G-d fearing Jew. The amazing thing about this man, which we heard from communal leader Mr. Yuri Doron, is that R' Avrohom Yaakov leaves his house in Radizhkov early every morning and travels an hour by train in order to daven with a minyan. He does this every day, winter and summer, in the freezing cold and sweltering heat. He also serves as a regular baal tefilloh in the shul.

The day we reached Minsk, a private driver was arranged to take us to Volozhin where we davened at the kever of HaRav Chaim of Volozhin zt'l. There are four matzeivos in that section of the cemetery and it is not known which one is HaRav Chaim's. Afterwards, we visited the building of the yeshiva. The lower floor of the building was HaRav Chaim's house during the years he served as ram of the yeshiva, and the Griz zt'l was born there.

From there we continued to Radin to visit the cemetery. Much has already been written about trips to Lithuania and the deep emotion that accompanies them. We therefore decided to commit to writing only those unique incidents that are frozen in our memories. This is the place to relate what the grandson of the Chofetz Chaim zt'l recently told me.

HaRav Hillel Zaks, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Chevron and Knesses Gedoloh, recently told me how the Chofetz Chaim's kever was found. Three Zaks brothers traveled to Radin about twelve years ago with many pictures of the grave's location, as well as various documents that verify it. After digging and much toil in measuring with ropes and sticks and all kinds of ways, they reached the exact place of the kever.

Right then, an old Russian farmer came with a herd of cows to graze in the cemetery. When he saw the men digging, he asked them what they were doing. When they told him they were looking for their grandfather's grave, he pointed to the same place they had concluded was the kever and told them that he definitely remembered that this was "Reb Yisroel Meir's grave." He also told them that he remembered the Chofetz Chaim very well.

We stopped in Mir on the way and then continued to Brisk by way of Baranowitz, where we met one of the last Jews who remains in the village. He guided us around the city and took us to the building of Yeshivas Baranowitz and the communal grave. Afterwards, we continued towards Brisk. Five minutes from Brisk, we found the small village of Kaminetz.

We returned to Minsk early Friday morning, and at 6:30 we embarked, on a train to Vilna. We reached Vilna at 11:00 a.m. and immediately traveled with R' Berel Glazer, an elderly Jew who lives there and has the key to the ohel of the Gra, to the cemetery of Vilna, to daven at the Gra's kever. Trembling overcame us as we stood at the ohel of the Gra zt'l.

R' Berel is about eighty years old, one of the veteran Jewish residents of Vilna. I think he is one of the only ones who were born in Vilna and still live there. He remembers the great event in 5720 (1960) very well, when they moved the kever of the Gra from the cemetery that subsequently was destroyed to the new cemetery.

In response to my question of why they only moved ten graves to the new cemetery, R' Berel answered that it was tremendous mesiras nefesh on the part of the people involved. They did it without permission from the government, which could spell severe punishment in those days, when the people lived in fear of the KGB. The undertaking took place in the middle of the night, without much manpower.

They did what they could. They moved the three graves on the right of the Gra zt'l and the three graves on the left. On the extreme right was the grave of the Graf Potozky's ashes. The other graves moved included those of HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt'l, rov of Vilna, his wife and their daughter who passed away in their lifetime. All of the remaining graves in the new cemetery are of people who passed away after the Holocaust.

In 5729 (1969), they brought from Ponovezh the graves of Reb Itzele Ponovezher zt'l and his son Reb Yaakov zt'l, who are now buried next to HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt'l.

Shabbos was a spiritually exalting experience. Imagine spending a "Shabbos in Vilna." We davened at the only shul that still stands in Vilna, the shul of the "official Rabbi," Rav Rubinstein. About twenty to twenty-five elderly men daven there, most of whom came to the city after the war.

It was very moving to see a sweet six-year-old boy davening in the Vilna shul. His father passed away when the boy was one, and his mother brings him to shul every Shabbos. He stands and davens alone. The boy has been learning in the small Jewish school in Vilna for a few months. We also saw a fifteen-year-old with a large yarmulke, tzitzis out, and payos behind his ears, who was trying to daven but did not say a word.

In response to our question, community members told us that this boy cannot yet be joined to a minyan. Only his father is Jewish. He, however, wants to learn Torah and daven, so he comes every day, morning and night, and tries as best he can. He will soon undergo giyur.

I thought to myself: who knows which zechus avos caused him to suddenly become attracted to Judaism without any apparent reason.

The next stop was Kovno, an hour's journey. We met a local resident, R' Yosef Yaakov Gavenda, who took us first to the cemetery in Alksot where HaRav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector zt'l and his son Rav Zvi zt'l are buried.

From there we went to Kovno, Slobodke, and the "Ninth Fort." We returned to Vilna by way of the Panuar Forest, where 70,000 Vilna Jews were slaughtered. Close to Vilna lies the village of Troki, birthplace of HaRav Nochum Partzovitz zt'l, rosh yeshiva of Mir, who was known as Reb Nochum Troker.

The next day we traveled to the kever of the Gra zt'l again, where we davened for a few hours until it was time for our flight from Vilna to Warsaw. The flight took about 45 minutes. A driver awaited us in the airport, who took us straight to the Warsaw cemetery, to the graves of the Netziv zt'l and the Brisker Rov zt'l, where we stayed until the time of our return flight to Eretz Yisroel.


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