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25 Sivan 5762 - June 5, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Back To Kobrin, Baranovitch And Mir: An Interview With HaRav Aharon Kreiser, zt'l

by Rabbi Dov Eliach

Part One

Rav Eliach is the author of HaGaon, a three- volume work about the Vilna Gaon and the Jewish world in which he lived. He has recently issued a second edition with additions (third printing) of that popular set.

Rav Eliach is also the director of the Institute for the Heritage of Yeshivas, which is dedicated to documenting and preserving the rich contribution of the European yeshivas to the Jewish tradition. In the context of his work in this area he conducted the following interview with one of the prominent talmidim of the European yeshivas, HaRav Aharon Kreiser, who has since passed away.

Introduction: A Personal Memoir

Ten years have passed since I met Rav Aharon Kreiser zt'l. We met in one of the botei medrash of the Lakewood Yeshiva, where he lived and learned when he was older. When I came across him he was embroiled in lively Talmudic debate with some of the members of the kollel and I found him to be as he had been described to me earlier.

His excitement over divrei Torah, his tremendous love of Torah and his warm emotional character were all evident at that first encounter. They were also apparent in the course of the interview which I later conducted in his home.

Rav Aharon provided me with a vivid and heartwarming description of the Torah life in the yeshivos in Europe where he learned and also with portraits of the well- known figures who influenced him, as he saw them. His account is a personal memoir. In the interests of accuracy, it should be noted that he spoke only for himself, not for others who also went through the same experiences.

Of the period in Shanghai he remarked, "Everybody's Shanghai is different. The salient feature of my Shanghai was utter ignorance of what was transpiring around us."

In a similar vein he commented when speaking about Baranovitch that: "Everybody has his own Reb Elchonon . . . If you hear the same thing from many different people, you can conclude that it might be the truth."

Here then, are the personal recollections of HaRav Aharon Kreiser, lamdan and masmid, a man of sharp wit and incisive expression, who for a long time was one of the major figures in the famous Mirrer minyan in Boro Park and, at the time of our interview, was one of the outstanding personalities in the Lakewood Yeshiva.

A Great Kelmer

Reb Aharon began with some recollections of his early years in Kobrin where he learned in yeshiva ketanoh. His rebbe, HaRav Shlomo Levin zt'l, was an alumnus of Volozhin and so was another of the townspeople, HaRav Mordechai Shifman zt'l. Both of them were scholars of a stature that recalled earlier times. The Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Pesach Pruskin zt'l, was elderly and ailing and no longer delivered shiurim. The mashgiach, HaRav Yosef Leib Nendyk zt'l, was the yeshiva's leading personality. Later, Rav Aharon moved to Kletsk.

Rav Aharon recalled that, "Reb Leib Nendyk was by nature the antithesis of HaRav Chatzkel Levenstein zt'l, whom I later heard in the Mirrer yeshiva. Reb Leib was talkative and a wonderful speaker, who could address simple householders as well, unlike the mashgiach, who was not blessed with the gift of oratory. He would say a word here and a word there but his main strength lay in the actual content of what he said.

"Reb Leib was a very special person. He endured terrible suffering and was a wonderful tzaddik. The word tzaddik doesn't do him justice. His eyes never moved from the daled amos that surrounded him. He had perfect self-control. When the truth is not absolutely clear to someone, he tends to display weakness and compliancy. He is unsure which way to turn. When a person's outlook on life is completely clear however, he radiates strength and power.

"Reb Leib was such a man and in fact, so were all the members of the Kelm group, for example the Lomzher mashgiach, HaRav Moshe Rosenstein zt'l, and the Mirrer mashgiach. This was the Kelm Talmud Torah at its best. Kelm was like a factory that produced giants of men."

In Mir

At this point, from Kobrin, Rav Aharon skipped over the period he spent in Baranovitch and launched straight into his memories of Mir.

"In Mir, there was no rosh yeshiva, in the fullest sense of the term, " he declared. "Anyway, where can one find a rosh yeshiva today? A rosh yeshiva has to be a great lamdan, who charts a course in learning. Reb Boruch Ber was a rosh yeshiva. Rav Naftoli Tropp was a rosh yeshiva. Rav Shimon Shkop was a rosh yeshiva.

"Do you know who the rosh yeshiva was in Mir? The public! Everyone collectively! There were many older bochurim, who were gedolei Torah and they determined everything: the atmosphere, the approach to learning -- everything. Among the most distinguished of them were HaRav Yonah Karpilov zt'l, Hy'd and HaRav Leib Malin zt'l.

"When Reb Yeruchom zt'l, left the yeshiva and went to Kremenchug during the First World War, he charged HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein with running the yeshiva. Reb Chatzkel was closer to Reb Yeruchom than Reb Leib Malin was, but of course, Reb Leib was a different character and had his own qualities.

"Reb Chatzkel had learned in Radin. Who had sent him from there to Kelm? Reb Yeruchom! He was his mentor, but in a way that ensured that Reb Chatzkel would grow and develop his own resources and personality."

A Mashgiach's Influence

"Reb Yeruchom's talmidim referred to him as a master pedagogue," I ventured, and waited for Rav Aharon's reaction, which he delivered in his typical manner.

"Pedagogue?! Pedagogue?! I don't like such a gentile- sounding expression. He was a tremendous servant of Hashem and a thinker, such as is rarely encountered among men of his kind."

"And he knew all the bochurim in the yeshiva? Over four hundred of them?"

"I'll describe a few incidents so that you'll understand how well he knew them. One bochur, a tremendous masmid who used to learn day and night, seemed troubled by something and his learning was not as it usually was. Reb Yeruchom approached him and tried to engage him in conversation to find out what was bothering him.

"The bochur told him that his sister had become engaged and that his father had promised a sum as a dowry but something had happened and the money had been lost and as a result, the chosson wanted to cancel the shidduch. Nu, how can one immerse oneself in learning with such a sad story gnawing away at one's peace of mind?

"Reb Yeruchom asked him, `How much was the dowry?'

"The bochur replied, `Five hundred dollars.' In those days, such a sum was equal in worth to fifty thousand dollars today. Three days later, Reb Yeruchom presented him with five hundred dollars. Then he added approximately the following, `Hachnosas kallah is certainly a very great mitzvoh. In general, to see that a Jew doesn't go hungry is definitely a great mitzvoh. What concerned me though, was that you should sit and learn!'

"Is such a man a pedagogue?

"Another incident was related by Reb Henoch Fishman, one of the outstanding Mirrer talmidim. After he came from Baranovitch, he learned for a few years in Mir until a problem arose with his Polish army service. He went over to the mashgiach, who told him, `You must present yourself in this and that city.' Why there? Because there was a doctor there, who could be bribed. The bochur discovered that he himself had to do nothing. Reb Yeruchom dealt with the doctor's payment and told him that Henoch Fishman would be coming to him etc. etc. He literally had nothing to do but to show up and receive his exemption slip.

"That was not all. It is well-known that it is difficult to arrange chavrusas in yeshiva. When you arrive in a yeshiva, does anyone come over to you and offer to learn with you? Of course not! Who knows you? When Reb Henoch came to the yeshiva, a bochur suddenly approached him and asked whether he was agreeable to their learning together during the first seder. He agreed straightaway. Another bochur came over and asked, `Do you want to learn with me for the second seder?' and he agreed.

"In Mir, the bochurim had their meals in their private lodgings -- stanszias -- where they also slept. These were rooms that were rented from the townsfolk. It was important to every good bochur to get into a good group because it was possible to discuss the learning together and to pass the time in an uplifting atmosphere. I, for example, had come from Baranovitch and we organized ourselves together in a whole group from Baranovitch.

"Then, one of the bnei yeshiva came up to Reb Henoch and asked him, `Would you like to eat with us?' and he agreed straightaway. Shortly afterwards, he found out that this was an outstanding group.

"Later on, he discovered that all these `casual' encounters had been arranged for him by the mashgiach, Reb Yeruchom himself. He had heard that he was an excellent bochur and he immediately despatched emissaries. One was supposed to get him into this stanszia, another into that one; one to suggest that they learn in the first seder and another for the second, so that he would immediately feel that he was part of things.

"And yet for all this time he had been quite sure that Reb Yeruchom had no idea who he was. It never occurred to him that there was a guiding hand taking care of him. Nu, is this a matter of being a pedagogue? Is that how a pedagogue behaves? Is that what an educator does? Do you know anyone who behaves in this way? That was how well he knew the bochurim.

"People think that the main thing is the [mashgiach's] shmuess, the ethical lecture that he delivers. The truth is that the shmuess is just the final touch. The mashgiach's main influence comes from his constant concern for the talmidim, in both spiritual and material realms.

"Reb Chatzkel [on the other hand] was great. He was a giant but he was a different type. His special concern for the talmidim was discernible in his many prayers for them and in the fasts which he undertook for their protection and their success. He was full of yiras Shomayim.

"On a day when he was to deliver a shmuess in the yeshiva, he would not eat. He just sat there, fasting and preparing himself. He was something else entirely.

"In Shanghai it was common knowledge that Reb Chatzkel was keeping watch over the yeshiva. There was a group of us, seventy to eighty youngsters, who applied ourselves to Torah day and night, who were attached to him with all our might. We knew to what extent his very being was bound up with the yeshiva's welfare. He was an awesome tzaddik of a Yid -- he literally embodied the negation of physicality."

Reb Chatzkel's Stewardship

"It is said that while the yeshiva was in Shanghai, the mashgiach called for nobody to leave the city. Is this true?"

"Not exactly. Once, they came and told him that there had been a report on the radio of the Americans' intention to bomb Shanghai. Reb Leib Malin, the Amshinover Rebbe zt'l, and many others among those exiled in Shanghai, were of the opinion we ought to leave a place of danger and move to a small town. However, the mashgiach opposed this, arguing that until we found an alternative location and made the arrangements for relocating the yeshiva, the learning sedorim would be affected and bitul Torah would result. Reb Leib Malin, on the other hand, held that the danger to life outweighed any other considerations and that practically speaking, we were duty-bound to make an effort to save ourselves.

"Reb Chatzkel lived all the time in Shanghai in the conviction that it was not for nothing that the yeshiva had been spared from the War but for some specific purpose, not so that everyone should worry about his own safety. It wasn't simply a matter of the rescue of two or three hundred individuals but of a group, whose integrity ought to be preserved.

"Although some kind of debate did take place, the mashgiach's opinion prevailed. Ultimately, he alone was capable of deciding. It is important to note that there were no arguments within the yeshiva and the whole discussion was not even felt there. It was just said that the matter was being discussed but everything took place behind the scenes. Actually, not even there because Reb Chatzkel didn't even want to hear about the idea.

"When the Americans arrived, some of the bochurim left the yeshiva building, which was in a very shaky condition, from fear that it would collapse. Reb Chatzkel, who had a separate room within the yeshiva building, left it and came to learn in the main beis hamedrash on purpose, so as to be with the rest of the group at such a time.

"Throughout the period in Shanghai, it was Reb Chatzkel's custom to serve as shaliach tzibbur on Mondays and Thursdays. After the prayers he would say several chapters of Tehillim with great emotion, while holding back the tears that threatened to burst from him. These Tehillim impressed themselves deeply within our hearts. In our sleep, we still have them echoing in our ears, despite the fact that at the time, as youngsters, we privately questioned why he was spending so much time on Tehillim, taking away precious time from learning.

"The mashgiach had his own room in the yeshiva. It wasn't really a room. All they did was take several doors and stand them next to one another, thus partitioning off his own private corner. The main point was that he himself never left the building throughout the time we stayed there. He occupied himself with serving Hashem all the time.

"On Mondays and Thursdays, for about an hour before the beginning of the tefilloh, he would learn mussar in a wondrous manner, either Chovos Halevovos or Sha'arei Teshuvoh. This was besides his ordinary mussar schedule. He learned with excitement, loudly and avidly, making an unforgettable impression upon those who heard him.

"He was a unique personality. None of the usual labels and expressions that people use when describing each other fitted him. He was neither a pedagogue, nor an educator, neither a `leader' nor `a godol,' neither a rosh yeshiva nor a mashgiach . . . " Rav Kreiser declared with his characteristic fervor. Then he singled out the central feature of Reb Chatzkel's character: "Everybody saw that he was literally a man of truth and the truth is everything!"

Face-to-Face with Reb Elchonon

"I found something like this in Baranovitch as well. The bochurim there were not innocents. They had ideas and opinions about all kinds of things but when they arrived in Baranovitch and came face-to-face with the truth that shone from the gaon HaRav Elchonon Wasserman zt'l, Hy'd, everything just faded away. When you encounter the truth, everything else melts away and disappears.

"Reb Elchonon did not know a single bochur in the yeshiva, nor did he speak to anyone. But respect towards him was tremendous. It was enough just to look at him. Nobody even mentioned his being a tzaddik; that simply wasn't discussed -- yes a tzaddik, not a tzaddik . . . there were three hundred bochurim in his shiur and before he entered, everybody had already taken their places. When he began speaking, the silence was such that we could hear a fly buzzing around.

"The average age of the bochurim was sixteen. There were younger bochurim aged thirteen and up, as well as older ones aged between seventeen and twenty. When you applied to enter Baranovitch, nobody asked how old you were. All that mattered was whether or not you passed the entrance examination. That was how it was then in all the yeshivos. Age was of no significance.

"Baranovitch was a middle yeshiva. Bochurim came there after they finished learning in yeshiva ketanoh and from there, they went on to yeshiva gedoloh.

"Reb Elchonon delivered the shiur [right] after shacharis. He himself didn't daven in the yeshiva. He lived far away and he had a minyan in his home. Sometimes he davened early and the yeshiva davened early too. After the tefilloh he drank a cup of tea, learned a few halochos from the Mishnah Berurah and immediately came to the yeshiva to say the shiur.

"Sometimes, [actually] many times, the yeshiva had hardly finished its tefilloh when the word went around -- the rebbe has arrived! Everyone immediately rushed to the shiur, before having any breakfast. By nine o'clock, the shiur was already over! Of course, that was during the summer, when the day begins very early in Europe.

"Nowadays, in most places the shiur is set for the middle of the day but there, the day began with the shiur, with a second hearing being given during the second seder. The shiur keloli was on Shabbos, following minchoh, a time when there tends to be less learning."

When I asked whether all the bochurim used to attend that shiur, Rav Aharon responds with wonderment at the very question. "In Baranovitch? With Reb Elchonon? Between three and four hundred bochurim gathered in a moment and came to hear the rebbe. The mashgiach's shmuess was delivered later, towards motzei Shabbos. On Thursday nights, Reb Elchonon gave an additional shiur, on Shev Shemaiteso.

"Reb Elchonon really worked hard in the yeshiva, delivering two shiurim each day and a weekly shiur keloli, as well as a shiur on Shev Shemaiteso. The day- to-day running of the yeshiva was controlled by the mashgiach, Reb Yisroel Yaakov [Lubschansky zt'l, hy'd], while the burden of fundraising was also borne by Reb Elchonon.

"To this end, he would leave the yeshiva during the month of Tammuz and return after Succos. While the Chofetz Chaim zt'l, was alive, Reb Elchonon would travel to him for Rosh Hashonoh. After the Chofetz Chaim's petiroh, he would travel to Kelm.

"Poland [where Baranovitch was situated], had no diplomatic relations with [neighboring] Lithuania and there were no links between the two countries. Litvishe Yidden lived on both sides of the border but in practice, they were unable to have any practical dealings with each other. Because of this, Reb Elchonon had to travel via Riga, the capital of Latvia and enter Lithuania from there, on his way to Kelm.

"In the winter, Shabbos would come in at approximately three o'clock, from which time we managed to daven and have the Shabbos meal, to listen to a shmuess and do several other things and then to learn solidly until two or three in the morning.

"At any rate, that was Reb Elchonon. He didn't lecture, speak or hold forth. He didn't know anybody but he was wonderfully venerated.

"I think that the veneration of the mashgiach, Reb Chatzkel was of the same type. He was a mashgiach through and through. With him, it wasn't a job, or an honorary position. He had no personal biases. He was above all suspicion of such things, absolutely pure, the absolute truth! That has a greater influence than anything else. One doesn't argue with such a person.

"If you ask me how Reb Chatzkel influenced me, it was neither through the shmuessen, nor by talking. I remember that I saw the real, genuine article in him. This is a true godol. The expression on his face had an effect on me - - [through this quality] that was his main influence.

"He was like a soldier of HaKodosh Boruch Hu's. He never left the yeshiva. He was always learning with chavrusas. He learned and toiled and served around the clock. In Shanghai in the summers, the heat and humidity were terrible, yet he never left the yeshiva for a moment. He pored over his gemora with sustained application and had fixed times for learning mussar. He didn't have a moment free."

When I ask whether the bochurim used to consult Reb Chatzkel on personal matters, Rav Aharon replies, "I myself didn't but others certainly did. Once I heard talmidim of Reb Chatzkel's saying, `Aharon Kreiser must know and must have heard things from him,' but the truth was that I was so busy learning that I had no other concerns which I could not resolve, or which I needed to discuss."

Hasmodoh in Baranovitch and Mir

Our conversation switches back and forth between Mir and Baranovitch. Now it was back to Baranovitch.

"In my opinion," asserted Rav Aharon, "neither in Mir, nor anywhere else -- with the possible exception of Shanghai -- was there application to learning that approached the tremendous application in Baranovitch. I have never seen anything like it. Literally, by day and by night. I witnessed it and experienced it.

"The yeshiva in Baranovitch possessed one single, solitary copy of Ketzos HaChoshen. I wanted to learn it but it was in use all day long, until late at night. One day I decided that I would rise at three in the morning. I came to the beis hamedrash, intending to sit by myself, with the Ketzos in my hands. To my surprise, I found many bochurim sitting and learning. We were young and we had a lot of energy, which we used thoroughly.

"In Mir, there was a problem with learning at night because the town's electricity supply was cut off at a quarter to one in the morning. By the way, the Mirrer yeshiva had its own private clock. It was this clock by which we all lived, not the normal one -- `a yeshivishe zeiger un a shtotishe zeiger.' I think that there was a difference of forty- five minutes between them. I, at any rate, knew of no other clock besides the yeshiva one.

"During the day in Mir, they learned with tremendous application. During the first seder, everybody learned the `official' yeshiva masechteh and the ideas and concepts discussed by the gemora in that particular masechteh reverberated throughout the beis hamedrash. It was like a factory for Torah toil and labor.

"During the second seder, everyone learned what he wanted. The younger bochurim continued learning the `official' masechteh, while the older ones occupied themselves with all the other sedorim of Shas [as well], Zeroim, Moed, Kodshim, Taharos and naturally, Noshim and Nezikim too. Thus, when you passed between the benches, you could hear Shas!

"In Baranovitch we were used to learning faster and when we came to Mir and [found that] they spent an entire week learning the sugya of Shoveh Kesef -- all through the beis hamedrash you could hear, `kesef,' `kesef,' `shoveh kesef' -- we asked ourselves, `Ribono Shel Olom, what are they speaking so much for?' . . . and indeed, we didn't cover very much of the masechteh in one zman, because it was only learned during one seder.

"Each day, the `elteren' [older bochurim] would learn with their chavrusas for most of the seder, until one o'clock. Then they learned with their talmidim for an additional hour. It was a somewhat odd sight. The most brilliant scholars and the biggest lamdonim in the yeshiva might be learning with bochurim who were literally, `blank sheets of paper.'

"This is how Shabbos looked in Mir -- I'm talking now about the summer Shabbosos. By nine in the morning we had already finished the tefilloh and by eleven we had had the meal and a short break. Minchah was only at seven and there was a lot of time until then. We youngsters sat in the beis hamedrash from eleven until six in the evening, learning right the way through. At six we went to have the third meal and at seven we davened minchah, following which was the weekly walk.

"What an appearance that walk had. Where was there to walk to anyway, in Mir, which was a tiny town? At any rate, walking through the street, one heard Torah discussion on every corner. The streets bubbled and seethed with Torah debate, from this side a strong kushya, from that, a good idea . . . voices ascending and battling in Torah. The one walk of the week but what a walk it was! After that we went to hear the mashgiach's shmuess. That sublime, Torah- dike walk had a highly beneficial effect upon me.

Reb Yeruchom's Chumash Shiur

"Reb Yeruchom introduced his own shiur on Chumash, for the overseas bochurim who had not learned in yeshiva ketanoh -- mainly those from Germany. Do you know why? He was concerned that they might introduce some of the atmosphere of Germany, of the heresy of Bible Criticism and the like, into the yeshiva. Through the Chumash shiur he wanted to rescue them on the one hand and to head off the potential threat to the yeshiva, with its harmful influence, on the other.

"He did not have such reservations about the American bochurim. They were like the other Western Europeans. In Germany though, the education included studies of philosophy and the like and he was worried about the dangers that they posed. Obviously, the Chumash as he taught it to them was not his definitive teaching of the subject matter. It was just those lessons that were of benefit to them."

"But thanks to that, we have been left with an important body of Reb Yeruchom's Torah," I pointed out.

"Yes," Rav Aharon responded, "but it's not Reb Yeruchom at his best. You must understand that if he would have been learning Chumash with talmidim like Reb Leib Malin, it would have been different. He learned with them on their level, as I said, to save them and to protect the yeshiva from outside influences. And he did so masterfully, both in regard to training them in how to learn Scripture and in regard to inculcating the correct ideas, which he wove into his shiurim. He was a giant. He saw this very special group and immediately understood what is was that they needed to hear.

"Having mentioned Reb Leib Malin, it's important to note that Reb Leib observed every detail of the yeshiva's timetable, with the utmost seriousness. He davened like a yeshiva bochur, learned the first and second sedorim like a yeshiva bochur, mussar seder like a yeshiva bochur. In fact, Reb Leib was `The Bochur,' the most outstanding bochur of all, of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Poland."

End of Part I


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