Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

20 Tammuz 5765 - July 27, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Tzaddik Who Ruled Through His Fear of Heaven: Sixty- One Years Since the Martyrdom of HaRav Avrohom Grodzensky, zt'l, Hy'd, 5704-5765

by M. Musman

22 Tammuz, 5765 marks the 61st yahrtzeit of HaRav Avrohom Grodzensky zt"l, the mashgiach of Slobodka. Last year on parshas Voeschanon we published some material describing his background and some of his accomplishments. This year we continue. These two articles describe the last years of HaRav Grodzensky's life that were lived in the Kovno Ghetto. As HaRav Efraim Oshry wrote, "Death in the ghetto was not always heroic. [But] ghetto life . . . [was,] in the spiritual sense, extremely heroic." HaRav Grodzensky's life and work, which ended very painfully in the Kovno Ghetto, is an inspiration for us to see what man can reach even weighed down by unimaginable adversity. It is a lesson we must learn during the period of Bein Hametzorim.

Part II

The first part described the German attack on Lithuania and the events leading up to the formation of the Kovno Ghetto. Rav Avrohom's last three years, which he spent in the Kovno Ghetto, were the crowning chapters of his life of teaching, guiding and inspiring others. Rav Avrohom maintained his equilibrium under all conditions.

The Bochurim Came on Shabbos

His daughter writes, "Every Friday night the surviving bnei Torah of Slobodka Yeshiva would meet in our house and Father would tell them divrei Torah and give them support and encouragement. The bochurim were broken in both body and spirit. They were left by themselves, sole survivors of their entire families. That and the crushing labor that they did in the German factories left them utterly drained. They were also continually starving. They had no clothes or other belongings that could be bartered with the gentiles for supplementary food. They therefore suffered more from hunger than others did.

"Yet despite everything, the bochurim were most particular about coming to our house every Friday night to hear Father's shmuess. It wasn't easy for them to maintain concentration and listen. Their weakness, hunger and exhaustion almost overwhelmed them. But the words of comfort and encouragement that Father lavished upon them were a wellspring of support that gave them the strength to continue without breaking. [When one of his talmidim collapsed under the burden of the forced labor, Rav Avrohom arranged for him to be spirited out of the ghetto to one of the nearby villages where he could recuperate.]

"Following the shmuess they would daven ma'ariv with a minyan — something else that was very rare in the ghetto.

"It is hard to understand what emotional resources Father drew upon that enabled him to maintain his concentration for learning and to give encouragement to all those around him under the harsh ghetto conditions and the constant hunger for bread. Yet he continued doing so throughout all the years of the ghetto's existence.

"It is fascinating to note that Father was always calm. His face was always serious but it always radiated tranquility. His face continued shining in the ghetto's darkness. He was always, always calm, not panicky — despite the fact that starvation left its mark on him; he grew very thin indeed, to the point where he could hardly be recognized.

"Father's tranquility had an effect upon those around him, especially upon his talmidim and acquaintances who would come to visit him frequently to consult him or for some calming words.

"The most characteristic features of life in the ghetto were the constant fear and panic: How to find food? Where is it easiest and most worthwhile to work? When to go into hiding? And where? These and other such concerns, upon which one's survival depended, left people alarmed, worried and frightened. It was all the worse because of the sad fact that most people were left without their families, who had been dragged off before their very eyes. The uncertainty about the fate of their loved ones almost drove people to despair.

"And in our house, those wounded, grieving souls found calm. They heard divrei Torah and words of comfort and support and they grew a little calmer. Without question, the hour that they spent with father gave them the emotional resources and the strength that they needed to continue along their paths of suffering.

"Not once did Father complain, nor did he ever express his worries. On the rare occasions when things were relatively easy for us and there was sufficient food in the house he would say, `How good we would have it now if only the boys would come home already . . .' They however, had long since not been among the living."

His Ghetto Shmuessen

Rav Oshry writes, "In the ghetto he studied Torah with his surviving students, emphasizing the Torah's perspective on martyrdom and the halachic guidelines pertaining to it. The . . . students gathered late every Shabbos afternoon in his narrow, little room at 8 Furman Street near the Slobodka Yeshiva. There, despite the Gestapo, my Rebbi would discourse on ethical and moral matters in his deep, extraordinarily exciting manner. He spoke often about kiddush Hashem, martyrdom, instilling courage and soul-vigor into the downtrodden survivors of Lithuanian Torah Jewry.

"My holy Rebbi used to remind us that a person who accepts martyrdom intending to sanctify Hashem does not feel the pain inflicted upon him. One need only recall the gemora's description of Rabbi Akiva's martyrdom to learn that even the most excruciating pain is not felt during true martyrdom."

The End Approaches

After every Aktzia, the ghetto shrunk in size as well as in numbers, as the Germans moved the barbed-wire fence to exclude buildings that had been emptied of their inhabitants. On one such occasion, the area where the Grodzensky family lived was slated for exclusion from the ghetto, forcing them to relocate. Rav Snieg helped once again. He found them a room in a house where all the neighbors were observant, allotted them the quieter, inner room instead of an outer one that served as a passageway and found yeshiva bochurim whom they knew, rather than strangers, to share their room (where eight people had to sleep).

In mid-5703 (1943), the ghetto inhabitants became aware of a shift in German fortunes. The Lithuanians who would come in and out of the ghetto informed them of huge losses that the Russians were inflicting on their enemies. Blood-soaked army uniforms began arriving at the ghetto laundry; whose Jewish workers, among them some of the Slobodka bnei yeshiva, had to do the gruesome and tremendously difficult task of washing the uniforms by hand so that they could be reused.

With the German defeats, the Germans and their Lithuanian allies began to grow nervous. They blamed the Jews for all their setbacks and set about killing ghetto Jews indiscriminately. At the same time, the Jews drew hope and encouragement from the prospect of the outside world coming to their rescue when it learned of their predicament. Whilst in the ghettos and camps, the Jews believed that the outside world was simply ignorant about what they were suffering.

However, when the Kovno Jews learned that the liquidation of the Vilna and Riga ghettos had begun and that the huge Jewish community of Warsaw had been entirely wiped out, their mood grew somber and tense. Clearly, it was only a matter of time before they suffered the same fate. Even the most optimistic among them felt that their fates were sealed.

Slowly though, the example of the fierce resistance that the last Warsaw Jews had offered bred a new resolve to resist the Germans' plans. Many young people escaped from the ghetto into the surrounding forests, where they joined the Lithuanian partisans. Within the ghetto, work got underway to prepare hidden underground bunkers where those who could not escape might hide. As a result of the decision to resist, the mood among the ghetto Jews changed drastically. The abject terror, instilled by years of German control, dissipated; people felt freer and even stopped fearing death.

In Elul 5703, the Germans announced that the ghetto would be liquidated and replaced by the Kovno concentration camp and that the SS would now be in control. The tefillos of the Yomim Noraim of 5704 were of unparalleled intensity and fervor as Jews prayed in preparation for death. But the end was not so near; there would still be much suffering and agony. Further aktzionen took place, one of which surpassed all the others in its horror.

On the third of Nisan 5704, after the adults had left the ghetto for work and all the Jewish policemen had been called away for an "inspection," the Germans surrounded the ghetto and a fleet of buses, all their windows painted over, drove inside. At home were the elderly, the young children and their mothers. From the buses burst Germans with their Lithuanian and Russian accomplices, accompanied by dogs. Pandemonium broke out as they proceeded to go from house to house, dragging struggling and wailing children out with them. Desperate mothers tried to hide their children or at least to avoid being separated from them; that too, was often denied them. Many of them were beaten and shot before their children's eyes. There were further heart-rending scenes when the work brigades returned and parents discovered what had happened.

The Germans returned the following day to continue the job. From the many censuses they had taken they knew that many children had evaded them. This time they came with bloodhounds, picks, axes and grenades, with which they tried to destroy every possible hiding place and flush out its inmates. The death toll for the two days was two thousand young and elderly Jewish souls. Forty of the more senior Jewish policemen were murdered too, after they had been tortured to get them to reveal where children were hiding. With one possible exception, they endured their suffering without divulging what they knew.


In common with many other families, the Grodzenskys had prepared a bunker in anticipation of such troubles. Rav Avrohom's son Yisroel Hy'd, and a close friend and Slobodka talmid, Rav Shmuel Rose zt'l, dug out a tiny underground hiding place where Rav Avrohom and ylct'a his youngest son Yitzchok hid safely during the Kinderakzion. The reunited family hardly felt able to rejoice though, surrounded by so many shattered, bereaved parents. "The horrifying sights broke our hearts," writes Rebbetzin Wolbe. "I think that that day was the bitterest and most awful of all the ghetto days, all of which were bitter and difficult."

His Last Lessons

There were several changes after that. Germans began patrolling the ghetto, replacing the murdered Jewish policemen. No more hiding places could be built and those that already existed had to be guarded even more carefully. There was an atmosphere of finality in the ghetto; everyone could sense the impending end. The Jews knew that the Germans were apprehensive about facing another uprising, as they had in Warsaw a year earlier. They were determined to prevent that happening at any price.

Although Rav Avrohom had survived the aktzion that was to have purged the ghetto of its "unproductive" elements, the danger to his life had not lessened. He could no longer stay at home on his own. It was imperative that he be registered at some workplace and obtain a worker's card. This was arranged for him by a Mr. Friedman, an observant Jew who respected Rav Avrohom highly. Before the war Mr. Friedman had been an expert in furs; in the ghetto he was a department manager in one of the ghetto workshops. The Germans valued these workshops greatly and all the articles that were produced there, such as shoes, furs and diamonds, were taken to Germany.

Every day Rav Avrohom had to walk from his home to his workshop. It was a long distance for him and not an easy journey. "In my mind's eye," writes Rebbetzin Wolbe, "I can still picture Father o'h, walking arm in arm with my brother Yisroel. They proceeded slowly, step by step, until they reached the workshops. There was a place arranged there for Father in some storeroom to the side, where he could spend the time in relative quiet until it was time for work to end.

"During this time Father didn't sit idle, choliloh! He would secretly gather all the talmidim of the yeshiva who were in the workshops and would learn with them and encourage them. Father ascribed Am Yisroel's troubles and suffering to people's weakened observance of twelve fundamentals.

"The period that Father spent in the workshops was a happy one for the bnei hayeshiva. His talmid Rav Shmuel Rose describes the `work' that Father did in the workshops and in the ghetto generally in his sefer, Shiras Shmuel (see box). One of the few survivors [of that period] was Rav Zuckerman zt'l, who was a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim and later rov of beis haknesses Perushim in Givat Shaul, Yerushalayim."

Rav Rose notes, "Rav Avrohom suggested to his talmidim that they make twelve undertakings and they all signed to undertake [observance of] these [fundamentals] as and when they survived." The twelve are listed in Toras Avrohom (pg. 17): 1) Faith in Hashem, 2) Keeping Shabbos, 3) Taharas hamishpochoh, 4) Taking care not to consume forbidden foods, 5) Not taking interest, 6) Raising children in the Torah way, 7) Taking care not to neglect Torah study, 8) To love friends and other Jews, 9) To engage in kind deeds, 10) To be satisfied with what one has, 11) To trust in Hashem, 12) Eretz Yisroel.

A few days after the dreadful aktzion, Rav Avrohom sat down for the seder at a small, round table that stood next to the entrance to his home, together with his depleted family and several bochurei yeshiva. The evening's special excitement and emotion were mingled with sadness and pain. They began, Rav Avrohom trying to lead the seder just as he usually did. Suddenly, the door burst open and a tall, burly German entered, carrying ammunition. They realized that he was an officer.

"Matzoh, eh?" he said, looking at the table. He then looked around the crowded and cramped tiny room. He checked the work cards to make sure that everyone had been at work that day and lifted the bed covers to ensure that no children were hiding underneath the beds.

"While the German was checking our room," writes Rebbetzin Wolbe, "we felt our world collapsing. We were sure that he was going to take us away — to who knew where? — or maybe he would kill us right over here? . . . They were moments of dreadful, paralyzing fear. We knew that only a miracle could save us.

"And the miracle happened! After he finished checking he left the room without a word. We really felt that for the time being at least, we had gone from darkness to bright light . . . "

The Ghetto's End

The days continued dragging by with their usual routine. They turned into weeks and the weeks into months, as the frightened ghetto inhabitants waited for the ax to fall. Several months after the aktzion, a rumor circulated that the ghetto would be liquidated in a week's time and that all the survivors would be taken to Germany. Then, the work brigades stopped being taken out of the ghetto to work. Everyone sat at home waiting for the end.

It was unbearable just to sit powerlessly and wait. During that last week, virtually all the ghetto inhabitants went into hiding. Many managed to leave the ghetto and seek asylum in the homes of gentiles, in exchange for their last possessions. Some managed to survive that way but many others were betrayed to the Gestapo by their `benefactors.' Rav Avrohom turned down a suggestion that he too, be spirited out of the ghetto disguised as a priest, explaining that halochoh forbade such a step.

Since the Grodzenskys did not have a good hiding place of their own, they split up. Rav Avrohom and his two surviving sons hid in a large bunker in the area of the ghetto workshops. It was generally assumed that the Germans would protect the workshops, which they controlled, and where a large amount of valuable merchandise was stored. Rebbetzin Wolbe had a place in a large, well-equipped bunker in the shop where daily food rations were distributed. One of her younger sisters had managed to escape from the ghetto, while the youngest sister hid in a small, primitive bunker near the ghetto's barbed wire fence. The plan apparently was that in the event of trouble, it would be relatively easy for those hiding there to escape from the ghetto to freedom.

Although the bunker under the shop had been well planned, it was holding more people than it had been built for. The air was oppressive, fetid and odorous. Breathing was difficult and sweat poured from everyone. They sat there for several days, each person wrapped up in his own thoughts, the suffering of loneliness compounding the agony of their surroundings.

One day, the sounds of digging were heard. Rebbetzin Wolbe, whose place was adjacent to the outer wall where the digging was taking place, rose at once almost without thinking and picked her way over the others until she reached the center of the bunker. Just a few moments later, an explosion rent the air. A grenade had been tossed inside, exploding exactly where she had been sitting moments before. Orders were shouted in German for everybody to leave the bunker.

They were taken to the ghetto square, where they joined other Jews who had been found hiding; periodically, new groups of captured Jews arrived. They were kept out in the open all that night, despite the falling rain. Rebbetzin Wolbe suddenly discovered that her two brothers were also there. After the initial joy at meeting, the elder brother, Yisroel, burst into bitter tears. He and Yitzchok, the youngest, had been separated from their father when their hiding place was discovered. As the men left the bunker, the Germans had received them with vicious blows. Rav Avrohom's bad leg had been badly injured and his unbearable pain had prevented him from taking a single step. It had been decided to take him in a wagon to the Ghetto Hospital. When he tried to accompany his father, Yisroel had been beaten and prevented from doing so.

Early the next morning, the prisoners were marched off through Slobodka. Rebbetzin Wolbe writes, "We marched down Paneriu Street, where we had lived until the ghetto was reduced in size. Now we were nearing our house, where we had lived for many years. Through a mist of tears I managed to look at the house — and felt a spasm in my heart. Our house — the house where we were born, where we lived and grew up; the house whose walls had absorbed so much Torah, yiras Shomayim and Jewish warmth . . . now this house was in the impure hands of the gentiles who had taken it over . . ."

They marched across the bridge to Kovno and along its long streets, to the second bridge, leading to Alexot. There, when they arrived at the railway tracks, they were ordered to stop. Cattle cars were waiting and, after crowding inside, their journey to Germany began.

It transpired that their discovery had been for the best. Before the Germans left the ghetto, they set fire to all the buildings and many Jews who were hiding in small, poorly designed bunkers, were either burned alive or choked to death. This was the fate of the youngest Grodzensky daughter, Hy'd. Some Jews however, did survive in their bunkers and were liberated some weeks later when the Russians entered Kovno. Rav Oshry was among them.

All My Life I Have Waited

The last surviving Jews to have been taken away from the Kovno ghetto reported having seen the ghetto in flames. They also saw the hospital, where Rav Avrohom had been taken five days earlier unable to walk, in flames. This was how his family learned of his murder al kiddush Hashem, on Thursday, the twenty-second of Tammuz 5704.

In a letter written years later, Rav Shmuel Rose described the visit he paid Rav Avrohom in the hospital.

"It is known that on Tuesday, the twentieth of Tammuz towards evening, they put him in the hospital after he received a blow from the murderers when they found him in hiding with his eminent son R' Yisroel . . . I watched our master and teacher zt'l traveling on a wagon accompanied by a German ym'sh. R' Yisroel was on the wagon too . . . I saw them bringing him into the hospital . . . I waited a long time before I saw his son returning with the German. I cried out, "Yisroel!"

He only answered, "Visit Father!"

I was in the hospital a few moments later. When our master and teacher saw me he was amazed — "How did you know?" — I stayed there until very late. They gave him an injection to ease the agonizing pain. I brought him food from the adjacent houses (that were empty, their inhabitants having been taken away).

Early the next day I came to the hospital with a small bundle . . . despite the danger from the Germans that this involved. Our master and teacher told me that Rav Snieg had been there and had bid him farewell. I asked him what we should do. He said that in his opinion, we should take him on his bed to where all the ghetto Jews were standing . . . We tried to lift him . . . We couldn't move him because of his terrible pains . . . He told us, "Stop . . . You, tzeischem lesholom . . . I must remain here . . . Hashem yisborach should help you and give you everything good."

I stayed on and the tears fell from my eyes . . . I saw a tear in his eye too . . . but he immediately overcame [his melancholy] and a smile appeared on his holy lips. He said, "Go to[wards] peace to the place [where all the Jews were standing] . . . You must not endanger yourself." A moment later he said, "The Alter of Slobodka said that Yonah Hanovi said, "Lift me up and cast me into the sea." Why did he say, "Lift me up"? To gain time . . ." He didn't conclude . . .

At that moment a German entered and said angrily, "Do you want to stay here? If you do, you won't be able to leave!"

I replied, "He is my father . . . and I want to help him . . . then I'll go to the [meeting] place." By way of reply he pushed his weapon into me and I fell over. I rose to my feet straight away . . . took our master and teacher's hand and kissed it. I also kissed his pure face and we both wept aloud . . . Our master and teacher called to me, "Send regards to my sons . . . and to the bnei hayeshiva... and may Hashem yisborach help you all and send you salvation soon."

I replied, "Omein, may Hashem yisborach help us to merit meeting again in the near future." But he didn't say anything.

The German stood there watching everything without raising his hand . . . I prayed in my heart that we would merit meeting our master and teacher again — but in vain.

. . . In the internment camp, I heard from others that on the following day, Thursday, the twenty-second of Tammuz, they set fire to the hospital . . ."

Rabbi Oshry writes, "There were a number of ill patients in the hospital, including children. There were also people there who had tried to flee the camp and had been shot and wounded and were now hovering in great pain between life and death . . .

"When Shimon Segal visited him shortly before his death, my Rebbi told him, `Try to help the little girl in the next bed. She is a child. Calm her down. Why is she responsible? Why should she be burned alive?' He knew what was being planned; the ghetto was already on fire.

"A yeshiva student was the last to report a visit with the great and righteous sage. He reported Rav Grodzensky's last words to him, `I do not care what happens to me. My pain will not cause me anguish. I will suffer from hearing the groans of my brothers and sisters and the little children as they are asphyxiated by the fire.' "

Postscript: The Aftermath

Rebbetzin Wolbe was taken to a labor camp in Germany, where she miraculously survived the war's gruesome final stages. After the war ended she was taken with other Jewish girls to Sweden for recuperation and she later joined the staff of the school at Lidinge, near Stockholm, for Jewish girls who had survived the war.

It transpired that Yisroel Grodzensky Hy'd, was murdered in a German labor camp.

Rebbetzin Wolbe's eldest sister, who had emigrated to Eretz Yisroel before the war and was married to HaRav Chaim Kreiswirth zt'l and living in Yerushalayim, discovered that she was alive and established contact.

From the Kreiswirths she learned that a younger sister, Leah, who had escaped from the ghetto before its was liquidated and hidden with a nun, had also survived and was on her way to Italy, hoping to travel from there to Eretz Yisroel.

Leah reached Italy and one day, as she was walking down the street, she met someone who looked like her youngest brother Yitzchok. She couldn't be sure — during the late stages of the war, everybody's appearance had drastically changed. Moreover, this youngster was dressed in rags such as she had never seen her brother wearing. She stopped and examined him — and then they recognized each other. Until that moment, neither of them had known of the other's survival. Shortly thereafter, they both reached Eretz Yisroel.

Through the efforts of her brother-in-law HaRav Kreiswirth, Rebbetzin Wolbe received a certificate enabling her to emigrate "legally" to Eretz Yisroel. She joined the other survivors of her family less than a year later. She married the mashgiach HaRav Shlomo Wolbe. Her sister Leah married HaRav Boruch Rosenberg zt'l, who served as rosh yeshivas Slobodka in Bnei Brak until his petiroh more than a year ago.

In 5731, Kollel Toras Avrohom was opened in Bnei Brak, headed by Rav Avrohom's surviving son Rav Yitzchok Grodzensky ylct'a. Over the years, Rav Avrohom's sons-in-law, HaRav Kreiswirth, HaRav Rosenberg and HaRav Wolbe delivered shmuessen there every year, on the twenty-second of Tammuz.

Two years after Rav Avrohom was martyred, a gathering was held in Yeshivas Chevron in Yerushalayim in his memory. HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer, HaRav Yechezkel Sarna and HaRav Isaac Sher zt'l, delivered hespedim.

In his hesped, HaRav Sher referred to Chazal's account of Rabbi Akiva's martyrdom.

"When Rabbi Akiva's soul departed he was in the power of Roman officers and his flesh was being cruelly destroyed by iron-toothed combs. Engulfed in suffering, Rabbi Akiva intensified his love [for Hashem] and taught his students a further lesson in believing that, `Whatever the Merciful One does is for the good.'

"His astonished students asked him whether one is required to maintain this belief even to such extent? He responded with the Torah's counsel: `All my life I have been yearning and longing for the hour when I have the opportunity to delight in loving Hashem not only with all my heart but with all my soul as well, as the Torah demands of me. There is no greater good for me — I can therefore honestly say, `Whatever the Merciful One does is for the good" and accept the yoke of Heaven's authority in the fullest and most sublime sense.'

"This is what we saw in Rav Avrohom . . . who gathered many crowds in the Torah's sanctuary and remained at his post to the very end. When he saw the destruction of the Yeshiva, of its leaders and students, he himself returned the keys of the Mikdosh to Heaven . . . He accepted Heaven's decree lovingly, rejoiced in suffering and fulfilled [the mitzvah to love Hashem] `with all your soul.' During the harsh, dreadful moments of his death throes he asked those around him for another moment of life — another moment to sanctify Heaven's Name, as befits [one who lived] a life of truth . . ."


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.